Tories accused over free school meals remarks as Rashford praises local response

Footballer Marcus Rashford has praised local communities for stepping in to provide free meals to children during the school holidays – but some Tory MPs have been accused over controversial comments on the subject.

The England star's thanks came as councils, including Conservative-run bodies, announced half-term stop-gap measures and a Tory mayor criticised the Government's "last-minute" decision-making on children's free meals funding.

Rashford, 22, said he is "truly overwhelmed" by the support his campaign has received, after Parliament rejected proposals to provide free meals to vulnerable children during the school holidays.

The striker's online petition had garnered more than 660,000 signatures by Saturday morning and the number continued to rise rapidly.

His viral campaign came after MPs rejected a bid from Labour, backed by the footballer, to extend free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021.

Among the businesses and organisations around the country who offered free food were tea rooms, churches, farms and takeaways.

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Manchester United's English Forward Marcus Rashford celebrates after scoring a goal during the UEFA Europa League Group H first-leg football match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Manchester United at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris on October 20, 2020. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP) (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)
Manchester United's English Forward Marcus Rashford celebrates after scoring a goal during the UEFA Europa League Group H first-leg football match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Manchester United at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris on October 20, 2020. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP) (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game during the Barclays Premier League match at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester.
(R - L) Manchester United's Michael Carrickm Chris Smalling, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Marouane Fellaini, Ashley Young and Marcus Rojo celebrates with the trophy during the Emirates FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday May 21, 2016. See PA story SOCCER Final. Photo credit should read: Nick Potts/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 75 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.
England's Marcus Rashford and Wayne Rooney during the training session at the Stade du Bourgognes, Chantilly, France.
L-R: England's Ryan Bertrand, Danny Rose and Marcus Rashford board the plane at Luton Airport.
England's Marcus Rashford (left) and Jesse Lingard during a walkaround at Stadion Stozice, Ljubliana.
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game during the Premier League match at Old Trafford, Manchester.
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho (left) watches from the touchline as Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini (right) and Manchester United's Marcus Rashford prepare to come on
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford scores his side's first goal of the game during the UEFA Europa League Semi-Final, first leg match, at the Estadio Municipal de Balaidos, Vigo.
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford (left) with Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho after the final whistle during the Premier League match at Old Trafford, Manchester.
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford (front) and Jesse Lingard celebrate winning the UEFA Europa league after the final whistle
(left to right) Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Stormzy and Marcus Rashford attend a gala dinner at Old Trafford in Manchester, held by Manchester United and Unicef to raise funds for the charity.
England's Marcus Rashford (left) shakes hands with manager Gareth Southgate after the Bobby Moore Fund International match at Wembley Stadium, London.
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford lies in pain after picking up a back injury during the FA Cup third round replay match at Old Trafford, Manchester.
Manchester United's Alexis Sanchez is substituted for team mate Marcus Rashford during the Premier League match at Old Trafford, Manchester.
England's Marcus Rashford (left) and Costa Rica's Celso Borges battle for the ball during the International Friendly match at Elland Road, Leeds.
England's Marcus Rashford appears dejected after the final whistle during the FIFA World Cup, Semi Final match at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow.
Burnley's Phillip Bardsley (left) and Manchester United's Marcus Rashford clash during the Premier League match at Turf Moor, Burnley.
A young Manchester United fan holds up a sign for Manchester United's Marcus Rashford in the stands
Marcus Rashford of Manchester United after scoring the 2-1 during the match between Valencia CF vs Manchester United of UEFA Champions League, Group Stage, group H, date 6, 2018-2019 season. Mestalla Stadium. Valencia, Spain - 12 DIC 2018. (Photo by pressinphoto/Sipa USA)
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game during the UEFA Champions League match at the Parc des Princes, Paris, France.
England's Marcus Rashford (centre) celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game with team-mates during the Nations League Semi Final at Estadio D. Alfonso Henriques, Guimaraes.
England manager Gareth Southgate (left) and Marcus Rashford during a press conference at Wembley Stadium, London.
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford scores his side's second goal of the game from the penalty spot during the Premier League match at Old Trafford, Manchester.
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In a statement to BBC Newsnight, Rashford said: "Even at their lowest point, having felt the devastating effects of the pandemic, local businesses have wrapped arms around their communities today, catching vulnerable children as they fell.

"I couldn't be more proud to call myself British tonight."

But Tory MP for North Devon Selaine Saxby sparked anger after comments on local businesses giving free food away.

A screenshot of a since-removed post in her name on Facebook said: "I am delighted our local businesses have bounced back so much after lockdown they are able to give away food for free, and very much hope they will not be seeking any further government support."

The MP later claimed her comments were "out of context" and added: "I of course deeply regret any offence which may have been caused."

Her party colleague Ben Bradley also said a tweet he sent, which prompted accusations that he was stigmatising working class families, was "totally taken out of context".

There has been a call for an apology after the MP for Mansfield replied to a tweet in which another user described the free school meals programme as "£20 cash direct to a crack den and a brothel", with the Tory writing: "That's what FSM vouchers in the summer effectively did..."

Mr Bradley later claimed he was trying to say that giving children who live in "chaotic" situations an "unrestricted voucher to spend on whatever isn't helpful".

But Labour MPs have pointed out the vouchers in summer could only be used to buy food.

Defending Mr Bradley, another MP Mark Jenkinson accused people of attempting to "score political points" as he claimed that in his constituency of Workington in a "tiny" minority of cases food parcels – not vouchers – are "sold or traded for drugs".

The comments also sparked questions and demands for evidence, with Labour's Jess Phillips writing: "Seriously Mark, let's have a chat about this when in Parliament I'd love to see your evidence, I'd also like to talk to you about life living with those with substance misuse and what does and doesn't help solve it."

Meanwhile West Midlands Tory mayor Andy Street said the Government should make "a clear decision" on whether it would or would not fund free school meals over holidays "well in advance".

"It should not be a last-minute thing, this should be planned for, there should be a national approach on this," he said, adding that the lack of planning meant there was now an "indiscriminate arrangement" across the country as to whether free school meals would be provided over the break.

Tory-run Kensington and Chelsea council said it will pay for free school meals for eligible pupils in the borough during next week's half-term.

The council said almost 3,300 youngsters will receive £15 vouchers from their schools to cover the cost of meals during the holiday, equal to the value of £3 per day for the lunchtime meal they would receive if in school.

Other Tory-controlled councils getting on board include Hillingdon, Medway and Wandsworth councils.

The Labour leader of Birmingham City Council pledged to provide 61,000 eligible youngsters with meals in a scheme which will cost the local authority between £800,000 and £1 million, and the mayor of Liverpool said he was "not prepared to stand by and watch", as he announced £300,000 of funding.

Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson and Liverpool City Council have set up a JustGiving page to raise money, expressing their determination "that no child shall go hungry this October half-term".

McDonald's UK has also offered support to families, announcing a partnership with Fare Share UK to provide one million meals for families in need.

Downing Street declined to praise such outlets offering to provide free meals for vulnerable children over half-term.

Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who voted in support of extending free school meal provision, called on Boris Johnson to meet Rashford to come up with a long-term strategy, calling such a get-together a "no-brainer".

Rashford, described as a "hero of our times" by musician and fellow Mancunian Tim Burgess, will be back at his day job later as Manchester United play a home game against Chelsea.

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