Weston MP votes against call to extend free school meals in holidays
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Weston MP John Penrose voted against a motion to extend free school meals to schoolchildren in the holidays.
Nearly 1,000 people in North Somerset signed Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford’s petition to end child food poverty.
The Premier League player is calling for free school meals to be extended to every child from a household on Universal Credit or an equivalent benefit, and to be provided throughout holidays as well as during term time.
The petition also says Healthy Start vouchers – given to eligible women who are pregnant or those with young children to buy basic foods – should be raised from £3.10 to £4.25 per week and made available to all those on Universal Credit or a similar benefit.
Across the UK, nearly 300,000 people have signed the petition since it went live on October 15.
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Downing Street seemed to reject the scheme last week, with a Number 10 spokesman saying it was ‘not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays’.
The Labour Party forced a House of Commons vote on whether to extend the offer after the Government refused to commit to Mr Rashford’s demands – but Tory MPs voted against it on Wednesday.
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The motion was defeated by a majority of 61 with 322 votes to 261.
Mr Penrose said extending the free school meals project is not ‘the right long-term answer’.
He told the Mercury: “I supported the original free school meals project earlier this year, because schools were locked down and many people couldn’t work, so there were extra mouths to feed when families had less money coming in. But it isn’t the right long term answer now schools and school holidays are back to normal because, amongst other things, it doesn’t reach enough pre-school children.
“That’s why every government for 50 years, both Labour and Conservative, have preferred to use benefits instead of food vouchers, and that’s the choice Parliament – including me - made again last week. The pandemic makes us all want to act; to do something; but it’s got to be the right thing too.”
“That’s why every government for 50 years, both Labour and Conservative, have preferred to use benefits instead of food vouchers, and that’s the choice Parliament – including me - made again last week.
“The pandemic makes us all want to act; to do something; but it’s got to be the right thing too.”In North Somerset’s constituencies, 3,595 children were eligible for free schools meals in the last school year, according to the latest Department for Education figures.
Across England, around 1.4 million children had the right to claim.
But the Food Foundation think tank, which is working on the campaign with Rashford, estimated that nearly one million additional children have recently been registered for the scheme as Covid-19 drives more families into poverty.
Mr Rashford has launched the #EndChildFoodPoverty Twitter campaign and has retweeted businesses across the area which are offering free school meals to children, including The Victoria Hotel in Burnham, The Woolpack Inn in St Georges, Ring O’ Bells in Nailsea and Jenny’s Café in Clevedon, while Brean’s Warren Farm Shop will supply a free packed lunch to children in Brean, Berrow or Lympsham this half-term.
Both North Somerset’s MP, Dr Liam Fox, and Wells’ MP James Heappey, whose constituency includes Burnham, Highbridge and Cheddar, did not vote either way to support free school lunches to children during school holidays.
North Somerset Council declared its support of the campaign and said it ‘will work with many community organisations and businesses which have stepped up to provide support to make sure that no child in need goes without support’.
Mr Rashford, who was recently awarded an MBE for services to vulnerable children, said on Twitter: “Whilst I don’t agree with another sticking plaster method, these children do need protecting during the upcoming holidays.
“If your MP doesn’t deem providing vulnerable children with vital food resources a priority then you must ask yourself why.”
The footballer’s continued campaigning on child food poverty comes after he forced the Government into a U-turn over holiday food vouchers during the pandemic earlier this year.
Writing on Twitter, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “Over a million children could go hungry over half term and Christmas holidays if free school meals aren’t extended.”
Deputy leader of North Somerset Council, Mike Bell, condemned Mr Penrose’s vote.
He said: “I think it is utterly shameful that John Penrose voted to support the government and not offer support to low-income families with school meal vouchers over the holidays.
“What sense of priority does it show that the government can find billions for private sector contractors to run a failing test and trace system, but not the support for hard-pressed families to feed their children?
“Mr Penrose supported providing free school meals support during the lockdown. He supported free school meals during the Summer holidays.
Yet now, as we are facing more Covid restrictions and a winter of financial pressure, it is not deemed necessary. It is morally wrong and a completely illogical policy position. He should hand his head in shame.”
Readers also expressed their concerns to the Mercury over Mr Penrose voting against maintaining higher welfare standards in farming.
Mr Penrose added: “All our food and farming standards have already been moved across from Brussels and written lock, stock and barrel into British law.
“So organising a Parliamentary vote to pass another law to do the same thing all over again was a pretty silly party-political stunt, but then claiming that people who disagreed must want to reduce food standards was even worse.”