Ministers under increased pressure to U-turn on free school meals

England football star Marcus Rashford warned MPs not to “turn a blind eye” to vulnerable families as the Commons prepared to vote on a Labour call to extend free school meals over the holidays.

The Manchester United player, who has led a campaign on the issue, said he would be “paying close attention” to the vote.

The Government has so far refused to extend the provision of free school meals in England over the half-term and Christmas breaks, but is under mounting pressure to perform a U-turn.

Tory MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee urged the Government to continue providing meals over the holidays while the coronavirus crisis is ongoing and called on ministers to work with Rashford.

The footballer was made an MBE for his efforts earlier this year and has urged his 3.4 million Twitter followers to lobby MPs to back his campaign.

He said: “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 said the economic hit as a result of the coronavirus pandemic had made the situation worse than it was 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.”

Mr Halfon told BBC Radio 4’s Today he would will either vote for the Labour motion or abstain depending on what the Government says in the Commons.

He added: “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.

“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.

The party’s analysis showed 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.

“Millions of families up and down the country are facing a bleak winter of real hardship as the furlough scheme is withdrawn and further restrictions are put in place without proper support for businesses, jobs and livelihoods.”

Public debt graphic
Public debt graphic

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.”