School meals: Row continues as half-term begins in England

School meals: Row continues as half-term begins in England

Ministers are continuing to insist they will not fund free school meals for children at risk of going hungry in England over the half-term holiday.

Many councils are providing meal vouchers, while hundreds of businesses are offering parcels to those in need.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing mounting pressure from former ministers and some Tory MPs to reverse the move.

But Health Secretary Matt Hancock said providing money through councils was the “best way” to support people.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already introduced food voucher schemes.

The UK government extended free school meals to eligible children during the Easter holidays earlier this year and, after a high-profile campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford, did the same for the summer holiday.

But it has refused to do so again. A petition created by the Manchester United striker calling for provision to continue in the holidays had gained nearly 870,000 signatures by Monday morning.

Mr Hancock defended the government’s refusal to budge, saying it had increased Universal Credit and allocated £63m to local authorities.

“Often it’s councils who know best on the ground,” he said.

But the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, said money going to local councils “gets tied up then in processes, in distribution, in bureaucracies”, and that might not help some children.

She said the beauty of the free school meals scheme “is that it gets directly to children”, adding: “There’ll be children who are desperate for that help and that’s something that really makes this a very urgent priority for Boris Johnson when he gets to his desk today.”

The Conservative leader of Warwickshire County Council told the BBC they had already spent all the money allocated under the £63m fund – which was announced in June – and it was not enough to fund school meals too.

Earlier, there was also confusion about whether Mr Johnson had responded to a letter from Rashford.

Asked about it on BBC Breakfast, Mr Hancock said: “There has been communication between the two, as far as I understand it.”

When pressed further, he said: “I understand that there has been communication but I’m obviously not in charge of the prime minister’s correspondence. If there hasn’t been, I’m sure that that will be followed up.”

But Rashford later tweeted: “Hmm, unless he’s referring to the call we had following the U-turn in June?”

Downing Street sources said they are not aware of any direct communication between the prime minister and Rashford since the summer, when they spoke on the phone.

The footballer’s campaign has recently led to businesses including fish and chip shops, pubs, restaurants and cafes promising to dish out free food to eligible children over half-term.

Cafe-owner Kim Mahony Hargreaves in Wembley, London, is providing a lunchbox with a sandwich, fruit, oat flapjack, yoghurt and apple juice to children that need it.

“My partner was a teacher and has seen first hand the impact free school meals can have on children for whom it may be the only food they eat all day,” she said. “Some children wouldn’t even eat the food themselves but take it home for their families to share.”

Mr Hancock said he had been looking at Rashford’s Twitter feed – where the footballer had retweeted offers from restaurants and cafes all across he country.

“As central government, we put in extra money. The councils, they’re stepping up to the plate and lots of businesses and individuals are as well. I think that’s brilliant.

“I saw Marcus Rashford said what we need is collaboration, people working together. I totally agree.”

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.

Sir David Amess, one of those to vote against the motion for free school meals, had his constituency office of Southend West targeted on Sunday, as local people wrote messages on empty plates and left them outside.

“The situations people find themselves in are just unbearable,” said organiser Sadie Hasler, 40, from Southend. “The stigma that comes with maybe being a single parent, and trying to do the best thing by your child, and society just kind of constantly wants to keep elbowing you in the ribs for it.”

Several Tory MPs oppose the government’s stance.

Conservative MP and former welfare minister Caroline Nokes told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour the government had to “take another look at it”.

And fellow Tory MP Tobias Ellwood said “it would be wise” for the government to reconsider in time for the Christmas holidays, adding it would be “a sensible thing to do to bring people together”.

Some councils have promised to supply meal vouchers for children facing hardship.

Conservative-led Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council said it would provide food parcels for families from Monday, tweeting: “No child should go hungry.”

And Kensington and Chelsea council – which is also Tory-run – said nearly 3,300 youngsters would receive £15 vouchers from their schools to cover the cost of meals during the holiday, adding: “No kid should go hungry.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the party will force a new Commons vote on the issue if the government had not changed its position before the Christmas Commons recess, saying: “It’s not too late to do the right thing.”

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.

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