'This is not going away anytime soon'

Footballer Marcus Rashford and Labour party in latest fight for gov’t U-turn on free school meals

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The government faces mounting pressure from professional footballer Marcus Rashford, now with the backing of the Labour party, to extend free school meals into the Christmas holidays and beyond.

Amid the worst economic crisis in generations, Rashford and the Labour party are calling for the government to extend free school meals starting from the October half-term holidays until at least the Easter holidays next year.

The Labour party said if the government fails to U-turn on free school meals, it will force a vote on the issue on Wednesday (October 21).

Rashford, who was recently awarded an MBE for his work in the fight against child poverty, almost single-handedly forced the government to U-turn on free school meals over the summer.

The government had initially granted eligible families free school meal vouchers over the Easter holidays at the height of the pandemic but then refused to extend support into the summer months. But after Rashford wrote a heartfelt open letter to MPs and continued to press the government on social media, the government soon caved in and announced a £120m Covid Summer Food Fund to cover the cost of free school meals over the summer holidays.

Labour to force vote

Last week, the Manchester United forward launched a petition calling on the government to extend free school meals throughout every school holiday and to expand eligibility so that all children in families who receive Universal Credit are eligible. In a matter of days, the petition has already received nearly 300,000 signatures. Since it has exceeded the 100,000 signature threshold, the government must consider the issue for a debate in Parliament.

Despite the widespread support for extending free school meals into the holidays, the government’s callousness knows no bounds. Shortly after Rashford launched the petition, a no. 10 spokesperson responded, noting in a statement that it was ‘not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays’.

Rashford immediately responded on Twitter, saying “Merry Christmas kids…It’s also not for food banks to feed millions of British children but here we are. 250% increase in food poverty and rising…This is not going away anytime soon and neither am I.”

The Labour party has further ramped up the pressure, after shadow children’s minister Tulip Siddiq wrote to every single Tory MP on Monday (October 19) night, calling on them to defy the government and support the 1.4m children eligible for free school meals who face hunger over the school holidays.

“Labour have said that if the Government does not urgently U-turn, we will force a vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday,” Siddiq wrote in her letter. “This will mean that you and your colleagues will have to take a clear stance on this issue.”

It is understood that Rashford has received indications of support from a growing number of cross-party MPs if the issue is put to a vote, meaning the government may be cornered into a U-turn if it wants to head off a Tory rebellion.

The call for free school meals to be extended over all school holidays comes amid skyrocketing unemployment levels. Next week, the government’s furlough scheme will end, and is set to be replaced by a different, much less generous scheme which many, including Unite, have said will precipitate an even bigger wave of job losses.

Universal Credit claims have likewise soared in recent months – in September a total of 2.7m were on Universal Credit, up from 1.5m at the start of the pandemic.

‘Catalyst for long-lasting change’

Unite has long said that Universal Credit must be reformed – by ending the five-week wait period for the first payment, scrapping punitive sanctions, and increasing overall entitlements so that families don’t fall through the cracks.

Now, the cross-party work and pensions select committee has agreed in a new report out this week about ending the five-week wait period for the first payment and making Universal Credit more generous.    

Commenting on the latest fight to extend free school meals over the holidays, Unite Community national co-ordinator Liane Groves said, “We very much welcome Marcus Rashford’s inspiring campaigning on this vital issue and we hope that the government is yet again shamed into doing the right thing. 

“It is beyond the pale that this government on the one hand will – as cabinet minister Michael Gove did this very week – defend paying £7,000 a day to private track and trace consultants, but on the other hand refuses to stump up relatively modest sums to feed children who face hunger through no fault of their own. 

“But as Marcus himself has said, extending free school meals over the holidays is by itself mere ‘sticking plaster’ and while it is a vital intervention, this policy decision alone will not solve the evil of child poverty,” Groves added.

“Let’s be clear – child hunger was a major problem before the pandemic and will continue long after the pandemic subsides unless we make major structural reforms. In recent years there’s been a massive resurgence in Victorian-era diseases related to poverty and hunger such as rickets. There have been reports of children from working-class areas finding it hard to compete in sporting events with children from wealthier backgrounds because they are physically smaller and weaker. 

“A survey of teachers – conducted in 2018, a year before Covid-19 even came into existence – found that one in 10 school staff regularly brought in food from their own homes to feed malnourished children,” she continued. “If children are hungry they cannot concentrate – in this sense child poverty also robs its victims of the hope of a decent future. 

“To end child poverty we need to increase child benefit and abolish the indefensible two-child cap. We also need the complete reform of Universal Credit – with an end to the five-week wait period and a significant increase in entitlements – and a much higher minimum wage tied to the cost of living, alongside other measures to ensure decently paid work is the norm. 

“Let’s not allow the pandemic to be a time of temporary emergency measures – let’s ensure it is the catalyst for long-lasting change.”

By Hajera Blagg

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