PRESSURE is being ramped up on Boris Johnson to do a U-turn on free school meals, with a senior Tory saying the Government has “misunderstood” the mood of the country.

MPs from within the Conservative Party have added their voices to the increasing calls for a rethink after a vote last week saw a Labour bid to extend provision over the school holidays rejected, with footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign on the issue continuing to gather pace.

The England and Manchester United striker publicised a string of councils and businesses across the country - including many in the Bradford district - who are stepping in to provide free food to those in need during the pandemic.

Senior Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: “I think we have to admit that we have misunderstood the mood of the country here.

“The public want to see the Government taking a national lead on this. I think the Government will probably have to think again on that, particularly if there’s going to be more votes in the House of Commons.”

Labour has warned it will bring the issue back before Parliament if ministers do not change course in time for Christmas.

It has been an issue thrust into the spotlight on a local level over the weekend when a heated email exchange unfolded between a teenage girl and Shipley MP Philip Davies over his decision to vote against the motion. 

Jim Innes shared a series of emails on Facebook between his 16-year-old daughter, Lily (pictured below) and the MP after she emailed him to share her anger. 

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

She wrote: "How dare you vote to let children starve over the holidays? Almost 20,000 children in Bradford require free school meals; the city in which you live, the place with constituents YOU are meant to be working for and today you voted so they'd go hungry over the holidays."

She went on to say: "I seriously hope you reconsider your position, but I'm well aware of your abhorrent views and lack of compassion for the poorest and most vulnerable in our country and community so I'm not too optimistic."

In response, Mr Davies said: "Thank you for your email, even though you show how intolerant you are to anyone who holds a different opinion to you. I appreciate that virtue signalling is in vogue, but I am afraid I take the rather old fashioned view that parents should be primarily responsible for feeding their children rather than the state.

"That never used to be a contentious view - even when Labour were in Government and they refused to do this - and I am very sad it has become so.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

“You are not seeking this as an absolute last resort in the most exceptional circumstances – which would be one thing – but you want this to happen as a matter of course.

“I am afraid that I cannot support a such a state power grab away from the principle of parental responsibility. If we are not even going to ask parents to be responsible for feeding their children then I wonder what we would ask them to be responsible for.”

The initial email went viral on social media after being shared on Twitter and the full email exchange was shared widely on Facebook, with Mr Davies telling Lily in one: "It is genuinely very sad that you cannot accept, recognise or respect different opinions. Being so blinkered in your views – accusing me of committing a crime for having a different opinion for goodness sake – is not healthy in my opinion. However, that is your absolute right to take that view.”

Bradford Council leader Susan Hinchcliffe waded into the social media storm. 
She said: "Philip Davies does not speak for us in Shipley when he says this. These are exceptional times, he should have a heart."

The Conservative MP said he had emailed Lily to apologise if he had upset her and had he known she was 16, would have made allowances for that. 

He told The Independent: "Obviously I had no idea she was 16 as she never disclosed that at any point. He father is a prominent member of the Shipley Labour Party. I emailed her subsequently to apologise if I upset her to which she assured me I hadn’t.”

Mr Innes said he is not member of the Labour Party and that Lily had got in touch with Mr Davies asking why he'd spoken to the press to issue a "veiled apology", when he could have emailed her if he thought an apology was due.

Lily, who is studying for her A-levels at Beckfoot Bingley, told the Telegraph & Argus: "I think it should be a lesson for politicians, they are meant to be working for us. They should treat people with respect."

But for the politically engaged teenager, the issue of feeding disadvantaged children is at the heart of the matter and one she doesn't feel was addressed by the MP, who she said was "making it about my tone and how this is my opinion".

"That's not what the issue is," she said. "We are arguing about children's lives."

"For people to vote against it, there's no reason to do that. Everyone who has an MP who voted against it should have emailed."

Mr Innes, 42, said it is not a case of whether someone is a young person, but: "It matters that anyone that does that job could possibly think that's an appropriate way to respond."

On the free school meals debate, he said: "What reason would you have against it?

"I've seen lots comments talking about this stereotypical mum in the queue for the foodbank with a phone, smoking. What's that got to do with her children?

"There's a responsibility on all of us in our community."

He said: "My main point, as an MP, when he's sitting down in an evening and looking at his correspondence, he wants to be thinking - just as a human being - how is my reaction to this email, how is it positively or negatively going to affect the other person on the end.

"The whole thing about Philip Davies is not really the point for her - young kids are going to go hungry."

Meanwhile, Robbie Moore, Conservative MP for Keighley and Ilkley, accused the Labour Party of weaponising the debate over the extension of free school meals.

He said: "Sadly, and true to form, the Labour Party has used this as an opportunity to spread misinformation and weaponise such an emotive subject to cause distress and fear amongst many hard working families."

Mr Moore said the Government has added more than £9 billion to the welfare system - money going to families in need - and that Bradford Council received a further £18 million last week "that can be used to support the most vulnerable during these challenging times - such as free school meals during holiday periods - and I am very pleased to see they are using this government money to help with this".

Bradford Council leader Susan Hinchcliffe said that is not what the money is for.

A letter from the Secretary of State said it's expected that children's services, among other things, should continue to be prioritised.

"Children’s services in this quote from the Secretary of State doesn’t mean meals during holidays, it means paying for children’s social workers, children who have been taken into care and foster care placements etc," said Cllr Hinchcliffe, adding that the Council is funding free meals for disadvantaged children and families because "like most people we recognise that, in these exceptional times, it’s the right thing to do".

She said one-off Government funding is welcome, but financial commitments and certainty from central Government is needed for the Council to plan for the next year.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, suggested the continued wrangling over the extension of free school meals was like something out of the pages of Charles Dickens.

“To have a debate about whether we should make sure that hungry and vulnerable children have enough to eat is something that is strikingly similar to something we’d expect to see in chapters of Oliver Twist – a novel published in the 19th century,” she told Sophy Ridge On Sunday.