Manchester United star and poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford MBE has said children will be going to bed tonight “thinking they do not matter” after shameful Tory MPs voted down a Labour motion on his bid to extend free school meals over the holidays.
MPs voted on the issue tonight after the motion was debated in the Commons this afternoon. It called for the scheme to be extended over school holidays until Easter 2021, to help feed more than 1.4 million hungry children in vulnerable families in the UK.
In shameful scenes, Tories voted down the motion, which was defeated by 322 votes to 261, with Child Poverty Action Group saying ” We’ve reached a low point” with the Government ducking its “moral responsibility”.
England starlet Rashford slammed the situation, lamenting that this is “not politics, this is humanity.”
Marcus said on Twitter in response: “Put aside all the noise, the digs, the party politics and let’s focus on the reality.
“A significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today. We must stop stigmatising, judging and pointing fingers. Our views are being clouded by political affiliation. This is not politics, this is humanity.
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“We talk about the devastating impact of Covid-19 but, if projections are anything to go by, child food poverty has the potential to become the greatest pandemic the country has ever faced. We must start working together and unite to protect our most vulnerable children. No more sticking plasters.
“Let’s face this head on. Let’s level up once and for all. The asks of the Child Food Poverty Taskforce remain the same. We are endorsing Government-commissioned policy recommendations that were built from extensive research and data analysis. These policies are vital to stabilising millions of households across the UK and need to be implemented without delay. Child hunger should never be faced with looming deadlines.
“We need a long-term sustainable framework, and thanks to the 300,000+ signatures, we will now be offered the opportunity to discuss this.”
The striker again extended an olive branch to Downing Street, inviting them to “sit around the table” with his Taskforce.
“Following private and public approaches, I once again invite Number 10 to sit around the table with the Taskforce so that, together, we can collaborate on how best to combat child food poverty in the UK,” he added.
Downing Street had been resisting pressure to back the football star’s bid.
The player previously warned politicians not to “turn a blind eye” to vulnerable families and said he would be “paying close attention” to the vote.
But a Number 10 spokesperson previously said: “While schools continue to play an integral role in the community, it’s not for them to regularly provide food during school holidays.”
Downing Street had come under mounting pressure to perform a U-turn, and there was outrage after some Tory MPs weighed in on the issue.
Rashford appeared to refer to this in his statement tonight.
He continued: “We are here to help, but we require guidance and insight from those in Number 10. I don’t have the education of a politician, many on Twitter have made that clear today, but I have a social education having lived through his and having spent time with the families and children most affected.
“These children matter. These children are the future of this country. They are not just another statistic. And for as long as they don’t have a voice, they will have mine. You have my word on that.”
Several Tory MPs weighed in on the issue ahead of the vote today.
Conservative MP Ben Bradley wrote on Twitter : “Gov has lots of responsibilities: supporting the vulnerable, helping people to help themselves, balancing the books.
“Not as simple as you to make out Marcus. Extending FSM to sch hols passes responsibility for feeding kids away from parents, to the State. It increases dependency.”
In response, Marcus tweeted: “Ben, the economy already pays a high price for child hunger. If children were fed properly you would increase educational attainment and boost life chances. @KelloggsUKI calculated we would spend at least £5.2M a year on lost teaching hours as teachers are caring for hungry kids.
“And for a more humane response, since March, 32% of families have suffered a drop in income. Nearly 1 million have fallen off the payroll. This is not dependency, this a cry for help. There are no jobs!! 250% increase in food poverty and rising. Nobody said this was simple…”
After tonight’s vote, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group Alison Garnham said: “We’ve reached a low point if in the midst of a pandemic we decide we can’t make sure children in the lowest income families have a nutritious meal in the middle of the day.
“Tonight’s vote means more children going without and more desperately anxious parents – just as a coronavirus winter approaches.
“In short it ducks our moral responsibility to protect the country’s most vulnerable children.
“It will not sit well with all those people from many walks of life who back Marcus Rashford because they do not want child poverty to be ignored any longer.”
Tone-deaf Tory minister Paul Scully told the BBC that “children have been going hungry under a Labour government for years” and insisted the Government had been tackling the issue.
Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green said he should apologise for the “disgraceful” remarks which were a “slap in the face” for struggling families.
She added: ” Rising child poverty and more families going hungry is the shameful legacy of the Conservatives’ decade in power.
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“Paul Scully should apologise for his disgraceful comment and Conservative MPs should do something about this injustice by supporting Labour’s plan to ensure no child goes hungry over Christmas.”
But Conservative Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, urged the Government to continue providing meals over the holidays while the coronavirus crisis was ongoing and called on ministers to work with Rashford.
But in the Commons, Boris Johnson continued to resist calls for a change of tack, dodging questions on the issue at Prime Minister Questions.
“We support kids on low incomes in school and we will continue to do so,” he told MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions.
“But the most important thing is to keep them in school and not tear off into another national lockdown taking them out of school.
“We will continue to use the benefits system and all the systems of income to support children throughout the holidays as well.”
Earlier Rashford, who was made an MBE for his efforts this year, urged his 3.4 million Twitter followers to lobby MPs to back his campaign.
He said: “Paying close attention to the Commons today and to those who are willing to turn a blind eye to the needs of our most vulnerable children, 2.2 million of them who currently qualify for free school meals.”
Rashford said the economic hit as a result of the coronavirus pandemic had made the situation worse than it was at the start of the crisis.
“We aren’t in the same position we were in in the summer, it’s much worse,” he said.
“The number of children with little to no access to food has risen significantly.”
Mr Halfon told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he would either vote for the Labour motion or abstain depending on what the Government said in the Commons.
He added: “What the Government needs to do is to have a long-term plan, sit down with the taskforce set up by Marcus Rashford and actually come up with a serious plan and a budget to deal with this problem.
“All the statistics show that families are struggling. We know that 10% of families are affected by food insecurity.
“I am not arguing this should happen forever, but the free school meals should at least go on until we are out of the coronavirus, god willing, by next spring.”
Labour’s motion called for the scheme to be extended over school holidays until Easter 2021.
The party’s analysis showed that nearly one million children living in areas that are subject to Tier 2 and Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions are set to lose access to free school meals over the upcoming holidays.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: “This vote is about our values as a country and whether the Government, in the middle of this crisis, is happy to let our children go hungry.
“Millions of families up and down the country are facing a bleak winter of real hardship as the furlough scheme is withdrawn and further restrictions are put in place without proper support for businesses, jobs and livelihoods.”
A Government spokesman said: “We have been giving substantial support to families and children, by providing free school meals when schools were partially closed, increasing welfare support by £9.3 billion, and giving councils £63 million 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% 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.”