Pressure mounts on No 10 to extend free school meals holiday scheme

Heather Stewart
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Nick Sinclair/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Nick Sinclair/Alamy

Pressure is mounting on Downing Street to support families entitled to free school meals throughout the holidays in England, with Labour writing to every backbench Conservative MP to press home the issue.

The England and Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford is also campaigning for the government to tackle food poverty among children, including by extending the free school meals scheme through the half-term and Christmas holidays. A petition he launched has been signed by more than 290,000 people.

Several Conservative backbenchers, including the chair of the education select committee, Robert Halfon, have supported calls for vouchers to be provided at half-term.

When schools were closed during the spring lockdown, families were issued with vouchers. This continued through the summer break with a “Covid food fund” after a successful campaign by Rashford and a U-turn by the government. However, a repeat of the support has been ruled out for half-term next week.

In a letter to each Tory MP, the shadow children and early years minister, Tulip Siddiq, set out the number of children on free school meals in their constituency.

She said: “Families across the country are worrying about how to make ends meet but the prime minister is ruling out giving over a million children food support over the holidays. Every Conservative MP now has an opportunity to make it clear that they will support the families in their constituency who are worrying about how they will put food on the table in the weeks ahead.”

Labour has promised to use an opposition day debate in the Commons on Wednesday to call a vote on the issue if ministers have not changed their minds.

Such a vote would not change government policy in itself but would force Tory MPs to make a choice about whether they will go through the voting lobbies to support ministers in refusing to extend the scheme.

Halfon said he did not back every aspect of Rashford’s campaign, which also includes significantly widening the scope of free school meals, but the MP for Harlow added that he would like to see ministers come up with a coherent plan for eliminating child hunger.

“What the government should have done is say: ‘We’ll sit down with you and we’ll set up a long-term plan to deal with child food poverty,’” he said, suggesting part of it could be an expansion of breakfast clubs and holiday camps, which provide meals alongside other beneficial activities. He said food vouchers for the poorest households should continue “while we’re in the middle of a pandemic and 32% of families have seen a drop in their income”.

That statistic is from a survey carried out for the Food Foundation thinktank, which also suggested that a further 900,000 children had been registered for free school meals since the pandemic hit.

Downing Street has continued to resist any repeat of the food vouchers scheme that ran through the summer. Boris Johnson’s spokesman on Monday reiterated the prime minister’s view that the extra help for poorer pupils was not now needed.

“We are making sure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected, and we have put in place a strong package of support to ensure children and their families don’t go hungry during this pandemic,” the spokesman said.

“We are in a different position now, with schools back open to all, and the vast majority of pupils back in school. Free school meals have only ever been intended to support eligible pupils attending school during termtime. We think that it’s important these arrangements return.”

Education unions have joined the calls to end holiday hunger. Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools are working incredibly hard to help children catch up with lost learning amid the ongoing disruption caused by rising Covid infection rates, and the pupils who need the greatest degree of support are often those from disadvantaged backgrounds. To then have a situation where they are potentially going hungry through holiday periods is very obviously detrimental to both their welfare and educational progress.”