Labour has thrown down the gauntlet to Downing Street by pledging to force another Commons vote if it does not U-turn on its refusal to provide free school meals in England during the holidays, as a senior Conservative MP admitted the government has misjudged the country’s mood over the issue.
In a fresh intervention that will boost the campaign being led by the footballer Marcus Rashford, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said on Sunday his party would push for another vote if there is no change of course before Christmas.
Labour was defeated by the government in a vote on the policy last week, prompting businesses and councils – some of them Tory-led – to step forward to offer to feed children in the October half-term break, but the government has so far dug in to defend its position.
In an apparent softening of tone after a No 10 spokesman last week refused to praise councils and firms offering help, the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, said Rashford deserved “huge credit” for his work on the issue although he stood by Downing Street’s line.
Labour will force another vote on free school meals if the Government does not change course before the Christmas break.
It’s not too late to do the right thing.
It comes as Sir Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative chair of the influential Commons liaison committee, said the government had “misunderstood the mood of the country” on free school meals.
As the government continues to resist appeals to reverse its move, Jenkin told the Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme on Sky News: “I think we have to admit that we have misunderstood the mood of the country here.”
Highlighting that the government had funded local councils to provide support, he added: “The public want to see the government taking a national lead on this and I think the government will probably have to think again on that, particularly if there’s going to be more votes in the House of Commons.
“I think when you have got the chairman of the education select committee [Robert Halfon] not supporting the government on this – and he’s a Conservative – I think the government has to listen to the Conservative party.”
Asked how he would vote in any further Commons divisions, Jenkin said: “I shall wait to see what the government says and how they respond to the situation.”
Halfon, who voted against the government on the free school meals motion on Wednesday, wrote in the Spectator on Saturday: “Combating child hunger should, therefore, be a cause that all Conservatives can embrace. That should include the temporary extension of free school meals over the holidays while (and only while) the economic impacts of the pandemic continue to be felt.”
Downing Street has already been forced to perform a U-turn once on the issue, deciding to provide £15-a-week meal vouchers to eligible children over the summer after Rashford campaigned on the issue, but it has refused to do so for the holidays ahead.
Asked what had changed, meaning children who got them then should not get them during the autumn or Christmas holidays, Lewis told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday: “There’s a couple of things that have changed. Back in the summer we had all the schools closed, we had that full lockdown period. Things have moved on, we’ve now got about 99% of schools and children back at schools … that’s really good. So we are in a different place but there’s more than that.”
He added: “In the holidays, what we’ve put in place actually is not just the uplift in universal credit, because obviously the schools are closed so it’s about making sure the welfare system can cover and support what people need. So we’ve put the uplift into universal credit, around just over a £1,000 a year, but also very specifically we’ve put £63m into local authorities to support and help people in hardship … and a number of local authorities are using it to do exactly that.”
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, Labour’s shadow mental health minister, told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “We are honestly hoping that the Conservative government dig deep and look introspectively and perform a U-turn on this but we certainly will be pushing for a vote before Christmas.”
The children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, told the same programme she thought the government should provide free school meals over the holidays, adding: “I’ve been horrified by the debate, really disappointed about the debate over recent days. We’re a wealthy country, it’s 2020.”
“To have a debate about whether we should make sure that hungry and vulnerable children should have enough to eat is something which is strikingly similar to chapters, I think of you know, what we’d expect to see in Oliver Twist, a novel published in the 19th century. So let’s stop the divisive and distracting conversations, and start focusing.”