Monday 26 October 2020 2:17 pm

Boris Johnson promises ‘no children will go hungry’ as free school meals row escalates

Boris Johnson has promised “no children” in England “ go hungry this winter”, as the Prime Minister faces mounting pressure to U-turn on a decision not to extend free school meals over the October half-term.

“We certainly recognise that there is an issue. We have been dealing with it continuously throughout the period of the pandemic, and we’re going to continue to deal with it,” the PM told BBC News.

“We’re going to make sure that we have no children, no kids, no pupils in our country who go hungry this winter, certainly not as a result of any government inattention.”

It comes after a high-profile campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford to provide meal vouchers for low-income families in England throughout the holidays received overwhelming support from the British public. 

A petition created by the Manchester United striker calling for provision to continue in the half-term holidays has gained more than 900,000 signatures so far.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already introduced food voucher schemes to cover the holiday period.

Last week, Conservative MPs voted against Labour’s attempt to extend free school meals by 322 votes to 261, with five Tory MPs rebelling and voting for Labour’s motion.

Rashford’s appeal marks the latest plight in his free school meals campaign, after a similar request over the summer holidays proved successful

Johnson in June scrapped his decision not to extend government support and handed out food vouchers for more than 1.3m eligible children, paving the way for Rashford to be recognised for his campaign in this month’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

But health minister Matt Hancock this morning defended the government’s refusal to budge in the latest free school meals saga, saying ministers had increased Universal Credit and allocated £63m to local authorities.

“Often it’s councils who know best on the ground,” he said.

Hancock told the BBC there had “been communication” between the PM and Rashford over the footballer’s latest appeal, but Johnson later denied this was the case. 

“I haven’t spoken to Marcus since June but, as I say, I think what he’s doing is terrific”, said the Prime Minister.

Rashford’s campaign has seen an outpouring of businesses promising to dish out free food to eligible children over half-term in the face of government indecision.

Yesterday, the 22-year-old England forward continued to use his Twitter to highlight firms offering support, tweeting a map showing dozens of businesses offering free meals for children across England.

“Ever been more proud of being British?! And we’re still going, wow wow wow,” said Rashford.

The government’s own advisory committee on social mobility today backed Rashford’s campaign on free school meals, but said ministers must go “much further” in ending child poverty. 

 A spokesperson for the Social Mobility Commission said: “We know that the current pandemic is having its greatest impact on the poorest regions in Britain where people are already struggling to afford food for their families.

“Our earlier research this year showed that 600,000 more children are in poverty than in 2012. We believe the government should do all it can to start reversing that trend.”

Shadow education secretary Kate Green slammed the PM for his refusal to bow to mounting pressure.

“Warm words from Boris Johnson will do nothing for the over 1.4 million children at risk of going hungry this half term that he and his MPs refused to help last week,” she said.

“The government must now make children a national priority, and ensure that no child goes hungry.”