A government minister has looked to downplay the role of campaigning by footballer Marcus Rashford in the decision to provide free school meals to pupils during the holidays.
Children’s minister, Vicky Ford, was accused of being “disingenuous” about the success of the England and Manchester United star’s efforts in getting the Conservative administration to roll out lunch provision outside of term time to less well-off families during the coronavirus pandemic.
In June, the government did a U-turn after Rashford called for ministers to reconsider their decision not to extend the existing food voucher system into the summer holidays, with prime minister Boris Johnson admitting it was “the right thing to do”.
A further £170 million was committed in November to extending the scheme through until Christmas, with Johnson phoning the 23-year-old to talk through the move.
Johnson would later call some of the food parcels sent to families “disgraceful” after Rashford, who was made an MBE in the delayed 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours List, highlighted the poor-quality provision via social media.
But Ford, appearing on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, said the work on free school meals had already been planned by the Department for Education (DfE).
Asked by GMB host Susanna Reid why it took a footballer’s campaign to make the government extend free school meals, the minister said: “No, it isn’t [because of Rashford] actually, Susanna.
“I had extended the free school meals to more groups of children right at the beginning of this lockdown and the eligibility of free school meals.”
Pressed on whether she was saying Rashford’s efforts had been “irrelevant”, Ford went on to say: “I hugely respect Marcus and the campaign he’s been doing and we’ve been putting extra support in through the whole period.
“Obviously the other thing I’ve been working on – and started on way earlier on – was the holiday activities and food programme which we ran in pilot projects for the past three years.”
She added: “Marcus has done some really super work in this period but I have extended free school meals to more groups of children than any Government in the past 50 years.
Put to her that it took Rashford posting pictures of the food parcels to “change policy on vouchers” earlier this year, Ford replied: “Actually, no.
“We had introduced the voucher scheme and done the top-up funding as soon as schools were asked to close to most pupils in this lockdown.
“It did take some time and there were some shocking pictures of a few lunch boxes but the vast majority have worked well.”
GMB co-presenter Adil Ray said it was “disingenuous” of the minister to “try to take credit” for Rashford’s intervention.
Ford responded: “Actually, those boxes were completely shocking, they did not meet the school food standards – we called it out immediately.
“We set up a hotline in the DfE for anyone to come and complain about a lunch box that was below the standard and, in that first week, we had less than 10 complaints, all of which were dealt with and the standards in the schools were immediately improved.“Children must not go hungry, I’ve made that very clear throughout this pandemic.”