Free school meals row: Marcus Rashford contradicts Matt Hancock's claims about talks with Boris Johnson

Sophia Sleigh, JOE MURPHY, NIcholas Cecil, Luke O'Reilly
·6-min read
PA
PA

Boris Johnson’s PR disaster over free school meals got worse today when Health Secretary Matt Hancock was publicly contradicted by campaigning footballer Marcus Rashford.

Mr Hancock, who was attempting to soothe the row during a round of morning interviews, claimed on TV that the Prime Minister and the Manchester United striker had been discussing the problem.

“There has been communication between the two,” the minister told BBC Breakfast.

But. within minutes. Rashford tweeted: “Hmm, unless he’s referring to the call we had following the U-turn in June?...” The Prime Minister’s office confirmed that the pair last talked “in the summer when they spoke on the phone”.

The incident dismayed senior Conservative MPs who warned the Prime Minister that he is losing the battle for hearts and minds at a time Labour leader Keir Starmer is preparing to force another Commons vote on the issue.

In a significant development, Tory “big beasts” including former Cabinet ministers David Davis and Andrew Mitchell said the Government had failed to get across its case that it had already given adequate grants to local councils to ensure hungry children are properly fed over half term and other holidays.

Mr Rashford has been battling against child hunger in Britain (PA)
Mr Rashford has been battling against child hunger in Britain (PA)

Mr Davis asked “why on earth” the existence of a £63 million grant not been publicised properly, while Mr Mitchell said ministers had “not effectively described” their policy.

In key developments in the school meals fiasco and the battle against Covid-19:

  • Thousands of free meals were provided to children by cafes, councils and community groups this lunchtime, the first day of half term for millions. Rashford’s petition calling for more help outside term time passed 800,000 signatures, piling further pressure on the Government to do a U-turn.

  • Tory MPs expressed fury in private about the Government’s inept handling of the issue. One said the Treasury appeared “like a car with a stuck brake pedal” because it opposed “loose change” being spent on an issue that resonated with voters, while hurling billions at the pandemic. Another accused No10 of being run by “campaigners” who did not understand that a Government was “held to account by the public".

  • Hospitalisations in London passed the 100-a-day milestone, indicating that the surge in cases among young people is now having a real impact on the health of older Londoners.

  • European governments tightened Covid-19 restrictions in response to second waves. Italy will close restaurants each day from 6pm, while cinemas and theatres, gyms, swimming pools and ski resorts will shut until November 24; Spain began a six-month state of emergency and 11pm to 6am curfew; Belgium starts a 10pm to 6am curfew tonight.

  • Barry McCormick, former chief economist at the Department of Health, argued that a circuit breaker was not worth the hit to the economy, warning: “We are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater if people can’t keep their livelihoods.”

Former Brexit Secretary Mr Davis told the Standard: “I do not understand why the Government did not make plain to the public that it has given £60 million to local authorities specifically for the purpose of helping the poorest, and particularly children.

“It is not turning its back on hungry children. It has just chosen a different way of helping them. But why on earth did they not say all that?”

Mr Mitchell, the former International Development Secretary, said: “We need to get across to the public that this is not about money but about the structure for ensuring children are properly fed. We have not effectively described the way we are trying to do this.”

Former Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes told the BBC the Government needed to rethink its policy. Asked if ministers should take another look, she said: “Absolutely. I don’t think there’s any doubt about them having to take another look at it. I would argue that they need to find a better mechanism than vouchers.”

More Tories also came out over the weekend including former Children’s Minister Tim Loughton who said “politically it was a mistake” and ex-minister Tobias Ellwood said “we’re losing the national resolve”. Sir Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration select committee said: “We have to admit that we have misunderstood the mood of the country here.”

In private, senior Tory MPs predicted that there will be a bigger rebellion if Sir Keir pushes a vote before Christmas, including “many more abstentions”.

Conservative-run Kensington and Chelsea council announced almost 3,300 youngsters would receive £15 vouchers from their schools to cover the cost of meals during the holiday, saying: “No kid should go hungry.”

Other Tory-controlled councils getting on board include Hillingdon, which is in Mr Johnson’s constituency, and Wandsworth, with the latter approving a £10,000 food voucher scheme.

And Conservative leader of Warwickshire County Council Izzi Seccombe said the Government’s funding from June had already been spent.

She told BBC’s Radio 4 Today Programme: “Yes we’ve spent that money, as I say over half-a-million pounds has been spent already.”

Labour gas called on the Prime Minister to back Rashford's free school meals campaign (PA)
Labour gas called on the Prime Minister to back Rashford's free school meals campaign (PA)

Asked if local government would be able to further fund free school meals, she added: “It’s tight. We are going to be funding it ourselves now because there isn’t money in there to support it, so we will be trying to find it from other sources.”

Mr Hancock’s morning media round was dominated by questions about the Rashford campaign.

He told Today: “We have put that £63 million into councils ... There’s constantly work ongoing with councils, especially given that their finances have been hard hit by the pandemic, to ensure that they can provide the services that they need to.”

Boris Johnson is struggling to contain a growing Tory backbench rebellion (AP)
Boris Johnson is struggling to contain a growing Tory backbench rebellion (AP)

He added: “The extra money that has gone into councils, as I say, is for this - including for this purpose …. to support the goal that we all share, which is that no child should go hungry.”

Questioned about reports that the Government is heading for either a U-turn or to unveil a new way of delivering free meals to children, he said: “Obviously, it’s not my area of policy to speak about ... what I’m saying is that our attitude and our purpose it to ensure that everybody gets the support they need and no child, of course, no child should go hungry, nobody could possibly want that. The question is how best to do it.”

Asked if the £20-a-week Universal Credit increase would be kept, he said: “Well, that’s a question for the future and for the Spending Review.”

Meanwhile, people power stepped in as half term began in most state schools in England. Businesses that pledged to help with meals for local children included Boki Coffee in Wembley, Barry’s Tearoom in Cumbria, Greenfields Farm in Telford, The Watering Can in Liverpool, Jordan’s Cafe in Worthing and Count House Cafe in Cornwall.

Shadow schools minister Wes Streeting claimed last week’s vote by Conservative MPs was “morally bankrupt”. He told Times Radio: “I don’t think that feeding hungry children is a difficult choice - it would strike me to be a blindingly obvious choice.”

He added: “I hope that they will U-turn before we even need to bring another vote because what they’ve done this week is just morally bankrupt. It has left children at risk this half-term.”

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