MPs vote against extending free school meals for children over school holidays

21 October 2020, 19:22 | Updated: 22 October 2020, 14:38

Iain Dale confronts Northern Ireland Secretary on school meals vote

By Kate Buck

MPs have voted against a Labour motion to give over 1 million children in England food vouchers over the school holidays.

The motion, which aimed to feed 1.4 million of the most disadvantaged children in the country, was defeated by 322 votes to 261 - a majority of 61.

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

In response to the news, England football star Marcus Rashford urged politicians to "unite" to protect the most vulnerable children and vowed to continue campaigning, writing on Twitter: "For as long as they don't have a voice, they will have mine."

The Manchester United player had previously forced the government into a u-turn over the provision of school meals over the summer holidays, and earned an MBE for his work in raising money for children who don't have enough food.

He said in a statement on Twitter: "Put aside all the noise, the digs, the party politics and let's focus on the reality.

"A significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today.

MPs have voted against the proposal which would feed hungry school children
MPs have voted against the proposal which would feed hungry school children. Picture: PA

"We must stop stigmatising, judging and pointing fingers. Our views are being clouded by political affiliation.

"This is not politics, this is humanity."

Rashford added that child food poverty "has the potential to become the greatest pandemic the country has ever faced".

"We must start working together and unite to protect our most vulnerable children. No more sticking plasters. Let's face this head on," he said.

He said the requirements of the Child Food Poverty Taskforce remain the same, adding: "Following private and public approaches, I once again invite Number 10 to sit around the table with the taskforce so that, together, we can collaborate on how best to combat child poverty in the UK."

Senior Conservative MP Robert Halfon was among those who earlier said he would support the vote - which would have continued to provide vouchers until Easter 2021.

He said: “Free school meals should be extended over the school holidays temporarily as long as the big effects of the pandemic continue to be felt.

“If we acknowledge that children risk going hungry in term time by providing them with free school meals, despite the provision of Universal Credit and the other things that have been mentioned by the Government, we know that they risk going hungry in the holidays too.”

Earlier this evening Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green called on Gavin Williamson to ensure that more than a million children do not go hungry this Christmas by extending free school meals.

She continued: "Now I recognise today's proposals are not a silver bullet and they will not end child poverty, they are a sticking plaster, but one that is badly and urgently needed.

"Needed by the 1.4 million children who could go hungry without them, by families worried about putting food on the table - so will the Secretary of State do what is right and take this first small step to ensure that over a million children do not go hungry this Christmas?"

Reacting to the vote, shadow education secretary Kate Green said: "Boris Johnson and the Conservatives have badly let down more than one million children and their families.

"No child should go hungry over the holidays, but the Government is blocking the action needed to prevent this.

"We pay tribute to Marcus Rashford and others for shining a spotlight on this incredibly important issue.

"This campaign is not over and the Government must reconsider."

Senior Conservative MP Robert Halfon voted for it
Senior Conservative MP Robert Halfon voted for it. Picture: PA

Downing Street ruled out performing a late U-turn ahead of the vote, with Boris Johnson also telling Prime Minister's Questions: "We support kids on low incomes in school and we will continue to do so.

"But the most important thing is to keep them in school and not tear off into another national lockdown taking them out of school.

"We will continue to use the benefits system and all the systems of income to support children throughout the holidays as well."

Conservative backbencher Brendan Clarke-Smith (Bassetlaw) argued against Labour's proposal by saying he did not believe in "nationalising children".

He told the Commons: "And we must focus on breaking the cycle where the first reaction is to look to the state.

"It is a vicious circle, and we need to support families with early intervention and help with things such as budgeting and employment.

"The welfare state is rightly there as a safety net, but it is not however a replacement.

"Where is the slick PR campaign encouraging absent parents to take some responsibility for their children?

"I do not believe in nationalising children.

"Instead, we need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility, and this means less celebrity virtue-signalling on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty."