Schools have again been told by the government not to provide free meals or vouchers to needy pupils over half term, sparking a new row over how to stop children from going hungry.The government appeared to be setting itself up for another argument with poverty campaigners and unions on Thursday after the Department for Education told headteachers they “do not need to provide lunch parcels or vouchers”.Instead, advice from the Department for Education says a general pandemic support fund set up to help low-income families during the holidays would be adequate to cover mealtime needs.But the National Education Union said disadvantaged children could end up missing out because the fund does not offer blanket provision to every pupil who fits a certain definition of poverty in the same way as free school meals do.The government has already been forced into a number of U-turns on free school meal provision after high-profile interventions from footballer Marcus Rashford and pressure from the opposition.This week ministers were criticised after photos emerged on social media of “offensively meagre” food parcels provided to children learning from home.Boris Johnson condemned the meals, which were provided by contractors, as “disgraceful”, but Labour pointed out that they appeared to match government guidelines on what children should be given.Inside Politics newsletterThe latest news on Brexit, politics and beyond direct to your inbox every weekdayInside Politics newsletterThe latest news on Brexit, politics and beyond direct to your inbox every weekday“It is simply astonishing that the government has, once again, revealed its total disregard for those hardest hit by the ongoing health pandemic,” said Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, of the latest news about half term.“After a year in which the stark inequalities faced by millions of children and young people has been at the forefront of the minds of the public, the ugly spectre of holiday hunger is now looming yet again.”The advice to schools published by the Department for Education says: “Schools do not need to provide lunch parcels or vouchers during the February half term.”There is wider government support in place to support families and children outside of term-time through the Covid winter grant scheme.”The £170m Covid winter grant fund was set up in early December and aims to support those most in need across England with costs related to food, energy, water bills and other essentials.It is distributed to families through county councils and unitary authorities. The Department for Work and Pensions says that the scheme should “provide support to a broad cross section of vulnerable households in their area”.
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Labour is to force a vote in parliament on the government’s plans to cut benefit payments by as much as £1,000 a year.Boris Johnson on Wednesday confirmed he would push ahead with plans to slash £20 a week from universal credit in April, a cut which will affect six million families.The government boosted payments for people in need near the start of the pandemic, but the temporary rise is set to lapse, potentially pushing 200,000 children into poverty.The Child Poverty Action Group has said that the £20 uplift must be kept to ensure that “low-income families with children receive the support they need”.Keir Starmer’s party announced on Thursday that it would use an opposition day motion on Monday to force Mr Johnson’s MPs to choose whether they support the policy. It comes as the opposition urges Boris Johnson to “trust” families on free school meals with cash payments while children are at home, instead of providing food parcels.The call follows controversy about inadequate parcels put together by private contractors, images of which have been widely shared on social media.Inside Politics newsletterThe latest news on Brexit, politics and beyond direct to your inbox every weekdayInside Politics newsletterThe latest news on Brexit, politics and beyond direct to your inbox every weekday“Children going hungry while schools are closed to most children, has been yet another failing of a Government that keeps letting families down,” said Jonathan Reynolds, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.”Our social security system should be a safety net but it has far too many holes in it. “Giving cash directly to families would support parents in making the best choices on how to look after their children during an unprecedented crisis.”Shadow education secretary Kate Green added: “The government should put its trust in parents by give them the money for free school meals to ensure their children are not going hungry.”Commenting on Monday’s vote, Mr Reynolds said: “Under the Conservatives, families come last. “The government’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic means Britain is facing one of the worst recessions of any major economy.
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