Ministers are under mounting pressure to reverse a decision not to offer free school meals during the holidays after several Tory MPs expressed their doubts over the government’s position and Labour vowed to bring the issue back to the House of Commons.
At least one Conservative minister and several senior backbenchers have voiced concern over the policy while the party is said to have angered “Red Wall” Tories who have faced a backlash in their northern constituencies over the government’s handling of the matter.
On Wednesday, the government comfortably defeated a Labour motion calling for the extension of free meals during the school holidays in England until Easter 2021 with a Commons majority of more than 60.
However, the vote galvanised public support for the campaign launched by footballer Marcus Rashford, with local businesses and other organisations coming forward with offers of free meals.
A number of councils – including some Conservative-run authorities – have announced stop-gap schemes to cover the October half-term break which begins on Monday.
Five Conservative MPs rebelled to support the Labour motion on Wednesday while others are coming under pressure from within their constituencies.
Tory MP Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee, wrote yesterday in support of extending free school meals, arguing that dealing with child hunger “should not be a left-wing issue. Far from it”.
He said: "What mystifies me is that no Conservative opposed the furlough scheme which, while of course I support, is in essence a welfare benefit to employers — it just doesn’t come from the DWP. And no Conservative opposed the Eat Out to Help Out scheme — again, another form of welfare relief to businesses.
“So, if benefits are acceptable for businesses during the pandemic then surely we should provide welfare in the form of breakfast clubs, holiday activities and free school meals to children?”
Senior Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin also said the government had "misunderstood" the mood of the country and urged ministers to think again.
He told Sky News's ‘Sophy Ridge on Sunday’ programme: "The public want to see the government taking a national lead on this. I think the government will probably have to think again on that, particularly if there's going to be more votes in the House of Commons.
"When you have got the chairman of the Education Select Committee not supporting the government on this – and he's a Conservative – I think that the government has to listen to the Conservative Party."
Johnny Mercer, a defence minister, accused the government of handling the issue “poorly” while Tobias Ellwood, a former defence minister, urged ministers to “re-visit how additional welfare funding is spent & support free school meals”.
Tim Loughton, a former children's minister, who abstained on Wednesday’s vote, said in a Facebook post he believed it would have been “easier for the government to continue with the free school meal holiday entitlement in these unprecedented times”, adding that he would now lobby ministers to reverse their decision in time for the Christmas break.
According to The Sunday Telegraph, members of the 2019 intake of northern Tory MPs have also complained to the government that its handling of the issue has been “spectacularly bad”.
On Saturday night Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, called on Boris Johnson to meet with the taskforce set up by Rashford "as a matter of urgency" to discuss its proposals for ending child poverty.
In a letter to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, Ms Green said that if the government was not prepared to change course before the Christmas holidays, Labour would ensure the issue returned to the floor of the Commons.
"There is still time to change approach, but the Government must act quickly. If you change your policy now, we can ensure that no child goes to bed hungry on Christmas Day," she wrote.
"Labour will not give up on the fight to ensure that no child goes to bed hungry, and if you do not change course we will bring this issue back to the House of Commons before Christmas."
Ministers have insisted that they will not back down on the issue, arguing that children in need can be helped more effectively through more targeted measures.
However, the government has already been forced to make one U-turn on the issue over the summer as a result of Rashford's campaigning and Labour is determined to press home its attack.
In her letter, Ms Green also sharply criticised the "stigmatising and dangerous rhetoric" of some Tory backbenchers.
It followed comments by Mansfield MP Ben Bradley suggesting some meal vouchers went direct to "a crack den and a brothel", while North Devon MP Selaine Saxby sparked anger after suggesting businesses which gave away free food should not receive any further government support.
Both MPs said their remarks, which appeared in social media posts, had been taken "out of context".
Ms Green said the government should now join with other parties and commit itself to ending child poverty in Britain once and for all.
"This is a rare opportunity for everyone, in Westminster and across the country, to come together and end the great evil of child poverty," she wrote.
"Child poverty was rising before this pandemic, and if nothing is done it will continue to rise. This cannot happen. This must now be a turning point, when all parties commit themselves to the end of child poverty."
A government spokesman said: "This government has expanded eligibility for free school meals to more children than any other in decades.
"We have provided free school meals when schools were partially closed, increasing welfare support by £9.3bn, and giving councils £63m for families facing financial difficulties.
"We also provided vouchers through the Covid summer food fund, in addition to the holiday activities and food programme."