Free school meals: Boris Johnson facing growing backbench revolt over refusal to extend policy

Kate Devlin and Tom Batchelor
·3 min read
Boris Johnson leads the news conference on the coronavirus at 10 Downing Street (Getty Images)
Boris Johnson leads the news conference on the coronavirus at 10 Downing Street (Getty Images)

Boris Johnson is facing a growing backbench revolt over his handling of the free school meals row after the Children’s Commissioner for England compared the government’s actions to a Dickens novel.

Anne Longfield said she was "horrified" by the government’s refusal to extend free school meals to disadvantaged pupils over the October half-term and Christmas breaks.

“We're a wealthy country, it's 2020,” she said. "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.”

Hundreds of businesses and councils have announced that they will feed hungry pupils this week, supporting a campaign started by the England footballer Marcus Rashford.

As pressure grows on the prime minster to perform a U-turn, a former Conservative minister announced he would vote with Labour if the issue came before the Commons before Christmas.

Tim Loughton told the BBC’s The World This Weekend: "If we have another vote I will vote to extend school meals during the Christmas holidays and until the pandemic is over."

Another former Tory minister, Tobias Ellwood, told Times Radio he regretted voting against providing free school meals over the holidays in England last week.

Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, the chairman of the powerful Commons Liaison committee, also appeared to suggest his party could lose another vote, which Labour has pledged to hold before the end of the year.

“I think the government will probably have to think again, “ he said, “particularly if there are going to be more votes in the House of Commons”.

Other Conservative MPs are understood to believe the government should now increase Universal Credit payments, to cut the number of children going hungry over the holidays.

Tory MPs have spent the weekend on the receiving end of stinging criticism on social media and in emails from constituents.

Conservative MPs who have received just 50 emails on the issue are understood to believe that they have got off lightly compared to some of their colleagues.

Many Tory MPs are openly critical of the way the row has been handled by No 10, complaining that the government’s stance was not explained properly to voters.

Others are furious No 10 did not appear to see the row coming, despite performing a U-turn on free school meals during the summer holidays just a few months ago.

The government last week comfortably defeated a Labour motion calling for the extension of free meals during the school holidays in England until Easter, with a Commons majority of more than 60.

A government spokesman said: “This government has expanded eligibility for free school meals to more children than any other in decades.

"We have provided free school meals when schools were partially closed, increasing welfare support by £9.3bn, and giving councils £63m for families facing financial difficulties.

"We also provided vouchers through the Covid Summer Food Fund, in addition to the Holiday Activities and Food Programme.

“Now that the vast majority of pupils are back in school and over 99 per cent of schools have been open every week since term began, kitchens are able to provide healthy, nutritious meals to all children, including those eligible for free school meals.”

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