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Coronavirus: Pressure mounts over school meal vouchers in summer

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Reuters

Marcus Rashford has renewed his calls for the school meal voucher scheme to be extended in England, saying people should consider struggling parents.

The footballer asked others to think about those who have had their “water turned off during lockdown” and children who woke up to empty shelves.

Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey replied that “water cannot be disconnected”.

The comment was widely criticised, with Labour describing it as “snarky”.

Mr Rashford, 22, urged MPs to “put rivalries aside” when they debate the subject in Parliament later.

Families whose children qualify for free meals have received vouchers or parcels in lockdown.

While provision is to continue through the summer in Scotland and Wales, it will stop at the end of term in England and Northern Ireland.

Almost 1.3 million school children in England – accounting for 15.4% of state-educated pupils – were eligible for and claiming free school meals according to the latest available data.

Official figures for 2019 showed the need was greatest in parts of London, the north and Midlands where between a quarter and a third of all pupils were getting the free meals.

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PA Media

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Therese Coffey has been urged to help “make a difference”

When Ms Coffey replied to Mr Rashford’s Twitter thread on the scheme, he said he was “concerned” she had only acknowledged his tweet about water being turned off.

He urged her to help “make a difference”.

Ruth Davidson, an MSP and the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said she was “baffled” that the government had not already backtracked on the plans.

“Food security during the holidays so important. It’s basic. Feed the kids,” she said on Twitter.

The government says £63m is available to councils to help families.

In an emotional open letter to MPs posted on Monday, Mr Rashford drew on his own experience of relying on free school meals and food banks growing up.

The Manchester United forward said his story was “all too familiar for families in England”.

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Media captionMan United’s Rashford speaks about his mother’s sacrifices

The Department for Education said it would not reverse its decision – but the England international said he would fight on, tweeting “we aren’t beaten yet” and “MPs, please #maketheUturn”.

During the Commons debate on the issue later, Labour will say it would be “callous” not to take what it will call a “small step”.

But Transport Secretary Grant Shapps insisted the government is “not turning a blind eye” to child poverty during the crisis, and defended its decision not to extend the voucher scheme.

He told BBC Breakfast the government had been “wrapping its arms around people in communities” to do “everything it possibly can” to support them, including the £20bn spent on its furlough scheme and payments to local government bodies.

He said No 10 had given an extra £63 million to local authorities to help children during the pandemic, as well as a £129m investment “that’s already gone to families and schools as part of the process of helping children”.

Shadow education secretary Ms Long-Bailey said it was “only right” for the government to continue the scheme over the summer, so children don’t go hungry and are in a position to start “learning properly” in September.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, she asked ministers to “just continue the free school meal voucher programme” and pointing to Scotland and Wales, added: “They are going to do this over the summer holidays for their children, so why can’t the government in England do the same?”

Last week, three Conservative MPs signed a cross-party letter calling for an extension of the scheme – worth £15 for each child per week in England – into the summer holidays in England.

‘Really struggling’

David Simmonds, the Conservative MP and a member of the education select committee, said Mr Rashford’s letter was “incredibly powerful” but the free school meals scheme, although “popular”, is a “very blunt instrument” and it doesn’t always get to the most vulnerable children.

Citing figures from the Local Government Association that show a £3bn shortfall in the children’s social care sector, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that pressure is “building” in the system and that there has been a “massive increase” in the number of children coming into care whose needs “must come first”.

He said the government needed to address the “significant pressure” on the system “so the most vulnerable children in this country – of whom there are tens of thousands – are not left behind”.

Sonja from Basingstoke, who has three teenage children, told BBC Radio 5 live Drive she found herself out of work because of the pandemic and does not start her new job until September. She said she would be in “real trouble” without the vouchers in the meantime.

“I’m relying on the £60 I get every fortnight from free school meal vouchers to do my food shopping,” she said.

“There are lots of us out there that have found ourselves on benefits through no fault of our own. We really are struggling to make ends meet and I’m not sure too many people understand how difficult it is – Marcus obviously does.”

‘Difficult times’

Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker also gave his support to Rashford, saying: “He shouldn’t really be having to do this, but… he’s doing a great job.

The former England striker said he understood “kids wouldn’t ordinarily be fed during the summer holidays”, but these are “very, very difficult times”.

Conservative MPs will have a chance to register their unease on Tuesday afternoon when the Labour party holds a Commons debate, said Newsnight’s Nicholas Watt.

One Tory backbencher forecast an eventual government U-turn, he added.

Ministers, who say free school meals are not usually continued into the summer holidays, are planning to amend Tuesday’s Labour motion to highlight the steps the government has taken to help pupils from poorer backgrounds.

This includes an extra £63m for local authorities to help people struggling financially as a result of coronavirus and the Holiday Activities and Food programme, which offers activities and free meals in the summer holidays.

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