Pressure is ramping up on Boris Johnson to do a U-turn on free school meals. Meanwhile, a senior Tory said the government has “misunderstood” the mood of the country.
MPs from within the Conservative Party have added their voices to the increasing calls for a rethink. It comes after a vote last week rejected a Labour bid to extend provision over the school holidays. Footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign on the issue, meanwhile, is continuing to gather pace.
Senior Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme:
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.
Moreover, Tory MP Tobias Ellwood admitted he regrets voting against the original motion, telling Times Radio:
I’m happy to say that I’ve been convinced.
But Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis defended the government, saying it’s taken “the right position”. He said they had increased Universal Credit and were providing £63m to local authorities to help people in their communities. He told Sophy Ridge on Sunday:
What we are looking to do is ensure that we deal with child poverty at the core, putting the structure in place that means even in school holidays children can get access to the food that they need
“Compassion and empathy”
Rashford’s petition has gathered more than 800,000 signatures so far. The England and Manchester United striker has publicised a string of councils and businesses across England who are stepping up to provide free food to those in need during the pandemic.
Day job has well and truly worn me out so time to log off. 😴
— Marcus Rashford MBE (@MarcusRashford) October 24, 2020
Tweeting details of the various community efforts to help children from low income backgrounds, the player said he’s “so thankful and so very proud” for the “compassion and empathy” shown.
More than 2,000 paediatricians have also signed a letter to the prime minister backing Rashford’s campaign. They’ve said they’re shocked by the government’s “refusal” to extend free school meals. The open letter from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health says:
Childhood hunger is an issue that should transcend politics.
Labour has warned that it’ll bring the issue back before parliament if ministers don’t change course in time for Christmas. Opposition leader Keir Starmer tweeted:
Labour will force another vote on free school meals if the Government does not change course before the Christmas break.
It's not too late to do the right thing.
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) October 25, 2020
But Labour has only been pushing for children to get extended free meals for this academic year, whereas Rashford has called for a permanent fix.
Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield compared the idea of debating such an issue to something from the pages of the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. She told Sophy Ridge on Sunday:
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.
Some Tory MPs have been accused of controversial comments on the subject. One sparked anger after appearing to suggest local businesses giving away free food should not seek further government support. While another appeared to agree with a comment suggesting some meal vouchers went direct to “a crack den and a brothel”.
Both Selaine Saxby and Ben Bradley insisted their comments had been taken out of context.
Rashford has urged people to “rise above” disappointment. He described abuse of MPs and their families as “unacceptable” and “unnecessary” and called for “collaboration” and “togetherness”. He also called for a continued focus on helping children. A number of councils, including Conservative-run bodies, have announced stop-gap measures to cover the October half-term break which begins on Monday 26 October.
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