Chancellor Rishi Sunak has rejected calls from Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford to extend the government’s free school meal programme.
The campaigning England star and supermarket bosses have called on ministers to push the scheme into the school holidays in a joint letter ahead of the Budget.
But Mr Sunak appeared to rule out any further support for meals – saying the government had “transitioned to a more normal way of doing things” after extra money put in place during the Covid crisis.
The chancellor told The Andrew Marr Show: “We put in place some measures to help families during coronavirus, that was the right thing to do, and in common with the other things that have now come to an end … that’s right that we’ve transitioned to a more normal way of doing things.
Arguing the government’s existing holiday activities scheme was sufficient, Mr Sunak said: “We have actually already acted, is what I’d say to Marcus and everyone else.”
The chancellor added: “We’ve put in place something called the holiday activities program, which provides not just meals but also activities for children during holiday periods. That is a new programme, it was announced earlier this year … and I think that can make an enormous difference to people.”
In a letter to the Sunday Times, Mr Rashford and supermarket chiefs – including the bosses of Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer – called for free school meals to be extended to millions more children.
Children currently qualify only for free meals if their household earns less than £7,400. But Mr Rashford wants the threshold raised to £20,000 for both free school meals and Healthy Start vouchers.
The England star and food sector leaders also called on the chancellor to commit more funding to free meals over the school holidays. Mr Rashford said the levelling up agenda “surely” begins with “guaranteeing every child in Britain can eat well at least once a day”.
Reports suggest the chancellor is preparing to announce an increase in the minimum wage from the present rate of £8.91 an hour, but he gave little away in his interviews on Sunday morning.
Mr Sunak has already pledged £500m for “family hubs” and other measures to support parents with young children – but he has been warned it is not enough to make up for a decade of cuts. Labour called the hubs a “pale imitation” of its Sure Start program.
Asked on Marr whether it was a mistake to close the network of Sure Start centres introduced under Labour, Sunak insisted the new scheme was “broader than the Sure Start centres, and they bring together lots of different services for new parents”.
The chancellor also promised he would take measures to “raise living standards”, but claimed recent cost of living rises hitting hard-pressured families were out of his control.
Asked about inflation rising to just over 3 per cent – with a warning from the Bank of England that it could rise above 5 per cent – Mr Sunak said: “The bulk of that increase is down to two things. One of those is the fact that as economies have reopened rather rapidly after coronavirus, that has put pressure on global supply chains.”
He added: “The other part of the increase is very much just down to energy prices. Both of those factors are global factors. We’re not alone in experiencing those problems, I don’t have a magic wand that can make either of those things disappear.”
Mr Sunak also said he wanted to be a tax-cutting chancellor, despite the government raising national insurance next to pay for a boost to NHS spending and social care.
Asked on Sky News’ Trevor Phillips on Sunday if he could rule out further tax rises before the next election, Mr Sunak joked: “You’re asking me to do my Budget live on your show … I’ll do it in parliament on Wednesday.”