'Do the right thing'

Pressure from footballer Marcus Rashford forces gov’t U-turn on free school meals

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This afternoon after this story was first published, the government has U-turned on its decision to stop free school meals over the summer after footballer Marcus Rashford and others piled on the pressure.

A Downing Street spokesperson said that all children currently in receipt of free school meals will continue to have access over the summer.

The spokesperson went on to announce a new £120m ‘Covid summer food fund’, which comes just hours before an Opposition Day debate where the Labour party aimed to force the government’s hand on the issue amid a potential Tory rebellion.

You can read more in our story below:

In a clarion call led by renowned footballer Marcus Rashford, the government has faced mounting pressure to extend free school meals throughout the summer.

Rashford wrote a heartfelt open letter to MPs on Monday (June 15) which has since gone viral. In the letter, Rashford recounted how his family struggled to put food on the table despite his mum working full-time. If it were not for free school meals, Rashford said, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

“This is not about politics; this is about humanity,” he wrote. “Looking at ourselves in the mirror and feeling like we did everything we could to protect those who can’t, for whatever reason or circumstance, protect themselves. Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?”

The government has so far refused to provide free school meal vouchers as it did over the holidays in April and May, on the grounds that it has given £63m to local councils in England to support vulnerable families.

But critics have warned that £63m is nowhere near enough to cover the hundreds of thousands of children who depend on free school meals, especially at a time of skyrocketing unemployment. The £63m fund would need to be divided by the more than 300 councils in England, which totals only £183,000 extra per council. Providing free school meal vouchers over the Easter and May mid-term holidays cost £129m.

What’s more, critics have highlighted the fact that devolved governments in Wales and Scotland have agreed to continue to fund free school meals throughout the summer – which will create a postcode lottery, condemning children in England and Northern Ireland to hunger.

There is growing disquiet even among Tory ranks over the government’s refusal to budge on free school meals. Tory MP Robert Halfon, who chairs the Commons education committee, was especially forthright in his criticism of the government on the issue.

He told BBC Breakfast this morning (June 16) that the £63m funding will be difficult to administer to ensure hungry children are fed.

 “The problem with these kinds of programmes is its very bureaucratic,” he said. “People have to apply to the council, whereas the free school meal programme is very simple, families understand it and it goes to those who need it most.”

Halfon called Rashford one of his heroes and said he supports his campaign to extend free school meal vouchers throughout the summer.

“Families face not just health worries, but enormous financial anxiety and enormous stress,” he said, adding,“It would be the right thing to do – it’s simple, everyone understands it.”

Rashford continued to pile on the pressure this morning (June 16) on the government to make a U-turn on free school meals in a series of tweets.

He tweeted, “when you head to the fridge to grab the milk, stop and recognise that parents of at least 200,000 children across the country this morning are waking up to empty shelving.”

He also wrote, “When you wake up this morning and run your shower, take a second to think about parents who have had their water turned off during lockdown.”

Tory MP and work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey responded noting that “water cannot be disconnected though” to which she faced a barrage of criticism.

Unite assistant general secretary Tony Burke called her tweet “crass”, adding “This is the nasty party”.

Rashford’s call for the government to reverse its decision comes hours ahead of an Opposition Day debate on the issue on Tuesday afternoon (June 16).

Labour MPs have called for the government to continue directly funding free school meal over the summer holidays – but a significant number of Tory MPs will have to agree to vote against the government. It is understood that public pressure could force the government to U-turn on the issue anyway.

Food insecurity could double

Brian Green, Unite Community Norfolk branch secretary, warned that if the government continues to withdraw support for the most vulnerable, the 5m people who are estimated to be living in food insecurity amid the lockdown would skyrocket.

“Food insecurity means people are regularly skipping meals,” he told UniteLIVE. “Not only has unemployment soared but food prices have increased significantly so struggling families are being doubly hit. Without school meal vouchers and other forms of support, the 5m figure estimated by the Food Foundation could easily double.”

Brian and his Unite Community branch have for the last three years run a holiday hunger project in Norwich where they provide hundreds of packed lunches for children and families in need during the school holidays with support from other local organisations like the Phoenix Community Centre. All children accompanied by parents have been welcomed, no questions asked.

While demand for the Unite Community lunches has always been significant, the Easter holidays in April saw a massive queue of families with children coming to collect the lunches as well as weekend hampers of food and other essential items the project now provides.

Brian’s branch is now gearing up for the summer holidays and says that if free school meal vouchers aren’t extended, demand for the Unite Community lunches will inevitably surge.

“In the first half of our project over the Easter holidays, the voucher system was plagued by technical problems so families couldn’t access them. The queue was hundreds of yards long. Over the summer, we expect to be delivering more than 250 lunches each day – totaling more than 7,000 meals over the summer holidays alone. That’s more than we’ve given out the entire year.”

Brian called on the government to change course.

“I believe this government is cynically withdrawing support for the most vulnerable to get children back into school and to get parents to return to work,” he noted. “They are intent on re-opening the economy prematurely. If we want to ensure we get through this pandemic the government must extend emergency support until the pandemic is totally over.”

Prime minister ‘must intervene now’

Unite national officer for local government Jim Kennedy welcomed Marcus Rashford’s push to force the government to U-turn on free school meals, and said Unite would continue piling on the pressure too.

“Marcus Rashford is doing an incredible job in exposing how out of touch this government is but it shouldn’t have to be left to this young man to shame the government into doing the right thing,” he said.

“The public will be watching on in horror as government ministers defend the policy of denying support to hungry children over the summer school holidays.

“Holiday hunger is already at scandalous levels in this country; the coronavirus crisis will make this even worse as unemployment rises and even more families struggle.

“It is simply not good enough for the government to pass this responsibility down to already hard-pressed local authorities,” Kennedy added.

“The £63 million that the government says it has provided local authorities will not go very far when divided across the 343 competing bodies.

“The prime minister should intervene now.  The vulnerable children in Scotland and Wales will be fed this summer.  Do the right thing for England’s children, now.”

By Hajera Blagg

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