Pressure mounts on government to extend food voucher scheme over summer following calls from Marcus Rashford

Marcus Rashford, Gary Linekar and pupils Credit: Pool/PA

Gary Lineker, the Labour Party and other prominent figures have joined footballer Marcus Rashford in calls for the government to extend its free school meal voucher scheme through the summer holidays.

There are also rumours of growing pressure in Tory ranks for the government to extend the scheme over the summer.

The Manchester United and England star penned an open letter this week asking the Government to reverse its decision to cease the scheme – for which nearly 1.3 million children are eligible – outside of school term time.

The 22-year-old has followed up with a column in The Times newspaper on Tuesday, writing he was focusing "on a trophy that stands for something bigger than football" .

Addressing the meal voucher issue and the broader subject of childhood poverty, Rashford wrote: “I don’t claim to have the education of an MP in Parliament, but I do have a social education."

“I am clued up on the difference a U-turn decision would make on the 1.3 million vulnerable children across the UK who are registered for free school meals because ten years ago I was one of them.”

As well as tweeting out a link to the letter he wrote in The Times, Rashford issued a string of tweets calling on people to put pressure on the government.

The tweets urged people to not take things for granted and remember those suffering hardship.

One tweet read: "When you wake up this morning and run your shower, take a second to think about parents who have had their water turned off during lockdown."

To which Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey replied that it is illegal to disconnect water.

Ms Coffey came under criticism for her response, with many on social media branding it "tone deaf" and "ignorant".

Labour called it "snarky".

Rashford replied he was "concerned this is the only tweet of mine you acknowledged.

"Please, put rivalries aside for a second, and make a difference."

While a Department for Education spokesperson has said the national voucher scheme “will not run during the summer holidays”, Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson says the Prime Minister will respond to Mr Rashford’s letter “as soon as he can”.

It comes as a legal challenge on the government's decision not to continue the vouchers over the summer was launched by two charities.

Sustain and the Good Law Project have also written to England's Department of Education, calling the government's plans “inadequate” and warning hundreds of thousands of children will go hungry.

They argue the government's other programme - the Holiday Activities and Food scheme - will only reach around 50,000 children in 17 of the 343 local authorities in England, less than four percent of those eligible for free school meals.

“The bleak reality is that unless the government produces an adequate plan, and fast, hundreds of thousands of children across England will go hungry this summer," Good Law Project Jolyon Morgan wrote.

He continued: "Good Law Project and Sustain are committed to continuing our legal challenge to ensure that does not happen."

CEO of Sustain, Kath Dalmeny added: “The money released represents just a few more crumbs from the table, with no serious assessment of need...the govt must provide adequate and ring-fenced money, via trusted guarantee that children will be able to eat well.”

Some 1.3 million children in England are in receipt of the vouchers. Credit: PA

The campaign received a further push on Monday night when Mr Lineker told BBC Newsnight he urged the Government to consider the struggles of impoverished families during the coronavirus crisis.

“Obviously these are strange times.

"Kids wouldn’t ordinarily be fed during the summer holidays, I understand that.

"But you’ve got to look at it and go: ‘These are very, very difficult times for a lot of people and a lot of families’,” the former England striker and Match of the Day presenter said.

“There are a lot of young people, young children, in this country that are going hungry.

"And in a country like ours, a country of quite substantial wealth, that seems to be largely unacceptable.

“Hopefully the powers that be will listen.

"It seems strange that we have to be in a position where we are desperately arguing to try to get young people fed, and stop them being hungry.”

Gary Lineker has echoed Marcus Rashford’s call for free school meal vouchers to continue over the summer, and has praised the 22-year-old for taking his stance Credit: PA

Meanwhile, the Labour Party say they will today use an opposition day debate in Parliament to call on the government to continue to directly fund the provision of free school meals over the holidays.

Labour launched a Holidays Without Hunger campaign on Sunday.

Shadow education secretary Rebecca Long Bailey will say: “Any government that is willing to let the poorest children in the country go hungry needs to take a long hard look at its priorities.

“Shamefully, children go hungry every year, but this summer will be especially difficult for many families as job losses and reduced incomes hit household budgets.

“It would be deeply callous of the government not to take this small step to ease the financial pressure on households and ensure children can eat during the summer holidays.”

Former Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw added his name to the cause, saying the government “should be bending on this one” and that Mr Rashford was “absolutely right to draw attention to this”.

“I know lots of head teachers who are so worried about their children who are on free school meals, their poorest children, who have lost out the most during this crisis,” Sir Michael told Newsnight.

“Those head teachers are going to bringing those children in over the summer break, they’re going to be inviting their staff into school over the summer break to teach them, to make sure they don’t lose out any more.

“Now if they’re going to be doing that, and those children are going to be coming into school over the summer break, to catch up, they need food.”

Rebecca Long Bailey will speak out on the issue in Parliament on Tuesday Credit: PA

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, the country’s biggest teachers’ union, said the union “fully supports” Mr Rashford’s demand to provide free school meals over the summer.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “If the Government is genuinely committed to social equity, it must extend the provision of free school meals to continue during the summer holidays.”

Mr Rashford, who has raised £20 million to boost food distribution with the charity FareShare, has said he used food banks and received free meals during his underprivileged childhood in Manchester.

Mr Lineker also praised Mr Rashford, saying: “When you look at it, though, he’s a 22-year-old footballer.

"He shouldn’t be the one having to do this.

"But the fact that he is, is important. It’s impressive.

"He’s a very fine young man, and he’s a credit to his sport and his family.”

The voucher scheme provides £15 worth of vouchers a week for each eligible child, which can be redeemed in a range of supermarkets.

The Welsh Government has said free school meals will continue in Wales through the summer.

The Department for Education spokesperson also said thousands of children would also receive “additional support through our Holiday Activities and Food programme, which offers activities and free meals throughout the summer holidays”.