Tories’ refusal to extend free school meals into the school holidays tells us everything we need to know about the rottenness of the political elite, argues Kara Bryan
The Eat Out to Help Out scheme cost the taxpayer £522million and ultimately subsidised middle class dining. Feeding hungry children would cost comparatively little at £60million, but despite this, 320 Conservative MPs, including the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Matt Hancock, and even the Children’s Minister, Vicky Ford, voted against Labour’s motion to extend free school meals over the school holidays.
If that’s not damning enough, the reaction of Tory MPs to Marcus Rashford’s campaign just goes to show their utter contempt for working-class families. From patronising lessons on how to feed a family for £30 a week from Conservative members who will never be faced with such a situation, to outright demonisation of the poor, they showed themselves to be the sort of ‘scum’ Angela Rayner described. The Prime Minister couldn’t even be bothered to respond to Marcus Rashford’s personal letter.
I can only assume that the MPs who only days ago were lamenting their horror at Rayner’s ‘unparliamentary language’ are demonstrably less horrified by the prospect of starving children.
While Marcus Rashford himself was accused of ‘celebrity virtue-signalling' by Tory MP Brendan Clarke-Smith, Mansfield MP Ben Bradley (yes that Ben Bradley of ‘benefit claimants should have vasectomies’ fame) said that at one school in his constituency ‘75% of the children have a social worker and 25% are illiterate.’
He went on to suggest that over the summer, working class parents spent their free school meals vouchers in brothels and crack dens. Perhaps the honourable gentleman was confusing his constituents in Mansfield with some of his Conservative colleagues in Westminster.
Public support for the valiant efforts of Marcus Rashford and his campaign has placed considerable pressure on Downing Street to reverse its decision, and an influx of offers of help from local businesses all over the country have poured in. Even McDonalds spotted a golden PR opportunity for a bit of good ‘corporate citizenship’ by offering free meals to disadvantaged children over the holiday period.
It is unbelievable enough that it took a 99-year-old World War II veteran raising £30 million by doing laps around his garden in a zimmer frame to try to plug some of the NHS funding deficit and a famous footballer to demand holiday provision of free school meals for disadvantaged children. It is a damning indictment of 10 years of Tory rule that these acts of kindness are even necessary and disappointing that resistance has to be instigated by a footballer rather than the ineffectual leader of the Opposition. It should not take a 22-year-old football star to teach politicians how to do their jobs.
Meanwhile, 2,000 paediatricians have signed a letter co-ordinated by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health attacking the government and expressing their shock at the rejection of the motion and called upon the government to follow devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in making provision for hungry children over the October half term and Christmas holidays. They wrote:
‘Every day we see the impact of hunger and malnutrition in our work as paediatricians. It is not unusual for us to care for children who don’t have enough to eat or who don’t have access to a substantial meal outside of what is provided in school.’
No child in the fifth richest nation in the world should ever have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. Particularly not in the midst of economic turmoil caused by an incompetent and corrupt government, siphoning off billions to their mate’s firms left, right and centre, while MPs give themselves a whopping 4.1% pay rise on their already inflated £82,000 salary.
The government’s decision to deny holiday provision of free school meals has provoked public outrage and opposition from some unlikely sources. Tory MP, Robert Halfon, voted against the government and called upon the Prime Minister to meet with Marcus Rashford, while MP for Eastbourne and Willingdon, Caroline Ansell resigned her post as a parliamentary aide citing her ‘conscience.’ Even odious right-winger Nigel Farage condemned the move as ‘mean.’ Labour has suggested that they will force a new Commons vote if the government doesn’t change its position before the Christmas Commons recess, which will likely prove too little too late for many struggling families.
Whether or not the government bows to public pressure a second time remains to be seen but there is one thing I disagree with Marcus on – this has everything to do with politics. Politics isn't a spectator sport. It requires working class participation in the form of organised grass roots movements. It was such movements that established civil rights. They were never freely surrendered by those occupying positions of power and privilege. And it was pressure from students and campaign groups which prompted the govt U-turn on the A level fiasco, public pressure that forced the U-turn on free school meal provision and public pressure which kept the schools closed back in the summer.
Without organised resistance, the Tories will continue to trample over human rights and drain the public coffers unchallenged, and in the absence of public engagement in politics, working class children will grow up knowing only too well how awful hunger feels.
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Kara Bryan is a writer and activist and regular contributor to the Counterfire website. She is a member of Counterfire and Stop the War
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