Free school meals: Rashford praises local communities as petition for government support nears one million

At least 750 businesses rally to provide food during half-term

Zoe Tidman,Jane Dalton
Saturday 24 October 2020 21:12 BST
Tory MPs vote against plan to extend free school meals over holidays

England footballer Marcus Rashford has praised local communities for stepping in to provide free meals to children during the school holidays, as hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions in favour of government paying for meals and against using public money to subsidise MPs’ food and drink.

Councils, including Conservative-run bodies, announced half-term stop-gap measures, and at least 750 restaurants and other food businesses rallied to support the viral campaign against child hunger.

Among the local authorities pledging help was Conservative-controlled Hillingdon council, in Boris Johnson’s constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

A petition against using public money to support MPs’ food costs had received 740,000 signatures by Saturday night.

And Rashford’s government petition had received more than 750,000. Chef-turned-anti-waste campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall urged people to sign to get the number of names past a million.

Councils, tea rooms, churches, farms and takeaways all publicly offered to help provide children with food during half-term. Rashford, 22, said he was "truly overwhelmed" by the support his campaign has received.

MPs voted this week against extending the free school meals scheme over the Christmas holidays, prompting uproar among much of the public.  Ministers say they have given councils £63m for families facing financial difficulties caused by pandemic restrictions.

The petition against public money for MPs' meals calls for “an end to the practice of paying expenses to MPs for food and drink”, and for parliamentary establishments to sell food and drink “at market rates”.

Under current rules, MPs can claim up for food and non-alcoholic drinks when staying outside of London and their constituency, with a limit of up to £25 per night.

Catering services across the House of Commons are not directly subsidised, but do operate at a loss in total, with figures showing they cost the Commons £2.6m in the 2018-2019 financial year.

Portia Lawrie said she started the petition as she was “so angry that some MPs had rejected the chance in parliament, and Marcus Rashford's campaign, to extend free school meals into the school holiday”. 

She added: “I wanted to point out the clear hypocrisy between that and the food and drink the public subsidise for MPs whilst denying support to those most in need of it."

A House of Commons spokesperson told The Independent: “The House of Commons’ catering service does not provide a subsidised service in the commercial sense of the word, and we continuously seek to reduce costs." 

They added: "These services are accessible to all passholders, including staff and journalists.”

MPs cannot claim back the cost of food or drink, and do not have an allowance for food, an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) spokesperson told The Independent.

Two Tory MPs prompted anger with comments on the drive for free meals. North Devon MP Selaine Saxby posted on Facebook: "I am delighted our local businesses have bounced back so much after lockdown they are able to give away food for free, and very much hope they will not be seeking any further government support."

She later said: "I of course deeply regret any offence which may have been caused."

And Ben Bradley also said a tweet he sent, which led to claims he was stigmatising working-class families, was "totally taken out of context".

A Twitter user described the free school meals programme as "£20 cash direct to a crack den and a brothel", to which Mr Bradley replied: "That's what FSM [free school meals] vouchers in the summer effectively did..." The MP for Mansfield later claimed he was trying to say that giving children who live in "chaotic" situations an "unrestricted voucher to spend on whatever isn't helpful".

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