Boris Johnson has committed to spending £400m on food support for the poorest children in England in another policy U-turn following a public campaign by prominent footballer Marcus Rashford.
The 23-year-old Manchester United player had called on the government to offer free school meals throughout the winter after his successful campaign to provide similar support during the summer. However, the Johnson government argued that its universal credit welfare system provided adequate support.
But in a change of direction, Mr Johnson announced a new package of measures in a belated effort to address public anger — a petition demanding extra funding garnered more than 1m signatures — as well as criticism from many of his own MPs, who have been targeted since voting against an opposition motion last month to extend free school meals.
The prime minister spoke to Mr Rashford on Saturday evening to announce the government would supply £400m of additional funding to assist with food and activities for children throughout the winter.
The package includes £170m that will be distributed throughout local councils between December and March, most of which is ringfenced for food assistance. A further £16m will be spent on improving food banks and £220m will be invested in a school holiday food and activities programme.
Mr Rashford said: “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.”
Although the footballer expressed concern that the government’s actions would mean some families would not still receive support, he praised Mr Johnson for taking action.
“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 1.7m children in the UK over the next 12 months, and that can only be celebrated.”
Rob Halfon, Conservative MP and chair of the education select committee who urged Mr Johnson to extend support for poorer children, said on Sunday he was “really happy” with the announcement.
“People going on about U-turn are wrong, it’s a right turn. The package is enormous . . . the best part is the £220m programme which links up to catch-up premium. It will increase attainment and attendance in schools,” he said.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders trade union, also welcomed the package that would help “disadvantaged families particularly during school holiday periods”.
“The commitment of £170m channelled via local authorities to the end of March appears to address the immediate need to ensure that children do not go hungry over the Christmas and February half-term holidays,” he said.
But Mr Barton questioned why the scheme had not been introduced in time for the October half-term holidays, which concluded last week. Kate Green, Labour’s education spokesperson, said “this should have been announced weeks ago to help the children at risk of going hungry over half-term”.
Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation charity, added: “This is a big win for disadvantaged children. A win for all those brave parents and children who have spoken up about their experiences of food poverty. And a win for the 1.1m individuals across the country who showed how much they cared by signing Marcus Rashford’s petition.”
Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, said: “We want to make sure vulnerable people are cared for throughout this difficult time and, above all, no one should go hungry or be unable to pay their bills this winter.”
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