Government faces growing revolt from own MPs over free school meals row

Video report by ITV News Correspondent Juliet Bremner

Boris Johnson is struggling to contain a growing Conservative backbench rebellion as ministers continue to resist demands for a U-turn on free school meals amid criticism.

A series of senior Tories have warned they could vote against the government if there is fresh Commons division on extending free meals in England during the school holidays.

Labour has warned it will bring the issue back into the House of Commons if the government does not back down before Christmas.

It comes as public support for the campaign spearheaded by footballer Marcus Rashford continues to grow, with one senior Tory saying Number 10 had “misunderstood” the mood of the nation.

Rashford received an MBE this year for his work on the free school meals campaign. Credit: PA

On Wednesday, the government comfortably defeated the initial Labour motion calling for the extension of free meals during the school holidays in England until Easter 2021.

The vote simply served to galvanise public support for the campaign, however, with local businesses and other organisations coming forward with offers of free meals.England star Rashford has continued to share different locations of businesses, councils and other authorities pledging to provide free meals for vulnerable children during school holidays.

Now his own MPs have started to question the government's resistance to a change in policy.

Marcus Rashford and his mum helped out at a food charity. Credit: PA

Sir Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the Commons Liaison Committee of senior MPs, told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: “I think we have to admit that we have misunderstood the mood of the country here.

“The public want to see the government taking a national lead on this. I think the government will probably have to think again on that, particularly if there’s going to be more votes in the House of Commons.”

While Former defence minister Tobias Ellwood said he regretted voting with the government last week and that extending free school meals offered a “practical vehicle” for providing support to families.

"If you have a vehicle, such as a free school meals provision which is popular, tried and tested - it's practical, it's already in place - let's utilise it and let's extend that and let's not try to fight those people who'd actually like to receive it," he said.

Another former minister, Tim Loughton, told BBC Radio 4's The World This Week that it had been a “mistake” not to continue with free meals during the holidays.

Mr Loughton said he was prepared to vote against the government if there was another vote.

Brandon Lewis. Credit: PA

Despite the growing pressure, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has insisted ministers were providing support to families struggling due to the Covid pandemic.

“I think we’ve got the package in place that means people have got the support they need during school holidays,” he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show.

Mr Lewis insisted the government had the “right position”, increasing Universal Credit and providing £63 million to local authorities to help people in their communities at a time of hardship.

“I know this is a very emotive issue. It is a sensitive issue. It is something that affects families in my constituency as well as round the country,” he said.

“What we are looking to do is ensure that we deal with child poverty at the core, putting the structure in place that means even in school holidays children can get access to the food that they need.”

Families are facing an unprecedented situation over the winter due to Covid-19. Credit: PA

Outside of Westminster the government's stance has faced criticism too.

Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, suggested the continued wrangling was like something out of the pages of Charles Dickens.

“To have a debate about whether we should make sure that hungry and vulnerable children have enough to eat is something that is strikingly similar to something we’d expect to see in chapters of Oliver Twist – a novel published in the 19th century,” she told Sophy Ridge On Sunday.

While more than 2,000 paediatricians have signed a letter urging Boris Johnson to extend free school meals to vulnerable children during the holidays.

Members of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said they are shocked by the government’s “refusal” to do so, and praised footballer Marcus Rashford's “powerful campaigning” on the issue.

They add childhood hunger should “transcend politics”.