Sixth former accused of being an intolerant virtue signaller by her MP says politicians should 'speak to people you are meant to be working for with respect'

A 16-year-old girl who was told by her local MP she was an intolerant virtue signaller because she challenged him over free school meals has said MPs should treat the people they represent with respect regardless of their age.

Sixth form student Lily Innes emailed her local Conservative MP Philip Davies after a Commons vote last week in which the majority of Tory MPs refused to support a Labour motion to help feed disadvantaged children over the school holidays.

But she said: “He wasn't bothered by it all.”

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And added: “People like him think that it's intolerant to challenge anything that they think, it’s not.”

Lily Innes, 16, of Bingley, who was accused of being an intolerant virtue signaller by her MP. Photo: Submitted

While Susan Hinchcliffe, Labour leader of Bradford City Council which has promised to provide food over the holidays, said: “He fails to appreciate that these are exceptional times. He should have a heart and apologise for his unnecessarily abrasive and inappropriate comments to a 16-year-old constituent.”

Shipley MP Mr Davies has said he was not aware that Miss Innes, who lives in Bingley, was 16 when replying and that there was key context missing from the exchanges posted online.

But Miss Innes, who as well as studying for her A-levels works two jobs as a waitress and also in a takeaway, said: “But you shouldn’t email anyone like that. And if you're in a position of power, you should be speaking to people you're meant to be working for with respect.”

The email exchange, which has been seen by the Yorkshire Post, saw Miss Innes accuse Mr Davies of letting children “starve over the holidays”.

She said: “Almost 20,000 children in Bradford require free school meals, the city in which you live, the place with constituents you are meant to be working for, and today you voted so they’d go hungry over the holidays.”

She called the MP an “utter disgrace”.

Mr Davies’ email to Miss Innes read: "Thank you for your email, even though you show how intolerant you are to anyone who holds a different opinion to you.

"I appreciate that virtue signalling is in vogue, but I am afraid that I take the rather old fashioned view that parents should be primarily responsible for feeding their children rather than the state.

"That never used to be a contentious view - even when Labour were in Government and they refused to do this - and I am very sad that it has become so.

"I am afraid that I cannot support such a state power grab from the principle of parental responsibility. If we are not even going to ask parents to be responsible for feeding their children then I wonder what we would ask them to be responsible for.”

And when approached by the Yorkshire Post over the weekend he added: “Yes I sent the email. I am sure she will be happy to send you the full correspondence between us - or does the paper just want to take one email in isolation?

"I also had no idea she was 16 - how was I supposed to know that?”

While he told the Independent: “Her father is a prominent member of the Shipley Labour Party.

“I emailed her subsequently to apologise if I upset her to which she assured me I hadn’t.”

But Miss Innes said: “I don't know how, even if you are incredibly right wing, how you could treat our children over these next holidays like this, because so many of them, it is their only meal.

“And Bradford is one of the most deprived areas, he's meant to be our MP, he should know that.”

She added: “It's always people who've never been in that situation who think they can give this advice, that they don't know about. And it comes from a really horrible place, they're not trying to be helpful or nice.”

Ms Hinchcliffe said: “Free school meals offer vital support to families and children during term time. At the time of a pandemic it’s right to extend that support into holidays. Bradford Council will step in where the government has failed to act and make sure no child goes hungry over half-term.

“Contrary to what Philip Davies believes, poorer parents do not care any less about their children than wealthier parents do.”

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.

The England and Manchester United striker – whose petition has gathered more than 800,000 signatures so far – has publicised a string of councils and businesses across England who are stepping in to provide free food to those in need during the pandemic.

Tweeting details of the various community efforts to help children from low income backgrounds, the player said he is “so thankful and so very proud” for the “compassion and empathy” shown.

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.”

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.

“The public want to see the Government taking a national lead on this. I think the Government will probably have to think again on that, particularly if there’s going to be more votes in the House of Commons.”

Labour has warned it will bring the issue back before Parliament if ministers do not change course in time for Christmas.

Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer tweeted: “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.”

Tory MP Tobias Ellwood admitted he regrets voting against the original motion, telling Times Radio: “I’m happy to say that I’ve been convinced.”

But Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis defended the Government, saying it has taken “the right position”.

He said they had increased Universal Credit and were providing £63m to local authorities to help people in their communities at a time of hardship.

“What we are looking to do is ensure that we deal with child poverty at the core, putting the structure in place that means even in school holidays children can get access to the food that they need,” he told Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield compared the idea of debating such an issue to something from the pages of the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist.

She told Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “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.”

A number of councils, including Conservative-run bodies, have announced stop-gap measures to cover the October half-term break which begins on Monday.