The Children’s Commissioner for England has compared the government’s refusal to extend free school meals to disadvantaged pupils over the October half-term and Christmas breaks to a Charles Dickens novel.
Anne Longfield said she was "horrified" by the recent debate over the extension of food vouchers for vulnerable children.
“We're a wealthy country, it's 2020,” she said. "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.”
The children’s commissioner is responsible for promoting and protecting the rights of children in England. In June she was critical of the government’s coronavirus policy, saying children’s education was not being prioritised.
Speaking to Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme, she said: "Let's stop the divisive and distracting conversation, and let's start focusing."
Her intervention comes after the government comfortably defeated a Labour motion calling for the extension of free meals during the school holidays in England until Easter 2021 with a Commons majority of more than 60.
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."
She also said a tweet by Conservative MP Ben Bradley, which appeared to agree with a comment suggesting some meal vouchers went direct to "a crack den and a brothel", was "deeply disrespectful".
"We need to make sure that free school meals – it isn't a long-term solution – are available not only at Christmas but up until April," she said.
"(For Mr Bradley) to make that kind of comment is deeply disrespectful and if there are children living in dangerous situations in his constituency, he should be calling the local authority and social services to make sure those children get help rather than going onto Twitter to talk about it."
Ms Longfield said the comment was "another distraction" from the problem of child poverty and added that more support was needed for children's learning and mental health services.
"[Youth mental health] is getting worse because of the pandemic," she said.
"I want to see a really robust response from government in their spending review. I want to see a mental health councillor in every school.
"It should be part and parcel of life for kids so they can get the help when they need it."