'Supporting those in need this Christmas'

Cllr John Hart, leader of Devon County Council

Cllr John Hart, leader of Devon County Council - Credit: Devon County Council

The latest column from John Hart, leader of Devon County Council.

Last Christmas, I wrote about a new scheme we had introduced at Devon County Council to combat holiday hunger in children over the festive break.

We’d secured £2 million of Government cash for Christmas, half-term and Easter to provide vouchers for those Devon families who were entitled to free school meals during term time to ensure their children didn’t go hungry over the holiday.

There were hiccups, as there will be in any project developed as quickly as this one, but the feedback we had was generally very positive and over the past year we have tweaked the scheme to make it more accessible and wide-ranging.

Because of the massive time constraints last year, schools did not have much involvement at Christmas and many told us they would like to do more to help their children and families.

During term-time, schools have the responsibility to administer free school meals and so we involved them much more in later schemes so their families could easily understand how to receive their vouchers.

I think last year we were all hoping that this type of assistance would be temporary. But this Christmas it's even more necessary and the emergence of the Omicron strain in the last 10 days has created more uncertainty.

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So this year we will be using more Government Covid cash from the Household Support Fund to make our 'holiday hunger' scheme much more generous.

It's worth remembering why it's so important. The statistics are stark. 

We have around 93,000 pupils in Devon’s 369 schools.

At the start of 2020, some 12,680 were eligible for free school meals. By autumn 2020 that had risen to 14,773 as the effects of the pandemic took hold on our economy and affected the household incomes of so many families.

Now there are nearly 18,500 children in Devon who qualify for free school meals - the highest level on record - and getting on for a fifth of the total school population.

So, for this Christmas, we’re doubling the support for children with an extra, one-off, £30 supermarket voucher.

That means families will receive a £60 voucher for each child for the two-week Christmas holiday to help with the additional financial pressure the festive period can bring.

But we’re also continuing with a scheme that started in the summer and was very popular.

Children currently receiving benefits-related, free school meals and their families can take part in our Holiday Activity and Food scheme for free over the Christmas break.

This aims to provide a wide range of fun and enriching activities and nutritious food in a safe and sociable environment for children and young people to develop new skills or knowledge and try out new experiences.

We are also making help with food and utility costs available through the Household Support Fund and you can apply for this through your local district council. This scheme runs until March 31 next year and can also be used for things like emergency boiler and heating repairs and housing costs.

You can see details of all these schemes on the Devon County Council website.

It’s really no surprise that the pandemic is continuing to affect so many people in Devon when thousands of residents work in catering, hospitality, leisure, retail and tourism which have been among the hardest hit over the last 18 months.

And as the cost of heating our homes and everyday essentials soars, we’re all conscious of rising prices.

So the county council remains committed to supporting people in Devon who are experiencing hardship and this funding will help those who are really struggling.