Why did MPs vote against free school meals - and what you can do to help?

On October 21, MPs chose to vote against free school meals being extended into half-term and up to Easter 2021 - why? And what you can do to help...

free school meals for children outside red door
(Image credit: AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, MPs chose to vote against free school meals being extended to children up until Easter 2021.

Marcus Rashford started his campaign during the pandemic to try and ensure children entitled to free school meals would continue to receive financial support during the school holidays. Thanks to his efforts, which generated a swell of public support, the government extended the scheme over the Easter and summer holidays earlier this year. 

With over 2 million children now thought to be relying on state-funded school meals for sustenance during the school day and the question being raised over whether schools will close as coronavirus cases rise, MPs voted on whether to extend the scheme into the next school holiday. The Labour Party’s motion to extend the scheme was shot down by 322 to 261 votes, with only five Conservative MPs voting for the opposition’s motion. 

It came as the Food Foundation estimated that a further 900,000 children in England may have needed free school meals since the beginning of the pandemic. This was in addition to the 1.3 million children who were given free school meals last year, which solely works out to about 15% of all state-educated children.

Since the outcome was released, debate has raged on social media. Some people demanding to know why MPs voted against the motion and are accusing them of letting children go hungry, especially as this isn't the first time that the government has tried to refuse the extension of the free school meals scheme. In the past, celebrities like Piers Morgan have criticised Boris Johnson over the decision. 

So why did MPs vote against free school meals? Find out how yours voted and what you can do to help those in need this winter. 

Why did MPs vote against free school meals?

There are many theories as to why MPs voted against extending free school meals into the half-term, including the idea that the government ‘misunderstood’ how the country felt about the issue. Sir Bernard Jenkin, a senior Tory politician, who made the comment has joined other Conservative MPs in calling for a retraction of the vote. 

Leeds Pudsey MP and Conservative Deputy Chief Whip Stuart Andrew was another MP who voted against extending the scheme. He told the Yorkshire Post that ‘it was a non-binding politically motivated opposition day debate’ that ‘would not have delivered free school meals’. 

Other MPs who voted against motion include Ben Bradley, the Conservative MP for Mansfield, who tweeted a string of reasons for his vote. “At one school in Mansfield 75% of kids have a social worker, 25% of parents are illiterate. Their estate is the centre of the area’s crime. One kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel. These are the kids that most need our help, extending FSM [free school meals] doesn’t reach these kids.”

The MP deleted the tweets soon afterwards and said that they had been taken out of context. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaving number 10

Credit: PA Images

Danny Kruger, the MP for Devizes in Wiltshire, wrote in the Gazette & Herald on Sunday October 25 that his vote was rooted in the problem that “generous, unconditional, universal benefit entitlements trap people in dependency on the state and rightly enrage people who are working hard for themselves.”

The Northern Ireland secretary also defended the decision and told The Andrew Marr Show his reasons for the vote. “In the holidays, what we’ve put in place actually is not just the uplift in universal credit, because obviously the schools are closed, so it’s about making sure the welfare system can cover and support what people need.” Brandon Lewis said, “So we’ve put the uplift into universal credit, around just over £1,000 a year, but also very specifically we’ve put £63m into local authorities to support and help people in hardship … and a number of local authorities are using it to do exactly that.”

Brandon Lewis joins other MPs who say that alternative support, particularly the £63million investment in local authorities, is the way to help those in need rather than free school meals. Leeds Elmet and Rothwell MP Alec Shelbrooke is one of them, as he told the Yorkshire Evening Post, “I believe families are best supported by giving more money through the welfare system instead of adding additional administrative burden to schools”.

But the outrage seen on social media and in person also comes from the fact that MPs are offered subsidies for their own food and expenses - coming in at £25 per day. A thread on Twitter has outlined some of the expenses from MPs who voted against offering free school meals. It includes over £700 spent on complimentary wine by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, £3000 offered to one MP for living costs and £2850 given to another for rent assistance. 

How did my MP vote for free school meals?

If you want to find out how your MP voted in the free school meals motion, then you can find out using this handy constituency checker. Just type in the name of your area or if you know it, the name of your local MP. 

The motion, which was turned down by 61 votes, following pleas made by the England and Manchester United striker, Marcus Rashford. After the vote was announced, Marcus took to Twitter to say aside from the politics and "all the noise", children would be going to bed “not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter”. 

When did free school meals start?

