Matt Hancock tells LBC it's 'right' the public stepped in to help over school meals

26 October 2020, 08:35 | Updated: 26 October 2020, 12:22

By Megan White

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said people coming together to help feed schoolchildren is "the right thing to do" amid the ongoing free school meals row.

There have been demands for free meals to be extended during school holidays in England, with many families struggling amid the coronavirus crisis.

The Labour Party tabled a motion calling for the extension of free meals until Easter 2021 last week, but it was defeated with a Commons majority of more than 60, with just five Tory MPs breaking ranks to vote with the opposition.

Read more: PM 'to increase funds for poorest families' amid free school meals row

In comparison, the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments are currently providing free school meals until Easter.

With local councils and businesses continuing to pledge free food for children in need during this week's half term break, support for a petition extending free meals has passed 800,000 signatures.

Speaking to LBC's Nick Ferrari, the Health Secretary defended voting against the motion, and said there had been "enormous amounts" of funding already invested to "support people in these difficult times."

Mr Hancock also said he "absolutely agreed" that no child should go hungry and said there had been a "combination" of funding to help that goal.

Asked whether he was still in favour of voting against the motion, Mr Hancock told LBC: "Of course I am supportive of the vote that I cast, because it's based on the enormous amounts of funding that we've put in to support people in these difficult times.

"I think people coming together and working together to solve this problem is the right thing to do.

Read more: 'Children will be hungry': Minister confronted on rejection of free school meals

"Just as I care about hospital food, I absolutely agree with Marcus Rashford that no child should go hungry, and the way that we're doing this is we put extra money into those who receive Universal Credit."

He added: "The other thing we are doing is putting extra money to councils, who then are far better placed often than central government, to know who are the people who need extra support and get that extra money to them - we've put in £63 million to support councils."

But asked about restaurants stepping in to feed children and the timing of the policy amid the Covid crisis, Mr Hancock said: "I think it's brilliant that so many restaurants and companies have come forward and are supporting this agenda.

"You said it's not getting through - that's just wrong.

"Restaurants are giving free meals because they are good-hearted and positive parts of our community."

The Health Secretary continued: "Charity and philanthropic support alongside Government support I think is the way forward."

Asked directly about Rashford's campaign, Mr Hancock said: "Marcus Rashford himself has called for collaboration, and I totally agree, and I agree with his goal that no child should go hungry.

"So there's a combination of money put in by central government, councils working together and coming forward.

"We've been hearing of councils stepping forward over the last few days - excellent, it's exactly what we've put the money in to councils to do - and philanthropists coming forward.

"This argument that just because people are engaging in charitable work, that's somehow wrong, I think that's completely wrongheaded.

"And instead, what we should do is all work together to make sure everybody gets the support they need in this area and that's the approach we've been taking."

Speaking during a visit to a hospital in Reading, the Prime Minister said councils had been given extra cash and Universal Credit had increased.

He said: "We don't want to see children going hungry this winter, this Christmas, certainly not as a result of any inattention by this Government - and you are not going to see that.

"We will do everything in our power to make sure that no kid, no child goes hungry this winter during the holidays, that's obviously something we care about very much."

Mr Johnson added: "We support the local councils - indeed we fund the local councils and many of the organisations that are helping in this period - but we are also uplifting Universal Credit by £1,000 and we think that is one of the best ways you can help families in this tough time.

"I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger, it is there, we have to deal with it.

"The debate is how do you deal with it. We are very proud of the support we have given, I have said repeatedly throughout this crisis that the government will support families and businesses, jobs and livelihoods, across the country.

"We're going to continue to do that."

England footballer Marcus Rashford has been spearheading the campaign, and over the weekend publicised a string of councils and businesses which are stepping in to provide free food to those in need during the pandemic.

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