Hertfordshire County Council has underlined a commitment to make sure children and vulnerable households do not go hungry, in a debate called to consider the provision of ‘free school meals’ during the holidays.

Nationally there have been calls to extend the ‘free school meal’ scheme during the school holidays, which have been led by England footballer Marcus Rashford.

And in the wake of those calls, earlier this month the government announced the £170million Covid Winter Grant Scheme – with the county council now expected to receive a share of almost £2.49million.

At an ‘extraordinary’ council meeting on Tuesday (November 17), county council leader Cllr David Williams said that funding would ensure children and vulnerable households in Hertfordshire did not go hungry over the Christmas and February half-term holidays.

He said the county council was also pledging to go further – by extending the same commitment to the Easter and Whitsun half-term holiday.

Council officers are reported to be looking at setting up a voucher scheme that could give eligible families a voucher for £3 each day of the school holidays – at an overall cost of £335,000 a week.

The details of that scheme are now expected to be finalised at a meeting of the children, young people and families and the education, libraries and localism cabinet panel on November 26.

Cllr Williams said the council’s plans would not extend to the summer holidays as this would be a financial commitment that could not be made at this stage.

Across Hertfordshire there are reported to be 22,200 children whose families are eligible to claim ‘free school meals’.

Presenting the motion, Cllr Williams said it was important to recognise the support the county council offered to families in need  was not limited to free school meals.

The Conservative pointed to the work of the Money Advice Unit, the support to food banks and the ‘whole range’ of  support provided before and during the pandemic.

And during the meeting he also highlighted the work earlier in the year to ensure vulnerable children did not need to go hungry when away from their school settings.

Executive member for education, libraries and localism Cllr Terry Douris told councillors plans were already underway to support young people and families over the Christmas and half term breaks until the end of March.

And he told councillors: “Our planning will ensure that no  child or vulnerable family will go hungry during school holidays.

“We are currently working on the logistics of a voucher scheme and it may be we will have to enlist some help from schools in delivering this.”

Meanwhile the Conservative motion – agreed by a majority of councillors – also welcomed the government’s £220 million ‘holiday activities and food programme’ for the Easter, summer and Christmas 2022 school holidays.

The council is still awaiting details of how much it will be allocated and how they would be allowed to use it.

But the  meeting highlighted the council’s existing Fit, Fed and Read scheme, which offers youngsters – aged eight to 11 – physical activity, reading and a tasty meal.

And Cllr Williams welcomed this as an opportunity to extend it further.

The ‘Extraordinary’ meeting of the council was called by opposition Liberal Democrat councillors last month, in advance of the government’s latest funding announcement.

Initially the motion had asked to ask the county council to provide support for continued free school meals for eligible families during school holidays to Easter,  ‘in light of the government’s decision not to provide support’.

The Liberal Democrats declined to withdraw the request for the meeting following the government’s funding announcement  – putting forward an ‘altered’ motion calling for the council to extend their commitment to ‘Easter and summer holidays and half-term holidays in 2021’.

At the meeting leader of the Lib Dems Cllr Stephen GIles-Medhurst highlighted the impact Covid had had, with job losses and redundancies pushing low-income families to the brink.

He highlighted a 61 per cent increase in the number of people using food banks – and a 36 per cent increase in children in ‘food poverty’.

He said that the monies announced by the government had been welcome.

But he stressed that it had been less than the £522million spent on the ‘Eat Out To Help Out scheme – and would “not be nearly enough”.

And he said: “No civilised society should accept that there is child poverty.

“Recent successive governments have rightly worked hard to tackle pensioner poverty and now we must address children poverty.”

In light of the government’s funding announcement earlier this month, council leader Cllr David Williams said it was a “superfluous and quite unnecessary altered motion”.

And Cllr Richard Roberts said: “What a vainglorious and conceited extraordinary meeting this is.”

He said it was “an utter waste of time” and “completely unnecessary”.

And, referring to the ongoing response to the pandemic, he said: “How dare you distract  this administration – this organisation – from its task in hand, which is keeping as many people as safe as possible and services running.”

But other councillors spoke up to defend the calls for the meeting, including Liberal Democrat Cllr Nick Hollinghurst – who said he had been “shocked ” by Cllr Williams initial remarks – and said it was “worthwhile”.

And following the meeting Cllr Giles-Medhurst said: “No meeting is a waste of  time, especially when so many of the Conservatives present spoke.

“This meeting showed that child poverty is now, as Marcus Rashford and Henry Dimbleby and others have highlighted, a critical policy area that this and future governments must now address.

“Today’s meeting made the ruling Conservatives do something about it. Without this meeting being called I doubt that this would have occurred. This meeting has brought this area into the public’s mind and rightly so.”