England footballer Marcus Rashford has hit back at a Tory MP who described free school meals for poorer children as “freebies” that increase “dependency” on the state.
The Manchester United striker responded to backbencher Ben Bradley as Labour stepped up the pressure on Boris Johnson to extend support for disadvantaged children over the school holidays during the Covid pandemic.
With a crunch Commons vote on the issue due on Wednesday evening, the prime minister repeatedly refused to say whether he would U-turn and offer new cash over the winter.
Bradley tried to defend the government with a tweet in which he said: “We’re doing a lot to help the most vulnerable children, but ever-extending freebies are a sticking plaster not a solution.”
In a Twitter exchange with Rashford, the Mansfield MP also said: “Not as simple as you to make out Marcus. Extending FSM to school holidays passes responsibility for feeding kids away from parents, to the state. It increases dependency.”
Rashford hit back, saying: “Ben, the economy already pays a high price for child hunger”. And he suggested “a more humane response”.
“Since March, 32% of families have suffered a drop in income. Nearly 1 million have fallen off the payroll. This is not dependency, this a cry for help. There are no jobs!! 250% increase in food poverty and rising. Nobody said this was simple,” Rashford said.
The England star added: “The #endchildfoodpoverty debate is still to come. The answer has to be long-term stability, not sticking plasters or ‘freebies’ as @BBradley_Mans called it. It’s about time we worked together.”
Rashford has himself made clear that he wants a long term solution to child hunger, on top of the holiday extension.
On Saturday, Rashford challenged Johnson to honour his election pledge to “level up” the UK by introducing a comprehensive package to end child poverty and hunger.
He called for major changes to the welfare system, including an end to the Tories’ two-child cap on Universal Credit and an increase in the value of healthy eating vouchers for pregnant mothers.
The Commons motion tabled by Keir Starmer calls for free school meals to be funded outside term time to ensure vouchers and support were available for pupils right through until the Easter holidays next year.
Johnson faced the threat of a rebellion by Tory MPs, with Commons education committee chair Rob Halfon urging the PM to rethink and backbencher Anne-Marie Morris warning she would back the Labour plan.
Both the Welsh government and the Scottish government have already put in place funding for the holiday extension.
Rashford warned he would not “turn a blind eye” to the vote and that he would be “paying close attention” to how MPs voted.
He has amassed more than 300,000 signatures in just over six days for his online parliamentary petition demanding urgent action to stop children going hungry.
Downing Street sparked anger last week when it flatly rejected his proposals, claiming that “it’s not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays”.
Challenged three times in PMQs over the issue, the prime minister refused to say whether he would agree to extending free meal support - as he did through a voucher scheme last summer - over the coming holiday periods.
“We support kids on low incomes in school and we will continue to do so,” he told MPs on Wednesday.
“What I want to do is to make sure we continue to support families through the crisis,” he told Labour’s Rupa Huq.
But when asked directly by Labour MP George Howard whether he would support the plan to extend meals to next Easter, Johnson refused to say. “What we want to do is continue to support people on low incomes throughout the crisis and that’s what we are going to do,” he said.
Tory former minister Steve Baker warned about the cost of Rashford’s demands.
“Everyone knows feeding hungry children is a top priority. I’d like to see UC (Universal Credit) boosted,” he said.
“But if the economy and currency collapse, the poor will be devastated. Alleging a blind eye is just wrong.”
Rashford challenged him to a debate online but the MP has so far refused.
Earlier, Halfon told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he would will either vote for the Labour motion or abstain depending on what the government says in the Commons.
“What the government needs to do is to have a long-term plan, sit down with the taskforce set up by Marcus Rashford and actually come up with a serious plan and a budget to deal with this problem,” he said.