Henry Dimbleby, the Government’s food tsar, said ministers need to do more to tackle food poverty
Boris Johnson’s own food tsar yesterday accused him of ‘not doing enough’ to prevent children going hungry – as he urged Downing Street to spend £1.2 billion tackling the problem.
Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of the Leon restaurant, demanded urgent action including the nationwide rollout of holiday clubs during school breaks.
The Government is facing mounting public anger at its refusal to extend free school meals into half-term and beyond following a campaign spearheaded by Marcus Rashford.
Stars including Coldplay and One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson yesterday urged fans to sign a petition organised by the Manchester United and England footballer, which has reached almost one million signatures.
Mr Dimbleby, who leads the National Food Strategy, last night told The Times the Government had ‘walked into a massive bear trap’ over whether to provide free school meals during holidays.
He said: ‘There is a genuine problem with food poverty that has been massively exacerbated by this [coronavirus] crisis. We have a moral obligation to set aside questions of ideology.
‘I don’t understand why they [the government] haven’t owned this. Their mission is to level up. Clearly there was a massive bear trap that they walked straight into.
‘It has cut through to a wide proportion of the population who ask why when you’re spending all this money are you letting children go hungry.’
Mr Dimbleby has sent Downing Street a four-point programme to tackle child hunger which would cost £1.2 billion a year.
It includes £670 million to extend free school meals, £500 million towards an activity and food programme, and £100 million for vouchers to encourage healthy eating.
Earlier yesterday, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘This problem is real. It should go without saying it’s serious.. It’s immediate and it’s going to get worse as employment gets worse and the Government isn’t doing enough.
‘One in seven families already are reporting not being able to afford enough food.’
The Government is facing mounting public anger at its refusal to extend free school meals into half-term and beyond following a campaign spearheaded by Marcus Rashford
He said that ‘in-kind support’ through holiday clubs, providing food and education, had been shown to have a better impact than putting the same ‘small amount of money’ into Universal Credit.
‘I haven’t been backward in coming forward with ideas that I have been feeding in to Treasury, to (the Department for) Education and to Number 10, ideas of how they could rapidly implement this by Christmas,’ he said.
‘But… the dark centre of government is invisible to me and I have no idea exactly what they’re working on as we speak.’
Chancellor Rishi Sunak insisted yesterday the Government is ‘absolutely committed’ to ensuring vulnerable children do not go hungry.
But he told BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat: ‘We’ve taken the view that we have provided resources for local authorities to help in a targeted way the most vulnerable children that they need to look after.’
Mr Sunak said ‘we should be able to trust local councils in different areas to make decisions for their people’.
Mr Dimbleby’s comments came as George Osborne, the ex-chancellor, also stuck the boot into Mr Johnson as he said Marcus Rashford had ‘nutmegged’ the PM and a U-turn on free school meals is now ‘inevitable’.
Mr Dimbleby, who leads the National Food Strategy, last night told The Times the government had ‘walked into a massive bear trap’ over whether to provide free school meals during holidays
The ex-chancellor said the Manchester United and England footballer had made the Cabinet ‘look like a school yard football team’ and with Tory MPs now ‘getting nervy’ the PM will have no choice but to back down.
Earlier today a millionaire minister had claimed holiday activities are ‘more important’ to disadvantaged children than free meals.
Nadhim Zahawi, the business minister, said the ‘best way’ to deal with poverty was through local government schemes and the welfare system as he pointed to a pilot programme which provided food and activities to poor children during the summer holidays.
But the married father-of-three who made his money in oil and gas exploration risked outcry as he claimed parents ‘appreciate the food but more important than the food to them was the activities’.
The Government remains under intense pressure to change tack on free school meals as a campaign led by Mr Rashford continues to gather pace and a Tory revolt grows.
Campaigners want the scheme, which costs about £20million per week, to be extended to cover future school holidays. If it applied to all 13 weeks of school holidays it could therefore cost an estimated £260million extra a year.
Mr Johnson dug in on the issue yesterday as he refused to budge and Rishi Sunak did the same today as he said ‘I don’t think it’s always the right answer that central government comes in and dictates things’.
But the approach taken by Number 10 has sparked widespread Tory anger, with MPs adamant the Government should U-turn.
Conservative backbenchers also signalled on Tuesday they could rebel over ‘unconscionable’ plans to remove a temporary coronavirus-related increase to Universal Credit payments.
Meanwhile, the Government is under fire from council bosses as they accused ministers of short changing them on funding to tackle child poverty.
Councillor David Mellen, the leader of Nottingham City Council, claimed the Government was guilty of ‘double-counting’ funding provided to local authorities.
Mr Dimbleby’s comments came as George Osborne, the ex-chancellor, also stuck the boot into Mr Johnson as he said Marcus Rashford had ‘nutmegged’ the PM and a U-turn on free school meals is now ‘inevitable’
Mr Osborne said Marcus Rashford, a leading campaigner on the issue, had ‘nutmegged’ Boris Johnson who now needed to admit it was ‘game over’
Who is Nadhim Zahawi, the millionaire Tory minister who is often sent out to bat for the Government?
Nadhim Zahawi is a junior minister at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) but he has become one of Downing Street’s most trusted communicators during the coronavirus crisis.
Mr Zahawi, a millionaire who made his money in oil and gas exploration and also co-founded polling firm YouGov, is often chosen by Number 10 to represent the Government on particularly difficult morning media rounds.
He is viewed by the Government as a safe pair of hands and is frequently sent out to face the broadcasters on days when ministers are under fire.