The first free school meals were given out in 1879 by the city of Manchester, soon after compulsory education was introduced and it was noted that thousands of children were going to school hungry. In 1906, the Education Act officially allowed local authorities to offer free school meals.

But very few actually did and even less took up the offer in 1921, when criteria was set out to only allow particular children to have free school meals. In 1936, a survey was carried out in 26 local education authorities where there was above 25% unemployment. It turned out that less than 15,000 children were being given the free school meals, despite there being half a million eligible children. 

In 1944, laws were finally passed that forced all local authorities to provide free school meals for children in need. This included free milk in all schools two years later, which offered essential nutrition to thousands of children. From 1947, the cost of free school meals was taken on by the government. 

This means that free school meals have been offered for over 110 years. The outcome of the vote doesn’t mean that free school meals won’t be offered anymore though but following the extension of the scheme into the Easter and summer holidays during the coronavirus pandemic, the government has decided to not extend them again to the half-term up until Easter 2021. 

Which councils are offering free school meals during half term?

While MPs did vote against free school meals, many councils have independently stepped in to assist residents who would otherwise struggle during the holidays. For a full list, have a look here. It includes 51 councils such as Manchester and Liverpool, which are currently in tier 3 lockdown restrictions

Various London councils including Kensington and Chelsea and Lambeth have also said that they’ll offer free school meals during the half-term period. Upon hearing the news, Marcus Rashford said that he “could not be more proud to call myself British” as multiple Tory-run councils are included in those who agreed to continue the system. 

This is what three councils had to say….

Sefton council free school meals

Sefton council have confirmed that they are offering free school meals during the half-term period and have outlined how families can apply for them on their website. They added, “We will also continue to provide additional funding and support to our local voluntary sector partners, including the local food banks who are well stocked to enable them to help some of Sefton’s hardest hit families during these difficult times.” 

Bury council free school meals

Bury have also confirmed that they’ll offer free school meals with vouchers. On their website they’ve said, “We are working hard to get vouchers to those on free school meals as quickly as we can and are finalising our plans to get the vouchers to you.” 

Along with this, they’ve outlined the criteria that needs to be met to have the vouchers and how to apply for them. 

Havering council free school meals

Much like Bury and Sefton, Havering have confirmed on their website that they are offering free school meals over the holiday. They’ve said, “If you currently get a free school meal you will be eligible for a support payment during the term break. The payment is £15 per each eligible child per week and will be paid into your bank account so please have your bank details ready when applying.”

Restaurants offering free school meals around the UK

Pho is offering free school meals for children as MPs vote against it

Credit: Getty

Restaurants are joining councils, not for the first time, to fill the gap in requirement and many from all across England are offering to feed children during the half term. This now includes major chains like McDonalds, Vietnamese street food chain Pho, Huffkins bakery, Big Smoke breweries and The Lebanese Bakery - among many others. 

Marcus Rashford has shared a map of all the establishments across the country that are offering to feed children over the holiday. You can view it here. He has also retweeted restaurants on Twitter who have shared his hashtag #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY and highlighted restaurants who have pledged to help out. 

How you can help with free school meals

The vote has made plenty of people angry and wanting to do something about it. If that’s you and you want to help children currently unable to have free school meals over the half-term, there’s plenty that you can do. 

  • Sign the petition: Labour has put pressure back on the government to U-turn over the vote, but almost 900,000 people have called for the same via a petition begun by Marcus Rashford. It calls for more access to free school meals and meals to be offered during the school holidays. You can sign it here
  • Donate to a food bank: Many families will be struggling at the moment, so find out where your nearest food bank is to donate. Whether it’s cash or food, visit their website to find out what they’ve most in need of at the moment. 
  • Donate to FareShare: By donating to FareShare, you’re helping food banks and other community groups get the help they need, with every £1 providing four meals for children in need. 

The debate is ongoing, however, so we could see the MPs vote against free school meals reversed in the coming days or weeks. Especially as many MPs, both from Labour and the Conservatives, have urged the government to re-think their decision.

Grace Walsh
Features Writer

Grace Walsh is a health and wellbeing writer, working across the subjects of family, relationships, and LGBT topics, as well as sleep and mental health. A digital journalist with over six years  experience as a writer and editor for UK publications, Grace is currently Health Editor for womanandhome.com and has also worked with Cosmopolitan, Red, The i Paper, GoodtoKnow, and more. After graduating from the University of Warwick, she started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness.