The decision not to extend free school meals in England into the half-term holiday has been defended by a cabinet minister, saying their current provision was “the right way to do it”.
Brandon Lewis said the government had increased Universal Credit, and made £63m available to councils so they could provide “targeted” support.
Pressure is mounting on the government to reverse its decision.
Several Tory MPs oppose the move and Labour have called for a new vote.
Meanwhile, more than 2,000 paediatricians who work with young people have signed a letter saying England should follow Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in providing vouchers for meals during the holidays.
The government extended free school meals to eligible children during the Easter holidays earlier this year and, after a campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford, did the same for the summer holiday.
But this time it has refused to do so. The PM is facing calls to meet with 22-year-old Rashford to discuss his campaign.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Northern Ireland Secretary Mr Lewis said “a couple of things” had changed since free school meals were provided in the holidays during the first wave of the pandemic.
He said the majority of schools are now open, and the government had increased Universal Credit as well as allocated £63m to local authorities.
“We’ve put the uplift into universal credit, just over £1000 a year. But also very specifically we’ve put £63m into local authorities to support and help people in hardship… and a number of local authorities are using it to do exactly that,” he said.
“We’ve put that support in there and I think that’s the right way to do it because the schools aren’t open so it’s making sure that the welfare system can put the support in, targeted where it’s needed most.”
Some councils to supply meal vouchers for children facing hardship.
One mother, whose children received free school meals during the holidays, said: “We wouldn’t have survived without it.
“You worry a lot about making sure they’ve got enough food for the holidays and that. You’ve got to find that main meal for the kids and I think people struggle.”
In response to the woman’s comments, Mr Lewis said: “We do support free school meals. This is about what happens in the school holidays.”
Mr Lewis said he gave “huge credit” to Rashford for his “phenomenal” campaign to get businesses including fish and chip shops, pubs, restaurants and cafes to give free food to eligible children.
“I congratulate them for that and thank them for that,” he said. “I’ve seen that in my own constituency, in Northern Ireland – but I think it’s complementary to what we’re doing as a government”.
Last week, Conservative MPs voted against Labour’s attempt to extend free school meals by 322 votes to 261, with five Tory MPs rebelling and voting for Labour’s motion.
One of those rebels, Robert Halfon, called on Mr Johnson to meet Rashford, telling the BBC: “It may be that they don’t agree with everything that Marcus Rashford is proposing, but it would give us a chance to come up with a long-term plan to combat child food hunger once and for all.”
Other Tory MPs have also criticised the government’s stance. Former Tory children’s minister Tim Loughton, who did not support Labour’s motion, said he would lobby ministers to reverse the decision for the Christmas break.
And Tobias Ellwood, a former defence minister, said the free school meals scheme was “well received” and a “simple and practical” way of supporting families.
Johnny Mercer, a defence minister, admitted on Twitter that the government had dealt with the issue “poorly”.
Labour has said it will force a new Commons vote on the issue if the government does not change its position before the Christmas Commons recess.
Tulip Siddiq, shadow minister for children, said she was sorry the issue had “become a political football” but some Conservative MPs “are realising this is principles before party” and she appealed for more to stand against the government.
She told BBC Breakfast that, with some local councils agreeing to supply meal vouchers during the holidays, the issue had become “a postcode lottery” because not every council had “stepped up”.
Children of all ages living in households on income-related benefits may be eligible for free school meals.
In England, about 1.3 million children claimed for free school meals in 2019 – about 15% of state-educated pupils.
Analysis by the Food Foundation estimates a further 900,000 children in England may have sought free school meals since the start of the pandemic.