Free School Meals: No U-Turn As Labour Threatens New Vote Amid Huge Backlash

Rachel Wearmouth
·Political correspondent, HuffPost UK
·4-min read
<strong>Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (left) and Prime Minister Boris Johnson leave 10 Downing Street</strong> (Photo: PA)
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (left) and Prime Minister Boris Johnson leave 10 Downing Street (Photo: PA)

Labour has threatened to force another Commons vote on free school meals for the poorest children as the government refuses to back down despite public outcry.

It comes as another senior Tory, Bernard Jenkin, warns the government they have “misunderstood the mood of the country”.

Footballer Marcus Rashford has been campaigning for Boris Johnson’s government to feed poverty-hit children through the school holidays during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the government blocked a move to introduce the plan, there has been widespread public anger and now Labour leader Keir Starmer has said his party will bring another Commons vote if the government “does not change course”.

“It’s not too late to do the right thing,” he tweeted on Sunday morning.

A number of Conservative-led local authorities have broken ranks to back the policy and a string of high-profile figures have spoken out.

But Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis suggested the government would not compromise.

Pressed by the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday over whether ministers would U-turn, he suggested the government had done enough, adding: “I think we have got the package in place that means people have got the support they need during the school holidays.”

He went on to thank businesses and organisations for donating to help feed young people, something Downing Street repeatedly refused to do on Sunday, and said they were “doing a great thing for their community”.

He added, however, that there had been a temporary £20 uplift in the Universal Credit benefit during the pandemic, and that councils had been given £63m previously.

He had earlier told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday “this is a very emotive issue” for people but insisted the government had taken the “right position”.

He said: “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.”

Senior Conservative Bernard Jenkin was among Boris Johnson’s backbenchers calling on the government to think again.

He told Sky News: “I think we have to admit that we have misunderstood the mood of the country here.

“The public want to see the government taking a national lead on this.”

Labour’s Rosena Allin-Khan, shadow mental health minister, said that MPs who had voted against extending the meals plan had made a “morally reprehensible” decision.

She said: “The Labour Party are not going to give up on the children that are going to bed hungry.

“What has played out over the ensuing days is the very best of what it means to be British.

“Our communities have stood up to this government and said ‘we don’t care what you have done, we are angry and we are going to take matters into our own hands’.”

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 – a novel published in the 19th century. Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield

Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield also intervened on Sunday, saying she had been “horrified and really disappointed”.

“We’re a wealthy country, it’s 2020,” she told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.

“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 – a novel published in the 19th century.

“Let’s stop the divisive and distracting conversation, and let’s start focusing.”

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.