Angry reactions to MPs voting against providing poorer children with free school meals over the holidays have poured in from across the political spectrum, with Nigel Farage joining in condemnation of the decision as “mean and wrong”.
The leader of the Brexit Party, which has no sitting MPs, underlined the hypocrisy of funding discounted restaurant meals over summer while refusing to feed hungry schoolchildren.
Mr Farage tweeted: "If the government can subsidise Eat Out to Help Out, not being seen to give poor kids lunch in the school holidays looks mean and is wrong."
Boris Johnson whipped the Conservatives to vote against extending provision for poorer students into the holidays, resulting in the Labour motion being defeated by 322 votes to 261 on Wednesday.
Prior to the vote, Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, had tweeted: “Today, Conservative MPs can do the right thing and vote to extend free school meals over half term and the Christmas holiday”. He followed up with a succinct one-liner – “They didn’t” – in light of the motion’s defeat.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner shared Sir Keir’s brief update, sarcastically adding: “It's their new policy for vulnerable and needy kids Keir". She also drew parallels to the government’s willingness to fund restaurant meals over summer, describing the government’s new ‘policy’ as "Eat nowt to help out".
Labour MP for Nottingham East Nadia Whittome also compared the two schemes, tweeting: “Rishi Sunak spent £500m on the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme. It costs around £20m to provide free school meals for a week. There is money for half-price Nando’s but there’s no money to feed children?"
In a thinly veiled barb at Ben Bradley, Conservative MP for Mansfield, who on Wednesday claimed extending hot meals for underprivileged children “increases dependency”, Ms Rayner later posted: “I am worried that Serco is becoming too dependent on the state", adding that the private company, which is contracted to run some testing and contact tracing facilities, is “relying on the taxpayer to boost their profits”.
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, described some of the comments made during the debate, such as Tory MP Brendan Clarke-Smith’s bizarre claim that he opposed the motion because he is against “nationalising children”, as “genuinely jaw-dropping”.
Ms Sturgeon added that the Scottish government has already committed to funding meals during the Christmas, February and Easter breaks.
Although footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign for extending provision over the summer was successful in forcing a U-turn in July, the government has insisted it will not happen again, with a spokesperson for the prime minister previously saying: “We are in a different position now.”
More than 1.4 million children experience food insecurity during the holidays, according to the Food Foundation, while 6.3 per cent of children are worried about going hungry during the October break next week.
Around 900,000 more children have signed up to receive free school meals for the first time this autumn, bringing the total number of children registered up to 2.2 million, according the think tank.
The campaigners said the staggering rise in children needing meals at school underlined the “hard-hitting socio-economic consequences of the Covid-19 crisis”.
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