England footballer Marcus Rashford and child poverty campaigners are celebrating after the government u-turned over providing free meals to disadvantaged children during the Christmas holidays.
The prime minister personally phoned the Manchester United star after he played in his team’s Premier League clash against Everton on Saturday to alert him to the decision to lay on £170 million of extra funding for the measure.
The money will pay for the Covid Winter Grant Scheme to support families over the season while the Holiday Activities and Food programme will be extended to cover the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks in 2021, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced.
As part of the package, Healthy Start payments, which help expectant mothers and those with young children on low incomes and in receipt of benefits to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, are set to rise from £3.10 to £4.25 a week from April 2021.
Making the announcement, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said: “We want to make sure vulnerable people feel cared for throughout this difficult time and, above all, no one should go hungry or be unable to pay their bills this winter.”
This comes after charities and unions also demanded that Gavin Williamson fund free school meals over Christmas, HuffPost UK revealed on Thursday.
Rashford said he was “so proud” of those who had united behind his campaign and that he was “overwhelmed by the outpouring of empathy and understanding”, promising his supporters to “fight for the rest of my life” to end child hunger in the UK.
In a statement, he 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.
“There is still so much more to do, and my immediate concern is the approximate 1.7 million children who miss out on free school meals, holiday provision and Healthy Start vouchers because their family income isn’t quite low enough, but 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.”
The u-turn comes after the government last month whipped Conservative MPs to vote against a Labour motion in the House of Commons calling for the extension of free school meal provision following Rashford’s campaign.
Businesses and councils across the country stepped into the breach following the result, announcing they would fund meals during the October half-term for those who needed them.
The striker’s petition for pupils in disadvantaged families to have their meals paid for during the holidays went on to attract more than one million signatures – mass backing which piled pressure on Downing Street to commit to more support.
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green accused the government of “incompetence and intransigence” in waiting until after the autumn half-term to make the announcement, and said ministers had “created needless and avoidable hardship for families across the country”.
The DWP confirmed the £170 million worth of winter grants would be administered by councils in England rather than schools.
The funding will be ring-fenced, with at least 80% earmarked to support with food and bills, and will cover until the end of March.
Local authorities will receive the funding at the beginning of December.
England’s children’s commissioner Anne Longfield welcomed the announcement but called on ministers to “go further” with its Universal Credit support – a move backed by the Child Poverty Action Group.
“Families are facing hard times financially and these measures will help,” she said.
“But I would like the government to go further and commit to retaining the £20 increase in Universal Credit which is helping many struggling families during this pandemic.
“Hunger does not take a holiday when schools close and a long term solution to the growing number of children in poverty is urgently required.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, was among those heralding the fresh investment but said his organisation was “at a loss” as to why it could not have been ready in time for the October half-term holiday, which has recently finished.
He added: “Nevertheless, the commitment over the next few months is a positive step forward and should help to address the fact that the financial circumstances of many struggling families will have worsened as a result of the Covid emergency.”
Javed Khan, chief executive of children’s charity Barnardo’s, said: “This new scheme is a lifeline for vulnerable families who are struggling to feed their families and heat their homes this winter. It will also help prevent ‘holiday hunger’ throughout 2021.”
Councillor Richard Watts, chairman of the Local Government Association’s resources board, said winter grant money would allow councils to put plans in place to “ensure children will not go hungry in the Christmas holidays and February half-term”.