Free school meals: Rishi Sunak considering more support ahead of Christmas as spending review date set

Thousands of meals have been pledged by private companies and councils who have decided to step in and provide food though the October holidays after the government said it would not extend the free school meals scheme. Credit: PA

The chancellor is "considering" additional support for families who are struggling at Christmas following the row over free school meals, with a mini-budget due to be delivered at the end of November.

Rishi Sunak announced on Wednesday morning he would hold a one-year spending review on November 25 "in order to prioritise the response to Covid-19".

It comes as the government struggles to deal with the fallout over its decision to block an extension to the free school meals scheme over the October half-term, which would have seen eligible families provided food vouchers to feed their children.

Boris Johnson had already suggested there will be more help in time for Christmas, and the environment secretary dropped a big hint to ITV News that more help could be on the way.

George Eustice, when asked whether struggling families would receive more help, said: "There's a budget coming up shortly and this is something the chancellor be considering in the round."

He added: "'If there's an issue that needs addressing then we stand ready to do other types of intervention and other types of support."

But Mr Eustice said for now, help is being provided in the form of a £20 increase to weekly Universal Credit payments.

The government will see the spending review as a chance to win back the public after blocking the extension of free school meals resulted in a furious response.

Marcus Rashford's campaign to help struggling families through the holidays failed to win over a huge majority of Tory MPs, who voted against Labour's motion to extend free school meals, but it started an out-pour of support from the public.

Thousands of meals have been pledged by councils and private companies across the country after being inspired by footballer Rashford, whose petition to end child food poverty has almost a million signatures.

Amid pressure from Rashford's campaign, Number 10 hinted this week that Mr Sunak could announce extra support.

When asked, the Prime Minister's official spokesman pointed reporters to comments from Health Secretary Matt Hancock that "the spending review sets out any future funding on behalf of the Government".

Mr Sunak will use his review to set departmental resources and capital budgets for 2021-22, and the devolved administrations' block grants for the same period.

The government had already confirmed that it was scrapping a planned multi-year spending review and instead will hold only a one-year review due to the focus on dealing with the current pandemic.

Funding for the NHS and schools will remain multi-year, along with priority infrastructure projects.

The shift to a single-year review will have a knock-on impact on the wider programme examining the UK's defence spending and foreign policy priorities.

The integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy is intended to define the Government's vision for the UK's role in the world over the next decade.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said last week: "We are considering the implications of the one-year spending review on the integrated review and we will provide an update on that in due course."