Pressure is increasing on the government to reverse its decision not to provide free schools meals over the holidays in England following a campaign led by Wythenshawe-born footballer Marcus Rashford which has captured the nation’s imagination.
Some Conservative MPs have broken cover and opposed Downing Street’s stance as Labour has threatened to push for another Commons vote on the issue.
Meanwhile, more than 2,000 paediatricians who work with children and young people have signed a letter saying England should follow the devolved nations of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and provide free meals during holidays.
Members of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said they are shocked by the government’s “refusal” to do so, and praised footballer Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford for his “powerful campaigning” on the issue.
Scores of businesses and organisations across Greater Manchester – and the country -have pledged to offer free food to children from low income backgrounds in the days since MPs rejected a bid from Labour, to extend free school meals over the holidays until Easter.
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Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing calls to meet 22-year-old Marcus – who has received an MBE honouring his efforts to tackle child food poverty – to discuss his free school meals campaign.
The government, meanwhile, has said it has increased welfare support for vulnerable families, who have collectively received “millions of pounds in funding”.
Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green called on the Prime Minister Boris Johnson to meet with Rashford’s task force “as a matter of urgency” to discuss its proposals for ending child poverty.
Mr Johnson’s own party colleague Robert Halfon described a meeting with Rashford as a “no-brainer”, and urged ministers to develop a long-term strategy to combat child food hunger.
While former Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood said extending provision over the holidays is a “simple and practical vehicle” to support families and called on the government to “re-visit” the option.
Councils, including Conservative-run bodies, have announced stop-gap measures to cover the October half-term break which begins tomorrow.
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There is concern, however, that within rank and file Conservative MPs about the decision to rule out extending free meal vouchers over the school holidays to around 1.3 million families in England.
Former Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, who was not a supporter of Labour’s motion, said he would lobby ministers to reverse the decision in time for the Christmas break.
Johnny Mercer, a current Defence Minister, claimed on Twitter that the government had handled the issue “poorly”.
And hundreds of thousands of people have signed Marcus Rashford’s petition on ending child food poverty.
Labour said it will force a new Commons vote on the issue if the government doesn’t change its position before the Christmas recess.
Tulip Siddiq, the Shadow Minister for Children, apologised for the issue becoming a political football, but said some Conservatives are realising it is “principles before party.”
She told BBC Breakfast that as some council had agreed to provide meal vouchers during half-term, it had now become a “postcode lottery” as not every local authority had stepped up.
Marcus took to social media on Saturday to condemn the unacceptable levels of abuse some MPs had received for voting against the motion.
According to the BBC, Mansfield Conservative MP Ben Bradley said his comments on the issue had been taken out of context, when he commented on a school in his constituency: “One kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel”, he wrote.
When a Twitter user said that “£20 cash direct to a crack den and a brothel sounds like the way forward with this one”, he responded: “That’s what FSM [free school meal] vouchers in the summer effectively did…”
He said the tweet, which has since been deleted, had been “totally taken out of context.”
Defending Mr Bradley, another 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 – are “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.”
Conservative MP Selaine Saxby had to delete a Facebook post in which she hoped business who were giving away free food “will not be seeking any further government support”.
The North Devon MP claimed her comments were “out of context”, adding: “I, of course, deeply regret any offence which may have been caused.”