Boris Johnson bows to pressure from Rashford over free school meals

Boris Johnson has bowed to pressure from footballer Marcus Rashford and agreed to release £120m to provide free school meals for disadvantaged pupils in England during the summer holidays.

Mr Johnson had faced growing demands to perform a U-turn on the issue, with Conservative MPs increasingly anxious that the prime minister was fighting a public relations battle he could not win.

Labour leader Keir Starmer intended to force a vote on the issue in the Commons on Tuesday morning to exploit Conservative divisions on the issue.

Mr Johnson had planned to march Tory MPs through the voting lobbies to oppose the campaign led by Mr Rashford, the Manchester United striker, arguing that the government had already provided £63m to help families facing extreme hardship.

But the prime minister told his cabinet on Tuesday morning that he had decided to capitulate and that the government would fund a £120m “Covid summer food fund”.

“That’s a great relief,” said one Conservative MP. “We made it clear that if we were forced to vote against this and then the government performed a U-turn, there would be fury on the backbenches.”

Mr Johnson and the Treasury had attempted to hold the line until Tuesday morning, fearing that the government had developed a record in caving into demands for more cash during the coronavirus crisis.

But on Monday Mr Rashford turned up the pressure with a passionate appeal for the government to reverse its decision and help families struggling with the coronavirus crisis, speaking of his own personal experience growing up with poverty.

The England international urged ministers to extend the free school meals scheme, which provides food for 1.3m children during term time, through the summer break.

His appeal was picked up by the media, the Labour party and many Conservative MPs — including education select committee chairman Robert Halfon — and many saw a U-turn as inevitable.

Mr Starmer said he welcomed the prime minister’s U-turn as he congratulated Mr Rashford and “many others who spoke out so powerfully about this issue”.

Downing Street said that Mr Johnson would write to Mr Rashford to set out the change of policy to help families facing “an unprecedented situation over the summer” caused by the coronavirus crisis.

Mr Rashford reacted to the U-turn on Twitter: “I don’t even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”

Pupils in receipt of free school meals would be given food vouchers for the six weeks of the summer holiday period, which could be redeemed at supermarkets. The scheme would be a one-off, Mr Johnson’s spokesman said.

The £120m cost of the scheme will come on top of the £63m made available to local councils to help families facing hardship. Chancellor Rishi Sunak will set out details of where the money is coming from “shortly”.

Last week Mr Rashford announced that FareShare, the food poverty charity for which he has helped raise £20m, had enough funds to provide 3m meals for vulnerable people during lockdown.

Mark Russell, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said he was “delighted that the government has decided to do the right thing”. But he urged ministers to follow up by resolving the problems some families faced accessing the voucher scheme, including providing more support for newly eligible parents to register. 

He also urged them to make permanent the temporary extensions of eligibility for free meals to children of the 1m immigrants barred from claiming benefits under restrictive visa conditions known in Home Office jargon as “no recourse to public funds” and other low income families who “unfairly miss out”.