"A national disgrace" - politicians across the city react to vote against free school meals as calls increase for government to back track

MPs across the city are joining the call for a government u-turn over the decision not to support free schools meals for hungry children over the school holidays.

Thursday, 22nd October 2020, 5:11 pm
Updated Friday, 23rd October 2020, 9:53 am

It comes after one of the most controversial nights in the House of Commons where Labour's motion, which called for the scheme to be extended over school holidays until Easter 2021, was defeated by 261 votes to 322 - with a majority 61.

Politicians in the city, which has at least 35,000 children and families in the city wondering where their next meal will come from and increasing reliance on foodbanks, have vowed to continue the campaign which has captured the hearts of the nation thanks to the input from Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, who as a child himself was a beneficiary of the scheme.

Today, Richard Burgon, MP for Leeds East where 5,000 children are on free school meals, branded the government callous and said it was not too late to change its mind.

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The government has voted against free school meals in the holidays.

He told the Yorkshire Evening Post: "We will continue with that demand and the government needs to admit that it has acted in a completely inappropriate, immoral and callous way and change its mind. It can change its mind on this and do the right thing. I call on Conservative MPs who voted against this to admit they have been wrong."

Mr Burgon said that MPs being awarded a pay rise of £3,300 per year made the situation even worse and has written to The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to object and call for a pay freeze but, he added, should the pay awards go-ahead, he will donate his to a foodbank in his constituency.

He said the government's record on poverty had been poor since 2010 but that yesterday, he was surprised by how blunt that was.

Mr Burgon added: "In a way the only thing that surprised me is that the government was blatantly making its view of people in our communities so clear and ordering MPs to vote the way they did. They don't really care about working class people and people in poverty."

Manchester United footballer, Marcus Rashford.

Coun Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, said the situation was a "national disgrace" and since lockdown the numbers of children on free school meals had risen by 2,500 to a shocking 28,000.

She said: "Job losses and reduced hours for low paid workers as a result of the lockdown mean more families in our city need support to feed their children. We have seen a significant rise in the number of people forced on to Universal Credit, which we know is an inadequate safety net that pushes people into poverty. The number of children on free school meals in Leeds now stands at shockingly high 28,000, an increase of over 2,500 since lockdown began.

“No child should go hungry and it’s a national disgrace that many families now face that possibility as we head into winter. It is bitterly disappointing the Government chose not to do something about this and it now sadly looks too late for half term. I hope they will reconsider for the Christmas holidays and it’s important everybody keeps the pressure on them to change their mind.”

Hilary Benn, who represents Leeds Central, said the outcome was "absolutely shameful" but the public support for the campaign would drive it forwards.

He said: "It was absolutely shameful of the Tories to vote against free school meals being provided over the holidays. How on earth can they justify it?

"Boris Johnson now needs to explain to 25,000 children from low income families in our city why they won’t be getting the help that would make such a difference to them and to their parents at time when many families are struggling?

"We won't, however, be giving up. There is huge public support for this campaign."

Rachel Reeves, MP for Leeds West added that "sink-or-swim" plans for support could leave more than one million children at risk of going hungry over the school holidays and urged the Prime Minister to re-think.

Five Conservative MPs rebelled to support the motion, including Education Select Committee chairman Robert Halfon, but it was not enough.

The division list showed the other four were Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne), Jason McCartney (Colne Valley), Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) and Holly Mumby-Croft (Scunthorpe).

Halfon later urged the Government to continue providing meals over the holidays while the coronavirus crisis was ongoing and called on ministers to work with Rashford.

Reacting to the verdict, the footballer said: "Put aside all the noise, the digs, the party politics and let's focus on the reality. A significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today.

"We must stop stigmatising, judging and pointing fingers. Our views are being clouded by political affiliation. This is not politics, this is humanity."

Of his decision to vote against the motion, Mr Shelbrooke said: "This Conservative Government has increased the basic Universal Credit payment by over £1,100 to assist low-paid families throughout the pandemic. Labour’s motion was to give £90 worth of food vouchers to be administered by schools who are already under pressure. I believe families are best supported by giving more money through the welfare system instead of adding additional administrative burden to schools”.

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Laura Collins