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Minister in row over response to Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign

Martin Rickett

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

A minister has become embroiled in a row over her response to footballer Marcus Rashford’s plea for the Government to extend its free school meal voucher scheme through the summer.

The Manchester United and England star has called on Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey to “put rivalries aside” and “make a difference”.

His plea came as Tory MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the Education Select Committee, admitted that there were “mixed views” among Conservative politicians over the extension of the free school meals programme.

On his campaign, Rashford tweeted: “When you wake up this morning and run your shower, take a second to think about parents who have had their water turned off during lockdown.”

In response, Ms Coffey posted on Twitter: “Water cannot be disconnected though.”

The comment was widely criticised, with shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds describing it as “snarky”.

In response to Ms Coffey’s tweet, Rashford said on Twitter: “I’m concerned this is the only tweet of mine you acknowledged. Please, put rivalries aside for a second, and make a difference.”

The 22-year-old penned an open letter this week asking the Government to reverse its decision not to award free school meals vouchers in England – for which nearly 1.3 million children are eligible – outside of term time.

Gary Lineker, the Labour Party and education leaders have voiced support for the campaign.

Senior Tory MP Mr Halfon said he supports the footballer’s plea because “so many people up and down the country are struggling to keep a roof over their heads and to feed their families”.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Halfon described Rashford as “an inspiration and a hero of our time” for appealing for vulnerable children to receive meal vouchers over the summer holiday.

He said: “The Prime Minister said that when we come out of this, we will not be in austerity again.

“If that is the case, I think an important example of this would be to keep the school meal programme over the summer, because it is not a lot of extra money if you add up all the different Government food programmes, but it’s simple, it works, and the public understand it.”

The chairman of the Education Select Committee said extending the free school meals programme “would be the right thing to do”, but “there are mixed views” among Conservative politicians.

Amid the backlash, Ms Coffey tweeted a further message, saying she welcomed Rashford’s “passion” for supporting children and the most vulnerable in society, adding it was “a passion we share”.

She added: “We are working to the same aim. I & this Govt will continue to actively help and support families and businesses through this emergency and beyond.”

The Labour Party said it will use an opposition day debate in Parliament on Tuesday to call on the Government to continue to directly fund the provision of free school meals over the holidays.

Shadow education secretary Rebecca Long Bailey will say: “It would be deeply callous of the Government not to take this small step to ease the financial pressure on households and ensure children can eat during the summer holidays.”

A Department for Education spokesman has said the national voucher scheme “will not run during the summer holidays”.

On Monday, Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said the Prime Minister would respond to Rashford’s letter “as soon as he can”.

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