A COUNTY council is set to change its approach on dealing with families who fall behind on payments for school meals to make it less threatening.

Last year Denbighshire County Council hit the headlines when a letter was sent to a mother who owed £13 for the meals warning her that she could be reported to social services if she didn’t clear the debt or provide lunches for her child.

The council got into another row when letters were sent out telling parents they would have to be up to date with their payments for their children to get a school Christmas meal.

Denbighshire Council apologised over those letters being sent out.

On Thursday, members of the council’s communities scrutiny committee will discuss changes to the school meals debt policy.

These changes will include a requirement for all pupils to pay in advance for school so there will be no debt.

Staff will also be asked to ensure that support is provided for families so that no child is deprived of their school meal.

Denbigh county councillor, Rhys Thomas, who raised the issues after parents in the town received the letter welcomed the move.

He said: ”I am pleased that scrutiny will look at the  policy on this. It obviously is a weak policy that allows parents to be bullied by letters saying that they will be referred to Children’s Services if they don’t pay and provide their own food for their children’s lunch.

“It also allows council staff to send out letters which threaten that their children will not be allowed to have school Christmas dinner with their friends – even if they pay for it.

"I hope that scrutiny will approve a far less threatening way of getting back the arrears without making the teachers the bad guys."

But Cllr Thomas argued that not enough was being done to protect staff.

He added: “Other counties use their council finance department to go after the parents who are in arrears and don’t make the schools do it. Neither do they state in their policies that the arrears will be taken out of school budgets if the schools do not go after the parents for the money.

“Denbighshire has decided to cut school budgets by 2 per cent and also make it clear that these debts will be taken out of the budget.  This policy must change so that hard working teachers do not have to send out letters which they disagree with and must not allow council staff to write such threatening  letters.”

A further change will encourage that all those entitled take up the offer of free school meals.

Richard Weigh, the council’s chief finance officer, said: “It is clear that finance should not be the primary driver behind the change in policy, with a correct emphasis on safeguarding and fairness. However it needs to be noted that the financial implications in this area are complicated.

"An increase in free school meals take up has a direct pressure on the Free School Meals budget, however it also used as a driver behind a number of grant allocations from the Pupil Development Grant to elements of the Revenue Support Grant.

"It is also welcomed that there is a requirement for all school staff and pupils to pay in advance for school meals consumed, thus avoiding any level of school meal debt to both families and school staff.”