Shadow education secretary Kate Green has called for Gavin Williamson to resign over the latest free school meals scandal, saying he “plainly isn’t up to the job”.
There was a public outcry earlier this week when images of boxes containing just £4 or £5 worth of food intended to last a week were shared online.
Labour is increasing pressure on the Government to deliver more support for families while schools and colleges in England are closed to most pupils.
Boris Johnson branded the parcels an insult to the families that had received them, while Home Secretary Priti Patel said they were “unacceptable” and called for action against the company compiling them.
The Education Secretary said on Wednesday that companies will be “named and shamed” if they fail to deliver against food standards, and has urged schools to cancel contracts where necessary.
Speaking to the Commons Education Select Committee, Mr Williamson said he was “absolutely disgusted” after seeing a picture of a meagre food parcel delivered to a disabled mother-of-two.
But Ms Green said the public had “run out of patience” with the Education Secretary.
Labour says it will force a vote in the Commons on Monday demanding that ministers guarantee that children will receive the full value of free school meals support – including in the school holidays.
Speaking to Good Morning Britain, Ms Green said: “I think patience has completely run out with Gavin Williamson and I do think it is time for him to go.
“Our children’s future, our children’s education, our children’s well-being, is too important to be left in the hands of someone who plainly isn’t up to the job and I think it’s time for him to go.”
It is the first time Ms Green has called directly for Mr Williamson to quit.
She was heavily critical of his handling of exams over the summer – which saw thousands of students’ exam results downgraded based on predictions by an algorithm – but stopped short of demanding his resignation.
At the time, Ms Green urged him to “take responsibility” for the crisis rather than leave the Government.
But she added: “Where the Secretary of State goes, chaos and confusion follows and it’s children, families and education staff across the country who pay the price for his incompetence.”
Currently families can access free school meals through food parcels distributed by school catering firms or voucher schemes set up by schools for local supermarkets.
A national supermarket voucher scheme is due to open on Monday, Mr Williamson said.
But Labour is calling for parents to be given extra cash directly through the benefit system.
Ms Green said on Friday: “There is so much research going back many decades that if you give parents money to spend on their children – buying them food, buying them clothes, buying essentials, that’s what they do.”
She added: “Everything we know is that if you give parents money to spend on their children, that’s what they do, that’s what they prioritise – as any parent would.”
Labour is also demanding that Mr Williamson set a date by when all pupils will have the laptops and internet access needed to learn remotely.
On the motion tabled by Labour for debate, Ms Green said: “Parents are desperately trying to do their best for their children, stopping them from going hungry and keeping them learning, but 10 months into this pandemic the Government has still not provided the support these families need.”
The Government is facing further controversy over guidance published on the Department for Education website stating schools do not need to provide parcels or vouchers over the February half-term break.
Instead, it said families eligible for free school meals would be supported through the Government’s Covid Winter Grant Scheme run by councils.
The Local Government Association (LGA) has called on the Government to provide food vouchers to eligible families during the upcoming half-term.
Following criticism from the LGA that ministers planned to use money from the scheme to pay for free school meals during the half-term despite saying the fund was not intended to be used for such a purpose, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think we are down to semantics whether it is the school delivering the meal or whether it is the local authority.”
The GMB Union, which represents school support staff including lunch staff, called the decision “ridiculous, unacceptable and immoral”.
Rehana Azam, GMB national secretary, said: “Here we go again. I don’t know how many times we have to have this argument. Just feed hungry kids. Stop messing about.
“It’s ridiculous, unacceptable and morally wrong that the Government is yet again planning to let children go hungry.
“It’s time for another U-turn and frankly, we need to see an actual plan instead of a piecemeal approach that is consistently letting down some of our most vulnerable children and messing schools and local authorities around.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “As was the case over Christmas, vulnerable families will continue to receive meals and other essentials over the February half-term through the Covid Winter Grant Scheme.
“As part of that scheme, 80% of the funding that we give to local authorities is ear-marked to support families with food bills.”
The problem of getting support to families in need has been a live issue throughout the pandemic.
It has caused huge embarrassment to the Government, particularly due to the work of England and Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford in underscoring the issue of food poverty.
In June he successfully campaigned for the Government to reverse its initial decision to not extend a food voucher scheme over the summer holidays.
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