Communities rally to feed hungry children as ministers leave them high and dry

After a shocking 320 Tory MPs voted to prevent children living in poverty from receiving free school meals during the holidays, local businesses, authorities and community groups are stepping in to plug the gap in duty-of-care. Meanwhile, ministers face a damaging grassroots Tory revolt over the issue.

Dozens of people from a range of organisations have stepped in to help their local communities. Health secretary Matt Hancock, who voted against the motion to feed hungry children, has leapt at the chance to praise their “absolutely wonderful” efforts. Meanwhile, he insists that the government has already provided millions to town halls to help their communities.

Piling on pressure

A petition from footballer Marcus Rashford, who has been spearheading demands for the extension of free meals in England over the school holidays, has passed 800,000 signatures, piling further pressure on the government to act.

Hancock told Sky News he agrees “very strongly” with “the purpose” of Rashford’s campaign, saying:

I think we’re all inspired by the way that he’s led that campaign.

Whilst Rashford is no doubt delighted that the health minister is theoretically in favour of feeding children, he did question the government’s willingness to engage with him on the issue. Hancock told BBC Breakfast that the prime minister had communicated with Rashford on the topic:

But Rashford’s reply suggested they had not spoken since the government’s U-turn on providing food vouchers during the summer break in June:

Cold comfort

Hancock has also said that Universal Credit had increased by £20 a week, while central government has already provided £63 million to local authorities so that they can support people. He hinted that further help could be given, amid reports the government is planning a partial climbdown in time for the Christmas holidays. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

Our attitude and our purpose it to ensure that everybody gets the support they need and no child, of course, no child should go hungry, nobody could possibly want that. The question is how best to do it.

Hancock was challenged over whether decisions by councils, businesses and charities to step in showed that more direct action is needed. He apparently sidestepped the question, saying:

I think that’s absolutely wonderful that companies have come forward and are playing their part and supporting people in these very difficult times. I also think that it’s brilliant that the councils are coming forward, having been funded by central government, £63 million has gone to councils so that they can do exactly what you say, so that they can support people and make sure that everybody and every child gets the support that they need,” he said.

£63 million – a closer look

Despite rumours of a grassroots revolt among local Tory councils, Hancock persisted in his view that all was well, saying “of course” he welcomes the support from councils, “because that is the councils delivering with the funding that has been provided by central government”.

To put the £63m funding in perspective:

  • Greater Manchester alone has been granted a £60m relief package to help businesses affected by coronavirus restrictions. Local leaders originally asked for £90m.
  • The £63m funding is intended to cover all coronavirus related hardship; not school meals. Leaders of Warwickshire County Council said to the BBC that “they had already spent all the money allocated under the £63m fund… and it was not enough to fund school meals too.”
  • As The Canary previously reported, the government has squandered nearly a billion pounds giving out coronavirus related contracts to its friends. Much of that money has simply been wasted.
  • Meanwhile, taxpayers continue to subsidise MPs’ meals  – to the tune of £4.4m in 2018.
Communities stepping in
While government ministers stand by and applaud, humans are stepping up – despite their own hardships  – to feed hungry children in their communities. First stepping in to help include Barry’s Tearoom in Cumbria, Greenfields Farm in Telford, The Watering Can in Liverpool, Jordan’s Cafe in Worthing and Count House Cafe in Cornwall.

Rashford, who has used his social media profile to highlight examples of businesses that have pledged to help with meals for local children tweeted:

Once again, communities are showing their power and resilience to look after each other in the face of shocking behaviour from ministers who’ve seemingly abandoned hungry children.

Additional reporting by PA.

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