Conservatives face backlash over free school meals remarks as Rashford praises local response

Credit: PA

Footballer Marcus Rashford has said he is "truly overwhelmed" by the support for his campaign to provide free meals to vulnerable children during the school holidays.

While some Conservative MPs have been accused of making controversial comments on the subject.

The England star praised local communities for stepping in, his comments come after Parliament rejected proposals to extend the measure over the holidays.

Councils across England, including Tory-run bodies, have announced half-term stop-gap measures after the vote by MPs. while a Conservative mayor criticised the government’s "last-minute" decision-making on children’s free meals funding.

Rashford said of the community response: "I could not be more proud to call myself British".

The striker's online petition had garnered more than 660,000 signatures by Saturday morning and continues to rise.

His viral campaign came after MPs rejected a bid from Labour, backed by the footballer, to extend free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021.

Among the businesses and organisations around the country who offered free food were tea rooms, churches, farms and takeaways.

Rashford is using his social media platforms to promote businesses offering meals to children during the holidays. Credit: PA

In a statement to BBC Newsnight, Rashford said: “Growing up we didn’t have a lot, but we always had the safety net of the community.

"That community was my family. When we stumbled, we were caught with open arms.

"Even at their lowest point, having felt the devastating effects of the pandemic, local businesses have wrapped arms around their communities today, catching vulnerable children as they fell.

“I couldn’t be more proud to call myself British tonight. I am truly overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.

"You want to talk about ‘celebrities’ and ‘superstars’, look no further than my Twitter feed and that’s exactly what you’ll find."

Speaking on Saturday morning to BBC Radio 4 Today programme, a government minister defended the decision not to extend free school meals through the school holidays

Civil society minister Baroness Barran said: "The government has made over £200 billion available to protect people’s incomes and people’s livelihoods.

"We have worked very closely with charities who operate food banks across the country. There are different approaches to how we do this but we have used all the levers possible to try to make sure that people are safe and well as we go forward.

“We have provided more money through Universal Credit, we have provided more money to local authorities and we believe that is a better way of approaching this problem."

Credit: PA

But there has been criticism of Number 10, with West Midlands Tory mayor Andy Street said the government should make “a clear decision” on whether it would or would not fund free school meals over holidays “well in advance”.

“It should not be a last-minute thing, this should be planned for, there should be a national approach on this,” he said.

The Conservative Mayor adding that the lack of planning meant there was now an “indiscriminate arrangement” across the country as to whether free school meals would be provided over the break.

While Tory MP for North Devon Selaine Saxby sparked anger after comments on local businesses giving free food away.

A screenshot of a since-removed post in her name on Facebook said: "I am delighted our local businesses have bounced back so much after lockdown they are able to give away food for free, and very much hope they will not be seeking any further government support."

The MP later claimed her comments were "out of context" and added: "I of course deeply regret any offence which may have been caused."

Her party colleague Ben Bradley also said a tweet he sent, which prompted accusations that he was stigmatising working class families, was "totally taken out of context".

The MP for Mansfield replied to a tweet in which another user described the free school meals programme as "£20 cash direct to a crack den and a brothel", with the Tory writing: "That’s what FSM vouchers in the summer effectively did…"

Mr Bradley later claimed he was trying to say that giving children who live in "chaotic" situations an "unrestricted voucher to spend on whatever isn’t helpful".

But Labour MPs have pointed out the vouchers in summer could only be used to buy food.

Defending Mr Bradley, another MP Mark Jenkinson accused people of attempting to "score political points".

The comments also sparked questions and demands for evidence, with Labour’s Jess Phillips writing: "Seriously Mark, let’s have a chat about this when in Parliament I’d love to see your evidence, I’d also like to talk to you about life living with those with substance misuse and what does and doesn’t help solve it."

Elsewhere Tory-run Kensington and Chelsea council said it will pay for free school meals for eligible pupils in the borough during next week’s half-term.

The council said almost 3,300 youngsters will receive £15 vouchers from their schools to cover the cost of meals during the holiday, equal to the value of £3 per day for the lunchtime meal they would receive if in school.

Other Tory-controlled councils getting on board include Hillingdon, Medway and Wandsworth councils.

The Labour leader of Birmingham City Council pledged to provide 61,000 eligible youngsters with meals in a scheme which will cost the local authority between £800,000 and £1 million, and the mayor of Liverpool said he was “not prepared to stand by and watch”, as he announced £300,000 of funding.

Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson and Liverpool City Council have set up a JustGiving page to raise money, expressing their determination “that no child shall go hungry this October half-term”.

McDonald’s UK has also offered support to families, with the fast-food chain tweeting: “We are proud to announce a partnership with Fare Share UK to provide one million meals for families in need.

“Our funding will enable the urgent redistribution of meals across the next couple of weeks to those in greatest need.”

Boris Johnson told MPs at PMQs on Wednesday: “We support kids on low incomes in school and we will continue to do so. Credit: PA

Downing Street declined to praise such outlets offering to provide free meals for vulnerable children over half-term.

A Number 10 spokesman, asked repeatedly if the Prime Minister welcomed the offer from businesses and some councils, said: “As we have set out before, we are in a different position now with schools back open to all and the vast majority of pupils back to school.

“I believe the PM said during PMQs that free school meals will continue during term time and that he wants to continue to support families throughout the crisis so they have cash available to feed kids if they need to.”