Why a government U-turn on free school meals looks likely

There is broad agreement that the extension of meal vouchers over the summer would be effective, popular and inexpensive.

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Who is setting today's political agenda? Only the England striker, Marcus Rashford. The 22-year-old footballer is putting pressure on the government to extend free school meal vouchers for low-income families over the summer months, after writing a powerful open letter to MPs yesterday citing his own experiences of relying on the scheme growing up.

The government rejected his plans last night, when the Downing Street spokesperson pointed to last week's announcement of "an additional £63 million for local authorities to benefit families who are struggling to afford food and other basic essentials".

But that is not the end of the matter: the cause has been taken up by Labour, which hopes to push the matter to a vote today, while several Conservative MPs have already indicated their support for the measure. Rashford has written an opinion piece in today's Times, urging MPs to set aside their differences to support the measure. He has also begun a social media campaign, urging the government to #maketheUturn, and has received widespread support from other public figures.

At a time when the UK appears to be teetering on the edge of another bitter culture war, Rashford's intervention has pulled the political focus firmly back onto the suffering of the most vulnerable families in the UK who are struggling terribly during the coronavirus pandemic. Both his open letter and his Times column are profoundly moving, in their human detail, their humility and in their appeal across party lines to a common "humanity": "Political differences aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?"

The Conservative chair of the Education select committee, Robert Halfon MP, agrees, as does the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, who says she is "baffled as to why Westminster colleagues are picking this hill to die on". Privately, many more Conservative MPs agree: given that the cost of extending the scheme, £120 million, is tiny in the grand scale of overall government spending, they don't see the rationale behind expending political capital in resisting the calls for an extension.  

The government's thinking, as the Downing Street spokesperson set out, is that they already have a package of measures to support deprived children during the summer months. Furthermore, there are concerns that the scheme doesn't reach the very most vulnerable children; low-income families receive a £15 voucher per child per week to spend, which works in many cases, but not in the most extreme cases of neglect, where the vouchers don't end up being spend on feeding the children the vouchers are designed to support.

The government feels that local authority interventions are a more effective way of reaching the vulnerable children in these extreme cases. But that is not exactly an argument against the scheme's appropriateness for the summer months; rather, it is an acknowledgement of an area where more support is needed. 

There is also an implicit reluctance to set a precedent for free school meals over the summer holidays; Labour also resisted pressure to do this while in government. But Rashford, and the MPs who support him, are only calling for the scheme to be extended this summer, while families are in particular need due to the economic impact of coronavirus. 

All the signs point towards a government U-turn on this today. If it does, about 1.3 million vulnerable children in England will be in line for support over the coronavirus summer. If it doesn't, it's a sign of a government prepared to expend political capital on sticking to its guns, despite the growing unpopularity of the approach.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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