A government minister stands accused of misleading the public after he falsely claimed that research showed parents “actually prefer to pay a modest sum” of “£1 or £2”, instead of receiving free school meals.
It is pretty desperate to see ministers making misleading claims in order to justify voting against feeding hungry children in a pandemic
Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Radio Four that “research” from a holiday food and activities club pilot scheme had shown “that families didn’t just want the meals, although they valued the meals, they didn’t like the labelling of them being free, they actually prefer to pay a modest amount, £1 or £2”.
However, when asked to provide the research referred to by the former children’s minister, who also repeated the claim on Times Radio, the Department for Education said it was not aware of any that backed up his comments. They said Zahawi may have been speaking anecdotally.
Tulip Siddiq, the shadow children’s minister, said it was “pretty desperate to see ministers making misleading claims in order to justify voting against feeding hungry children in a pandemic”.
“This incompetent government is completely out of touch with families struggling to make ends meet or concerned about their jobs.”
Earlier this week, the government voted down a motion in parliament aimed at extending the government’s free school meals voucher scheme to cover all school holidays between now and Easter.
The government’s school food and activities pilot was first launched in 2018 and was repeated in 2019 and again this year, with pupils in certain areas offered free meals and activities over the summer break.
To date, the only published evaluation of the scheme is an ad hoc notice released in November 2018, which provided information about the numbers attending the clubs that year.
Multi-millionaire Zahawi, who made his money as an oil executive, specifically referred to “research” from the government pilot.
When approached to provide evidence to support Zahawi’s claims, the DfE initially pointed Schools Week to a report by the Food Foundation last year.
The report, The Children’s Future Food Inquiry, did address “stigma” attached to free school meals, and described the name “free school meals” as “problematic in and of itself”.
But the report made no mention of parents preferring to pay a small amount for meals.
Zahawi’s private office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, where he currently serves as a minister, were approached for comment, but neither had responded at the time of going to press.
The free school meals motion was tabled by Labour on Wednesday as part of a campaign spearheaded by footballer Marcus Rashford. The Manchester United and England striker was instrumental in persuading the government to U-turn and provide vouchers over the summer break.
Campaigners say the impact of coronavirus means the poorest families still need support in the holidays, but ministers claim the situation has changed since the summer, and that the best way to support families is through the benefits system.
All five education ministers who serve in the Commons voted against the Labour motion, along with most other Conservatives. However, Robert Halfon, the chair of the education committee, was one of five Tories who voted with Labour and other opposition groups.
“During the unprecedented and unpredictable period at the start of the pandemic, it was right that extra measures were taken to provide free school meals during the holidays, but we are in a different position now that we have welcomed all pupils back to school,” education secretary Gavin Williamson told the Commons on Wednesday.
But Barbara Crowther, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, said she was “profoundly dismayed” by the vote, which saw Labour’s motion fall by 261 votes to 322.
“We had hoped parliament would unite, as this is not the time for children living in food insecurity to be used as political footballs.”