Boris Johnson has rejected a call by England footballer Marcus Rashford for free school meal vouchers to be given to poor children over Christmas and other holidays.
As the Manchester United striker launched a new parliamentary petition demanding the move to reduce child hunger, a No.10 spokesperson made clear its policy would not change.
“We took that decision to extend free school meals during the pandemic when schools were partially closed during lockdown. We’re in a different position now with schools back open to all pupils,” he said.
“It’s not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays. We believe the best way to support families outside of term time is through Universal Credit rather than government subsidising meals.”
Rashford responded to the news on Twitter, posting: “Merry Christmas kids... It’s also not for food banks to feed millions of British children but here we are. 250% increase in food poverty and rising... This is not going away anytime soon and neither am I...”
The Welsh government announced on Thursday that it would be going ahead with free school meal help for all its holidays up to Easter 2021, a move praised by Rashford.
But after being forced by the footballer to U-turn on the issue earlier this summer, Downing Street is now refusing to budge once more.
Within a single day of its launch, Rashford’s new petition smashed through the 100,000 signature threshold needed to trigger a Commons debate. His plan to end child hunger is supported by 20 charities and key figures in the food industry.
It also calls for the provision of free meals to all households on Universal Credit, plus the extension of food vouchers to all low income pregnant women and pre-school youngsters.
The footballer, who was awarded an MBE last week for his role in helping deprived children, stepped up the pressure on the prime minister as new data released by the Food Foundation revealed that 1.4 million 8- to 17-year-olds visited foodbanks over the summer holidays.
Rashford said: “For too long this conversation has been delayed. 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.
“In 2020, no child in the UK should be going to bed hungry, nor should they be sat in classrooms concerned about how their younger siblings are going to eat that day, or how they are going to access food come the holidays.
“The school holidays used to be a highlight of the year for children. Today, it is met with anxiety from those as young as seven.”
“Today, millions of children are finding themselves in the most vulnerable of environments and are beginning to question what it really means to be British. I’m calling on you all today to help me prove to them that being British is something to be proud of.”
Rob Halfon, the Tory chairman of the Commons education committee, expressed his own dismay at the No.10 decision.
Former PM Gordon Brown added: “Marcus Rashford deserves all our support in requesting that children who receive free school meals should benefit from the Holiday Activities and Food programme during the midterm break and the Christmas holidays as well as in the summer holidays.
“We hope we can see an immediate response from the Government before the autumn break to support low income UK families as we approach one of the toughest winters on record. I also support action to deliver the three objectives Marcus has chosen from the report of the food strategy review.”
Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “Failing to give struggling families the support they need is what we would expect from Scrooge, not the British government.
“Boris Johnson’s Dickensian approach will make life harder for millions over Christmas. The government must do more to support families, and ensure that their mishandling of coronavirus does not make it harder for families to put food on the table.”
The news came on the day that Louise Casey, a former homelessness adviser warned that people face “destitution” and may have to “prostitute themselves” without more Covid help.
Anna Taylor, executive director of Food Foundation, said: “School holidays are a financial pressure point which many families just can’t afford at the moment. Hunger does not take a holiday.”
Earlier, a department for education spokesperson said: “We have taken substantial action to make sure children and families do not go hungry by extending free school meals when schools closed, increasing welfare support by £9.3bn, and giving councils £63 million to provide emergency support to families for food and other essentials.
“We also appreciate it has been a challenging time for families, which is why we have increased the safety net available to them with income protection schemes, mortgage holidays and support for renters.
“We are grateful to Marcus Rashford for his work shining a light on the significant challenges families are facing at this time.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “The government’s response today is out of touch with public opinion and with the real life hardships that many families are facing. We are not in normal times. Normal solutions like Universal Credit may not be enough.
“Back in the spring, shamefully, the government had to be compelled to increase support for these children and their families. As the pandemic continues into the winter and next year, more support will be needed.”