On Wednesday evening, 322 Tory MPs voted against a motion to extend free school meals for children, as millions of families face financial hardship through the Covid-19 crisis.
Among the MPs voting against the motion – which has been fiercely campaigned for by footballer Marcus Rashford – were children’s minister Vicky Ford and Jo Gideon – a trustee of Feeding Britain.
The government has come under fierce criticism for its approach. Even Nigel Farage came out against the vote, tweeting: “If the government can subsidise Eat Out to Help Out, not being seen to give poor kids lunch in the school holidays looks mean and is wrong.”
Here are six ways Tories have justified theirs and their party’s vote – and some of the glaring holes in their defences:
The government is focusing on ‘pumping money into the welfare system’
During an appearance on Sky News on Thursday morning, minister for crime and policing Kit Malthouse said he voted against the motion to extend free school meals because “the best way to help those on low incomes was to pump money into the welfare system”.
The Universal Credit (UC) system, which was designed and rolled out nationwide under Conservative rule to replace multiple separate benefits, has repeatedly been cited as a key factor in pulling families into poverty.
According to the UK’s biggest food poverty charity, the Trussell Trust, the huge surge in demand for foodbank use can be explicitly linked to the introduction of UC. With a five-week wait for the first payment, many households have been plunged into rent arrears and faced mounting bill payments.
#KayBurley asks the crime and policing minister why he voted against the motion to extend free school meals for children.
Kit Malthouse says 'the best way to help those on low incomes is to pump money into the welfare system'.https://t.co/J3xvlRjTVC pic.twitter.com/XCFowoMKU0
— SkyNews (@SkyNews) October 22, 2020
Research published by the Trussell Trust in September 2019 revealed that the longer UC exists in an area, the higher the demand for foodbank use.
In areas where UC has been rolled out for at least a year, food banks in the Trussell Trust’s network saw a 30% increase in demand. In areas with the reinvented welfare system in place for at least 18 months this jumped to 40%, and increased again to 48% for food banks in areas with UC for at least two years
During the interview Malthouse referenced a government initiative announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak, in which UC claimants were given a £20-a-week ‘uplift’ to help them through the pandemic – amounting to little more than £1,000 a year.
But analysis of the support package carried out by the Resolution Foundation has revealed that there are no plans to extend the uplift beyond April 2021, meaning the UK’s poorest households will suffer an income loss of £1,000 the following year.
The UK is already ‘the most generous nation in Europe’ and the motion was ‘designed to embarrass the government’
Again appearing on Sky News, Jeremy Hunt explained along similar lines to Kit Malthouse that the government had already provided significant financial support and throughout the Covid-19 crisis the UK had been “the most generous country anywhere in Europe, possibly the world”.
But this isn’t true. In response to Boris Johnson’s recent claims that there is “no country in Europe” that has equalled the UK’s financial response to Covid-19, The National reported that both wage and business support was much better in many European nations.
Looking globally, when looking at extra spending as a percentage of GDP, Britain falls behind Australia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and the US.
"Why did you vote against the motion to extend free school meals?"@Jeremy_Hunt: "I think the government is doing a lot ... if we get to a point when we're in a lockdown over the Christmas holidays, I'm sure they'll look at this again." JJ#KayBurley pic.twitter.com/nzCJqgFZUF
— Kay Burley (@KayBurley) October 22, 2020
In response to a question for Burley about why Tory whips had reportedly asked MPs to brief against Rashford, Hunt said the Labour motion to extend free school meals was “designed to embarrass the government” – putting aside genuine, evidenced concerns that more children are going hungry amid the pandemic.
It was revealed on October 12 that almost one million pupils had recently signed up to the scheme for the first time on top of the 1.4 million who were already claiming.
‘I do not believe in nationalising children’
During the debate on the motion Brendan Clarke-Smith touted a need to return to parents “taking responsibility” for their own families, which he led by announcing he does “not believe in nationalising children”, apparently regardless of the fact, as a House of Commons briefing paper points out, the private sector has owned and run the majority of industries and utilities in the UK since the late 1980s.
But never mind the global pandemic which has decimated the finances of thousands of families, Clarke-Smith was very clear – asking: “Where is the slick PR campaign asking absent parents to take some responsibility for their children?”
Brendan Clarke-Smith(Tory MP) - “I do not believe in nationalising children. We need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility. This means less celebrity virtue signalling on Twitter by proxy" #FreeSchoolMeals pic.twitter.com/83FuyWrfsi
— Haggis_UK 🇬🇧 🇪🇺 (@Haggis_UK) October 21, 2020
He continued: “Instead, we need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility, and this means less celebrity virtue-signalling on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty.”
This may come as a surprise, but it turns out this line of argument didn’t exactly go down well.