However, he has suffered a number of missteps in recent months, particularly after he claimed that struggling parents would rather pay for meals for their children than accept the ‘label’ attached to handouts.
The 53-year-old married father-of-three has been in Parliament as the MP for Stratford on Avon since 2010 but he had a long wait to begin his ministerial career.
He was first elevated to the Tory frontbench in 2018 under Theresa May as a junior minister at the Department for Education.
He was then moved to BEIS when Boris Johnson became PM back in July last year and he has been widely tipped for a much bigger ministerial role in the near future.
Mr Zahawi was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and moved to the UK at the age of nine.
The Government is facing growing calls to retreat over its refusal to extend the free school meals programme to future holidays.
Campaigners, led by Mr Rashford, argue the extension is needed because many families have been left struggling financially because of the coronavirus crisis.
But the Government is so far refusing to give any ground and has instead opted to point to help and funding that is already in place.
Mr Osborne said on Tuesday that Mr Rashford had already ‘nutmegged the British state once’ by forcing ministers to extend the meals to school holidays earlier this year.
The former Tory MP said the Government had therefore ‘set the precedent’ which it will not be able to get away from.
Mr Osborne argued if the food vouchers were ‘justified at Easter, and then again in the summer (thanks to Rashford), how can they not be justified at Christmas?’.
Writing in the Evening Standard, he said: ‘With Tory MPs getting nervy, another Government U-turn is inevitable.
‘We’ll see if it comes in the form of food vouchers, new school holiday clubs or as a large bung to councils.
‘This Downing Street team came into office saying they were much smarter than their predecessors, and wouldn’t make the mistake of chasing headlines. That’s a bold claim.
‘But their ministers have been made to look like a school yard football team, all running in a panic after the ball — until a professional came onto the pitch and put it into the back of their net.’
Mr Osborne said the Government needed to ‘realise that it’s game over’.
Earlier Mr Zahawi had risked a backlash as he told Sky News this morning: ‘The best way to deal with this is through both local government and through the welfare system and that is the right thing to do.
‘We have run a pilot costing £9million this summer, feeding 50,000 children, we will take the learning from that.
‘It is not just about the food. As I said, I spoke to Carol Shanahan in Stoke on Trent [the chairman of Port Vale Football Club], she tells me that in wards where families want to keep their children safe during those activities they also appreciate the food but more important than the food to them was the activities for their children.’
Mr Zahawi’s comments come after he last week insisted struggling parents would rather pay for meals for their children than accept the ‘label’ attached to handouts.
The minister, who co-founded the YouGov polling firm, said Universal Credit benefits were available to support hard-pressed families and suggested research from holiday clubs showed parents prefer to pay a small sum for food.
Rishi Sunak and Gavin Williamson locked in blame game over free school meals
Rishi Sunak and Gavin Williamson are locked in a bitter blame game over the Government’s refusal to extend the free school meals programme as Treasury sources claimed the Education Secretary had not asked for extra funding.
It was reported over the weekend that the Treasury had blocked the £20 million per week needed to roll out the scheme to cover future school holidays.
But the suggestion that Mr Sunak was guilty of ‘parking the Treasury bus’ has prompted a furious response from the Chancellor’s allies who suspect Mr Williamson’s supporters may have briefed the story.
Allies of Mr Sunak said it was impossible for the Treasury to have blocked the funding as they claimed Mr Williamson had not put in a bid for the cash to be made available.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The research when we did the pilot demonstrates that families didn’t just want the meals.
‘Although they valued the meals, they didn’t like the labelling of them being free. They actually prefer to pay a modest amount, £1 or £2.’
It came as Mr Mellen accused the Government of failing to live up to its promises on funding to tackle child poverty.
He told Sky News: ‘The Government has given a shortfall in council funding over many years, 10 years of reductions.
‘They promised at the beginning of this year that they would stand shoulder to shoulder with us and meet the needs of our Covid costs and our lost income.
‘We are still several tens of millions short on that promise.
‘I am not convinced that the Government are not double-counting here on the money that they are saying that we already have to meet this need.’
He added: ‘They do that quite often.’
The Prime Minister insisted yesterday the Government would not allow children to go hungry but he refused to bow to demands to extend the free school meals programme.
Mr Johnson highlighted the money already given to councils and said Universal Credit was ‘one of the best ways you can help families in this tough time’.
Mr Sunak echoed a similar sentiment today as he told BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat programme that ‘we should be able to trust local councils in different areas to make decisions for their people’.
He added: ‘So I don’t think it’s always the right answer that central government comes in and dictates things.’
The Government has increased Universal Credit payments by £20 per week during the pandemic but that increase is due to be scrapped in April next year.
Tory MPs are now calling on ministers to keep the increase in place for longer as they also said the Government should simply U-turn now on free school meals.
Former Cabinet minister Stephen Crabb said the Government should have conceded on the issue last week.
‘I think the Government should just deal with this head on, concede on the issue of vouchers but say very clearly and firmly that vouchers at best are not a long-term solution,’ he said.
Mr Crabb said the Government has created a political problem with ministers talking up the role of Universal Credit.
He said the fact it is a temporary increase is in ‘the small print’, adding: ‘We are on course to cut that money back in just a few months time and for me that’s just unconscionable.
‘You can’t give money to some of the poorest people in the country and then go out publicly and celebrate that fact and then say ‘oh by the way, even though we may still be living with the consequences of the pandemic next April we are going to cut that money back by around £20 per week, £100 per month’.
‘And that’s going to be a much bigger headache for the Government than school meals.’