England and Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford has welcomed the Government’s U-turn over providing free meals to disadvantaged children during the Christmas holidays.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson phoned Rashford on Saturday to alert him to the decision to lay on £170million of extra funding for the measure.
The 23-year-old received the call after he played in United’s 3-1 Premier League win against Everton at Goodison Park.
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 added: “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.”
The funds 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.
“Seeing the role everyone has played in supporting our most vulnerable children has been the greatest moment of my life. I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of empathy and understanding,” Rashford added.
“I am fully committed to this cause, and I will fight for the rest of my life for it, because in my mind, no child should ever go hungry in the United Kingdom. I don’t want any child to go through what I went through, and any parent to experience what my mother experienced.
“I now call on the Government to collaborate with the Child Food Poverty Taskforce, something the Prime Minister and I discussed on the phone last night, to guarantee that no child does.”
Rashford further expressed his gratitude on Sunday, tweeting: “To the campaigners, charity workers, volunteers, teachers, care workers, key workers, that have fought for this level of progress for years, thank you. This is your victory. Never underestimate the role you have all played. I’m just honoured to be on this journey with you.”
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.”
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.
Rashford’s petition for pupils in disadvantaged families to have their meals paid for during the holidays went on to attract more than one million signatures – mass backing which piled pressure on Downing Street to commit to more support.
The DWP confirmed the £170m worth of winter grants would be administered by councils in England rather than schools.
The funding will be ring-fenced, with at least 80 per cent 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.