Govt has ‘misunderstood the national mood’ on free school meals, senior Conservative admits

Published: 25 October 2020

Parliament voted against extending the scheme, which provides free meals for around 1.3 million children in England.

Post Desk : A senior Tory has said the party has to “admit we’ve misunderstood the mood of the country” over the extension of free school meals – adding that the government will probably have to “think again” after voting against the move.

Sir Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative chairman of the Liaison Committee, made the remarks as pressure builds on Boris Johnson to perform a U-turn on the issue.

Sir Bernard told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “We have to admit we’ve misunderstood the mood of the country here… the public want to see the government taking a national lead on this, and I think the government will probably have to think again on that.”

He added: “I think when you’ve got the chairman of the Education Select Committee not supporting the government on this, and he’s a Conservative, I think the government has to listen to the Conservative Party.”

Sir Bernard was absent from the vote on free school meals but said he would have supported the government’s position.

However, he added if there was another vote he would “wait to see what the government says and how they respond to the situation”.

The Labour Party has threatened to bring the issue back to the House of Commons if Mr Johnson does not relent.

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner, told Sophy Ridge on Sunday that she thinks the government should extend the free school meals scheme.

She added: “I’ve been horrified by the debate, really disappointed about the debate over recent days.

“We’re a wealthy country, it’s 2020, and to have a debate to make sure hungry and vulnerable children should have enough to eat, is strikingly similar to what we would expect to see in chapters of Oliver Twist.”
In relation to the possibility of the government performing a U-turn on the issue, Ms Longfield added: “I want this government to move from something that is a possibility and a discussion to something which is real.”

It comes as more than 2,000 paediatricians have signed a letter telling the prime minister that childhood hunger should “transcend politics”.

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, defended the government’s position on Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

He said: “Our policy on this is the right position because we are looking to deal with child poverty at the core.”

Mr Lewis also said £63m was in place for local authorities to support people who are struggling.

Members of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said: “Few would disagree that one of our most basic human responsibilities is to ensure children have enough to eat.

“We call on the UK government to match the pledges of the Welsh and Scottish governments and the Northern Ireland Executive, to continue to provide children from low-income backgrounds with free meals over the coming weeks and to then extend this at least until the Easter school holiday, as they have done in Wales and Scotland.”

The organisation also praised Marcus Rashford, 22, for his “powerful” work on the issue.

The Manchester United footballer, who was given free school meals when he was a child, has been campaigning on behalf of the 1.3 million children who are eligible for the scheme.

His petition, which calls for various measures to end child food poverty, is closing in on 800,000 signatures.

In June, Rashford forced a government U-turn, which resulted in the meals being extended to cover the summer holidays.

But a motion calling for a further extension was rejected by Tory MPs last Wednesday.
Councils from both sides of the political spectrum joined businesses such as cafes and restaurants, many of them struggling financially due to the pandemic, in stepping up with offers of free meals for children in need.

They were encouraged by Rashford, who posted their efforts on his social media accounts.

Labour has said it will force another vote in the Commons if the government does not change its policy before the Christmas recess and extend free school meals during the school holidays until Easter 2021.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green called on Mr Johnson to meet Rashford’s taskforce “as a matter of urgency” – and even some of Mr Johnson’s Conservative colleagues have said he should reconsider his stance.

Robert Halfon said meeting Rashford was a “no brainer” and Tobias Ellwood said extending the meals over the holidays was a “simple and practical vehicle” to support families, adding that the government should “revisit” the issue.

Regarding the community effort to help feed vulnerable children, a Number 10 spokesman said: “I believe the PM said during PMQs that free school meals will continue during term time and that he wants to continue to support families throughout the crisis so they have cash available to feed kids if they need to.”

Also, Sky’s chief political correspondent Jon Craig revealed on Saturday that Rashford had written a “personal” letter to the prime minister at the start of September – but the footballer did not receive a response.