A LOCAL authority has pledged to take action to make applying for free school meals easier during the coronavirus crisis amid concerns children could be missing out on food due to an unnecessarily complicated application process.

Darlington Borough Council’s children and young people’s portfolio holder Councillor Jon Clarke said the authority had been made aware of connection issues between the Department of Education’s website and the council’s website and would resolve the concerns after the Easter bank holiday.

Fears that children could be missing meals have been highlighted, as despite measures brought in by government to support the self-employed and furloughed during the virus outbreak, many families will need to rely on Universal Credit.

Children can qualify for free school meals if their parents receive benefits.

According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, there were more than half a million new claims for Universal Credit in mid-March, while it is understood the last three weeks has seen a spike in Darlington residents being made redundant.

Cllr Clarke’s predecessor, Councillor Cyndi Hughes, said free school meals and the vouchers, worth £15 per week per child, that families can receive during the crisis would go some way to helping to feed children and young people while they are off school. Calling for the government departments to share their data to end parents being required to apply for the free school meals, she said Darlington residents faced a pasrticularly difficult process to get the financial support.

Cllr Hughes said while neighbouring councils such as Durham County and Stockton had direct connections on their websites to free school meals applications, and even offers to check eligibility for applicants, Darlington residents were being directed to Darlington council’s website’s Home page with 20 sub-headings.

She said after having to guess the correct sub-heading, residents were then directed to another page, this time with 12 options, none of which say anything about Free School Meals. She said after guessing "School Years", a further nine options appear, one of which is "school meals".

Cllr Hughes said: “Then after all that, it says ‘Contact your child’s school’. I’ve looked at many school websites in Darlington – Wyvern, Skerne Park, Corporation Road, Mowden and Polam Hall, Hummersknott Academy, Hurworth, Longfield, Education Village and Carmel. None of these schools have applications available online nor do they have any letters to parents outlining what they need to do, should they now believe their children would be eligible for free school meals.

“Even if you are in receipt of benefits, your children don’t automatically receive free school meals. You must apply separately. My concern is that families who have children who are eligible are not applying and their children are therefore losing out.

“We will not have the evidence of this until well after this current crisis. The added step of applying for a benefit that should be automatic when families are in receipt of other income benefits is an impediment to feeding children and young people who might otherwise go hungry.”