Government minister Brandon Lewis has defended the decision not to extend free school meals in England into the school holidays, saying other welfare support was “the right way to do it”.
He said the government had given an “uplift” to Universal Credit, as well as £63m to councils so they could provide “targeted” financial 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 meals during the holidays.
The PM faces calls to meet with footballer Marcus Rashford to discuss his free school meals campaign. Earlier this year, the 22-year-old forced a government U-turn, meaning meal vouchers were given to those in need during the summer holidays.
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 have very specifically put this £63m into local authorities because they are closest to their communities, to the residents that they serve, can understand what they need to do to target correctly, to make sure the people most in need get the financial support they need in the school holidays,” he said.
Last week, Conservative MPs rejected Labour’s Opposition Day motion to extend free school meals by 322 votes to 261, with five Tory MPs rebelling.
But there is increasing criticism from within Tory ranks over the government’s policy.
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 Saddiq, 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”.