Labour seeks Tory rebels to win vote on Marcus Rashford's calls to extend free school meals

The government said it is not the responsibility of schools to 'regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays.' Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Labour is seeking Tory rebels to help it beat the government on a vote over the extension of free school meals to eligible children after Number 10 said the scheme would not be prolonged through the October half-term.

England footballer Marcus Rashford has been campaigning to have the scheme extended after his efforts earlier in the coronavirus crisis saw the government U-turn to provide free school meals to eligible children during the summer holidays.

The striker's petition has almost 300,000 signatures, meaning Parliament must consider the issue for debate, but Labour plans to trigger a vote on the matter on Wednesday if the government does not change its mind.

With Downing Street having signalled it will not be prolonging the programme through the holidays, Labour says it will table a motion calling on the government to continue directly funding free school meals over the holidays until Easter 2021.

The motion, which will be led by Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner, will seek to “prevent over a million children going hungry during the coronavirus crisis”.

Labour leader Keir Starmer is calling on Tory MPs to rebel against the government in the Commons by backing the motion.

In a tweet, he wrote: "Over a million children could go hungry over half term and Christmas holidays if free school meals aren't extended.

"Conservative MPs must listen to campaigners, including @MarcusRashford, and vote with Labour tomorrow to extend free schools meals."

The party said in a statement MP Tulip Siddiq, the shadow minister for children and early years, wrote to all Conservative backbench MPs asking them to support Labour’s proposals.

“Over a million children are at risk of going hungry over the holidays without access to free school meals.

"It is essential the government provides this support urgently,” Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said.

“We gave the prime minister the chance to change course, but he refused to do so.

"Now his MPs must decide if they want to vote for their constituents to get this vital support or if they will leave families struggling to put food on the table.”

Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford was made an MBE for his work on the school meals campaign Credit: Nigel French/PA

The Welsh Labour Government has pledged to provide free school meals during the holidays until Easter next year.

Rashford's parliamentary petition, which calls for food to be provided during all holidays and for free school meals to be expanded to all households on Universal Credit, has garnered more than 295,000 signatures since being launched late last week.

Rashford, who has been made an MBE for his services to vulnerable children, forced a government U-turn on free school meal vouchers for eligible pupils over the summer holidays.

The footballer tweeted on Tuesday morning that a vote will be held in the Commons on Wednesday.

He added: "I’ve spoken to a number of MPs who I know care. I’ve also spoken to MPs who were on free school meals...

"Whilst I don’t agree with another sticking plaster method, these children do need protecting during the upcoming holidays. "If your MP doesn’t deem providing vulnerable children with vital food resources a priority then you must ask yourself why."

Downing Street has shown reluctance to extend the scheme, with a spokesperson indicating on Thursday that ministers would not provide free school meals to children in England during the Christmas break.

A Number 10 spokesperson said: “It’s not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays.”

Labour said more than 1.44 million children who were eligible for free school meals would benefit if the scheme was extended.

The push to extend the scheme has been supported by education unions, with Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Geoff Barton last week saying: “The government must show that it is committed to social justice by extending free school meal provision to school holiday periods during this time of national emergency in which many families are experiencing great hardship.”