Free school meals: the Tory MPs defending refusal to support campaign

Simon Murphy Political correspondent
·3-min read
<span>Composite: UK Parliament</span>
Composite: UK Parliament

Following last week’s parliamentary vote against backing Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend free school meals (FSM) over the holidays to stop children going hungry, the government has faced heavy criticism for refusing to support the footballer’s proposal.

However, despite the growing backlash, some Conservatives have spoken in defence of ministers’ continuing refusal to perform a U-turn on the policy:

Ben Bradley

The Tory MP for Mansfield tweeted on Friday: “At one school in Mansfield 75% of kids have a social worker, 25% of parents are illiterate. Their estate is the centre of the area’s crime. One kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel. These are the kids that most need our help, extending FSM doesn’t reach these kids.”

Responding to a user who replied saying “£20 cash direct to a crack den and brothel really sounds like the way forward with this one”, Bradley tweeted: “That’s what FSM vouchers in the summer effectively did …”

Following heavy criticism, Bradley subsequently deleted the tweets, claiming they had been taken out of context.

Marcus Rashford of Manchester United
The campaign by Marcus Rashford of Manchester United has continued to gather pace. Photograph: Nigel French/PA

Mark Jenkinson

Defending his Conservative colleague after Bradley’s comments were seized on by Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, Workington MP Jenkinson tweeted on Friday: “I know in my constituency that, as tiny a minority as it might be, food parcels are sold or traded for drugs.”

He added: “And that’s parcels, not vouchers – which have greater monetary value. As I said, a relatively minuscule number – but we can’t pretend it doesn’t happen. Pretending, to score political points, helps no one.”

Paul Holmes

The Tory MP for Eastleigh, in Hampshire, posted a statement on his website on Saturday in which he argued it was unfair to paint Wednesday’s vote as a choice between “feeding hungry children and not feeding hungry children”. He argued that “no child should go hungry”, highlighting the £9bn invested in the welfare system, mainly via universal credit, as well as the £63m hardship fund for local councils.

But he also sought to point the finger at the opposition, adding: “The hardship that campaigners like Marcus Rashford experienced happened under a Labour government. Furthermore, the Labour party when in government in 2008 specifically rejected proposals to extend free school meals to children during holidays.

“This is not a comment on the rights or wrongs of that decision. I highlight it because surely the level of need during the financial crisis was comparable to this pandemic but I didn’t see the same levels of outrage or abuse then as I do today. This includes threats to female colleagues of mine.”

Danny Kruger

The Tory MP for Devizes, in Wiltshire, wrote in his local paper, the Gazette & Herald, on Sunday: “This is a really important and emotive topic and I understand why so many people are up in arms about it. Many families across the country are struggling to get by. Benefits provide hardly enough money to live on, and for some people they do not provide enough.

“The problem is that generous, unconditional, universal benefit entitlements trap people in dependency on the state and rightly enrage people who are working hard for themselves. That’s why I believe in a more flexible, community-led approach to welfare.”

Brandon Lewis

The Northern Ireland secretary defended the government’s position on Sunday, telling The Andrew Marr Show that the situation had changed since the summer. He said: “In the holidays, what we’ve put in place actually is not just the uplift in universal credit, because obviously the schools are closed, so it’s about making sure the welfare system can cover and support what people need. So we’ve put the uplift into universal credit, around just over £1,000 a year, but also very specifically we’ve put £63m into local authorities to support and help people in hardship … and a number of local authorities are using it to do exactly that.”