Feeding hungry children during the school holidays in the middle of a pandemic is not 'nationalising' them. Caring about their welfare is not 'virtue signalling'. Parents struggling to make ends meet are not abandoning responsibility for their children. #insulting https://t.co/1qnBhdiZhC
— Aunty Malorie Blackman (@malorieblackman) October 21, 2020
Imagine forcing business closures, expecting huge numbers of people to live on two thirds of minimum wage or nothing at all, then absolving yourself of any duty to make sure children dependent on them have something to eat.
“Nationalising children.” What a nasty piece of work. https://t.co/FOjDDY5Yxw
— Emily Heward (@EmilyHeward) October 21, 2020
Imagine thinking that giving out free school meals is “nationalising children”. Imagine having that level of analysis and being an actual elected representative. https://t.co/dzJXbIELW0
— Tom Hamilton (@thhamilton) October 21, 2020
Parents had been reportedly ‘using the £15 a week voucher on alcohol, tobacco or on unhealthy food’
Redcar MP Jacob Young said he voted down the motion because he’d “been contacted by schools, supermarkets and concerned parents who have witnessed people using the £15 a week voucher on alcohol, tobacco or on unhealthy food.”
Teeside Live, which reported the reasons all three Tory MPs in the area had voted down the motion, reported comments from Young in which he suggested cooked meals or food parcels would be more appropriate, but questioned who they would be prepared by or who they would be paid for by.
Apart from anecdotal stories, including one report by a single Asda worker in Hull whose comments were picked up widely by national titles in May, there is no substantial evidence that parents have been spending food money on age-restricted items.
It’s not the first time Tories have brought up these concerns. During a debate in June, MP Ben Bradley said: “We often find that those children—the ones that schools normally look out for—are in a position where their parents are not necessarily going to use those vouchers in the right way, and the current system seems to have no safeguards against that.”
Education secretary Gavin Williamson replied: “I can assure my honourable friend that measures are in place to ensure that the vouchers are not used for things such as alcohol, cigarettes or gambling.”
Bradley later told the Mansfield Chad that he was pleased the government was working with supermarkets to prevent parents from spending the vouchers on anything but food for their families.
There have been no widely-publicised stories of parents misusing vouchers since May, with the entire summer passing without further articles being published and concerns have not been widely raised about the scheme.
What we do have evidence for, however, is the fact that since the start of the pandemic, hundreds of thousands more children have signed up for free school meals, with many more households worried about affording food.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner shouldn’t have described a Tory MP as ‘scum’
Despite no longer being an MP and therefore not voting on the bill, one former minister also weighed in on the vote with questionable logic.
During an appearance on BBC Question Time, former culture secretary Nicky Morgan claimed “the Labour party might have found they got more supporters if the deputy leader hadn’t called one of the Conservative MPs scum.”
During Wednesday’s debate over the motion Angela Rayner called Tory MP Chris Clarkson “scum”, for which she has since apologised.
She was quickly shut down by host Fiona Bruce, who said: “I’m not really sure anyone’s defending that, but that’s not exactly the point is it?” Despite the interjection, Morgan later repeated her comment – describing Rayner’s words as “unconscionable” and “unparliamentary”.
“The Labour party might have found they got more supporters if the deputy leader hadn’t called one of the Conservative MPs scum.”
Nicky Morgan clashes with @bphillipsonMP over free school meals. On #bbcqt, 10:45pm, @bbcone pic.twitter.com/82EYuDR4FR
— BBC Question Time (@bbcquestiontime) October 22, 2020
Morgan also tried to blame the Tory dismissal of the motion on the way in which it had been brought before parliament via a Labour Opposition Day motion.
She said: “If the Labour Party had really wanted, and I think Marcus Rashford complained about it becoming politicised, if the Labour Party had really wanted support they wouldn’t have made it what’s called an opposition day debate. There would be other ways to build a coalition in parliament.”
Labour MP Bridget Phillipson refuted the comment, asking: “So kids are going hungry this Christmas because you don’t like the parliamentary process?”
Free school meals are “traded for drugs”
It’s 2020 and children are trading in their free school meals for drugs in their local crack den – or so according to Tory MPs Ben Bradley and Mark Jenkinson.
Bradley, MP for Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, caused some outrage on Friday when he suggested free school meals for children in his constituency “effectively” went to a crack den and brothel.
One of the kids in his seat “lives in a crack den” while another “in a brothel”, he claimed, adding that extending free school meals would not reach these children.
When one Twitter user responded ”£20 cash direct to a crack den and brothel” could be “the way forward”, the MP said: “Thats what FSM vouchers in the summer effectively did.”
When Bradley was accused of “disgraceful and disgusting” “stigmatisation of working class families” by Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner, Workington MP Mark Jenkinson jumped to his colleague’s defence.
He said: “Here, @AngelaRayner is either being disingenuous or really hasn’t a clue what goes on in her constituency. I hope for the sake of her constituents it’s the former.
“I know in my constituency that, as tiny as a minority it might be, food parcels are sold or traded for drugs. And that’s parcels, not vouchers - which have greater monetary value.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.