Government has ‘misread the mood of the country’ on free school meals says ex-PACAC chair

Bernard Jenkin says PM’s refusal to extend scheme had become ‘a touchstone of how little faith a lot of people now have in the government's conduct’
Screengrab from BBC

By Kate Forrester

26 Oct 2020

Sir Bernard Jenkin, the former chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, has told ministers that they have misread the mood of the country by refusing to extend free school meals though the school holidays.

Ministers have refused to extend funding to continue the provision despite doing so during the Easter holidays and then, after a campaign by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford, for the summer break too.

Rashford has campaigned for this to be extended again ahead of the half term break, and Jenkin, who is now the chair of the liaison committee that questions the prime minister, said ministers had "misunderstood the mood of the country" by voting down a Labour motion to extend provision. Jenkin suggested some on the government benches might back the opposition if there were another vote, which Labour has said they might hold.

Jenkin told Sky News that the row had become “a touchstone of how little faith a lot of people now have in the government's conduct”.

Five Conservative MPs, including education select committee chair Robert Halfon, rebelled against their party and Sir Bernard said he would "wait to see how the government responds" before deciding if he would back them in a second vote.

He added: "I think 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 is going to be more votes in the House of Commons.

"I think when you have got the chairman of the education select committee not supporting the government on this, and he's a Conservative, I think the government has to listen to the Conservative party.

"It's understandable that the government wants to get back the idea that there isn't a bottomless pit of money and there has got to be some financial discipline. But I think again, they've got to manage the situation and balance the pressure and the urgency that people feel on this."

Hundreds of businesses across the country announced they would offer free food to hungry children during the half term holiday, with many councils also confirming they would cover the cost of keeping the scheme running when schools are closed.

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis said ministers did not intend to change their minds on the policy.

"I think we've got a package in place which means people have got the support they need during school holidays," he told the BBC.

Kate Forrester is a senior reporter at CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.

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