ANDREW PIERCE: How ironic that free school meals were a TORY idea

ANDREW PIERCE: How darkly ironic that free school meals were a TORY idea… shot down by the Left

Who dismissed a ground-breaking report on a new initiative to extend free school meals to Britain’s neediest children, saying it was greeted with ‘at best eye-rolling and at worst exasperation’?

Some hard-hearted member of the Tory Party for whom those living in poverty have only themselves to blame?

A diehard critic of the welfare state entirely lacking in compassion?

On the contrary, those words were written by a respected critic on the Left-leaning paper, The Observer. Possibly he was unable to stomach the fact that the author of the report, Henry Dimbleby, happened to be a privileged Old Etonian, Leave campaigner and close friend of senior Tory politicians.

Potentially, it blinded him and other paid-up members of the liberal commentariat to the content.

Henry Dimbleby (above) – a privileged Old Etonian, Leave campaigner and close friend of senior Tory politicians – wrote a ground-breaking report on a new initiative to extend free school meals to Britain’s neediest children

Thankfully, someone who had first-hand experience of childhood hunger took Dimbleby’s report seriously. Step forward football star turned food poverty campaigner, Marcus Rashford (pictured)

Take this other barb, for instance: ‘When you get someone from a rich, privately- educated background to comment on issues they’ve never experienced, then the outcome will always be the same. The UK’s poorest people no longer need blunt, crude and top-down measures to alleviate their suffering. They need a system change to banish the scourge of poverty for good.’

That was the view of the Left-wing website The Canary.

Thankfully, someone who had first-hand experience of childhood hunger did take Dimbleby’s report seriously.

More from Andrew Pierce for the Daily Mail…

Step forward football star turned food poverty campaigner, Marcus Rashford.

Rashford is once again making headlines, with the Government on the back foot over the emotive issue of free meals during the school holidays.

The 22-year-old Manchester United player has succeeded in making Boris Johnson and his party appear utterly indifferent to the plight of needy children this Christmas.

It is a row that is inflicting huge political damage on the Tories nationally — shades again of the ‘nasty’ party — and causing rebellion among backbenchers. And yet it could so easily have been avoided. Indeed, it could have been a positive for ministers if only they had had the wits to exploit an opportunity.

For the free school meals initiative really was Tory made and minted.

What Rashford has been calling for is simply the implementation of the main recommendations of the Government’s National Food Strategy report, commissioned in 2018 by then Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, one Michael Gove. It was published in July.

Gove asked his close friend Dimbleby, the co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain, to write the report.

It was a considered choice, since Dimbleby had co-authored the 2013 government-backed School Food Plan, which led to the implementation of free school lunches for all children in reception and Years 1 and 2, and added practical cooking and nutrition to the National Curriculum.

After consulting with industry experts, academics and various government departments, Dimbleby came up with a succinct recommendation for this new report: the Government’s Free School Meal scheme should be extended to every child in a household where their parent or guardian is in receipt of state benefits during term time and in the holidays (by expanding the holiday clubs scheme).

The 22-year-old Manchester United player has succeeded in making Boris Johnson and his party appear utterly indifferent to the plight of needy children this Christmas. (Above, the PM in a cafeteria at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading yesterday)

Sound familiar? Currently, the meals are only available to the poorest children living in households with an income of less than £7,400-a-year. His recommendations would mean that 1.5 million more seven- to 16-year-olds could receive free school meals (taking the total to 2.6 million).

Rashford read Dimbleby’s report and re-tweeted the recommendations to his 3.7 million followers — and so a campaign to provide free meals during the summer was born.

He even contacted Dimbleby to praise him for his work and to seek advice on how to exploit the support he had ignited. The result was a government U-turn, an agreement to extend free school meals into the summer holidays and an MBE for Rashford.

Ever since, ministers have been on the defensive— attacked from all sides for appearing not to care about struggling families whose incomes have been hit by the new tiered Covid restrictions.

Last week, Labour was defeated by the Government in a vote to extend the provision of schools meals in the Christmas holidays.

So why on earth did the PM, Gove and co overlook its own recommendations and allow Rashford to seize the momentum — and, deservedly so, the glory — and to enable the Labour Party to champion the footballer as one of their own.

How ironic that those same critics of the Dimbleby report are hailing Rashford and his school meals policy that is rooted in the former’s recommendations.

Henry Dimbleby could hardly conceal his irritation on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday: ‘I haven’t been backward in coming forward with ideas that I have been feeding into the Treasury, to [the Department for] Education and to No 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.’

What Rashford has been calling for is simply the implementation of the main recommendations of the Government’s National Food Strategy report, commissioned in 2018 by then Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, one Michael Gove. It was published in July. Gove asked his close friend Dimbleby, the co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain, to write the report

In a withering denunciation of the official government line that needy children can be best helped through Universal Credit alone, he added: ‘This problem [of hunger] is real. It should go without saying that it’s serious. It’s immediate and it’s going to get worse.’

Later, he tweeted, ‘I’ve written a short note explaining why I recommended the three policies that are the focus of Marcus Rashford’s campaign’ and linked a seven-page precis of his National Food Strategy report. The row is the gift that keeps on giving for Labour, with its MPs reporting real ‘cut-through’ with voters in their constituencies.

And it seems that Labour leader Keir Starmer is preparing to embarrass the Government again by forcing a second Commons vote on whether to extend free school meals in the holiday period. While only six Tory MPs voted with Labour last time, the figure is likely to be far higher this time around.

More than 100 Tory MPs have complained that the issue has triggered a series of often unpleasant and violent threats from irate constituents. Many of them are privately seething with Downing Street after they were ordered to vote against the last motion.

At a time when Boris Johnson is at risk of his biggest internal threat — the newly created Northern Research Group of ‘Red Wall’ MPs who are rallying against the economic impact of the imposition of Tier Two and Tier Three restrictions — this fiasco could easily have been avoided if only someone at No 10 had realised what was in the report they had commissioned.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. This is an administration bereft of leadership in many areas, where incompetence is the order of the day and infighting preferable to action.

Cabinet ministers are taking chunks out of each other in an unseemly blame game over how Rashford ‘outsmarted’ them.

On the backbenches the atmosphere is dire, with Tory MPs lashing out. Mansfield MP Ben Bradley did his party few favours by suggesting some of the vouchers for free school meals would end up paying for crack dens and brothels but failed to produce any evidence to back up his claims.

Other Tory MPs argue that with public debt now at £2 trillion and counting, another £150 million for free school meals is surely not too big an ask.

As one senior figure told me: ‘If the Treasury can find £522 million for the Eat Out To Help Out scheme to support restaurants, why can’t it find the £150 million to feed kids to help out?’

Why indeed.

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