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MP defends voting against motion to extend free school meals over holidays

High Peak MP Robert Largan has defended his decision to vote against a motion to extend free school meals for pupils in England into the holidays.

Footballer Marcus Rashford's online petition calling to expand access to free school meals, provide meals and activities during school holidays, and increase the value of and expand the Healthy Start voucher scheme has been signed by more than 322,000 people.  

In the High Peak, almost 1,000 people (982 at the time of writing) backed the Manchester United and England star’s petition.

In the House of Commons, Labour’s motion, which called for the scheme to be extended over school holidays until Easter 2021, was defeated by 261 votes to 322 – with a majority of 61.

Five Conservative MPs rebelled against the government’s whip on Wednesday (21 October), but the vast majority backed it - including High Peak MP Largan.

He said: “The free school meal voucher scheme was introduced as a temporary measure to provide support to children who qualify for free school meals while schools were closed due to the national lockdown.

“A few months ago, I was one of the first Conservative MPs to call for the Government to listen to campaigners like Marcus Rashford and extend the voucher scheme over the summer holidays, given the unprecedented situation we faced. But we also need to remember that this was a temporary measure during lockdown. The last Labour Government rejected the idea of a voucher scheme as well.

“As someone who went to my local comprehensive in Manchester, this is an issue I take extremely seriously. This week, I met with the Education Secretary to discuss the need for a long term solution to provide more support for the most vulnerable children during school holidays and made it clear that, if we were ever forced into another full lockdown (and I sincerely hope that we do not have to do so) then I believe the Free School Meal voucher scheme would need to be reintroduced immediately.”

He said he voted in favour of the following motion, which was passed: “This House notes that schools are now fully operational following the covid-19 outbreak, and will continue to offer free school meals in term time; welcomes the substantial support provided by the Government to children worth £550 million annually; further welcomes that this support has been bolstered by almost £53 billion worth of income protection schemes, and £9.3 billion of additional welfare payments; notes that eligible families have also been supported throughout lockdown through the receipt of meal vouchers worth £380 million while schools were partially closed, alongside the Holiday Activities and Food Fund; and further supports the Government in its ongoing activities to help the most vulnerable children in society.”

However, the MP has been accused of ‘turning a blind eye’ to vulnerable families – with one Glossopdale Labour councillor saying it’s ‘even more disgraceful’ in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.  

Councillor Damien Greenhalgh, Deputy Leader of High Peak Borough Council, said: “I’m so utterly disappointed that our so-called ‘independent minded’ MP has voted with the Conservative government to ‘turn a blind eye’ to vulnerable families, as Marcus Rashford aptly put it.

“There are nearly 1,900 children who need free school meals – children from families who earn less than £616 a month here in the High Peak.

“With the uncertainties about income and working hours caused by coronavirus, it’s even more disgraceful that our MP has chosen so callously to vote against the extended provision of meals to these children in Glossopdale during the school holidays.”

The campaign to extend school meals has been spearheaded by footballer Rashford, who forced the government into the U-turn on the summer break and has since received an MBE in recognition of his efforts. He has previously spoken about his own experience of food poverty growing up in Wythenshawe in Manchester.

According to the Food Foundation, more than 1.4 million children experience food insecurity during the holidays, and 6.3 per cent are worried about going hungry during the upcoming October half-term. 

Rashford has vowed to keep campaigning, telling politicians to “stop stigmatising, judging and pointing fingers” as he warned “a significant number” of children will go to bed hungry and “feeling like they do not matter”.

In a statement posted to his 3.5 million followers on Twitter, the 22-year-old said: “I don’t have the education of a politician, many on Twitter have made that clear today, but I have a social education having lived through this and having spent time with the families and children most affected.

“These children matter. These children are the future of this country. They are not just another statistic. And for as long as they don’t have a voice, they will have mine. You have my word on that.”

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