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Government U-turns on free schools meals

The government has U-turned on its refusal to extend its free school meals provision, following more pressure from the Premiership footballer and campaigner Marcus Rashford MBE. The prime minister Boris Johnson recently led a move to block a Labour motion to provide free school meals until Easter 2021, which was subsequently defeated by 322 votes to 261.

There will now be Welfare Assistance Grants for Local Authorities (LAs) to give out to needy households for food and bills from 1st December until the end of March. This will cover the Christmas holidays (£170m) and £16m for food distribution charities for Christmas. Thereafter, £220m has been allocated to the Holiday Activity and Food Programme for Easter, Summer and Christmas holidays in 2021 for all LAs in England. These programmes should reach all children on Free School Melas in England and the Welfare Assistance Grants will go beyond.

The work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey said: “We want to make sure vulnerable people feel cared for throughout this difficult time and, above all, no one should go hungry or be unable to pay their bills this winter. We know this has been a challenging time for many and we have consistently supported the lowest-paid families, protecting 9m jobs with furlough and boosting welfare support by £9.3bn.

“This package builds on that support and, by extending our successful Holiday Activities and Food programme, as well as funding a £170m Covid Winter Grant Scheme, we are making sure families get the help they need.”

The value of Healthy Start vouchers will be increased from £3.10 to £4.25 from April 2021. However, as of yet, there has been no commitment to expand the scheme to more children.

Rashford responded: “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. There is still so much more to do and my immediate concern is the approximate 1.7m children who miss out on Free School Meals, holiday provision and Healthy Start vouchers because their family income isn’t quite low enough, but the intent the government have shown today is nothing but positive and they should be recognised for that.

“The steps made today will improve the lives of near 1.7m children in the UK over the next 12 months and that can only be celebrated. 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.”

Food Foundation executive director Anna Taylor added: “This is a big win for disadvantaged children, but we must keep in mind that a similar number of disadvantaged children will continue to miss out on the benefits of free school meals and healthy start because the qualifying income criteria are currently set far too low. Children’s food poverty, like the pandemic, will not go away until we have a lasting solution in place. We’ve started the journey today, thanks to the government’s commitment, and we need to see it through so we can end child food poverty.”