Boris Johnson is facing escalating pressure to extend free school meals during the holidays as Labour threatens to trigger a vote on the issue highlighted by footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to end child food poverty.
The England and Manchester United striker – alongside opposition MPs – forced the prime minister into a U-turn in July over providing food vouchers for children entitled for free school meals during the summer holidays.
But following Mr Rashford’s latest campaign, No 10 has shown reluctance to extend the programme during the October half-term break and the Christmas holidays, despite warnings “over a million children” are at risk of going hungry.
“It's not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays,” the prime minister’s spokesman insisted last week.
The Welsh government has already prolonged the scheme until spring 2021 amid the coronavirus pandemic and a petition launched by Mr Rashford calling for free school meals to be expanded across school holidays has also attracted close to 300,000 signatures.
After telling ministers they had 72 hours to prolong the scheme at the weekend, Labour has now tabled a motion which calls on the government “to continue directly funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021 to prevent over a million children going hungry during this crisis”.
While the vote being forced by Labour during the party’s opposition day debate on Wednesday will be non-binding, it will force Conservative MPs to decide whether to back the extension of free school meals or side with No 10.
Writing to every Tory backbencher on Monday evening urging them to back the proposals, the shadow schools minister Tulip Siddiq said: “Labour have said that if the government does not urgently U-turn, we will force a vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday – this will mean that you and your colleagues will have to take a clear stance on the issue”.
A Labour source added: “If the House expresses a clear will we would expect the government to act on it.”
Posting at the weekend, Mr Rashford, who was awarded an MBE for his services to vulnerable children, said: “No child in the UK should be waking up hungry, if they have slept at all, and have to face the day worrying where food might be coming from.
“Food stability is the foundation of everything. Please, give our children a chance. Let’s level up once and for all.”
Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, added: “Over a million children are at risk of going hungry over the holidays without access to free school meals. It is essential the government provides this support urgently.
“We have the prime minister the chance to change course, but he refused to do so. Now his MPs must decide if they want to vote for their constituents to get this vital support or if they will leave families struggling to put food on the table.”
The push to extend the scheme has been supported by education unions, with Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Geoff Barton last week saying: "The government must show that it is committed to social justice by extending free school meal provision to school holiday periods during this time of national emergency in which many families are experiencing great hardship."