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 vulnerable children in England over the holidays, as half term begins for many.

Many local authorities, including some Tory-run councils, are providing vouchers and parcels to those in need.

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

But cabinet minister Brandon Lewis said providing help through councils was “the right way to do it”.

Mr Lewis said the government had increased Universal Credit and allocated £63m to local authorities.

Conservative MP and former welfare minister Caroline Nokes told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour there had to be a change in approach from the government.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about them having to take another look at it. I think it has to be quick and I think it has to be very, very clear,” she said.

It comes as dozens of empty plates were left outside a Conservative MP’s office to protest over the party voting against plans to extend the scheme.

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

The government extended free school meals to eligible children during the Easter holidays earlier this year and, after a high-profile campaign by footballer 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.

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, had his constituency office of Southend West targeted on Sunday.

Local people wrote messages on empty plates and left them outside the Southend West Conservative Association building.

“The situations people find themselves in are just unbearable. 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,” organiser Sadie Hasler, 40, from Southend, said.

Several Tory MPs oppose the government’s stance and Labour want a new vote, saying: “It’s not too late to do the right thing.”

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.”

Meanwhile, more than 2,000 paediatricians have signed a letter supporting free school meals during the holidays.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the party will force a new Commons vote on the issue if the government does not change its position before the Christmas Commons recess.

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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