Labour will push for a new vote on extending free school meals into the holidays if the government does not back down before Christmas, it was announced today.
The party's leader, Sir Keir Starmer, posted a message on Twitter saying: "It's not too late to do the right thing" following the huge impact of footballer Marcus Rashford's campaign on the issue.
Labour will force another vote on free school meals if the Government does not change course before the Christmas break.— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) October 25, 2020
It's not too late to do the right thing.
The government is facing increasing pressure to perform a U-turn on free school meals after it voted down a bid to extend them over the holidays until Easter.
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Businesses and organisations across England have since pledged to offer free food to children from low-income backgrounds in the days since the vote.
And more than 2,000 paediatricians have now signed a letter urging prime minister Boris Johnson to extend free school meals to vulnerable children during the holidays – saying childhood hunger should “transcend politics”.
Members of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said they were shocked by the government’s “refusal” to do so, and praised footballer Mr Rashford for his “powerful campaigning” on the issue.
The England international footballer said he was “so thankful and so very proud” of the “compassion and empathy” shown by those who have stepped up to help so far.
The 22-year-old Manchester United striker’s online petition had garnered more than 785,000 signatures by this morning.
Marcus Rashford's campaign to extend free school meals
Shadow education secretary Kate Green has called on the prime minister to meet with Rashford’s taskforce “as a matter of urgency” to discuss its proposals for ending child poverty.
Mr Johnson’s own party colleague and chair of the Commons Education Select Committee Robert Halfon said meeting with Rashford was a “no-brainer”, while fellow Tory MP Tobias Ellwood said extending provision over the holidays is a “simple and practical vehicle” to support families, and called on the government to “revisit” the option.
Councils, including Conservative-run local authorities, have announced stop-gap measures to supply meals over the October half-term break, which begins on Monday.
Senior Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin said the government had “misunderstood” the mood of the country over free school meals, and urged ministers to think again.
Sir Bernard told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “I think we have to admit that we have misunderstood the mood of the country here.
“The public want to see the government taking a national lead on this. I think the government will probably have to think again on that, particularly if there’s going to be more votes in the House of Commons.
“When you have got the chairman of the education select committee (Robert Halfon) not supporting the government on this – and he’s a Conservative – I think that the government has to listen to the Conservative Party.”
Child poverty and holiday hunger
Speaking on the same programme this morning, children’s commissioner Anne Longfield said she had been “horrified and really disappointed” by the recent debates over the extension of free school meal vouchers for vulnerable children.
“We’re a wealthy country, it’s 2020. To have a debate about whether we should make sure that hungry and vulnerable children have enough to eat is something that is strikingly similar to something we’d expect to see in chapters of Oliver Twist – a novel published in the 19th century.
“Let’s stop the divisive and distracting conversation, and let’s start focusing.”
Ms Longfield added that the welfare system “needs to work better” and that levels of child poverty were increasing as the coronavirus crisis continued. This isn’t going to go away,” she said. “I’m told the PM understands this, I’m told there are people around him having positive discussions about this.
“I want this to move from something that is a possibility and a discussion, to something that is real, and the clock is ticking.”
'Taken out of context'
Some Tory MPs have attracted criticism after taking to Twitter on the free school meals issue. Ben Bradley, MP for Mansfield, said that a tweet he sent appearing to agree with a comment suggesting that some meal vouchers went direct to “a crack den and a brothel” had been “totally taken out of context”.
He 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 said the vouchers could only be used to buy food.
Defending Mr Bradley, fellow 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 – were “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.”
Mr Rashford has urged people to “rise above” disappointment, describing abuse of MPs and their families as “unacceptable” and “unnecessary” and calling for “collaboration” and “togetherness” and a continued focus on helping children.