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Marcus Rashford: PM climbdown over free meals in school holidays

Marcus Rashford.

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The government is to spend more than £400m to support poor children and their families in England, following a campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford.

A winter grant scheme, to be run by councils, will provide support with food and bills, and a holiday food and activities programme is to be expanded.

Rashford said it would improve the lives of almost 1.7 million children.

The move represents a significant climbdown for the government, which had argued Universal Credit was enough.

From the package of support, a £170m ring-fenced fund will be distributed through councils, with at least 80% earmarked for help with food and bills.

It will receive funding from the beginning of December until the end of March.

The holiday food and activities programme will be expanded with a £220m investment to cover Easter, summer and Christmas in 2021.

On top of that, there will be a £16m cash boost for the nation’s food banks.

Support has already been announced for children in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson telephoned the Manchester United and England player on Saturday to tell him of the new plans.

Speaking after he took part in United’s 3-1 Premier League win against Everton, Rashford said: “Following the game today, 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.”

Rashford said he remained concerned about the children who would miss out on help “because their family income isn’t quite enough”.

However, he added: “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 1.7 million children in the UK over the next 12 months, and that can only be celebrated.”

Rashford also told the BBC Mr Johnson had agreed to speak with footballer’s child food poverty taskforce.

“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,” the player said.

Seeing the role everyone had played in supporting the most vulnerable children had been “the greatest moment of my life,” he added.

Councils step up

Rashford’s campaign began in June, after the government insisted it would not provide vouchers over the summer holidays for the 1.3 million children in England who were receiving free school meals in term time.

The government had previously given this support during the first coronavirus lockdown in April.

Rashford’s campaign led to the government changing its policy to allow children to claim free meals during the summer holidays.

The footballer then called for free meals to be provided over the October half-term, with more than a million people signing a petition he set up.

But the government refused, saying enough support was being provided through the benefit system.

Last month, it whipped Conservative MPs to vote against a Labour motion in the House of Commons that called for the extension of free school meal provision.

This prompted a number of local authorities to say they would continue offering free school meals throughout the week’s holiday in spite of that.

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Analysis box by Chris Mason, political correspondent

Marcus Rashford has prompted the government to act before.

Now he’s done it again.

It is the second time the prime minister has picked up the phone to the 23-year-old footballer, whose campaign has struck a chord with many, and left many Conservatives acknowledging privately for some time they would have to change tack.

Strikingly, Rashford insists this isn’t about politics, or criticising Boris Johnson, it’s about helping poor families.

“We’re not against him. That’s the main reason I was happy to talk to him,” he told BBC Breakfast.

But what also stands out is he’s moving onto the next strand of his campaign – arguing that more families should get help.

Given his success so far, don’t bet against him pursuing this pretty doggedly in the months ahead.

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Announcing the support package, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said the government knew it was a challenging time for many, and insisted it had consistently supported the lowest paid families by boosting welfare support.

“We want to make sure vulnerable people are cared for throughout this difficult time and, above all, no one should go hungry or be unable to pay their bills this winter,” she added.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said Labour had been campaigning for such a change, adding: “This should have been announced weeks ago to help the children at risk of going hungry over half term.”

She added that ministers needed to bring forward a long-term plan to child poverty.

School dinner

The School Food Plan

Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, who also chairs the End Child Poverty Coalition, said Rashford deserved “enormous credit for pushing the issue of poverty to the top of the public’s agenda”, adding that the government should be acknowledged for “listening”.

James Toop, chief executive, of food charity Bite Back 2030, said: “It’s great that Boris has listened to the voices of our young people who have been campaigning for meal provision through the holidays to be a priority through this crisis.”

Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, said the scheme was particularly welcome.

“Christmas will not be the same this year – and it is therefore even more important that we ensure that children have food and are kept warm.”

Head teachers also welcomed the scheme but questioned why it could not have been in place for October’s half term.

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union the NAHT, said while the expansion of the activities programme was a positive move, it “falls short in addressing fully the issue of holiday hunger”.

He added: “We would question whether provision of food to those going hungry should be dependent upon them attending an activity, which for a whole host of reasons might not be suitable, available or accessible for particular groups.”

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