A multi-millionaire Tory has said poor parents “actually prefer” to pay a “modest sum” for their kids’ meals.
Nadhim Zahawi made the eyebrow-raising claim as he refused Marcus Rashford’s call to extend free meals over the school holidays.
Footballer Rashford today urged Tory rebels to back his call in a Commons vote, which Labour will force tomorrow night.
Yet Business Minister Mr Zahawi claimed parents don’t actually want meals to be completely free.
Mr Zahawi told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I piloted with [former Labour and independent MP] Frank Field the holiday club programmes for free meals.
“We’ve put over £9 billion into Universal Credit to help exactly those families that need that help, and we continue with the policy of holiday clubs.
“The research when we did the pilot demonstrates that families didn’t just want the meals.
“Although they valued the meals, they didn’t like the labelling of them being free.
“They actually prefer to pay a modest amount, £1 or £2.
“But they valued the additional focus on exercise and on reading fun books and so on through the holiday”.
Mr Zahawi, who previous reports claim spent £10million on commercial property across London over 18 months, repeated the point to Times Radio.
He said: “I actually introduced the pilot with Frank Field when I was children and families minister, to do basically meals and other activities for children.
“Because actually, many of those parents, if you look at the behavioural studies that were done after that pilot, didn’t necessarily want just the free school meals.
“They wanted to the activities as well in holiday clubs, and we will continue to support those around the country in the areas where the most vulnerable families and children live.
“But we’ve made a big, big investment obviously in the free school meal system.
Mr Zahawi earned £241,000 a year in his second job as an oil executive before becoming a minister. The job at Gulf Keystone Petroleum also paid him a £253,200 bonus with no additional hours in 2017.
All the interests were declared to Parliament and there is no suggestion he broke any rules.
It came as Marcus Rashford laid down the gauntlet to hundreds of MPs to prove they “care” about hungry children.
MPs look set to vote tomorrow on a Labour motion to continue free meals to the poorest families until spring. But Tories could vote against – as No10 is refusing to budge.
The England and Manchester United star has already forced Boris Johnson into a humiliating U-turn over free school meals this summer. Now he’s hoping to do the same for meals in the half-term and Christmas breaks just as a wave of new coronavirus restrictions hit the nation.
The footballer tweeted: “Tomorrow MPs will vote on holiday provision – I’ve spoken to a number of MPs who I know care.
“I’ve also spoken to MPs who were on free school meals… If you don’t know if your MP is one of them, ask them, tag them.”
He then tagged his own MP – Tory Graham Brady.
Downing Street is refusing to extend the scheme to children in England during the Christmas and half-term breaks. A spokesman said: “It’s not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays.”
But Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green said: “Over a million children are at risk of going hungry over the holidays without access to free school meals.
“It is essential the Government provides this support urgently.
“We gave the Prime Minister the chance to change course, but he refused to do so.
“Now his MPs must decide if they want to vote for their constituents to get this vital support or if they will leave families struggling to put food on the table.”