Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford has invited MP Steve Baker to debate the issue of free school meals after the Conservative suggested extending provision to children would “destroy” the economy.
Pressure is mounting on the government to back Rashford’s campaign to extend the offer of free school meals for children over the school holidays, as the pandemic continues to put strain on families’ lives and household incomes.
The government has so far refused to extend provision in England over the half-term and Christmas breaks. Labour will use a Commons vote on Wednesday to call for an extension on the scheme until Easter 2021.
The England football star warned MPs not to “turn a blind eye” to vulnerable families and said he would be “paying close attention” to the vote.
He said in a series of tweets: “Since March 32 per cent of families have suffered a drop in income… 13.2 per cent rise in unemployment expected… We aren’t in the same position we were in the Summer, it’s much worse. The number of children with little to no access to food has risen significantly.
“Why keep punishing our most disadvantaged? Give our children a chance. All eyes on the Commons.
“And just for clarity, the #endchildfoodpoverty debate on a long-term sustainable framework to combat this issue is still to come. This is not going away and neither am I.”
Mr Baker took issue with Rashford’s tweet, responding: “No one will be turning a blind eye and it is wrong to suggest anyone would. Not destroying the currency with excessive QE is also one of our duties.”
The Tory MP for Wycombe set the tweet so that only people he follows or mentioned in the post could reply to it.
Rashford wrote: “At least turn on your comments and let me respond Steve. I very much welcome conversation on this.”
The MP responded to Rashford’s reply, saying: “You have 3.4m followers Marcus, to my 96k. The power is yours here.
"Everyone knows feeding hungry children is a top priority. I’d like to see UC boosted.
“But if the economy and currency collapse, the poor will be devastated. Alleging a blind eye is just wrong.”
Mr Rashford, who was awarded an MBE this year for his work on the campaign, responded: “2018-19, it was recorded nine out of 30 children in any given classroom were living in poverty in the UK.
“This was expected to rise by one million by 2022 prior to Covid hitting. This is not a Covid problem and these children haven’t been treated as a priority.”
He added that invitations to “those in power” to collaborate and discuss how to support vulnerable children have been “consistently met with silence”.
Labour’s Commons motion has also won support from Tory MP Robert Halfon, who is the chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee.
Mr Halfon told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What the government needs to do is have a long-term plan, sit down with the taskforce set up by Marcus Rashford and actually come up with a serious plan and a budget to deal with this problem.
“All the statistics show that families are struggling. We know that 10 per cent of families are affected by food insecurity.
“I am not arguing this should happen forever but the free school meals should at least go on until we are out of the coronavirus, God willing, by next spring.”