Boris Johnson to provide free school meal vouchers in major U-turn after Marcus Rashford campaign

Parents to get £15 a week to spend in supermarkets on food for disadvantaged children, after PM drops his opposition

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 16 June 2020 13:59 BST
Marcus Rashford pleads for Government rethink on free school meal vouchers

All pupils qualifying for free school meals in England will be given supermarket food vouchers to cover the six-week summer holiday, in a £120m government U-turn as Boris Johnson caved in to pressure from campaigners including football star Marcus Rashford.

The announcement from Downing Street came shortly before the prime minister was due to block a Labour bid to stop “holiday hunger” in the House of Commons and hours after cabinet minister Grant Shapps took to the airwaves to defend the government’s decision not to provide cash to extend the scheme.

The climbdown was hailed by Manchester United and England striker ​Rashford and anti-poverty campaigners, but charities warned that the coronavirus crisis meant “soaring” numbers of families would be forced to use food banks this summer, even with the vouchers in place.

Rashford, who has raised £20m for the FareShare charity to supply children’s meals during the pandemic, appealed to Mr Johnson to back down in an emotional open letter earlier this week in which he recalled how he relied on free school meals as a boy.

Celebrating the PM’s U-turn, the 22-year-old said: “Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”

In an open message to MPs, Rashford later added: “This was never about me or you, this was never about politics, this was a cry out for help from vulnerable parents all over the country and I simply provided a platform for their voices to be heard.

“I stand proud today knowing that we have listened and we have done what is right. There is still a long way to go but I am thankful to you all that we have given these families just one less thing to worry about tonight. The wellbeing of our children should always be a priority.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said: “This is another welcome U-turn from Boris Johnson. The thought of 1.3 million children going hungry this summer was unimaginable. Well done to Marcus Rashford and many others who spoke out so powerfully about this issue.”

Children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, who last week wrote to chancellor Rishi Sunak appealing for a rethink of the decision, said she was very pleased that ministers have now “seen sense”, but warned: “Today’s announcement will help many families, but there will still be 4 million children living in poverty, a number that could increase following the Covid crisis. Tackling child poverty does not end here and should be the mission of every government.”

And the anti-poverty charity Joseph Rowntree Foundation called for a £20 a week uplift to families with children claiming Universal Credit or Child Tax Credits.

Acting director Helen Barnard said: “Extending the voucher scheme into the summer will help ensure that we don’t see the hardship children are facing get worse in the summer holidays, but it only covers a minority of children in poverty and the pressures are much wider than just school meals.

“We are already hearing of soaring numbers of families being pulled under and having to rely on foodbanks to get through the current crisis, even with the voucher scheme in place.”

The government climbdown will benefit around 1.3 million children who would otherwise have had their free meal vouchers cut off when school term ends in July. Downing Street said that the scheme – started to ensure that children forced to stay home due to the coronavirus epidemic do not go hungry – will end when schools return in September.

Paying for meals over summer will cost the government around £120m. It comes on top of a separate £63m scheme to help local authorities provide activities and meals to disadvantaged kids during the break.

Rashford’s campaign won widespread support from teachers and unions as well as celebrities including TV football pundit Gary Lineker.

But Mr Johnson nonetheless tabled an amendment to block a Labour motion in the Commons seeking to extend the scheme. The government amendment was quietly dropped after his U-turn.

Referring to Rashford, the PM’s spokesman said: “The PM welcomes his contribution to the debate around poverty and respects the fact that he has been using his profile as a leading sportsman to highlight important issues.”

The spokesman stressed that summer food vouchers were a one-off support offered due to the unique circumstances of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Owing to the coronavirus pandemic the prime minister fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer,” said the PM’s spokesman.

“To reflect this we will be providing a Covid Summer Food Fund. This will provide food vouchers covering the six-week holiday period.

“This is a specific measure to reflect the unique circumstances of the pandemic. The scheme will not continue beyond the summer and those eligible will be those who already qualify for free school meals.”

The government is yet to guarantee that classrooms will reopen for the autumn term in September, but the PM’s spokesman said: “It’s our intention to get all pupils back into school in September.”

It is understood payment will be through a one-off six week voucher given to eligible families at the end of term to use in supermarkets.

Tory MPs Robert Halfon and George Freeman, who had both rebelled to back Mr Rashford’s campaign, thanked the government for its U-turn.

Mr Freeman tweeted: “Democracy. It’s a beautiful thing. When it works. Well done Marcus Rashford. Delighted.

“The government can’t and mustn’t give money to every campaign: but this was a wise choice for any serious One Nation Conservative.”

The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, tweeted: “Sensational. Marcus Rashford – you have changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. A true national hero. Thank you.”

The Child Poverty Action Group chief executive Alison Garnham said: “For many families struggling in the wake of Covid-19, free school meal replacements will make the difference between staying above water or not in the months ahead.

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