Boris Johnson has reiterated his refusal to extend free school meals for children in England over the half-term holiday, adding that he was “very proud” of the support offered by the government thus far.
“I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger,” Johnson said, in a televised interview. “The debate is, how do you deal with it.”
In a controversial vote last week, 322 Conservative MPs voted down an effort – prompted by the viral campaigning of England star Marcus Rashford – to ensure no vulnerable child goes hungry over half term and Christmas.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has pledged to force another vote on the issue before Christmas – with Tory MPs across the country facing a significant backlash following the vote.
‘No child goes hungry’
With rumours swirling around Westminster that a U-turn is imminent, Johnson said he will “do everything in our power to make sure that no kid, no child goes hungry”.
Johnson added that he had not spoken to Rashford since June – despite awarding the footballer an MBE in the latest round of honours.
By midday on Monday, a petition started by Rashford calling for the continuation of free school meals throughout the holidays had gained more than 880,000 – and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already introduced food voucher schemes.
Speaking during a visit to a hospital in Reading, Johnson said “I totally salute and understand” Rashford’s campaign.
But, he added, the government was already supporting families through extra money for Universal Credit and a £63 cash injection for councils.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Earlier on Monday, a council leader has lashed out at the “shameless spin” of a Tory MP who tried to claim credit for funding free school meals for local kids – days after he voted down measures to extend the scheme over the half-term break.
Corby Borough Council joined a raft of businesses and community groups in announcing that it would unilaterally fund Free School Meals throughout half-term, with council leaders saying that it was “important to act fast and ensure that our children within Corby don’t go hungry”.
Tom Pursglove – the MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire – claimed on Twitter that Corby Borough Council “benefitted directly from extra government funding” that helped to “provide appropriate support for residents, such as towards their Free School Meals initiative”.
But the council shot back that the funding actually came from money originally earmarked for its annual bonfire night and firework display – which has been cancelled this year due to coronavirus restrictions.
Tom Beattie, the Labour leader of Corby Borough Council, told TLE that local leaders had made the decision to fund Free School Meals in the area “prior to any announcement from the government”.
In an interview on Monday morning, Beattie said that the council “took a decision last week that we would put money set aside for the firework display towards funding Free School Meals for children here in Corby”.
He added: “For our local MP to try and claim that it’s government money that we are using rattled a few cages here in Corby, not just among us Labour politicians. There was clearly a view that this was an attempt to try and claim benefit for something they hadn’t done.
“There are facts, and there is shameless Tory spin. I think it’s backfired on them, frankly.”