School meals: Pressure mounts on government to reverse decision

Image source, The School Food Plan

Pressure is mounting on the government to reverse its decision not to provide free school meals over the holidays in England.

Several Conservative MPs are opposing No 10's stance, as Labour threatens to push for another Commons vote and some 2,000 doctors call for a U-turn.

It comes as the PM faces calls to meet footballer Marcus Rashford to discuss his free school meals campaign.

The government has said it has increased welfare support.

Downing Street has also highlighted tens of millions of pounds in funding for councils to help vulnerable families during the pandemic.

But there is increasing criticism from within Tory ranks over the government's decision to rule out extending meal vouchers for around 1.3 million vulnerable children in England to cover holidays.

Former Tory children's minister Tim Loughton, who did not support Labour's motion, said he would lobby ministers to reverse the decision for the Christmas break.

And Tobias Ellwood, a former defence minister, said the free school meals scheme was "well received" and a "simple and practical" way of supporting families.

Johnny Mercer, a defence minister, admitted on Twitter that the government had dealt with the issue "poorly".

And more than 2,000 paediatricians who work with young people have signed a letter saying England should follow Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in providing meals during the holidays.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Marcus Rashford has led a viral social media campaign highlighting organisations providing food during half term

Meanwhile, chairman of the education select committee Robert Halfon said a meeting would help ministers create a long-term strategy to combat child food hunger.

Labour has said it will force a new Commons vote on the issue if the government does not change its position before the Christmas Commons recess.

Tulip Siddiq, shadow minister for children, said she was sorry the issue had "become a political football" but some Conservative MPs "are realising this is principles before party" and she appealed for more to stand against the government.

She told BBC Breakfast that, with some local councils agreeing to supply meal vouchers during the holidays, the issue had become "a postcode lottery" because not every council had "stepped up".

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

One of those rebels, Mr Halfon, called on Mr Johnson to meet Rashford, telling the BBC: "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."

On Saturday, Rashford, 22, tweeted to condemn the "unacceptable" abuse some MPs had received for voting against the motion.

The government extended free school meals to eligible children during the Easter holidays earlier this year.

Following the Manchester United striker's campaign, it bowed to pressure to do the same throughout the summer holiday.

But this time it has refused to do so, saying it has given councils £63m for families facing financial difficulties due to pandemic restrictions, as well as increasing welfare support by £9.3bn.

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

This puts it at odds with the other UK nations, which have all extended the policy beyond term time.

However, hundreds of cafes, restaurants and some local councils have since pledged to help feed children facing hardship during the October half term - prompting Rashford to say he "couldn't be more proud to call myself British".

Rashford's petition on child food poverty was approaching 800,000 names on Sunday morning.

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

Commenting on a school in Mansfield, Ben 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".

Similarly, Conservative MP, Selaine Saxby, used the same defence after writing in a since-deleted Facebook post that she hoped businesses who were giving away food for free "will not be seeking any further government support".

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