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School meals: Boris Johnson refuses to move on school meal vouchers

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media captionBoris Johnson: 'We don't want to see children going hungry'

Boris Johnson has defended his refusal to extend free school meals for children in England over the half-term holiday, saying he was "very proud" of the government's support so far.

"I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger," he said. "The debate is, how do you deal with it."

He said the government will "do everything in our power to make sure that no kid, no child goes hungry".

Pressure has risen on the PM, including from his own MPs, to rethink the issue.

Mr Johnson also said he had not spoken to Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford - who has been leading a high-profile campaign to extend free school meals into the holidays - since the summer.

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The UK government extended free school meals to eligible children during the Easter holidays earlier this year and, after Rashford's campaigning, did the same for the summer holiday.

But it has refused to do so again. A petition created by the England striker calling for provision to continue in the holidays had gained more than 900,000 signatures by Monday evening.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already introduced food voucher schemes.

media captionMarcus Rashford and his mother Melanie helped out at FareShare Greater Manchester

Speaking during a visit to a hospital in Reading to launch a review of hospital food, Mr Johnson said "I totally salute and understand" where Rashford was coming from.

But he said the government was supporting families with a Universal Credit increase of £20 a week, introduced in April.

The government also said it gave £63m to councils - first announced in June - to help people who are struggling to afford food and essentials.

However, the Local Government Association said this funding was intended to be spent before the end of September and had been "outstripped" by demand.

Mr Johnson said: "We are very proud of the support we have given, I have said repeatedly throughout this crisis that the government will support families and businesses, jobs and livelihoods, across the country.

"We're going to continue to do that.

"We don't want to see children going hungry this winter, this Christmas, certainly not as a result of any inattention by this government - and you are not going to see that."

Downing Street doesn't want to do a U-turn; at least not in too obvious a fashion.

So it isn't stumping up the cash to extend holiday food vouchers in England.

But listen carefully to Boris Johnson and it's clear that he might stump up cash in other ways, for pretty much the same purpose.

So, for example, could councils be given further funds to help struggling families?

Then ministers can try and argue that they're simply carrying on with an existing policy that they believe is more effective.

The PM was at pains today to show that he both recognises and cares about this issue.

But some Tories fear that, because of cack-handed communications, Downing Street lost the PR battle on compassion days ago.

One mother, Nicola Palmer from Leicestershire, said the meal vouchers had been an "absolute lifeline" for her family during the Easter and summer holidays.

She receives Universal Credit but said that, after paying bills, she and her partner and their two children "would be lucky" to have £40 a month to live on.

"Me and my partner have been disabled. I've been disabled since 2017 with multiple sclerosis. My partner has been disabled for a lot longer than that with Crohn's disease and a few other health issues," she said.

image copyrightNicola Palmer
image captionMs Palmer said the vouchers helped her and her partner feed their two children when they were struggling with money

She said one day last week - which was their half-term - she and her partner had no dinner at all, to make sure the children could eat.

"Yes, we are in receipt of Universal Credit, however due to our low income and having to pay for bills as well as trying to put a meal on the table, the very slight increase on this has not made any difference for us whatsoever."

Lucy Houghton, 36, from Norfolk, also relies on free school meal vouchers and said there are times she will not eat so her children can.

"It's going to be tough this week," she said.

"It's all very well businesses offering free food, but I'm in a rural location and would need fuel to get there. And it's humiliating. I hate asking for help from anybody and I know I'm not alone in that."

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the government had been "incredibly generous" during the pandemic, with support such as wage subsidies, increases to benefits and business rates relief.

He added: "If there is still need or if this Covid crisis continues to kick in and more lockdowns happen, of course the government will look at other alternatives, or other solutions. We're not going to sit there in a static environment."

Labour said Mr Johnson's "warm words" would "do nothing" for the children at risk of going hungry this week.

"Labour will not not give up on the children and families let down by this government, and we will hold the prime minister to his word, forcing another vote in Parliament if necessary," said shadow education secretary Kate Green.

Rashford's campaign has led to businesses including fish and chip shops, pubs, restaurants and cafes promising to dish out free food to eligible children over half-term, which began on Monday in many areas.

And Manchester United says it will distribute 5,000 meals - cooked at the Old Trafford kitchen facilities - to children eligible for free school meals across Greater Manchester.

Some charities have set up websites and maps allowing parents to search for places nearby providing free meals.

David Pickard, head of community operations at Midland Mencap, said he expected "hundreds" of families to access free lunches from its community centre in Birmingham this week.

Mother-of-three Aisha, who spoke to a reporter as she collected food donations from a community centre in Birmingham, said: "I am usually really good with my budget. Their father, who I'm divorced from, usually pays for their uniforms but he got ill and he couldn't work, so I bought them this time.

"But the £200 I used came from money I use to pay my bills, because the school said if I brought in the receipts I could get some help from them.

"I did that - but it's been seven or eight weeks now, and I haven't heard anything back from the school, so I'm struggling."

Some councils - including several Tory-run local authorities - have promised to supply meal vouchers or food parcels for children facing hardship.

image copyrightPA Media
image captionCafe staff in Liverpool prepare sandwich bags for children, as businesses offer to help

Last week, Conservative MPs voted against Labour's attempt to extend free school meals by 322 votes to 261, with five Tory MPs rebelling and voting for Labour's motion.

Stuart Anderson, Tory MP for Wolverhampton South West, said he had received threats and his office had been vandalised after he opposed the plan to offer free school meals in the holidays.

Children of all ages living in households on income-related benefits may be eligible for free school meals.

In England, about 1.4 million children qualified for free school meals in January 2020 - about 17.3% of state-educated pupils.

Analysis by the Food Foundation estimates a further 900,000 children in England may have sought free school meals since the start of the pandemic.

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