A minister has suggested that parents would prefer to pay a ‘modest amount’ for their children’s meals rather than face being ‘labelled’ for needing free school meals.

Labour is set to force a Commons vote on the extension of free school meals on Wednesday, after the Government refused to prolong the scheme during October half-term.

Business Minister Mr Zahawi said Universal Credit is available to support hard-pressed families and suggested that research from holiday clubs shows that parents prefer to pay a small sum for food than be given it for free.

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But Labour is warning that more than a million children are ‘at risk of going hungry’ amid major concerns around UK poverty during the coronavirus crisis.

Mr Zahawi told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We’ve put over £9 billion into Universal Credit to help exactly those families that need that help, and we continue with the policy of holiday clubs.’

He said research from a holiday club pilot scheme ‘demonstrates that families didn’t just want the meals, although they valued the meals, they didn’t like the labelling of them being free, they actually prefer to pay a modest amount, £1 or £2, but they valued the additional focus on exercise and on reading fun books and so on through the holiday’.

Labour is calling on Boris Johnson’s Government to continue directly funding free school meals over the holidays until Easter 2021 to ‘prevent over a million children going hungry during the coronavirus crisis’.

‘Over a million children are at risk of going hungry over the holidays without access to free school meals. It is essential the Government provides this support urgently,’ shadow education secretary Kate Green said, after the party gave the Government 72 hours to extend the initiative on Saturday. Sir Keir Starmer echoed the comments on Twitter,

Ms Green continued: ‘We gave the Prime Minister the chance to change course, but he refused to do so. Now his MPs must decide if they want to vote for their constituents to get this vital support or if they will leave families struggling to put food on the table.’

The Welsh Labour Government has pledged to provide free school meals during the holidays until Easter next year.

And a parliamentary petition started by England and Manchester United star Mr Rashford, 22, calling for food to be provided during all holidays and for free school meals to be expanded to all households on Universal Credit, has gathered around 300,000 signatures since being launched late last week.

Mr Rashford, who made the new year’s honours list for his services to vulnerable children, forced a Government U-turn on free school meal vouchers for eligible pupils over the summer holidays.

Any petition which attracts more than 100,000 signatures means it must now be considered for debate by MPs, under Parliamentary petition guidelines.

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However, Downing Street is reluctant to extend the scheme, with a spokesman indicating last Thursday that ministers would not provide free school meals to children in England during the Christmas break.

The Number 10 spokesman said: ‘It’s not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays.’

Labour said more than 1.44 million children who are eligible for free school meals will benefit if the scheme is extended.

The push to extend the scheme has been supported by education unions, with Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Geoff Barton saying last week: ‘The Government must show that it is committed to social justice by extending free school meal provision to school holiday periods during this time of national emergency in which many families are experiencing great hardship.’

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MORE: Boris Johnson rejects Marcus Rashford’s plea to extend free school meals