U-turn on free school meals looming after Marcus Rashford campaign backed by senior Tory

·3-min read
Manchester United via Getty Images
Manchester United via Getty Images

Ministers were being pushed towards a U-turn on free school meals over half-term today after a campaign led by England football star Marcus Rashford was backed by the an influential Tory committee chair.

Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, urged the Government to work with the player and to continue providing meals during holidays while the coronavirus pandemic is raging.

The showdown was kicked off when Manchester ace Rashford urged MPs not to "turn a blind eye" to vulnerable families just ahead of a division in the Commons on his campaign.

He asked his 3.4million followers on Twitter to put pressure on their MPs, saying: "Paying close attention to the Commons today and to those who are willing to turn a blind eye to the needs of our most vulnerable children, 2.2 million of them who currently qualify for free school meals."

Rashford, who was made an MBE for his efforts this year , said the economic blow to families from coronavirus was worse now than at the start of the crisis. "We aren't in the same position we were in in the summer, it's much worse," he said. "The number of children with little to no access to food has risen significantly."

Ministers have so far refused to provide or pay for free meals for poorer pupils in England over the half-term and Christmas breaks.

Mr Halfon then weighed in on Radio 4's Today by declaring that he would rebel on the issue, either by voting for the Labour motion that calls for the meals to continue, or by abstaining, depending on what the Government says during the debate.

"What the Government needs to do is to have a long-term plan, sit down with the taskforce set up by Marcus Rashford and actually come up with a serious plan and a budget to deal with this problem,” said the senior Conservative.

"All the statistics show that families are struggling. We know that 10% of families are affected by food insecurity.

"I am not arguing this should happen for ever, but the free school meals should at least go on until we are out of the coronavirus, god willing, by next spring."

Labour's motion calls for the scheme to be extended over school holidays until Easter 2021.

An analysis by Labour found nearly one million children living in areas that are subject to Tier 2 and Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions are set to lose access to free school meals over the upcoming holidays.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: "This vote is about our values as a country and whether the Government, in the middle of this crisis, is happy to let our children go hungry.”

Tory former minister Steve Baker warned about the cost of Rashford's demands. "Everyone knows feeding hungry children is a top priority. I'd like to see UC (Universal Credit) boosted," he said.

"But if the economy and currency collapse, the poor will be devastated. Alleging a blind eye is just wrong."

A Government spokesman said: "We have been giving substantial support to families and children, by providing free school meals when schools were partially closed, increasing welfare support by £9.3 billion, and giving councils £63 million for families facing financial difficulties.

"We also provided vouchers through the Covid Summer Food Fund, in addition to the Holiday Activities and Food Programme.

"Now that the vast majority of pupils are back in school and over 99% of schools have been open every week since term began, kitchens are able to provide healthy, nutritious meals to all children, including those eligible for free school meals."

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