Tory civil war: MPs revolt against Boris over free school meals crisis

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The party split emerged as a petition started by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford gained nearly 800,000 backers. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer promised yesterday to trigger another Commons vote to continue giving entitled children free meals during school holidays. He said: “Labour will force another vote on free school meals if the Government does not change course before the Christmas break. It’s not too late to do the right thing.”

Tim Loughton, a former minister for children and families, below, who abstained in last week’s Labour motion vote, told Radio 4: “If we have another vote I will vote to extend school meals during the Christmas holidays and until the pandemic is over.

“It is not a question of voting with Labour. It is actually voting for what is right and I think it is right to carry on free school cover.

“Free school meals is just one of those totemic things, it is like the NHS, it can do no wrong. So for goodness sake, for all the hassle this has caused, taking away from the really good measures the Government has taken across the board, I just don’t think it was worth the argument.

“Not spending £20million on further the school meal cover over the coming half-term, I think, was just politically a mistake.”

Another senior Tory, Sir Bernard Jenkin, below, said: “I think we have to admit that we misunderstood the mood of the country here.

“Yes, we have given money to local government – my own Essex County Council has got a programme funded by central Government that’s going to be supporting free school meals across the country – but I think the public want to see the Government taking a national lead on this.”

Urging ministers to listen to opinion within the party, he said: “It’s understandable that the Government wants to get back the idea that there isn’t a bottomless pit of money and there has got to be some financial discipline. But I think again they’ve got to manage the situation and bow to the pressures and the urgency that people feel on this.”

Tory MP Jake Berry said: “To take either one of those points of view does not mean you want children to go hungry. That is a lie that is being put out there by opponents of the Government’s position.

“It actually means there’s a differential approach and ultimately where we end up later this year, just before the Christmas holidays, will be a mixture of the two.

“No one wants to see any child go hungry in this country and that is what I think all parties are trying to achieve.”

Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield said she was “horrified and really disappointed” by the debates over the extension of free school meal vouchers.

She said yesterday: “We’re a wealthy country, it’s 2020.

“To have a debate about whether we should make sure that hungry and vulnerable children have enough to eat is something that is strikingly similar to something we’d expect to see in chapters of Oliver Twist.”

Mrs Longfield said the welfare system “needs to work better” and levels of child poverty were increasing as the coronavirus crisis continued.

She added: “This isn’t going to go away. I’m told the PM understands this, I’m told there are people around him having positive discussions about this.

“I want this to move from something that is a possibility and a discussion to something that is real and the clock is ticking.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, below, defended the decision not to extend free school meals in England into the holidays during the COVID pandemic.

He said: “I know this is a very emotive issue. It is a sensitive issue. It is something that affects families in my constituency as well as round the country. I think the position we have taken is the right position.

“What we are looking to do is ensure that we deal with child poverty at the core, putting the structure in place that means even in school holidays children can get access to the food that they need.”

A Downing Street source said: “Free school meals will continue in term time. Outside of term time we have a very strong package of welfare support measures in place.”

Supermarket chain Morrisons yesterday became the latest business to offer to donate half-term food to children normally entitled to free school meals.

The supermarket pledged to donate 75,000 lunchboxes with 30 boxes prepared in each of its 498 stores.

The lunchboxes – a sandwich, fruit and a snack – will be distributed daily to food banks and schools.

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