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Highland Council launches probe after audit uncovers £206,000 debt from 80,000 unpaid school meals

By Scott Maclennan

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The backlog of payments for school meals goes back more than a year and in some instances up to seven years.
The backlog of payments for school meals goes back more than a year and in some instances up to seven years.

Change is on the menu for Highland school meals after it was revealed more than 80,000 dinners have not been paid for, leading to a collective debt owed of more than £200,000.

An online payments system is now being introduced for all schools after auditors discovered several different methods of payment were being used.

A report to councillors at today’s audit and scrutiny committee admits there are areas of weakness in the existing system.

The internal audit report stated: “Not all schools in the Highland Council [area] operate the same system for the collection and recording of school meal income, with a high number still using a manual, cash-only system.

“There are undoubted efficiencies and benefits to be achieved from the introduction of a standard online system, not just for the council but also for parents/carers who may wish to pay for school meals online.

“The introduction of such a system would also reduce the risk of fraud, which is higher with a cash-based system as highlighted by previous fraud investigations in respect of school meals income.”

The cost to the local authority now stands at £206,220 after sheriff officers were unable to reclaim the lion’s share of what was owed.

Each day, the council provides approximately 18,000 school meals across its 173 primary schools and 29 secondary schools. School meals for P1-3 are free, P4-7 cost £2.30 and in secondary school the charge is £2.55.

Once tallied, the income generated for the year 2018/19 – the timespan of the audit – amounted to around £3.7 million. Of this, 88 per cent was paid in cash and the rest was collected online.

As of December 2, 2019, unpaid school meal debt in primary schools was £65,250 – the equivalent of about 1.8 per cent of the expected annual income, with a third of that outstanding for 361 days or more.

On September 2, 2019, previously written off debt amounting to £122,429 that the sheriff officer had been unable to collect has now been put back onto the ledger.

The report added: “The council’s policy is that no primary school pupil should be refused a meal if they have insufficient funds and there are no other arrangements in place for a meal at lunchtime.

“Therefore, there will always be occasions where school meals are not paid for in advance and a process has been put in place to collect monies owed.

“Despite a reminder, letter, invoice and contact from the sheriff officer, there is still a high level of debt owed to the council for unpaid school meals.”

The current system to tackle unpaid meals utilises reminders for balances of up to £20, letters are issued to parents by the council’s catering HQ for balances of between £20 and £40 and an invoice would be issued plus a £15 surcharge for balances of more than £40.

Secondary school pupils are advised that they must have money in their school meals account to be able to use the school meals service, and debt is not permitted in the same way as a primary school would.

Council officers have agreed to undertake a review of the unpaid school meal debt to establish the reasons for it and consider whether or not a different approach should be taken in order to maximise collection.

This should include assessing the value of pursuing debt which has been outstanding for 361 days or more – raising the prospect that at this stage it might be written off.

A dad-of-three said: “We use an online school meal payment system and it is difficult to understand. Making it easier to use, might help some parents avoid going into arrears, especially if more payments are to be made online.”

A mother-of-two said: “At least all the youngsters are getting fed. If there is a problem with unpaid bills, the schools should never take it out of them because it is the parents’ responsibility.

“Sadly, some parents I know are really struggling to put food on the table due to Covid impacting their jobs. If that’s the same across the region, this might get worse before it gets better.”

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