FRESH from scoring a late winner for Manchester United on Tuesday night in Paris, striker Marcus Rashford returned to England to warn MPs not to “turn a blind eye” to vulnerable families as the Commons prepared to vote on a Labour call to extend free school meals over the holidays.
The 22-year-old, who has led campaigns on the issue both during and after Britain’s lockdown, said he would be “paying close attention” to the vote.
The government has so far refused to extend the provision of free school meals in England over the half-term and Christmas breaks, but is under mounting pressure to perform a second U-turn, after the first was forced upon them in June after pressure from Rashford.
Chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee Tory MP Robert Halfon urged the government to continue providing meals over the holidays while the coronavirus crisis is ongoing and called on ministers to work with Rashford.
In the Commons, however, Boris Johnson continued to resist calls to provide for kids over the half-term.
“We support kids on low incomes in school and we will continue to do so,” he told MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions.
“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.”
Earlier Rashford, who was made an MBE for his efforts this year, urged his 3.4 million Twitter followers to lobby MPs to back his campaign.
He said: “Paying close attention to the Commons today and to those who are willing to turn a blind eye to the needs of our most vulnerable children, 2.2 million of them who currently qualify for free school meals.”
Rashford said the economic hit as a result of the coronavirus pandemic had made the situation worse than it was at the start of the crisis.
“We aren’t in the same position we were in in the summer, it’s much worse,” he said.
“The number of children with little to no access to food has risen significantly.”
Halfon told BBC Radio 4’s Today that he would either vote for the Labour motion or abstain, depending on what the government says in the Commons.
He added: “What the government needs to do is to have a long-term plan, sit down with the taskforce set up by Marcus Rashford and actually come up with a serious plan and a budget to deal with this problem.
“All the statistics show that families are struggling. We know that 10 per cent of families are affected by food insecurity.
“I am not arguing this should happen forever, but the free school meals should at least go on until we are out of the coronavirus, God willing, by next spring.”
Earlier this month, Rashford started a parliamentary petition to end child food poverty.
“For too long this conversation has been delayed,” he said. “Child food poverty in the UK is not a result of Covid-19. We must act with urgency to stabilise the households of our vulnerable children.”
Labour’s motion calls for the scheme to be extended over school holidays until Easter 2021.
The party’s analysis showed that nearly one million children living in areas subject to Tier 2 and Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions are set to lose access to free school meals over the upcoming holidays.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: “This vote is about our values as a country and whether the government, in the middle of this crisis, is happy to let our children go hungry.
“Millions of families up and down the country are facing a bleak winter of real hardship as the furlough scheme is withdrawn and further restrictions are put in place without proper support for businesses, jobs and livelihoods.”
Tory former minister Steve Baker tried to deflect from the vulnerable kids and warned about the cost of Rashford’s demands.
“Everyone knows feeding hungry children is a top priority. I’d like to see UC (Universal Credit) boosted,” he said.
“But if the economy and currency collapse, the poor will be devastated. Alleging a blind eye is just wrong.”
A government spokesman said: “We have been giving substantial support to families and children, by providing free school meals when schools were partially closed, increasing welfare support by £9.3 billion, and giving councils £63 million for families facing financial difficulties.
“We also provided vouchers through the Covid Summer Food Fund, in addition to the Holiday Activities and Food Programme.
“Now that the vast majority of pupils are back in school and over 99 per cent of schools have been open every week since term began, kitchens are able to provide healthy, nutritious meals to all children, including those eligible for free school meals.”
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