Pressure is mounting on Boris Johnson to find a solution to ‘holiday hunger’ for English schoolchildren, as peers, bishops, Conservative backbenchers, Tory councils and the prime minister’s own food tsar queued up to say the government must do more.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak stood firm behind the prime minister’s refusal to offer school meal vouchers in response to the campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford, insisting the responsibility was on councils to use emergency money provided earlier in the year - even though many say it has already been spent.
And minister Nadhim Zahawi appeared to confirm that the government was hoping to see off a similar row at Christmas by expanding a Holiday Activity and Food programme to ensure participating children are fed over the festive break.
But Rashford himself tweeted that he had heard that the £63m of emergency funding announced by the government in June was already due to have been spent, adding: “If that is true (I don’t know that it is) then the effort local councils have put in to finding funding for food provision over the half term is just incredible.”
And Downing Street had no timetable for the rollout of the activity scheme, while some of those involved in a trial in 17 council areas over the summer questioned whether it would work so well over Christmas.
Kirsty McHugh, chief executive of the Mayor's Fund for London, told the PA news agency: "Holiday provision would be great over Christmas, but the question is have you got the community groups, the youth clubs who are operating it, given that people want to spend time with their families?”
And the scheme’s architect Henry Dimbleby said that more “in-kind support” in the form of food and other services would be more effective than some Tory MPs’ preferred option of boosting Universal Credit.
“This problem is real, it should go without saying it’s serious, it’s immediate and it’s going to get worse as employment gets worse and the government isn’t doing enough,” said Mr Dimbleby, the head of Mr Johnson’s national food strategy.
“One in seven families already are reporting not to be able to afford enough food.”
As more councils and businesses came forward to join Rashford’s campaign to feed children over the October half-term, a petition started by the Manchester United and England star approached 1 million signatures.
Conservative-controlled Windsor and Maidenhead council, which covers former PM Theresa May’s home constituency, wrote to schools to confirm it will back free meals and lobby government for support to cover the costs.
Council deputy chair Stuart Carroll said: “The government needs to provide funding and cover costs and I’m vigorously pushing the need for an urgent rethink. The government must address, and urgently, given the situation.”
Tory MP for Blackpool North Paul Maynard - one of a handful who abstained when Conservatives voted down a Labour motion for free school meals during the holiday last week - warned Mr Johnson that he was approaching the point when voters would decide his party’s actions do not match their election-time promises to “level up”.
The government had “advance warning” of the storm now shaking it, and should not have been surprised by criticism at a time when disruption remained too great to withdraw free school meals, said Mr Maynard, who joined 53 other Conservative MPs from the north of England to sign a Northern Research Group letter demanding a “roadmap out of lockdown” for the region.
Writing on the ConservativeHome website, he warned: “We are, I fear, fast reaching a point - to quote Keith Joseph from back in 1997 - where our policies and performance no longer match the analysis and principles on which millions have backed us in past general elections.”
In the House of Lords, a former president of the Methodist Conference spoke poignantly of his own experience of hunger as a child as he urged the PM to back Rashford’s campaign.
Lord Griffiths of Burry Port said that, even in his 70s, he remembers “very clearly” the panic school holidays caused when he was a boy in Carmarthenshire.
I’m hearing that the £63M funding provided to locals councils was meant to be spent by Oct 2nd...
If that is true (I don’t know that it is) then the effort local councils have put in to finding funding for food provision over Half Term is just incredible 👏🏾👏🏾
— Marcus Rashford MBE (@MarcusRashford) October 27, 2020
“My mother, a single woman, her only income was the contributions of the National Assistance,” he said. “We lived in one room.
"I remember very clearly, I can still taste and smell it, the mounting panic ahead of school holidays because the income we had could not stretch to feeding two boys and a mother in that day.”
In a swipe at Mr Johnson, the Labour peer said that the experience was probably the only thing he had in common with premiership footballer Rashford, adding: “We remember not in our heads but in our whole bodies… An Old Etonian, of course, can't be expected to have had the same experience."
The Anglican Bishop of Bristol, Vivienne Faull told peers: “While I agree with the government that free school meals are not the long term solution for holiday hunger, the reality is that it is now half term and children are going hungry.”
And former Bishop of Oxford Lord Harries said: “The most focused and efficient way of supporting the most vulnerable members of our society, the children, is by actually paying for school meals during the holidays, as has been recognised of course by the Scottish and Welsh governments.”
But education minister Baroness Berridge insisted that the provision of help with food was not a postcode lottery.
“1.4 million children in England are entitled to free school meals, saving their families over £400 a year,” she told peers. “And in addition to that, particularly through the soft drinks levy, the Government has in nearly 2,500 schools been funding breakfast clubs to provide children with healthy food."
Mr Sunak appeared to point the finger of blame for any child hunger at local councils, insisting it was not for Downing Street to “dictate” how they spent money provided to them.
The chancellor told BBC Radio 1 the government was "absolutely committed" to stamping out hunger.
But he added: “We've taken the view that we have provided resources for local authorities to help in a targeted way the most vulnerable children that they need to look after. “We've got to trust local councils in their area and we provide them with resources, as we have done in this case, and directly to families.”
Mr Zahawi said the government would “learn from” the summer pilots of activity clubs.
“The best way to do it – as the prime minister quite rightly outlined – is through local government,” said the business minister. “Seventeen local authorities participated in that pilot and of course through the actual welfare system - the Universal Credit system -delivering that additional help for those families.”
The minister said that for some parents “more important than the food to them was the activities” available at the clubs.