Marcus Rashford celebrates as Boris Johnson agrees to provide free school meals 1

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Footballer Marcus Rashford is celebrating after Boris Johnson agreed to provide free school meals over the winter holidays in another U-Turn.

Marcus Rashford celebrates as Boris Johnson agrees to provide free school meals 2

The Prime Minister personally phoned the Manchester United star personally after he played in his team’s Premier League clash against Everton on Saturday to alert him to the decision to give £170 million of extra funding for the measure.

The United and England star has been campaigning for months to get the Government to provide free school meals to underprivileged children over the holidays during the coronavirus crisis.

The U-turn comes after the Government last month whipped Conservative MPs to vote against a Labour motion in the House of Commons calling for the extension of free school meal provision following Rashford’s campaign.

Rashford said he was ‘so proud’ of those who had united behind his campaign and that he was ‘overwhelmed by the outpouring of empathy and understanding’, promising his supporters to ‘fight for the rest of my life’ to end child hunger in the UK.

In a statement, he said: ‘Following the game today, I had a good conversation with the Prime Minister to better understand the proposed plan, and I very much welcome the steps that have been taken to combat child food poverty in the UK.

‘There is still so much more to do, and my immediate concern is the approximate 1.7 million children who miss out on free school meals, holiday provision and Healthy Start vouchers because their family income isn’t quite low enough, but the intent the Government have shown today is nothing but positive and they should be recognised for that.

‘The steps made today will improve the lives of near 1.7 million children in the UK over the next 12 months, and that can only be celebrated.’

Earlier in the day, Rashford revealed on Twitter that he had spoken to the Prime Minister, but did not divulge whether the Government had changed its mind on the issue.

The footballer wrote on Twitter that he had spoken with Johnson earlier on Saturday, saying: ‘Just had a great conversation with the Prime Minister, now is the time for collaboration.’

The 22-year-old, who was made an MBE for his successful campaign for free meals to be issued during the national lockdown, launched his latest drive after Parliament rejected proposals to provide the free meals for vulnerable children.

Marcus Rashford celebrates as Boris Johnson agrees to provide free school meals 3

The money will pay for the Covid Winter Grant Scheme to support families over the season while the Holiday Activities and Food programme will be extended to cover the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks in 2021, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced.

As part of the package, Healthy Start payments, which help expectant mothers and those with young children on low incomes and in receipt of benefits to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, are set to rise from £3.10 to £4.25 a week from April 2021.

Making the announcement, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said: ‘We want to make sure vulnerable people feel cared for throughout this difficult time and, above all, no one should go hungry or be unable to pay their bills this winter.’

Marcus Rashford celebrates as Boris Johnson agrees to provide free school meals 4

The U-turn comes after the Government last month whipped Conservative MPs to vote against a Labour motion in the House of Commons calling for the extension of free school meal provision following Rashford’s campaign.

Businesses and councils across the country stepped into the breach following the result, announcing they would fund meals during the October half-term for those who needed them.

Johnson and The Government had faced mounting pressure from MPs and the public to U-turn on its refusal to provide school meals for children during school holidays until Easter 2021.

Pressure was heaped on Mr Johnson as Labour leader Keir Starmer announced in late October that he would force another Commons vote on the issue soon.

Senior Conservatives made clear they could line up behind the motion, with some saying they ‘regretted’ supporting the government its initial decision.

A public petition calling on the government to expand the Free School Meals programme to school holidays has reached more than 1,100,000 signatures. The Government says it considers all petitions that receive over 100,000 signatures.

Downing Street had previously insisted that it would not back down over the footballer’s campaign for free school meals.

Two Tory MPs were criticised for controversial remarks about the Manchester United player’s call for the meals to be funded over the school holidays until Easter 2021, with suggesting that the money went to ‘crack dens and brothels’.

The funding will be ring-fenced, with at least 80% earmarked to support with food and bills, and will cover the period to the end of March.

Local authorities will receive the funding at the beginning of December.

England’s children’s commissioner Anne Longfield welcomed the announcement but called on ministers to ‘go further’ with its Universal Credit support – a move backed by the Child Poverty Action Group.

‘Families are facing hard times financially and these measures will help,’ she said.

‘But I would like the Government to go further and commit to retaining the £20 increase in Universal Credit which is helping many struggling families during this pandemic.

‘Hunger does not take a holiday when schools close and a long term solution to the growing number of children in poverty is urgently required.’

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, was among those heralding the fresh investment but said his organisation was ‘at a loss’ as to why it could not have been ready in time for the October half-term holiday, which has recently finished.

He added: ‘Nevertheless, the commitment over the next few months is a positive step forward and should help to address the fact that the financial circumstances of many struggling families will have worsened as a result of the Covid emergency.’

Javed Khan, chief executive of children’s charity Barnardo’s, said: ‘This new scheme is a lifeline for vulnerable families who are struggling to feed their families and heat their homes this winter. It will also help prevent ‘holiday hunger’ throughout 2021.’

Councillor Richard Watts, chairman of the Local Government Association’s resources board, said winter grant money would allow councils to put plans in place to ‘ensure children will not go hungry in the Christmas holidays and February half-term’.

Rashford revealed fellow England star Raheem Sterling inspired him in his campaign to end child poverty, which has seen him rewarded with an MBE.

The 23-year-old Manchester United forward has slogged away tirelessly to ensure poverty-stricken children are given meals during school holidays, leading a campaign for the government to provide free school meals since March.

He was then honoured last month after his efforts resulted in successfully lobbying the government into a U-turn and to continue feeding children in need, while Rashford has teamed up with charity FareShare to help provide free meals.

Sterling meanwhile has also emerged as one of sport’s leading members in tackling social issues, becoming a leading voice in the fight against racism after speaking out on the abuse he has received on social media in particular.

The Manchester City forward is also planning to launch a foundation aimed at helping disadvantaged young people, and speaking in the first episode of the FA’s Black, England and Proud series, Rashford said Sterling’s attempts to bring about change made him realise what could be done.

Asked who his football inspirations are, Rashford said: ‘The most recent one was probably Raheem when he started speaking about the issues that he has faced.

‘For me, Raheem showed me if you’re not happy about something say it and make people aware of it. It’s not a crime to tell people what you think, it’s probably the biggest thing that sparked change for me.’

The duo have both been called up as part of Gareth Southgate’s latest England squad for matches against the Republic of Ireland, Belgium and Iceland.

They are therefore likely to play for their country together again more than a year on from England’s 6-0 win over Bulgaria – where the game had to be halted twice due to racist chanting.

England decided among themselves to finish the game, but Rashford insisted that could only be done due to the bond the squad has among themselves which has been brought about by Southgate.

Marcus Rashford celebrates as Boris Johnson agrees to provide free school meals 5

‘Since Gareth has come in we have done a lot of work off the pitch, with people coming from different communities – these are the best players in England but everyone is from different places,’ Rashford added.

‘He found a way to bring us all together but it was natural, it wasn’t forced and no-one felt forced to speak about things they don’t want to. And when situations have occurred we have managed to just deal with it but we didn’t deal with it as individuals.

‘I know some players in the past I have spoken to on racist issues they [have had to] deal with it themselves. The way that we have dealt with situations in recent times, it’s been amazing, literally everyone together.

‘The game in Bulgaria [the racist abuse] was literally happening from the beginning of the game. I think one of the main reasons why he had the strength to carry on and just ignore it and play our football was because of that bond.’

Marcus Rashford celebrates as Boris Johnson agrees to provide free school meals 6


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