A Tory MP has received backlash for his comments suggesting that “chaotic parents” are to blame for sending their children to school hungry.
John Penrose, husband of NHS Test and Trace chief Baroness Dido Harding and a former minister, made the remark in a letter to a constituent in defence of his vote against extending free school meals into half-term.
The MP for Weston-super-Mare argued that the root causes of poverty should be tackled and criticised “sticking plaster” solutions that “increase dependency” on state support.
The Government has been facing public anger after it refused to extend the free school meals programme into half-term and beyond. Labour called for the scheme to be extended until Easter 2021 and England footballer Marcus Rashford has been at the head of a highly-supported campaign against child hunger.
Mr Penrose wrote: “Practical measures which make a genuine difference to the causes of poverty include things like the Pupil Premium, which gives schools extra funding for disadvantaged pupils; breakfast clubs, which help children with chaotic parents who send them to school without breakfast so they can’t concentrate properly…”
Shadow education secretary Kate Green criticised his remarks and said it was not too late to “do the right thing” and back free school meals over the Christmas holiday.
The Labour MP said: “It is completely unacceptable for a Conservative MP to blame parents for the challenges created by his own Government’s chronic incompetence.
“Children are at risk of going hungry because of a decade of stagnant wages and cuts to social security. Not only have the Conservatives voted against helping these children, they are now blaming their parents.”
The letter was posted by a man who said he is a constituent of Mr Penrose’s. It comes after another Tory MP, Ben Bradley, found himself embroiled in a row over a controversial comment he made on the social media site.
Mr Bradley, MP for Mansfield, replied to a tweet that described the free school meals scheme as “£20 cash direct to a crack den and a brothel”, saying: “That’s what FSM vouchers in the summer effectively did…”
He later argued his remark was “totally taken out of context”, and told BBC Breakfast he was “merely making the point that there are kids who live in really chaotic situations, really difficult lives, where actually giving them an unrestricted voucher to spend on whatever isn’t helpful”.
According to The Mirror, which first reported on Mr Penrose’s letter, the Tory MP defended his remarks. He was quoted as saying: “I’m afraid this says more about the silly anti-Tory prejudices of a couple of local Labour activists than about what’s really in my letter, which is clearly about how breakfast clubs can be a valuable way of dealing with one of the causes of poverty, not about everybody else who uses breakfast clubs too.”
Shadow health minister Justin Madders said Mr Penrose “ought to look at the management of Test and Trace if he wants to know what chaotic really is”, referring to the beleaguered contact tracing system which has been at the centre of criticism since it launched in May.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reportedly considering giving extra funds to councils to set up holiday clubs in a bid to settle the row over free school meals, but the government has been warned it won’t be enough to solve the crisis.