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Norfolk county councillors walk out of meeting in free school meals protest

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Opposition members have staged a mass walkout as a row over Norfolk County Council's support for families in need of free school meals deepens.

The protest came after a bid to force an emergency debate on the provision of holiday vouchers for families who receive meals in term-time was blocked.

The authority's Conservative leadership has insisted is available for those in need.

Norfolk County Council County Hall (55757657)
Norfolk County Council County Hall (55757657)

But members of the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green groups, plus an independent member, all withdrew from this morning's meeting at County Hall, insisting they would spend their time helping families in need instead.

Labour group leader Steve Morphew told the session that around 27,000 children were not being supported under its current plans.

He said: "That's seriously not good enough. We can do better and we're going to go out and do it now."

And independent councillor Alexandra Kemp branded the authority "an absolute disgrace", adding: "This council isn't functioning properly."

The walkout came after the authority's chairman, Penny Carpenter, refused to allow a debate on an emergency motion calling for backdated vouchers to be provided to families for the Easter holiday period.

She argued that the council's position had been set out by its leader, Andrew Proctor, during a cabinet meeting last week.

During that session, Mr Proctor made a statement saying the council was developing a support programme using £6.7 million of Government funding to help a wider range of groups in need.

He said: "I have a responsibility to help as many people as I can who are facing financial hardship.

"This will, of course, include support for children and families eligible for free school meals, but also children and families facing hardship but not in receipt of free school meals, families with younger children, pensioners, people with disabilities, unpaid carers and other vulnerable households in Norfolk.

"Let me be clear – support is available for those in urgent need, including children and families who have previously benefited from food support during the school holidays."

Mr Proctor also claimed that around 4,000 youngsters will benefit from the council's Big Holiday Fun programme.

And he urged families who are struggling to feed their children to contact the Norfolk Assistance Scheme on 0344 8008020, insisting their calls will be prioritised over the holidays.

But Mr Morphew told today's session: "Refusing to allow councillors to debate the best way of helping families feed hungry children during the school holidays does no service to anybody.

"It has generated anger among those concerned for struggling families and those concerned about the process of democracy.

"The alternative provision falls well short of what is needed."

Liberal Democrat leader Brian Watkins added: "This is about as urgent as it gets with thousands of Norfolk families worried sick about how to make ends meet, not just in the coming couple of weeks, but the grim months that lie ahead of us all."

And the Green Party's Jamie Osborn said: "Children are going hungry here. How can you sit there and consider this is not something that should be debated?"

The meeting, which was called to discuss a string of motions which had not been debated at earlier sessions, continued after the walkouts.

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