A BARNSLEY MP who came under fire for voting against plans to provide free meal vouchers to kids during the recent half-term break has hit out at ‘misinformation’ around the food poverty row.

Conservative MP Miriam Cates, who represents Penistone and Stocksbridge, told the Chronicle it was a shame that such a serious issue was used to spread ‘fake news’.

And she feels footballer Marcus Rashford’s child hunger campaign has been ‘politicised’ as debate has raged about providing for vulnerable families during school holidays.

Ms Cates says the recent government vote was never about ending free school meals.
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“It was about ending a supermarket voucher scheme which was only ever meant to be a stop-gap brought in at the very start of the pandemic,” she said. “Free school meals are here to stay.”

She also defended her decision to vote with the government in October - an action which brought her criticism across the town and from some constituents.

Over the summer the government rolled out a trial programme to help vulnerable children and a large payment was made to councils to help those most in need.

A scheme subsequently launched to provide £15 weekly supermarket vouchers through which families could get food.

“No-one ever thought the supermarket voucher scheme was a long term solution or effective in tackling food poverty,” she said. “A store voucher is not a free school meal.

“It was known the voucher scheme was not going to continue but other options were being considered.

“In June, it was announced we were looking at a holiday food programme and how it could be extended. The Wednesday before October half term it was opposition day in the Commons where just discussions take place and people get the chance to raise issues.

“The opposition said we should continue with vouchers. It was not about free school meals. That was a lie.”

Now, said Ms Cates, there is an expansion of what has been trialled to cover all the holidays.

“Some £170m has been given to councils to help families who need food or help with bills,” said the MP. “This plan began in the summer and deals with the issue in a proper way. I believe this is the right way. A supermarket voucher is not the answer. That was a short-term action to deal with a crisis.

“So what has just been announced by the Prime Minister is not a U-turn. It is an extension of what was already going on.

“Now it is being rolled out and that is fantastic. These are tough times for many families and this is a more holistic strategy for helping. It is a shame such a serious issue has been used to spread misinformation.

“No-one voted against free school meals. We voted against extending the voucher scheme which had been put in place at the start of the first lockdown.

“It was set up quickly to provide £15 a week vouchers for children receiving free meals when they were not in school. It was only ever designed to be a temporary solution.”

Ms Cates says it is ‘brilliant’ that Rashford, who plays for Manchester United and England, has raised the issue of food poverty.

“He has a powerful story, but it is a shame the way he has been politicised by the opposition,” she said. “He just wants to make life better for people and I respect him for that.

“When I spoke about this in the House of Commons I started by saying this is not about free school meals, it is about supermarket vouchers. So I stand by the way I voted in October.

This is not an easy problem to solve. But a programme which offers activities for children and food is far more valuable and I absolutely support the action the government has taken.”