More than two dozen demonstrators waved placards and chanted “feed our kids” at the pop-up demo on Monday after Conservative authority leader Mike Bird confirmed Walsall would not be providing funds.
Nearby Conservative authority Staffordshire County Council is providing money, as are Labour-led Wolverhampton and Birmingham city councils. However Labour-led Sandwell Council is not and Conservative-led Dudley Council has also not announced any plans to offer extra support.
Speakers at the protest in Walsall, organised by trade union and community campaigners, included teachers, Labour party members and union officials who called on the council to “do the right thing”.
But Councillor Bird criticised the “political opportunism” of Labour and added it would cost the council £213,000 per week, which was money they did not have. He also said the authority has a crisis fund to help families in need all year round.
Walsall Labour group leader Aftab Nawaz wrote to Councillor Bird urging him to reconsider his stance. At the protest, he said: “This isn’t isn’t just a political choice but also a moral one. This is providing children with the most basic and fundamental right.
“How can we call ourselves civilised and then not feed the most vulnerable children when we know they are going hungry?
“We ask not only the council but the Government to feed our children.
“There is a lot of talk about there being no money left but for the past 10 years, it’s the Tory Government that’s been starving this council and the people of Walsall out of the funds they need for their services.
“We have asked the council to pay for the meals and follow Birmingham, Wolverhampton and some Tory councils who are feeding their children over half term.
“It can be done, it must be done and there is plenty of money there – don’t ever be fooled about that. It’s about a choice.”
'He said no to 10,000 empty mouths'
Councillor Bird also came under fire when he responded to an email from resident Ashleigh Timmins, who had asked if the council would fund free meals, by simply saying ‘no’.
At the demonstration, she said: “His response to my email was one word – ‘no’. In that ‘no’ he showed contempt for every single one of us.
“He said no to 10,000 empty mouths, 10,000 empty stomachs of the children who claim free school meals in Walsall. ‘No’ is simply not good enough!”
Shaz Akhtar, from Walsall and Wolverhampton Unite Community Branch, said: “All over the country and in our communities there has been revulsion, anger and disbelief at the Tories refusal to support free school meals being rolled out for all children during upcoming school holidays.
“Even worse has been the response of Tory Walsall Council leader Mike Bird.
“Other local councils like Birmingham and Wolverhampton have stepped in to provide the meals and found the money one way or another, considering the urgency of the situation.
“But Bird, who clearly regards himself as able to act with total impunity, has responded to questions and pleas from local Walsall residents with one word emails that simply say “No.” The arrogance is unbelievable.
“The officers of Unite Community Walsall and Wolverhampton branch call on Walsall Council to do the right thing and feed our kids over the school holidays.”
'We've delivered help'
Councillor Bird has replied to Councillor Nawaz’s letter saying the authority’s £500,000 crisis fund was boosted by an extra £150,000 this year.
He also said that, 6,255 food parcels, 1,902 requests for help with shopping, 1,899 welfare calls, 1,177 prescription collection requested and 1,519 types of bespoke help has been administered in the past few months.
He said: “We’ve delivered help. It isn’t that we don’t care, we do. We provide what is required.
“This is just political opportunism. To do this would cost us £213,000 per week. If you take this holiday, then Christmas, Easter, May and then the six week summer break. You are looking at probably around about £2million.
“I’m sorry but that is not going to happen unless the Government turn around and say ‘yes, we are going to fund it’.
“We haven’t got it. We’re looking at a deficit of between £32-35 million next year.
“We also have a crisis fund is to help vulnerable families and they are eligible to apply for that should they need it so there is no excuse.
“I’m afraid to say they are making political capital and to use children in this way is wrong.
“Half term is in the calendar every year. I follow the Government’s thinking that when the pandemic happened and children had to stay at home, that was unexpected.
“Therefore, they quite rightly stepped in to help those families who weren’t expecting to have to feed them at home. But the half-term holiday was in their diary and they should have been aware of it.”
On the one-word email reply, he added: “I was sent an email asking if we were going to follow Birmingham and Wolverhampton’s lead and I replied ‘no’.
“I answered the question but she didn’t like it. A one-word answer. Well, what did she want me to say?
“She asked me the question and I answered it. If she had asked me for the reasons, which she didn’t, I’d have sent her the details.”