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Tory MP tells voters free school meals row is 'empty political point scoring'

Victoria Bell
·4 min read
Schoolchildren enjoying their packed lunches in a school cafeteria
Tory MP Michelle Donelan defended the government’s decision over free school meals. (Getty)

A Tory MP has criticised the free school meals row as “empty political point scoring”, saying Labour has used the issue to mislead voters.

Chippenham MP Michelle Donelan defended the government’s decision not to extend free school meals for children in England over the half-term holiday, in a post on her website.

No. 10 has been heavily criticised for its stance as mounting pressure builds on Boris Johnson, from both Labour and his own MPs, to perform a U-turn on the issue.

At an opposition day debate in the Commons last week, Labour put forward a motion to extend free school meals over the Christmas holidays and up to and including the Easter break next year.

The motion was denied but Labour has threatened to bring the issue back to the House of Commons if the prime minister doesn’t relent.

Watch: Boris Johnson refuses to move on school meal vouchers

Donelan, who was appointed minister of state for universities in February, wrote: “Let me be clear, I would not and never would, leave children to go hungry as the story has been spun.

“What happens is Labour use opposition day debates as a political tool to make it appear as though we are against something that in reality we support.

“They put forward a motion that forces the government to vote against it, often for procedural reasons, or the aim is being met by other means, or the unintended consequences have not been mitigated or it is incompatible with existing legislation.

“They then claim that because the government voted against the motion, that the government must be against the aims – which is absolutely untrue in this case and in all others like this.

Read more: Manchester police chief says officers won’t rule on whether pubs are serving ‘substantial meals’

Prime Minister David Cameron is greeted by Chippenham Conservative candidate, Michelle Donelan, before he addressing Conservative Party supporters at a rally at Corsham School in Chippenham, Wiltshire on the first day of campaigning in this year's General Election.
Chippenham Conservative MP Michelle Donelan, with David Cameron in 2015. (PA)

“As someone who says it how it is and doesn’t play political games, I see this as a dishonest tactic.

“Please ignore the empty political point scoring and let’s push for more cross party working on topics like this.”

On Monday, the PM said “we don’t want to see children go hungry” but that the debate is “how do you deal with it?”

He said he was “proud” of the government’s support in extending free school meals to eligible children during this year’s Easter and summer holidays, following a campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford, but has refused to do so again.

Speaking during a visit to a hospital in Reading, Johnson said councils had been given extra cash and Universal Credit had increased, adding: “We will do everything in our power to make sure that no kid, no child goes hungry this winter during the holidays, that’s obviously something we care about very much.”

On Monday, Sir Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative chair of the influential Commons liaison committee, told Sky News that the government had “misunderstood the mood of the country”.

“The public want to see the government taking a national lead on this and I think the government will probably have to think again on that, particularly if there’s going to be more votes in the House of Commons.”

Meanwhile, children’s commissioner Anne Longfield told the BBC that money going to local councils “gets tied up in processes, in distribution, in bureaucracies”, and that might not help some children.

She said: “There'll be children who are desperate for that help and that's something that really makes this a very urgent priority for Boris Johnson when he gets to his desk today.”

With children now entering half-term, dozens of councils, including some Tory-led, are providing meal vouchers, while some businesses are stepping in to give eligible children free food.

Some charities have set up maps allowing parents to see places nearby that are providing free meals.

Watch: What is Universal Basic Income?