Boris Johnson is hinting at a U-turn after public outrage at his refusal to help hungry kids in the holidays.
The Prime Minister faced fury after 322 Tory MPs voted down a bid to continue free school meal vouchers to Easter 2021.
Now he may be budging after pressure from bishops, peers, campaigners, his own party and of course, Marcus Rashford.
The Tory leader has hinted he could head off anger by pumping more money into councils, instead of giving vouchers directly.
That would allow them to expand a holiday club scheme, which was piloted last year, to the most vulnerable in England.
But would this actually stop hungry kids slipping through the cracks? And is it what Marcus Rashford wants?
We’ve looked at what the footballer has demanded, what the government might offer – and the gaps between the two.
What is the story so far?
In junior and secondary school, kids whose parents are on certain benefits and a low income get free school meals.
This includes families on Universal Credit, who qualify if their household income is under £7,400 a year.
Usually, these meals are only available at school during term time. But under pressure from campaigners including Marcus Rashford, the government expanded them to this years Easter and summer holidays during Covid-19.
Campaigners had raised fears children would go hungry because of the economic impact of the pandemic.
Because schools weren’t open, parents got vouchers worth £15 per child per week to spend in supermarket chains.
Aldi, Asda and Tesco were among brands that accepted the vouchers, which could not be spent on cigarettes or alcohol.
All state school pupils in Years R, 1 and 2 in England get universal free school meals; this is separate to the current row.
What does Marcus Rashford want?
Campaigners have renewed calls for a fresh £15 voucher scheme after Marcus Rashford started a petition to the government.
However, the footballer’s petition itself is a bit more subtle, and stops short of explicitly demanding a voucher system.
He said in August the vouchers were a “sticking plaster” and “we need to switch focus to the bigger picture.”
He’s made three demands to be implemented “without delay”.
- Expand free school meals to all under-16s where a parent or guardian claims Universal Credit or equivalent benefit.
- Provide meals & activities during all holidays.
- Increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers to at least £4.25 per week, and expand the scheme.
These demands are very similar to those made by the government’s food tsar, Leon founder Henry Dimbleby, in a report on child hunger earlier this year.
He called for a scheme named the Holiday Activity and Food Programme to go beyond trials and expand across England.
What will the government offer?
It’s not clear yet, because the government hasn’t actually made a firm offer.
But ministers and the PM have hinted they’ll expand Mr Dimbleby’s idea of a Holiday Activity and Food Programme.
Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi said “the best way to do it is through local government” and through Universal Credit.
Well no, not particularly.
On the face of it, this could fulfil one of Marcus Rashford’s three demands – to “provide meals and activities” in the holidays.
But we don’t know how much funding councils will get.
And that will obviously prompt fears they won’t get enough.
After all, ministers have recently been boasting about how they gave £63m to councils to fight hunger, yet that money was pledged in June and was due to be spent by this month. And councils have had their funding eroded by Tory austerity.
That’d prompt fears any system could be a postcode lottery, where some councils give better provision than others.
Ministers have refused to guarantee that – for example – every child under a certain threshold will get their meal paid for.
Instead they’ve put the emphasis on overall help, not just meals. Mr Zahawi said activities were actually “more important” than meals to some poor kids in the holiday scheme.
What other problems are there?
Well, first of all, the government has made no commitment to meet Marcus Rashford’s other two demands.
Minister Nadhim Zahawi appeared to suggest free school meals might be extended to all children on Universal Credit – not just those whose parents earn under £7,400.
“We have got to make sure we look at that, and look at how we do that,” he told BBC Radio 4.
But he then added “the most important thing is to be able to target the money to those who most need it” – suggesting it might not happen after all.
As for Healthy Start vouchers, they are still worth just £3.10 a week for fruit, veg and milk for young mums.
And take-up of the Healthy Start scheme plunged from 73% in April 2015 to 48% in June 2020, the lowest in five years.
Last but not least, there’s the fact that any U-turn will come too late for the half-term that’s going on right now.
Instead, businesses, councils and charities have been forced to step in to help hungry kids at the height of the pandemic.
As the Lord Bishop of Bristol said today, while vouchers “are not the long-term solution for holiday hunger, the reality is that it is now half-term and children are going hungry”.