Boris Johnson has executed a humiliating U-turn over free school meals for the poorest families over the summer, announcing a new £120m voucher scheme after pressure from footballer Marcus Rashford.
Just hours before Labour was due to force a vote on the issue in the House of Commons, risking a rebellion from Conservative backbenchers, the prime minister’s official spokesman announced a new £120m “Covid summer food fund”.
“Owing to the corona pandemic, the PM fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer,” he said.
The U-turn came after ministers repeatedly rejected the idea of extending the scheme over the summer, as they did over the Easter break.
Asked if Rashford’s pleas had helped to change the prime minister’s mind, his spokesman said: “The prime minister welcomes Marcus Rashford’s contribution to the debate around poverty, and respects the fact that he has been using his profile as a sportsman to highlight important issues.”
He said families entitled to free school meals would receive a one-off voucher at the end of the school term, worth £15 a week for the six-week school break, which they can spend in supermarkets.
Rashford had stepped up his campaign to pressure the UK government into feeding hungry children during the school holidays.
Labour was seeking to maximise the government’s embarrassment and force a U-turn, by using an opposition day debate in the House of Commons to hold a vote on extending the voucher scheme.
Several Conservative backbenchers, including former minister George Freeman, and the chair of the education select committee Robert Halfon, had urged the government to change course.
On Tuesday morning, the Manchester United player began tweeting about the UK’s poorest families, who cannot afford to pay their water and electricity bills or put food on the table.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Halfon commended the government for helping vulnerable families by raising the living wage, cutting taxes for lower earners and extending the freeze on fuel duty.
But he said carrying on with the free school meals programme “would be the right thing to do” as the latest figures show “2.5 million children are not learning” while away from school and food insecurity has “nearly doubled”.
Halfon added: “There are lots of food programmes across different government departments. If they just consolidated those programmes, they would almost have the money for the free school meals programme over the summer, which would cost roughly £110m.”
Ruth Davidson, the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, tweeted that she was baffled that the scheme had not been extended by Westminster. “I didn’t have or need free school meals, but I went to a school where a huge % did. Food security during the holidays so important. It’s basic. Feed the kids.”
One cabinet minister was criticised after weighing into the debate to correct one of Rashford’s tweets, in which he said: “When you wake up this morning and run your shower, take a second to think about parents who have had their water turned off during lockdown.”
Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, replied: “Water cannot be disconnected though.”
Rashford replied, noting: “I’m concerned this is the only tweet of mine you acknowledged. Please, put rivalries aside for a second, and make a difference #maketheuturn.”
The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, wrote: “Imagine having priorities so warped that this snarky comment is your response to Marcus Rashford‘s powerful campaign.”
Rebecca Long Bailey, the shadow education secretary, used an interview on BBC Breakfast to argue that the issue “is about humanity”.
She said: “There will be many Conservative MPs today watching this and having read Marcus’ letter who will be agonising about whether they support the government or not in this because they will want what’s best for children.”
She added: “So, I’m asking all politicians, whatever party they’re in, this is not about party politics, this is about making sure children don’t go hungry over the summer holidays.”
Rashford has received the full backing of Sir Keir Starmer and Labour.
The Co-op is one of the big businesses to support Rashford. The firm has pledged to extend its free school meals scheme throughout the summer holidays at its 25 academy schools and said that 6,000 students who normally receive government-funded free school meals would receive Co-op gift cards.