'It didn't' take Marcus Rashford campaign on free school meals to make government U-turn, claims minister

A government minister has claimed it wasn't the work of footballer Marcus Rashford that made the government U-turn on its policy on extending free school meals.

Minister for Children Vicky Ford was one of 321 Conservative MPs who voted against a Labour motion for free school meals during the October half term.

The campaigning of Manchester United and England footballer Rashford - which included two calls with the Prime Minister - was widely credited in forcing the government to make an about turn on the policy.

On ITV's Good Morning Britain, Ms Ford was asked "Why did it take a footballer to make you extend free school meals?" to which she responded: "It didn't, actually."

"We had put in support elsewhere and we have continued to do so through the Covid winter grant scheme," Ms Ford said when questioned on her voting history.

"Marcus has done some really super work in this period, but I have extended free school meals to more groups of children than any government in the past 50 years.

"We are rolling out our holiday activities and food schemes across the whole country, which was a manifesto commitment."

GMB presenter Susanna Reid replied: "OK, and it took Marcus Rashford posting those pictures of the boxes to change policy on vouchers, as well."

The footballer shared images of free school meal parcels sent to families, including a £30 parcel estimated to contain just over £5 worth of food.

Images circulated on social media revealed “woefully inadequate” free school meal parcels sent to families.

Ms Ford said: "Actually no, no, we had introduced the voucher scheme and done the top up funding as soon as schools were asked to close to most pupils in this lockdown.

"It did take some time and there were some shocking pictures of a few lunchboxes, but the vast majority of this scheme has worked well."

Rashford and a number of other celebrities campaigned to extend free school meals during the half-term holidays last year, with a public petition reaching 800,000 signatures.

The row prompted the government's own MPs to call for change, despite many in the party initially voting to reject providing food vouchers through October half term.

The government was forced to do a U-turn over its free school meals policy over the summer.

GMB co-presenter Adil Ray said it was “disingenuous” of the minister to “try to take credit” for Rashford’s intervention.

Mrs Ford responded: “Actually, those boxes were completely shocking, they did not meet the school food standards – we called it out immediately.

“We set up a hotline in the DfE for anyone to come and complain about a lunch box that was below the standard and, in that first week, we had less than 10 complaints, all of which were dealt with and the standards in the schools were immediately improved.

“Children must not go hungry, I’ve made that very clear throughout this pandemic.”

Rashford has since called for an urgent review of the government’s policy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Listen to our latest Peston podcast: