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STEPHEN GLOVER: Do the right thing on free school meals... and see off Labour 

Are the Tories again the 'nasty party', as critics of the Government's refusal to extend provision for free school lunches over this week's half-term and the Christmas holidays contend?

Or is No 10 being perfectly reasonable, having provided extra welfare giveaways during the pandemic of some £9billion? 

Are the Tories being wrongly depicted as mean-minded by a devious Labour Party, which said yesterday that it intends to force a second vote on the issue this week?

The Government's position is that it offered free school meals for around 1.3million children in England – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own arrangements – during the summer holidays.

That was an exceptional concession after a spirited campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford. 

The Royal Borough of Greenwich has provided children with free meals for the last two years

Now the Government is reverting to the status quo, while pouring extra money into the welfare system and giving local councils an extra £63million to help with food shortages.

Moreover, Tory MPs are surely right to stress that it should be the responsibility even of poor parents to feed their children wherever possible, and this is not the proper business of the State. 

The Government can't go on providing free school meals outside term-time for ever.

These are respectable arguments. There's absolutely no evidence that No 10 is being beastly – far from it. Those attempting to paint it in such terms are playing party politics.

But I do think the Government has got this wrong, and I won't be surprised if in a day or two it again changes its mind, and announces that there will be free school meals for needy children during the Christmas holidays. 

The Government's mistake has been to underestimate the extremely damaging effects which Covid-19 and accompanying restrictions have had on a significant minority of families.

Through no fault of their own, millions of hard-working people have found themselves furloughed (which entails surviving on a reduced income) or out of work.

The number of unemployed is certain to rise over the coming months. There will be greater hardship.

These people are the casualties of exceptional circumstances, of a once-in-a-generation scourge that has turned their lives upside down. Some of them may be unable to provide for their children as they would like.

The Government's response is that improved universal credit and handouts from councils should, in fact, be effective in ensuring that hungry stomachs are filled. Well, maybe. 

The trouble is that such payments can take time, and some people always fall through the cracks in any welfare system. 

The beauty of free school lunches is that they go directly to the right children. A system already exists which ensures that those in need immediately get what they require – a decent meal.

Of course, it is heartening that many local businesses are undertaking to supply children with food during half-term. But one wonders whether such arrangements can ever be as comprehensive as those overseen by the authorities. I very much doubt it.

Footballer Marcus Rashford, who is calling on the Government to fund school meals until Easter 2021, visiting FareShare in Greater Manchester 

Why is No 10 holding out against retaining its scheme? I suppose it is because it doesn't think government should take over parental duty for feeding children for a protracted period of time. Where will it stop?

It's a fair point. The answer is that this is a national emergency, and so it is reasonable for the Government to take on responsibilities for as long as the emergency lasts – which may be until next spring – in order to offer vital protection to children, who are entirely innocent victims.

The irony, of course, is that the sums involved in maintaining the scheme are minute compared with the tens of billions of pounds already shelled out by the Government. Keeping it going until March 2021, as Labour demands, would probably cost around £100million.

So despite having been creative and far from tight-fisted in keeping the economy afloat since March, No 10 is being berated for its supposedly hard-hearted refusal to provide free school meals for a few more months. It looks like a political own goal.

Which Labour is successfully exploiting. Tory MP Ben Bradley perhaps unwisely tweeted of his home town Mansfield: 'One kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel. These are the kids that most need our help, extending free school meals doesn't reach these kids.'

This was reasonable, if somewhat irrelevant. Yet it was deftly taken out of context by some on the Left. According to deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner, 'this stigmatisation of working-class families' was 'disgraceful and disgusting'. What tripe.

Nonetheless, Labour is winning the propaganda war, and is succeeding in making the Tories appear mean-spirited. 

Rashford visiting FareShare, a charity fighting hunger and food waste, with his mother 

In fact, they are mainly guilty of a lack of imagination after successive economic hand-outs which, because all of it is borrowed money that must be paid back, have arguably been too munificent.

A growing number of Conservative MPs are expressing disquiet. When senior Tory backbencher Sir Bernard Jenkin – no softie, he – admits that the Government has 'misunderstood the mood of the country' on free school meals, it really is time to put up the white flag.

Will Boris Johnson do so? He will be reluctant to provoke the inevitable catcalls from those who will claim he has executed an ungainly U-turn for the umpteenth time. But the jeering will soon pass.

Much better to do the right thing, which is to help vulnerable children directly for as long as this national emergency persists, and see off Labour's false though persuasive accusations of heartlessness.

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