By Paul Waugh
England footballer Marcus Rashford has challenged Boris Johnson to honour his election pledge to “level up” the UK by introducing a comprehensive package to end child poverty and hunger.
In a fresh move to step up his campaign to help families hit hard by the Covid pandemic, the Manchester United striker told HuffPost UK that offering free school meals over Christmas and other holidays was a first step but would be only a “sticking plaster” with wider reforms.
He called for major changes to the welfare system, including an end to the Tories’ two-child cap on Universal Credit and an increase in the value of healthy eating vouchers for pregnant mothers.
Rashford, who returns to football duty in the Premier League on Saturday, has amassed more than a quarter of a million signatures in just over two days for his online parliamentary petition demanding urgent action to stop children going hungry.
No.10 Downing Street sparked anger this week when it flatly rejected his proposals, claiming that “it’s not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays”. It repeated its stance on Friday.
Labour has given the government until Monday night to back down or face a Commons vote on Wednesday that would force Tory MPs to decide which side they were on.
Rashford – who was awarded an MBE by Johnson for his previous campaigns for children – stressed to HuffPost UK that his petition sets out three key recommendations from the National Food Strategy campaign and that all three were equally important to sort a long-term solution to child hunger.
The campaign wants to expand access to free school meals to all under-16s where a parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent benefit.
It also calls for meals and activities during school holidays and an increase in the value of and expand the “Healthy Start” voucher scheme for low-income pregnant women and new mums to at least £4.25 a week.
Rashford, who has talked powerfully about his own childhood experience of hunger, said Universal Credit welfare system had to be reformed as well as extra cash given to the voucher scheme.
In a statement to HuffPost UK he said:
“What children in the UK need right now is stability. A sustainable framework that protects them from falling through the cracks and that alleviates fear.
“Millions of children this morning have woken up petrified and confused. No child in the UK should be waking up hungry, if they have slept at all, and have to face the day worrying where food might be coming from.
“Holiday provision until the end of the Easter holidays, whilst a vital move, is not an effective means of combating child food poverty. It’s another sticking plaster. No child needs a deadline looming.
“There are 1.5 million children in the UK this morning – 1.5 million children in the UK in 2020 – who are receiving no food support due to the 2-child Universal Credit cap.
“The Healthy Start vouchers are a necessity for so many but they just aren’t stretching far enough. An additional £1.15 could make the biggest difference to over 290,000 children.
“The ask remains the same. We will settle for no less than the implementation of the 3 National Food Strategy policy recommendations. Policy recommendations that were built from extensive research and data analysis, as part of a review commissioned by those in power and those who have the power to protect our most vulnerable.
“Food stability is the foundation of everything. Please, give our children a chance. Let’s level up once and for all.”
The “level up” phrase is a direct reference to Johnson’s 2019 general election campaign slogan, in which he promised public services, infrastructure and opportunities would be equalised across the UK.
Some 14% of parents & 10% of children have experienced food insecurity over the last 6 months, new studies show. Some 32% of families have lost income as a result of Covid-19 and demand for food banks this winter is predicted to be 61% higher than last.
Former prime minister Gordon Brown backed the Rashford campaign on Friday, urging the PM to “personally” intervene to fund the “relatively small” cost of £20m a week to provide the 1.5 million worst-off children with free meals during half-term and Christmas.
Johnson was forced into a U-turn on extending free school meal vouchers over last summer, following a similar campaign by Rashford.
HuffPost revealed recently that the cost of just one week of the Treasury’s “Eat Out To Help Out” restaurant discount scheme was nearly as much as the entire £120m spent on the six-week scheme for children.
The Welsh government this week pledged £11m in new funding to help children continue to receive free school meal help during holidays until Easter next year.
Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “Labour will not stand by and let families be the victims of the government’s incompetence. If Boris Johnson doesn’t change course, we will force a vote this week and give his backbenchers the chance to do the right thing.”
Tory MP and Commons education select committee chairman Rob Halfon praised Rashford’s campaign.
“Having depended on breakfast clubs and neighbourly support as a child, he understands child hunger more than most. The Prime Minister should bring him to No 10 to listen and work with him and his task force on a long-term solution to end child food poverty,” he told the ‘i’ newspaper.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, backed Labour’s call.
He said: “Schools are working incredibly hard to help children catch-up with lost learning amidst ongoing disruption caused by rising Covid infection rates, and the pupils who need the greatest degree of support are often those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“To then have a situation where they are potentially going hungry through holiday periods is very obviously detrimental to both their welfare and educational progress.”