Children's Commissioner Anne Longfield 'horrified' by Government debate over allowing children to go hungry

The debate over extending the free school meals scheme to help vulnerable children over the holidays is like "something out of Oliver Twist," the Children's Commissioner for England has said.

This week many cafes, restaurants and charities in the region stepped up to help ensure no children go hungry during the holidays
This week many cafes, restaurants and charities in the region stepped up to help ensure no children go hungry during the holidays

Anne Longfield, who grew up in Leeds, said she had been "horrified and really disappointed" by recent debates which resulted in a Labour motion to extend the scheme being defeated by 261 votes to 322.

"We're a wealthy country, it's 2020," she told Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.

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"To have a debate about whether we should make sure that hungry and vulnerable children have enough to eat is something that is strikingly similar to something we'd expect to see in chapters of Oliver Twist - a novel published in the 19th century.

"Let's stop the divisive and distracting conversation, and let's start focusing.

Ms Longfield said the UK welfare system "needs to work better" and that levels of child poverty had been increasing as the coronavirus crisis continued.

She added that the issue needed to move from being a discussion to "something that is real".

"I think we all have to agree that there's a problem," she said.

"There's a problem with children going hungry in this country and there's a problem with children in poverty, and we need now, knowing that, to focus on what the solution is.

"This isn't going to go away.

"I'm told the PM understands this, I'm told there are people around him having positive discussions about this.

"I want this to move from something that is a possibility and a discussion, to something that is real and the clock is ticking."

Responding to a tweet by Conservative MP Ben Bradley, which appeared to agree with a comment suggesting some meal vouchers went direct to "a crack den and a brothel", Ms Longfield said the remarks were "deeply disrespectful".

"If there are children living in dangerous situations in his constituency, he should be calling the local authority and social services to make sure those children get help rather than going onto Twitter to talk about it," she said.

More than 2,000 paediatricians have also signed a letter to the Prime Minister saying they are shocked by the Government’s “refusal” to extend free school meals, and are backing Rashford’s campaign.

The open letter from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health says: “Childhood hunger is an issue that should transcend politics.”

It comes as pressure is ramping up on Boris Johnson to do a U-turn on free school meals, with a senior Tory saying the Government has “misunderstood” the mood of the country.

MPs from within the Conservative Party have added their voices to the increasing calls for a rethink, with footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign on the issue continuing to gather pace.

Senior Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: “I think we have to admit that we have misunderstood the mood of the country here.”

However, Stuart Andrew defended his vote against the measures saying the Government had already invested in local councils and was changing the benefit system to make it easier to access.

The MP for Pudsey said: “This is an important issue for me, not least because I spent a lot of my time at school on free school meals so I find it hard when the opposition try to make out I don’t care and that Conservative MPs want children to starve. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“This is an important area of work and one I care deeply about but I want a long term solution not the short fix they proposed.”

Labour has warned it will bring the issue back before Parliament if Ministers do not change course.

Leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “Labour will force another vote on free school meals if the Government does not change course before the Christmas break. It’s not too late to do the right thing.”