All but one Tory MP refused to vote on free school meals

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak leave 10 Downing Street London, ahead of a Cabinet meeting at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Boris Johnson, pictured with chancellor Rishi Sunak, ordered his MPs to abstain on Labour's free school meals vote. (PA)

Editor’s note: This story originally ran at 9.47am on 19 January under the headline “Every single Tory MP refused to vote on free school meals”. It was based on incorrect figures provided on the Parliament website, which initially stated all 363 eligible Conservative MPs abstained. This article has since been amended to reflect the fact it was 362 Conservative MPs who abstained, with one – Anne Marie Morris – voting for the motion.

All but one Conservative MP refused to take part in a vote calling for high quality free school meals to be guaranteed.

The vote happened late on Monday night and was organised by Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party.

Boris Johnson had ordered his MPs to abstain, saying it was a “political stunt” as policies are already in place guaranteeing the continuation of free school meals during the coronavirus lockdown.

It meant 362 Conservative MPs eligible to take part did not register a vote on the motion, which also called for good access to remote education.

Only one Conservative – Newton Abbot MP Anne Marie Morris – took part as she voted for it.

Labour’s motion passed by 273 votes to 0. As a non-binding opposition day vote, however, it won’t become government policy – though it remains a symbolic indication of the division that exists over the issue.

Why was the vote called?

Provision of free school meals while schools are shut, famously highlighted by the popular campaigning of Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford, has been an emotive topic throughout the pandemic.

The issue resurfaced last week after images showing poor quality food parcels, issued as part of England’s latest lockdown, were widely shared on social media and highlighted by Rashford.

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Rashford was soon on the phone to Johnson, with the PM promising to “correct” the “unacceptable” food packages.

The row prompted Labour on Monday to use one of its 20 allotted opposition days to raise the issue in the Commons and seek a guarantee that “those eligible should be guaranteed to receive the full value of free school meals for the duration of the school year, including during all holidays”.

What did the government say?

Downing Street said it already has policies in place “supporting families to feed their children during both term-time and holidays”.

The government ordered its MPs to abstain on the vote, with Johnson’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, accusing Labour of “pulling a political stunt”.

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Stratton said earlier on Monday: “It is them making families up and down the country concerned they will not be able to get the food they might need during the February half-term, when that is not true.

“Labour is pulling a political stunt because they know that children who could go hungry during the February half-term will not go hungry because of the policy that is in place.”

What was said during the debate?

Shadow education secretary Kate Green, leading for Labour, told education secretary Gavin Williamson to “put your trust in mums and dads” by giving them £15 a week to pay for lunches while schools are closed.

“I have a simple solution for the secretary of state to this problem of holiday hunger,” she said, “one that could solve the problem at the touch of a button. Sack the companies who are providing the substandard service and just give parents the money.

“Secure family incomes by using the existing social security infrastructure, put £15 a week into the bank accounts of the parents who need it to feed their children, put your trust in mums and dads because we know that parents will do the right thing.”

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Williamson rejected this, saying: “I want to stress that the overwhelming majority of schools have been successfully providing exceptionally high quality free school meal support to their pupils.

“However, pictures of food parcels which were circulated last week were simply not acceptable.

“I have met along with the minister for children [Vicky Ford] those who are supplying these parcels and I have left them in no doubt that we expect high quality food and supplies in those parcels that they deliver.”

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Among backbenchers, Labour’s Emma Lewell-Buck said she was “dismayed but not surprised that yet again we’re having to put pressure on this government to do the right thing by hungry children in the middle of a pandemic”.

Conservative backbencher Tom Hunt, on the other hand, said he would not support Labour’s motion because “I’m focused on results and action, not virtue signalling”.

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