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THE government was forced into a U-turn today by extending the free school meal vouchers scheme for children in England after a campaign fronted by Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford.
The victory for campaigners and trade unions will feed 1.3 million children over the summer holidays.
After pressure from education unions in March ministers agreed to introduce a food voucher scheme during lockdown to prevent children who would have had access to free school meals going hungry while staying at home.
But it was announced last week that the scheme would not be extended over the summer holidays – a position ministers were still defending this morning.
Mr Rashford started a #maketheturn campaign and penned an open letter to those in power, pleading with them to reverse the decision.
Labour and education unions backed it, with the Prime Minister facing an opposition day debate today in Parliament before he backed down.
The footballer, one of five children of a working-class single mother, has openly spoken about how growing up “we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals and the kind actions of neighbours and coaches.”
“As a black man from a low-income family in Wythenshawe, Manchester, I could have been just another statistic,” he wrote in his open letter. “Instead, due to the selfless actions of my mum, my family, my neighbours and my coaches, the only stats I’m associated with are goals, appearances and caps. I would be doing myself, my family and my community an injustice if I didn’t stand here today with my voice and my platform and ask you for help.”
With Labour’s backing, the England international refused to give up after Downing Street doubled down on Monday night and stood firm in planning to axe the scheme after July.
“The national voucher scheme will not run during the summer holidays,” said the Department for Education late on Monday.
Prior to training this morning, Mr Rashford tweeted that he needed “everyone’s help to keep this noise going and once again made the plea “to ALL MPs in Parliament, this is not about politics. The same way us players put rivalry aside when we put the England shirt on, please #maketheuturn.”
He then got into a heated debate with Tory welfare chief Therese Coffey who scoffed at the 22-year-old’s tweet that put into focus what vulnerable families across the country would be going through during lockdown.
“When you wake up this morning and run your shower, take a second to think about parents who have had their water turned off during lockdown,” Mr Rashford tweeted, to which Ms Coffey flippantly replied: “Water cannot be disconnected though.”
With clinical precision, Mr Rashford called out the Work and Pensions Secretary’s cold-hearted reply.
“I’m concerned this is the only tweet of mine you acknowledged. Please, put rivalries aside for a second, and make a difference #maketheuturn.”
And in a stinging criticism of the government’s heartless decision on Monday night, Mr Rashford wrote in The Times this morning: “Today I focus on a trophy that stands for something much bigger than football.
“A U-turn on the decision to stop the free food voucher scheme continuing over the summer holidays could help us reach the next round but we still have a very long way to go as a country to eventually lift the trophy.
“In this case, the trophy is combatting child poverty.
“I don’t claim to have the education of an MP in Parliament, but I do have a social education. I am clued up on the difference a U-turn decision would make on the 1.3 million vulnerable children across the UK who are registered for free school meals because 10 years ago I was one of them.”
As pressure increased on the government to change its mind, Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally relented, saying via his official spokesman: “Owing to the coronavirus pandemic the Prime Minister fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer.
“To reflect this we will be providing a Covid Summer Food Fund. This will provide food vouchers covering the six-week holiday period. This is a specific measure to reflect the unique circumstances of the pandemic.
“The scheme will not continue beyond the summer and those eligible will be those who already qualify for free school meals.”
Over one million children in England are currently eligible for the £15 a week voucher scheme, with Mr Johnson saying it will last for six weeks.
“I don’t even know what to say,” tweeted Mr Rashford. “Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”
The PM was also forced to acknowledge the campaign, adding in the statement: “The PM welcomes [Mr Rashford’s] contribution to the debate around poverty and respects the fact that he has been using his profile as a leading sportsman to highlight important issues.”
Mr Rashford and other players came in for criticism at the start of lockdown when health secretary Matt Hancock pressed them to take a pay cut to “make a contribution” and “play their part.”
Since those ill-fated words, Mr Rashford has raised over £20m through his work with charity FareShare to feed over three million kids per week, while players across the Premier League created the #PlayersTogether initiative to “help those fighting for us on the NHS front line.”
Labour’s shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long Bailey MP said: “This is a welcome U-turn from the government and a victory for the 1.3 million children who were at risk of going hungry this summer.
“It is thanks to the amazing work of Marcus Rashford and campaigners that the government has had no choice but to reverse their decision.
“The government must now confirm that this new money will be for the direct provision of free school meals to all eligible children.”
NEU general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “After a great deal of public pressure the government has finally recognised the importance of ensuring that children do not go hungry during this time of unprecedented pandemic.
“The NEU congratulates Marcus Rashford for the stand he has taken.
“There should never have been any hesitation on the part of government. For too many children and young people hunger is an all too familiar part of their daily life.
“It is now time for government to act upon the need to end child poverty, not just for the period of a pandemic but for all time.”
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