School meals: Marcus Rashford 'proud' of community response

Media caption,
Marcus Rashford and his mother Melanie helped out at FareShare Greater Manchester

Footballer Marcus Rashford has said he "couldn't be more proud to call myself British" after the community response to his campaign to get free meals for children during the half-term holiday.

The England striker told BBC Newsnight he was "overwhelmed" by the support offered by councils and businesses.

It comes after a Labour bid to extend free school meals was rejected by MPs.

The government says it has already introduced more effective measures to support families.

Meanwhile, two Conservative MPs have said comments they made about the issue were "taken out of context" after their remarks were criticised.

The government has ruled out extending free meals nationwide beyond term time - as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have done - saying it has given councils £63m for families facing financial difficulties due to pandemic restrictions, as well as increasing welfare support by £9.3bn.

On Wednesday, Conservative MPs rejected Labour's Opposition Day motion to extend the provision of free school meals by 322 votes to 261, with five Tory MPs rebelling.

However, many Conservative and Labour councils have since agreed to supply meal vouchers for pupils.

Fish and chip shops, pubs, restaurants and cafes have also been among those to support the initiative, many of them directly commenting on Rashford's Twitter feed.

Rashford, who became an MBE earlier this year, said in a statement to Newsnight: "Even at their lowest point, having felt the devastating effects of the pandemic, local businesses have wrapped arms around their communities today, catching vulnerable children as they fell.

"I couldn't be more proud to call myself British tonight."

He added if people wanted "to talk about 'superstars' and 'celebrities'" they should look no further than his Twitter feed.

'Taken out of context'

Meanwhile, Conservative MP Ben Bradley has defended his position after being accused of stigmatising working-class families in a tweet.

Commenting on a school in Mansfield, Mr Bradley said that "one kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel". Another Twitter user responded, saying that "£20 cash direct to a crack den and a brothel sounds like the way forward with this one", to which Mr Bradley replied: "That's what FSM [free school meal] vouchers in the summer effectively did..."

Mr Bradley said the tweet, which has since been deleted, had been "totally taken out of context".

He told BBC Breakfast: "I was merely making the point that there are kids who live in really chaotic situations, really difficult lives, where actually giving them an unrestricted voucher to spend on whatever isn't helpful."

He said the government had given money to local government which was better placed to provide targeted support, adding: "We need to wrap our arms, as a society, around those families."

Labour called for him to apologise for the tweet, with deputy leader Angela Rayner saying: "Notwithstanding the fact that the vouchers in summer could only be used to purchase food, this stigmatisation of working class families is disgraceful and disgusting."

Another Conservative MP, Selaine Saxby, has also responded to criticism of comments she made on local businesses giving free food away.

A screenshot of a since-removed post in her name on Facebook said: "I am delighted our local businesses have bounced back so much after lockdown they are able to give away food for free, and very much hope they will not be seeking any further government support."

The MP later claimed her comments were taken "out of context" and added: "I of course deeply regret any offence which may have been caused."

Media caption,
Ben Bradley MP says his tweets were "taken out of context" – and that the government's stance has been "falsely characterised"

Councils that have pledged to supply free school meal vouchers include those in Manchester, Birmingham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hillingdon, the local authority for Prime Minister Boris Johnson's constituency.

Nicola Mason, headteacher at the Chase Terrace Academy in Burntwood, Staffordshire, praised the Conservative-led county council in her area for providing vouchers over the holiday saying it was "absolutely the right thing to do".

She told the Today programme: "Over the pandemic, it's definitely necessary. There are so many families that have found themselves in a crisis position where they can't feed their children as well as they could before."

Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson said the council's decision to back the campaign would provide meals for 19,800 pupils in the city, while Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street said the government should have made "a clear decision" on whether it would or would not fund free school meals during the holidays "well in advance".

Rebecca Horton, who is owner of the Taste Sandwich Bar in Dingle in Liverpool, said she signed up to Rashford's campaign because she comes from a deprived area and wanted to support her community.

"I see families struggling, I see children hungry - it was an absolute no brainer for me to jump on the bandwagon, rally round and organise something," she told the Today programme.

Image source, Vutie Beets
Image caption,
Businesses have been offering to provide children with food during half-term

However, MP David Simmonds, who represents Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, said the scheme "on its own is not going to get the help to people that need it".

He told Radio 4's Today programme that it was "a very complex situation" which was not addressed by a "one-size-fits-all response like free school meals", adding that more effective measures include the extension of Universal Credit and extra money for local authorities.

Robert Halfon, who was one of the five Conservative MPs to vote in support of extending free school meal provision, called on Mr Johnson to meet Rashford to come up with a long-term strategy.

Mr Halfon told BBC Breakfast: "It may be that they don't agree with everything that Marcus Rashford is proposing, but it would give us a chance to come up with a long-term plan to combat child food hunger once and for all."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The England player has urged people to "unite" to protect the most vulnerable children

Earlier this year, Rashford's campaign led to the government changing its policy to allow the 1.3 million children in England who receive free school meal vouchers to claim them during the summer holidays.

His efforts have been widely praised, with ex-England striker and Match of the Day host Gary Lineker tweeting: "Extraordinary from a remarkable young man."

Fellow Mancunian Tim Burgess, lead singer of The Charlatans, said: "Wow, Marcus Rashford is a true hero of our times. So many MPs should feel shame over the fact that a footballer is helping the needy, more than they are."

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