Peers, Tories and bishops rounded on Boris Johnson’s refusal to extend free school meals for poor children during the holidays today.
A Labour peer and methodist minister who was raised by a single mum said it was impossible for the “Old Etonian” Prime Minister to understand the anguish of people like him and footballer Marcus Rashford, who has led the crusade to feed hungry kids out of term time.
The Government continued to resist calls to widen the scheme so youngsters from the poorest households can eat a guaranteed meal during the holidays – despite a growing public backlash.
Lord Leslie Griffiths told the Upper House: “I was in receipt of free meals throughout my entire school career.
“My mother, a single woman, her only income was the contributions of the National Assistance. We lived in one room.
“I remember very clearly – I can still taste and smell it – the mounting panic ahead of school holidays because the income we had could not stretch to feeding two boys and a mother in that day.
“Marcus Rashford and I have this, and probably only this, in common – we remember not in our heads but in our whole bodies.
“An Old Etonian, of course, can’t be expected to have had the same experience.”
Responding to No10’s insistence cash had been made available for town halls earlier in the pandemic, he said: “Some local councils will draw money in the way that the Government is suggesting, from allocations they have received; other local authorities won’t.
“Some communities will rise to the challenge; other communities won’t.
“Some children will get through; most won’t.”
Crossbencher Lord Woolley of Woodford said: “The issue of 4.1 million children living in poverty, the vast majority in working families, and the subject of free school meals should not be embroiled in this present poisonous political space.
“While we entrench our political positions and we’re afraid to say, on either side, ‘I may have got this wrong’, our kids go hungry, families descend into despair and… destitution beckons.”
He urged the Government to “show leadership and create a unified party group to form a strategy for today, tomorrow and the long-term that includes young, dynamic men such as Marcus Rashford” and charities which feed hungry families, such as Fareshare and the Trussell Trust.
The peers hit out after a Government minister was hauled to the Lords to explain why No10 continues to rebuff calls to stump up cash for hungry kids to eat over the half-term break.
Former Labour Education Secretary Baroness Estelle Morris described a “postcode lottery” with some children able to have a free meal depending on where they live.
Ex-Labour MP Lord Mike Watson said: “During a pandemic, how can the most vulnerable children in our society not be a priority for support?”
Clerics also tore into the Government.
Lord Bishop of Bristol, Vivienne Faull, said while free school meals “are not the long-term solution for holiday hunger, the reality is that it is now half-term and children are going hungry”.
She said the “current crisis demands short-term solutions”.
Retired bishop Lord Richard Harries said: “The most focused and efficient way of supporting the most vulnerable members of our society is by actually paying for school meals during the holidays.”
Conservative peers joined the attack.
Former MP Baroness Janet Fookes called for schools to reopen during the holidays “so that they can serve nutritious meals to the children that really need them”.
Hereditary peer Lord Lucas, a Tory, insisted it was a “principle that people should be responsible for looking after their own children”.
But he added: “In this pandemic we need special measures. Free school meals were a measure that was proven to work, that we made work when schools were not operating.
“It’s really difficult to create new forms of support in the middle of a pandemic.”
He said it would be “most sensible to go back to providing free school meals as the most practical short-term alternative”.
Lib Dem Lord Chris Rennard said: “I am also one of the few members of the House of Lords who depended on free school meals.
“It never made sense to me that you get this sort of support in term time but nothing in the school holidays.”
He urged ministers to “stop saying publicly that they agree with Marcus Rashford while actually voting down his proposals”.
The peer added: “Isn’t it time to do the right thing?”
Education Minister Baroness Berridge denied claims kids faced a “postcode lottery”, insisting:
“It’s not a postcode lottery – 1.4 million children in England are entitled to free school meals, saving their families over £400 a year, and in addition to that, particularly through the soft drinks levy, the Government has in nearly 2,500 schools been funding breakfast clubs to provide children with healthy food.”
She added: “Working together is a solution to that, and the suggestions put forward by the new child poverty task force convened by Marcus Rashford, whose activities we commend, will be considered as part of the forthcoming spending review.”