On 21 October, the UK government voted by 322 to 261 against a campaign calling to provide free school meals to impoverished children over the holidays, until Spring 2021. Then, a few weeks later on 7 November, when the world’s attention was focused on the US presidential election, the UK government quietly backtracked on the original vote and agreed to fund free school meals over the holidays. The government will now spend about £400 million on the scheme, with £170m given for local councils until March 2021, and £220m to cover the Easter, Summer, and Christmas periods of 2021. This campaign was initiated by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford MBE.
The 23-year-old footballer has campaigned extensively against child poverty and seeks to eliminate it across the UK, having himself endured poverty when growing up in Manchester. 1.4 million children claimed free school meals in January 2020, with the number having risen by 900,000 since the coronavirus pandemic hit. After Covid-19 forced schools to close in spring, the government provided free food vouchers to support poor children during the closure. Rashford successfully launched a campaign in June 2020 to extend the provision of these vouchers to school-children over the six-week summer holidays, forcing the government into a U-turn after they initially refused to extend them.
Rashford endeavoured to get the free school meal scheme extended over the winter holidays too, pushing for a petition he started to be debated in Parliament, but this suffered a defeat in the House of Commons. Undeterred, he continued his fight and managed to get restaurants, cafes, his own football club, and people across the country to provide free meals to children over the upcoming school holidays, eventually succeeding in getting Downing Street on his side too and reverse their original decision.
The steps made today will improve the lives of near 1.7 million children in the UK over the next 12 months
– Marcus Rashford
Following Manchester United’s winning game against Everton on 7 November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Rashford personally to offer his support for the scheme. Rashford said: “I had a good conversation with the prime minister to better understand the proposed plan, and I very much welcome the steps that have been taken to combat child food poverty in the UK….The steps made today will improve the lives of near 1.7 million children in the UK over the next 12 months”. He added: “The intent the government have shown today is nothing but positive and they should be recognised for that.”
This U-turn came after overwhelming backlash the government received for its initial response to Rashford’s campaign and their (according to Rashford) “inhumane” retort to it. Conservative MPs defended the initial vote and criticised Rashford’s proposal, with Mansfield MP Ben Bradley saying, “extending freebies are a sticking plaster not a solution.” Bradley stated that extending free school meals would lead to increased dependency on the state and take the responsibility of feeding kids away from parents.
[It is] not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays
– Downing Street spokesman
Danny Kruger, Conservative MP for Devizes, expressed similar sentiments. Bradley also tweeted that money for free school meals over the summer went more to brothels and crack dens than to kids in need. He has since deleted these tweets. A Downing Street spokesman also that it was “not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays,” further adding: “We believe the best way to support families outside of term time is through Universal Credit rather than government subsidising meals.”
Boris Johnson initially stood his ground as well, defending the vote and refusing to extend free school meals. He said the government was supporting families with a Universal Credit increase of £20 a week and an extra £63m to councils to help people struggling to buy food and essentials. The PM said: “We are very proud of the support we have given, I have said repeatedly throughout this crisis that the government will support families and businesses, jobs and livelihoods, across the country.” Mr. Johnson affirmed his support for the nation’s starving children, saying that the government would “do everything in our power to make sure that no kid, no child goes hungry”.
Families from Leicestershire to Norfolk have said that Universal Credit alone would often prove to be insufficient to cater to their basic needs (such as food)
But actions speak louder than words, and the result of the vote had a distressing impact on many across the UK who relied on free school meals to get by, with the Universal Credit scheme often proving to not be enough for many affected families. Families from Leicestershire to Norfolk have attested to the valuable help afforded by the free meal vouchers, saying that Universal Credit alone would often prove to be insufficient to cater to their basic needs. Some parents have even claimed to have gone hungry in order to make sure their kids had enough to eat. One mother from Leicestershire saying that the free meal vouchers were an “absolute lifeline” for her family during the Easter and summer holidays this year when the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged the nation and shuttered schools.
The Labour Party, which put Rashford’s initiative to a vote in Parliament, said Mr Johnson’s “warm words” would “do nothing” for the children at risk of starving. The original vote caused significant division among the government, with five Conservative MPs protesting the decision. This included parliamentary private secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Ansell, who resigned in dismay.
I am fully committed to this cause, and I will fight for the rest of my life for it
– Marcus Rashford
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage also criticised the government’s decision, saying: “If the government can subsidise Eat Out to Help Out, not being seen to give poor kids lunch in the school holidays looks mean and is wrong.” Mr. Farage has a point. The government’s initial refusal to extend free school meals not only looks bad, but also showcases Downing Street’s misaligned priorities. Some Tory MP’s defended their against-vote as crucial to sustaining the economy and taxpayers’ money.
But that argument falls on deaf ears considering how little the scheme cost and how much they spend in other areas that also affect taxpayers. Boris Johnson successfully secured a £16.5bn defence funding boost on 15 November 2020, on top of the UK’s annual defence budget of £41.5bn. The cost of extending free school meals is about 2.4% of this budget boost. If the government can pay for more weapons and drones, it could surely have spent a little more on feeding hungry kids. It speaks volumes when a professional athlete has to use his platform and influence to do more for his country’s children than the leaders of the country.
But Rashford was able to get it done, for the second time now this year, staying true to his words on striving to end child hunger in the UK. “I am fully committed to this cause, and I will fight for the rest of my life for it, because in my mind, no child should ever go hungry in the United Kingdom,” the player said after the government agreed to support his campaign for the second time. “Seeing the role everyone had played in supporting the most vulnerable children had been the greatest moment of my life.”
Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, and who also chairs the End Child Poverty Coalition, applauded Rashford’s efforts and said he deserved “enormous credit for pushing the issue of poverty to the top of the public’s agenda”, also saying that the government should be acknowledged for “listening”.