No 10 under growing pressure to U-turn over free school meals

Published: 26 October 2020

Post Desk : Downing Street is under mounting pressure to perform a U-turn on providing free school meals over the holidays in England, with Conservative MPs growing angry at the damaging impact of the government’s refusal to back down in the face of the campaign led by the footballer Marcus Rashford.

The Guardian understands that discontent is brewing behind the scenes among Conservatives, as Labour attempted to seize the initiative on Sunday when its leader, Keir Starmer, pledged to force a fresh Commons vote on the issue before Christmas unless there was a rethink. The move came after his party’s motion to extend the policy until Easter 2021, in a bid to stop children going hungry during the coronavirus crisis, was defeated last week in parliament.

As dozens of councils, including some Tory-led, and businesses across the country have stepped in over recent days to offer to feed children during the October half-term, the sense of unease within Conservative circles is hardening.

One Tory MP told the Guardian the issue had been a “political handling disaster” and that they had “never known so many Conservative MPs and council leaders so angry”.

Separately, the senior Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin became the latest to break ranks to warn that the government had “misunderstood the mood of the country” on the issue and would have to rethink. The former children’s minister Tim Loughton also said it was a mistake by the government not to extend free school meals during the holidays. Loughton, who abstained in last week’s Commons vote, said he would vote to keep school meals during the Christmas holidays and until the pandemic is over in the event of a motion being put to MPs again.

It came as a government U-turn was predicted by Laura Sandys, a former Conservative MP and founder of the Food Foundation thinktank, which has backed calls by Rashford’s taskforce for the implementation of key recommendations from the national food strategy in a bid to end child food poverty.

On Sunday, the 22-year-old England and Manchester United forward continued to use his social media platform to highlight firms offering support, tweeting a map apparently showing dozens across England, adding: “Ever been more proud of being British?! And we’re still going, wow wow wow.”

Meanwhile, the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, intervened on Sunday to liken the debate over the issue to something out of the pages of Charles Dickens’ 19th-century novel Oliver Twist.

Downing Street has already been forced into a U-turn once on the issue, deciding to provide £15-a-week meal vouchers to eligible children over the summer after pressure from Rashford, but it has refused to do so for the holidays ahead. In an apparent softening of tone after a No 10 spokesman last week refused to praise councils and firms offering help, the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, said Rashford deserved “huge credit” for his work on the issue although he stood by Downing Street’s line.

Defending the government’s stance, Lewis told the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday that the country was in a different position compared with the summer, adding: “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.”

But one Conservative MP said – referring to the Ministry of Housing, Department for Work and Pensions and Department for Education – “It’s been a political handling disaster. No 10, MHCLG/DWP/DfE handling has been woeful. I’ve never known so many Conservative MPs and council leaders so angry.

“There was an argument to be had that FSM [free school meals] isn’t the best route to get support to vulnerable families and that targeted benefits via our £9bn UC [universal credit] top-up is a better route to help vulnerable families: not least because FSM excludes pre-school children. But this week’s handling means that moment has passed.”

The chair of the Commons education select committee, Robert Halfon, who penned a piece for the Spectator on Saturday setting out the Conservative case for extending free school meals and was among five Tory MPs who voted against the government last week, said: “No one has a benevolence or monopoly on compassion on this issue and the Labour party should stop pretending that it does and actually what we should do is come together and work out a proper solution, all parties, and it would be worth the government sitting down properly and genuinely with Marcus Rashford, Henry Dimbleby [co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain] and others to sort this out once and for all.”

“I very much hope they [the government] consider my recommendations,” said Dimbleby, whose report had concluded that without urgent state intervention the Covid-19 crisis would lead to a “sharp rise in food insecurity and outright hunger”.

The Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, who is defence select committee chair and voted with the government last week, is now calling on Downing Street to change course on the issue and extend free school meals in the holidays.

“The free school meals provision clearly is very simple, people are aware of it, it’s worked before, it makes sense then to employ it into the future,” he told the Guardian, adding: “This generation of children have had their lives impacted in a way we’ve not seen since the second world war, we must do everything we can do to provide support. If that means utilising a system which is well appreciated then our government should recognise that’s the direction of travel we should go.”

The founder of Food Foundation, Sandys, said: “Everybody needs to do the right thing, which is adopt the politics that have been put forward by the Rashford taskforce.

“Those people who are closest to this understand that, including those who represent wards with lower incomes. Many Conservative-run councils are understanding the real and deep need and I would expect that the government will come on board over the next couple of weeks. I am just disappointed that they have not done so in time for this mid-term break.”

The head of the Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest charity food bank network, Emma Revie, called on the government to offer struggling families more generous support.

Revie told the Guardian: “Marcus Rashford’s campaign has been incredible, shining a light on the unbelievable compassion and generosity in our communities. But it is not right that anyone is having to rely on charity to put food on the table for their family.

“I hope that we can channel some of that compassion into longer-term solutions that go beyond the school holidays.”

The Trussell Trust network operates more than 1,200 charity food bank outlets across the UK. Last month it warned that it was expecting a 61% increase in food bank referrals as furlough ends at the end of October and more families fall on hard times.

The pressure on the government came as Tory-controlled councils added their names to a growing list of local authorities around England announcing that they would provide food support at half term. They included Medway council – a unitary authority in one of the poorest parts of Kent – which went in the opposite direction to Conservative-controlled Kent county council by saying it would provide free school meals during half-term to 6,000 eligible children.

Amid the backlash over its position on free school meals, the government has announced that it is extending its lockdown policy of allowing families to access 30 hours of free childcare even if their income drops below the minimum income threshold.

The policy of allowing access to support from the 30 free hours and/or tax-free childcare had been introduced by the DfE for those who were previously eligible but whose income had temporarily dropped during the pandemic. Parents are returning to their formal childcare settings, according to the DfE, which said attendance for early years settings was now at 86% of pre-coronavirus daily levels.