Marcus Rashford, the England and Manchester United striker, vented his “despair” on Wednesday night as Labour’s plea for free school meals to be extended over the holidays to stop children going hungry fell on closed ears in government.
In an impassioned Commons debate, many MPs paid tribute to Rashford’s burgeoning campaign to end child food poverty.
But despite some unease on the Tory benches, a motion on providing 1.4m disadvantaged children in England with £15-a-week food vouchers during holidays until Easter 2021 was voted down.
In response Rashford, 22, who became an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list this month, told his 3.5m Twitter followers: “Put aside all the noise, the digs, the party politics, and let’s focus on the reality. A significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today.”
Rashford, who has spoken of his own experience of food poverty growing up in Wythenshawe, Manchester, added: “We must stop stigmatising, judging and pointing fingers. Our views are being clouded by political affiliation. This is not politics, this is humanity…
“I don’t have the education of a politician, many on Twitter have made that clear today, but I have a social education having lived through this and having spent time with the families and children most affected. These children matter.” He urged Boris Johnson to sit down and discuss a solution.
The footballer launched a successful campaign for the provision of food vouchers over the six-week summer holidays after schools were closed for the first time in modern British history. The scheme cost an estimated £126m. The Treasury has provided £210bn in support during the crisis.
Earlier Rashford had clashed with Tory MPs who suggested that extending free school meals “increases dependency” on the state while the cost could contribute to “destroying the currency”.
Rashford told his followers he would be paying close attention to the vote and “to those who are willing to turn a blind eye to the needs of our most vulnerable children”.
His message was repudiated by former Brexit minister Steve Baker, while Ben Bradley, MP for Mansfield, tweeted that “extending freebies are a sticking plaster not a solution”.
Rashford took to the platform again during the Commons debate after a leaked memo revealed Tory whips had emailed MPs with suggested interventions during the debate.
The memo suggested MPs could highlight that Labour had not extended free school meals into the holidays when they were in government, to which Rashford responded: “I despair that we are using the topic of child food poverty to one-up each other.”
At least one Conservative MP was openly derisive of the footballer’s intervention. Brendan Clarke-Smith said: “I do not believe in nationalising children. Instead, we need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility, and that means less celebrity virtue-signalling on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty.”
David Simmonds was among the many Tory MPs who highlighted that Rashford’s time receiving free school meals occurred under a Labour government and accused the opposition of “currying favour with wealth and power and celebrity status”.
Opening the opposition debate, the shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said the proposal was not a silver bullet but was much-needed in the short term. “Downing Street said just the other day, and I quote: ‘It is not for schools to provide food to pupils during the school holidays’ … I cannot believe I have to spell this out – it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that children do not go hungry. They don’t stop being hungry just because the school bell rings for the end of term,” she said.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said it was right that, during an unprecedented and unpredictable period at the start of the pandemic, extra measures were taken. “But we are in a different position now that we have welcomed all pupils back to school,” he said.
“Free school meals are and always have been about supporting children with a meal to help them when they’re at school or currently at home learning. But it is our support through universal credit and our comprehensive welfare system that supports families.”
MPs rejected Labour’s motion by 322 votes to 261 with a government majority of 61.
Labour attracted support from Robert Halfon, the Tory chairman of the Commons education committee, who said: “If we acknowledge that children risk going hungry in term time by providing them with free school meals, despite the provision of universal credit and the other things that have been mentioned by the government, we know that they risk going hungry in the holidays too.”
He said the additional expense could be covered by using £340m a year in revenue from the tax on the sugary drinks. “This tax hits … families on lower incomes – why shouldn’t we redistribute the revenue to fund those policies proposed helping those same families facing food insecurity?”
Barry Gardiner, the Labour MP for Brent North, said the government’s position was “shameful,” and related a message from a headteacher who said it was “totally unbelievable” that he needed to run a food bank from his school.
When schools were closed during the spring lockdown, families were issued with vouchers, which continued through the summer break with a “Covid food fund” after Rashford forced the government into a U-turn.
The government has ruled out extending support over half-term next week and beyond in England, though Wales has promised food support until next spring.