Boris Johnson must extend free school meals during holidays until coronavirus restrictions are lifted, the government’s own advisory commission on social mobility has insisted.
Backing England footballer Marcus Rashford’s high-profile campaign, the Social Mobility Commission also urged ministers to ensure “all children are fed properly” and introduce a “much more ambitious” programme to combat child poverty in Britain.
The prime minister, who last week rejected a Labour motion to extend free school meals for disadvantaged children during the October half-term and Christmas holidays, told councils on Monday to use government funding earmarked in June.
However, the Local Government Association said that assistance to the tune of £63m had already been “outstripped” by demand for support from households facing financial strain due to the impact of the pandemic.
In a move that will pile further pressure on Mr Johnson to act, a spokesperson for the Commission – a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Education – said: “The Social Mobility Commission urges the government to extend free school meals during school holidays until Covid restrictions are lifted as part of a wider move to combat child poverty.
“We know that the current pandemic is having its greatest impact on the poorest regions of Britain where people are already struggling to afford food for their families.”
The Commission said its recent report – the Long Shadow of Deprivation – identified some of the “coldest” social mobility spots across the country, with many being in the higher tiers of government restrictions.
“Our earlier research this year showed that 600,000 more children are in poverty than in 2012,” the spokesperson added. “We believe the government should do all it can to start reversing that trend.
“It should begin by ensuring that all children are fed properly. But it needs to go much further. We now need a much more ambitious programme to combat child poverty”.
The Commission’s remarks comes amid demands on the government to abandon its heavily-criticised decision not to extend food vouchers to some of the country’s poorest school children during the holidays.
Some Conservative MPs, inundated with correspondence from angry members of the public over the move, have urged No 10 to provide extra financial assistance, as businesses across the country stepped in to help, offering free meals during the October half-term.
A petition, spearheaded by the star footballer Mr Rashford, who earlier this year helped force a U-turn on free school meals during the summer holidays, has attracted almost 900,000 signatures, piling further pressure on ministers to act.
Speaking during a visit to a hospital in Reading on Monday, Mr Johnson said he did not “want to see any children going hungry” during the winter and over Christmas, “certainly not as a result of any inattention by this government”.
He added: “We support the local councils - indeed we fund the local councils and many of the organisations that are helping in this period - but we are also uplifting Universal Credit by £1,000 and we think that is one of the best ways you can help families in this tough time.
"I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger, it is there, we have to deal with it. The debate is how do you deal with it."