Monday 26 October 2020 7:09 pm

Sunak spars with education secretary in free school meals row

Chancellor Rishi Sunak locked heads with the education secretary today as both ministers attempted to shirk the blame for the government’s decision not to extend free school meals throughout the October half-term.

Sunak rebutted claims made in the Sun on Sunday yesterday that the Treasury had “parked the bus” on providing free school meal vouchers for more than 1.3m disadvantaged children in England during the school holidays.  

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

“There has been no new proposal from the Department for Education about releasing cash for this half-term,” a source close to the chancellor told the Financial Times.

“It’s pathetic, really,” the source said, adding that they believed education secretary Gavin Williamson to be behind the briefing.

An extension to the free school meal vouchers would mean an extra £20m in funding per week would need to be signed off by the chancellor. 

The row has seen ministers scramble to answer demands made by Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer who has campaigned for the food voucher scheme.

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

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

Williamson, Sunak and the Prime Minister all agreed not to bow to future campaigns for free school meal vouchers over fears it might set a precedent for government spending, the FT reported.

But the chancellor will next month undertake a one-year review of government spending, which will likely free up more cash to help disadvantaged families over the Christmas holidays.

It comes after Boris Johnson today promised that “no children” in England will “go hungry this winter”, as the Prime Minister faced mounting pressure to U-turn on his decision not to hand out meal vouchers for low-income children.

“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.”

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 in England by 322 votes to 261, with five Tory MPs rebelling and voting for Labour’s motion.

A senior Tory MP said last week’s vote had been “partly stoked up” by Williamson, who regarded free school meals as “a leftwing issue”. 

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. 

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 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.”