School meals: Cabinet minister defends refusal to extend holiday scheme

Ali Waterworth, co-founder of Ruddi"s Retreat in Huddersfield, preparing a food bag.Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
Some businesses will be giving out free food bags for children during half term

The government's decision not to extend free school meals for children in England into the half-term holiday has been defended by a cabinet minister.

Brandon Lewis praised footballer Marcus Rashford for his "phenomenal" campaign, but insisted providing help through councils was "the right way to do it".

Pressure is mounting on the government to reverse its decision.

Several Tory MPs oppose the move and Labour want a new vote, saying: "It's not too late to do the right thing."

Meanwhile, more than 2,000 paediatricians have signed a letter saying England should follow Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in providing vouchers for meals during the holidays.

The government extended free school meals to eligible children during the Easter holidays earlier this year and, after a campaign by Rashford, did the same for the summer holiday.

But this time it has refused to do so. More than 800,000 people have signed Rashford's petition calling for provision to continue in the holidays, and the PM is facing calls to meet the 22-year-old striker to discuss the issue.

'The right way to do it'

Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr show, Northern Ireland Secretary Mr Lewis said "a couple of things" had changed since free school meals were provided in the holidays during the first wave of the pandemic.

He said the majority of schools are now open, and the government had increased Universal Credit as well as allocated £63m to local authorities.

"We've put the uplift into universal credit, just over £1000 a year. But also very specifically we've put £63m into local authorities to support and help people in hardship... and a number of local authorities are using it to do exactly that," he said.

"We've put that support in there and I think that's the right way to do it because the schools aren't open so it's making sure that the welfare system can put the support in, targeted where it's needed most."

Some councils have promised to supply meal vouchers for children facing hardship.

Image caption,
"You've got to find that main meal for the kids and I think people struggle."

One mother, whose children received free school meals during the holidays, said: "We wouldn't have survived without it.

"You worry a lot about making sure they've got enough food for the holidays and that. You've got to find that main meal for the kids and I think people struggle."

In response to the woman's comments, Mr Lewis said: "We do support free school meals. This is about what happens in the school holidays."

Mr Lewis was asked why the government does not just settle the row and pay the £20m a week to keep the scheme going, comparing it with the £522m spent on the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

"I would challenge the premise of that," said Mr Lewis, saying the Eat Out scheme helped an "industry that employs some of the lowest paid people in the country".

Mr Lewis said he gave "huge credit" to Rashford for his campaign to get businesses including fish and chip shops, pubs, restaurants and cafes to give free food to eligible children.

"I congratulate them for that and thank them for that," he said. "I've seen that in my own constituency, in Northern Ireland - but I think it's complementary to what we're doing as a government".

'A long-term plan'

Last week, Conservative MPs voted against Labour's attempt to extend free school meals by 322 votes to 261, with five Tory MPs rebelling and voting for Labour's motion.

One of those rebels, Robert 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."

Other Tory MPs have also criticised the government's stance.

Former Tory children's minister Tim Loughton - who did not support Labour's motion - said the government's stance was "politically a mistake", and he would vote for the scheme to be extended over the Christmas holiday if there was another vote.

And Tobias Ellwood, a former defence minister, said the free school meals holiday 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".

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

'Postcode lottery'

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the party 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".

Children of all ages living in households on income-related benefits may be eligible for free school meals.

In England, about 1.3 million children claimed for free school meals in 2019 - about 15% of state-educated pupils.

Analysis by the Food Foundation estimates a further 900,000 children in England may have sought free school meals since the start of the pandemic.

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