Labour has revealed that the amount of money the government “wasted” on a single contract for “useless” personal protective equipment could have paid almost entirely for extending free school meals.
The new analysis highlights that the £157m needed for extending the meals across school holidays is only slightly more than the £150m spent earlier this year on a private contract for masks that could not be used.
Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds has criticised the government decision to lose money on one but refuse to fund the other and accused her counterpart Rishi Sunak of getting “his priorities wrong”.
Commenting on the new analysis and the need to extend the free school meals programme, Dodds said: “The Chancellor didn’t bat an eyelid when millions of pounds of public money were wasted on PPE that couldn’t be used.
“Yet when it comes to keeping kids fed this Christmas, he has nothing to offer but humbug. This Chancellor has got his priorities wrong. He won’t budge on a circuit breaker that could save lives and livelihoods.
“He’s waited to the last possible minute to deliver additional economic support for areas under local restrictions. Now he’s letting kids go hungry at Christmas. He’s not helping out – he’s standing in the way.”
Conservative MPs rejected proposals from the Labour Party to extend free school meals in a Commons vote last week, with some Tory parliamentarians suggesting the £157m scheme was too expensive.
A similar figure was lost by the government after it signed a contract with private equity company Ayanda Capital earlier this year, which included almost £150m on face masks that did not meet requirements for use by frontline health workers.
The 50 million face masks produced by the firm were made with ear loops instead of head loops. This made the masks less safe for their wearers as they become far harder to securely fix onto the face.
Shadow cabinet member Rosena Allin-Khan confirmed on Sunday that the Labour Party would be seeking a second Commons vote on the extension to free school meals before the Christmas parliamentary recess.
“The Labour Party are not going to give up on our young people, on the children who are going to bed hungry,” she told Sophy Ridge on Sunday. “We certainly will be pushing for a vote before Christmas.”
Various Tory MPs have faced criticism for their reasons for voting against the proposal, including Ben Bradley who is appeared to link free school meal vouchers with giving money to “crack dens” and “brothels”.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner called on Bradley to apologise, saying: “Notwithstanding the fact that the vouchers in summer could only be used to purchase food, this stigmatisation of working class families is disgraceful and disgusting.”
Labour has been critical of the government’s private procurement process during the pandemic, which has not followed normal procedures, and has said it unfairly benefits companies connected to Conservative donors.
In one example, the government awarded contracts worth £81.8m to produce PPE to a company co-owned by former chair of the President’s Club David Meller, who has donated tens of thousands of pounds to the Tories in the last decade.