Rashford rubbishes Hancock claim PM's contacted him over free school meals campaign as pressure for U-turn mounts

Marcus Rashford has spearheaded the campaign for free school meals over the holidays. Credit: PA

Pressure is mounting for Boris Johnson to perform a U-turn on extending the free school meals scheme through the half-term holidays after hundreds of thousands of meals were pledged by councils and private companies.

It appears public support is firmly behind footballer Marcus Rashford's campaign to extend the scheme - with a petition reaching 800,000 signatures - and a growing number of backbench Tories are calling for a change of tack after a large majority of them voted to reject providing food vouchers through October half term.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock hailed those who stepped in to help as "absolutely wonderful", while saying it was cash from central government that had allowed councils to provide support.

Mr Hancock said he agrees "very strongly" with "the purpose" of Rashford's campaign, telling Sky News: "I think we're all inspired by the way that he's led that campaign.

"And the purpose is that no child should go hungry, and that's right."

The health secretary said the prime minister had been in contact with Rashford over the campaign, saying there had been "communication between the two" but the England striker tweeted to rubbish the claim.

In response to a tweet about the claim, Rashford wrote: "Hmm, unless he’s referring to the call we had following the u-turn in June?..."

The footballer was referring to his previous campaign for free meals for eligible children during the summer holidays, which eventually forced the government into a U-turn and saw him awarded an MBE for his efforts.

Mr Johnson is reportedly planning to increase funding for the poorest families over Christmas in an bid to qualm the damaging Tory revolt over free school meals.

The Times quoted allies of the prime minister claiming work was under way to provide additional support for eligible pupils during the holidays.

There was no immediate response from Downing Street.

This kind of move is likely to be seen as a partial climbdown by the government in its struggle with Rashford, who has been spearheading demands for free meals to be extended in England over the school holidays.

Mr Hancock said Universal Credit had already been increased by £20 a week while £63 million has already been provided by central Government to local authorities so that they can support people.

It was put to Mr Hancock that councils, including Tory-run councils, businesses and charities stepping in to say they will help with free meals for pupils shows that more direct action is needed.

"I think that's absolutely wonderful that companies have come forward and are playing their part and supporting people in these very difficult times.

Boris Johnson has so far resisted pressure to provide free school meals to children during the holidays. Credit: PA

"I also think that it's brilliant that the councils are coming forward, having been funded by central government, £63 million has gone to councils so that they can do exactly what you say, so that they can support people and make sure that everybody and every child gets the support that they need," he said.

Mr Hancock said "of course" he welcomes the support from councils "because that is the councils delivering with the funding that has been provided by central government".

He told Sky News: "I saw yesterday that Marcus Rashford called for people to work together, for collaboration on this, and I strongly agree with that."

Along with Tory MPs, a number of Tory run councils have voiced concern over government policy on the issue and several have announced they will provide help to those in need.

Medway and Wandsworth Council, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council and Kensington and Chelsea council are among the Conservative Councils providing support for eligible families.

Former immigration minister Caroline Nokes became the latest MP to join the revolt, telling BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour there had to be a change of tack.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about them having to take another look at it. I think it has to be quick and I think it has to be very very clear,” she said.

With local councils and businesses continuing to pledge free food for children in need during this week’s half term break, support for Rashford’s petition has passed 800,000 signatures.

Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer has sought to exploit the disarray in the Conservative ranks by confirming Labour would force another Commons vote on the issue if ministers do not relent in time for the Christmas holidays.

In further protest, dozens of empty plates were left outside the constituency office of Southend West MP Sir David Amess.

The protest was organised by the All Rise Collective, a group of inclusive feminist allies in the community.

Sir David was one of 322 MPs who last week voted against the Labour motion calling for the extension of free meals during the school holidays in England until Easter 2021.

Locals wrote messages on empty plates and left them outside the Southend West Conservative Association building on Sunday, with queues of people waiting to participate stretching down the street.

Despite the growing pressure, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis – who was sent out to defend the Government’s position over the weekend – insisted ministers were providing support to families struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic.

He said that Universal Credit had been increased while £63 million was being provided to local authorities to help people in their communities at a time of hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic.

However, senior Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin warned the government had “misunderstood the mood of the country” and would probably have to think again.

Former children’s minister Tim Loughton – who abstained in last week’s vote on the issue – said he would vote against the Government if it came to the Commons again, while another ex-minister, Tobias Ellwood, expressed regret that he had supported the Government last week.

The government comfortably defeated Labour’s motion calling for the extension of free meals during the holidays until Easter 2021 with a Commons majority of more than 60, with just five Tory MPs breaking ranks to vote with the opposition.

However, having already been forced to make one U-turn on the issue over the summer as a result of Rashford’s campaigning, ministers will be concerned at the prospect of another revolt when MPs return to Westminster following this week’s half-term recess.