Sour taste of bill in school meals row

SCHOOLS could be faced with a bill for thousands of pounds in the latest twist in the row over catering staff's redundancy payments after Essex County Council's school dinner service was axed.

SCHOOLS could be faced with a bill for thousands of pounds in the latest twist in the row over catering staff's redundancy payments after Essex County Council's school dinner service was axed.

One headteacher yesterdaywarned teaching assistants could be made redundant if schools are landed with the bill.

Essex County Council scrapped its school meals service on April 2. Schools decided to either make individual contracts with Scolarest, the catering company which was contracted by the county council, employ other caterers, or close their kitchens and serve sandwiches only.

At least 130 catering staff have lost their jobs and some are battling to receive redundancy payments, with the help of public services union, Unison.

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Michelle Bradley, Unison regional officer, said Scolarest claims responsibility for catering staff has transferred to schools under employment law known as TUPE, Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations.

The company, part of the international catering company Compass Group, has offered staff compensation payments, with the condition that they agree to waive their employment rights and not take any legal action.

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The compensation payments are much lower than the redundancy settlements due to them, which were set by Essex County Council, which originally employed the staff before they were transferred to Scolarest when the council's in-house service was scrapped.

Ms Bradley said she has advised her members not to accept the offer of compensation. "I've now got two or three dozen people saying they are not going to accept this, they are going to fight for their rights."

She is currently setting up meetings to hand out the legal forms for staff to take the issue to an employment tribunal. She said a tribunal would decide whether the staff were transferred to schools under TUPE or remained in Scolarest employment.

Chris Holmes, headteacher at Kendall primary school, Colchester, which closed its kitchen, said: "If we are suddenly faced with redundancy payments we will be in a tricky situation."

He said Kendall opted to serve sandwiches only because he calculated it would cost £11,000 to run a hot meals service, which would mean making a learning support assistant redundant and these staff would be at risk if the school had to meet catering staff redundancy costs.

David Young, headteacher at Myland primary school, Colchester, which also opted for a cold meal service, said he believed his school would not be responsible for redundancy payments because they had followed Essex County Council personnel department's guidance. "It would be the county that would have to pay, not us."

A statement from Scolarest said staff not remaining with Scolarest or a new contractor should transfer back to Essex County Council or the school where they work under TUPE but since the council is refusing to recognise the transfer, the company has "taken responsibility" and made an offer of compensation to those who would qualify for redundancy, which has been accepted by three quarters of its former staff.

"Any member of staff not wishing to accept the offer in full and final settlement of all matters related to their employment, is deemed to have transferred to Essex LEA or the school were they work as from April 16."

An Essex County Council spokeswoman said: "Scolarest are the employer and as such it is our understanding that they are responsible for all employment issues."

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