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Councils owed more than £240,000 for school dinners

Concerns have been raised about the ability of families to pay the debts.
Concerns have been raised about the ability of families to pay the debts.

Councils across the north and north-east are being urged to write off more than £240,000 in school dinner debt.

Green Party MSP Maggie Chapman wants local authorities to forget what families owe them.

According to figures obtained by the North East Region member, councils are owed a total of £243,522.76

This is despite all primary one to five pupils now being entitled to a free school meal.

The numbers for 2021 show that Aberdeen City Council are due £114,690.34. Aberdeenshire Council is looking for £24,297.14 for school dinners.

Moray Council is owed £11,470.49, families in Shetland owe the council £19,536.77 and in Orkney, the total is £5,528.01.

Highland Council have said they are owed around £68,000 and the Western Isles Council said they had no school dinner debt.

Across Scotland, North Ayrshire Council is owed the most with a total of £141,528. 16 followed by South Lanarkshire at £107,847.01.

school meals being served to children
The figures highlight how much families owe councils for school meals.

Debt causing ‘stress and embarrassment’

Ms Chapman said the figures from councils show that some families just cannot afford school meals.

She said that in some cases school staff are “deeply uncomfortable” asking for cash that some people do not have.

Ms Chapman said: “I believe that most local authorities rightly ensure every pupil has a meal at lunchtime, even if they don’t have the money to cover it, but these figures make it clear that debts are being chased from families who simply cannot pay.

“With the cost of living crisis putting huge pressure on family finances, it is absolutely essential that local authorities write off all outstanding school meal debt.

“Pursuing the debt is causing stress and embarrassment for pupils and their families as well as the school staff who I know are deeply uncomfortable asking pupils for money they know the family does not have.”

Green MSP Maggie Chapman, who is highlighting school meals debt
Green MSP Maggie Chapman.   Picture by Kath Flannery.

‘Proud’ of free school meals

Ms Chapman also said she was “proud” to be working alongside the Scottish Government to secure free school meals for primary school pupils.

She believes that writing off the school’s meals debt of families would be an “excellent way” for councils to help those struggling.

Ms Chapman added: “I’m proud that as a result of the co-operation agreement between the Greens and SNP, the Scottish Government is rolling out free school meals to all primary school children, as well as taking other measures to help family budgets such as free bus travel for under 22s.

“Writing off this debt would be an excellent way for local authorities to also help families with the financial burdens they face, rather than add to them.”

Moray Council said they could not comment in the pre-election period. The other councils affected have been contacted for a response.

The Scottish Government pointed out that free school meals save families an average of £400 per year.

They said councils have the power to make discretionary offers of free school meals to families. This is in cases when they are experiencing financial hardship due to “exceptional circumstances”.

A Highland Council spokeswoman said the initial figure in the original freedom of information request of zero was “out of date.”

She added their school dinner debt is “currently in the order of £68,000.”

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