Defy Johnson over free school meals, Labour urges Tory backbenchers

Elliot Chappell

Labour has called on backbench Tory MPs to defy Boris Johnson’s government and vote with Labour to support the extension of free school meals over the holidays including the October half-term break just days away.

The opposition party has tabled a motion on this issue and it has now been confirmed that on Wednesday there will be a vote in the House of Commons, with Angela Rayner leading the debate for Labour.

In a letter sent to Tory MPs ahead of the vote, shadow minister Tulip Siddiq has called for their support on a proposal that would provide meals to over 1.4 million children in every school holiday until Easter 2021.

The shadow minister for children and early years described the measure as an “important means of support for families across your constituency” and warned that in a vote “you and your colleagues will have to take a clear stance on this issue”.

Commenting today, Siddiq 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.”

The call from the shadow minister comes after the Welsh Labour government announced that it would spend £11m to make sure free school meals are provided during every school holidays up to and including the Easter break in 2021.

The UK government is under pressure to extend the same support to children in England, but the spokesperson for the Prime Minister has rejected the idea and said it is not the role of schools to provide food to children outside of term.

Footballer Marcus Rashford, whose campaign forced Johnson into a U-turn on school meals over the summer, has welcomed the announcement by the Welsh government to protect “the most vulnerable children across the country”.

More than 200,000 children in England had to skip meals because their family could not access sufficient food during the coronavirus lockdown, and 2.4 million children are living in food insecure households.

The Trussell Trust has forecast that there will be a 61% increase in food parcels needed between October and December, and warned that extreme poverty England could double by Christmas.

Below is the full text of the letter sent by Siddiq.

Children across your constituency are eligible for free school meals, and this number will increase as unemployment rises. Many of these children are growing up in very difficult circumstances – in families with low incomes at a time when jobs across the country are at risk.

Parents were more likely than other working people to be furloughed, and as the Job Retention Scheme ends this month ahead and is replaced by the inadequate job support scheme, many more families could see their incomes fall sharply. I am sure you would agree that we must do everything we can to support children growing with these unprecedented challenges.

That is why Labour have called for all children who are eligible for free school meals to receive them in every school holiday until next Easter, starting with the October half term, which is now just days away. This would provide additional support to families on low incomes and help to ensure that all parents can put food on the table for their children, whatever their circumstances. This policy would support the many families in your constituency who are struggling to make ends meet.

I was deeply disappointed that the Prime Minister’s spokesperson rejected this proposal out of hand last week, saying that it is not the role of schools to provide food in the holidays. This shows a shocking ignorance about the role schools have always played in supporting pupils and their families, and it is not a good excuse for failing to provide any free school meals support over the holidays. It is absurd for a government that rightly extended free school meals over the summer to argue that schools should not be supported to do this just because the Prime Minister and Chancellor no longer want to foot the bill.

I believe that it is essential that the government changes course as a matter of urgency so that children do not have to go without food over the holidays. I am sure you recognise that free school meals are an important means of support for families across your constituency, many of whom will be worrying about how they put food on the table over the half-term and Christmas 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 – this will mean that you and your colleagues will have to take a clear stance on this issue. I hope that you will join me in calling for the extension of free school meals during the holidays, and that you will vote for it this week if that proves to be necessary.

I look forward to your urgent reply, which I’m sure will be of interest to your constituents.

Best wishes,

Tulip Siddiq MP
Shadow minister for children and early years

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