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Cash promised for hungry children by Boris Johnson will never reach them, a senior Tory is warning, as he backed Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals over the summer.

No 10 has rejected the Manchester United star’s passionate pleas to pay for meal vouchers on the grounds that £63m is being handed to local councils in England to help the poor.

But that £63m is little more than half of the estimated £110m cost of providing free school meals – as happened at Easter and in May.

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And, warned Robert Halfon, the Tory chair of the Commons education committee, “The problem with these kinds of programmes is its very bureaucratic.

“People have to apply to the council, whereas the free school meal programme is very simple, families understand it and it goes to those who need it most.”

The criticism came as Mr Rashford piled further pressure on the prime minister in a series of early morning tweets ahead of a Commons debate on the controversy later.

“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,” the footballer wrote.

“When you turn on your kettle to make a cup of tea or coffee think of those parents who have had to default on electricity bill payments just to make ends meet having lost their jobs during the pandemic

“And when you head to the fridge to grab the milk, stop and recognise that parents of at least 200,000 children across the country this morning are waking up to empty shelving.”

A small number of Conservative MPs are expected to rebel in the vote later, but the government is certain to win it – unless the outside pressure to perform a U-turn becomes too great.

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The department for education has been forced to retract a claim that free meals are “never” provided during holidays, acknowledging that has happened during the coronavirus pandemic so far.

Food campaigners are pointing out that 700 holiday clubs that provided free food to tens of thousands of poor families last summer are unlikely to be running this year

Asked if he supported Mr Rashford’s campaign, Mr Halfon told BBC Breakfast: “Yes I do. He is an inspiration, he is a hero of our time.”

He earned of a looming “ice age for vulnerable children”, with 2.5 million not learning, 4 million having no contact with their teachers and food insecurity nearly doubling.

“Families face not just health worries, but enormous financial anxiety and enormous stress,” Mr Halfon said, adding: “It would be the right thing to do – it’s simple, everyone understands it.”

But Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, dug in, saying: “It is usually the case that over the summer holidays, free school meals are not available, schools are not there.

“But we have actually, unusually in this case – along with the other multi-billion-pound package we have put in place to help families – also provided £63m to help local authorities help children over this period.”

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