MARCUS Rashford’s campaign to extend free school meals to low-income pupils over school holidays in England has been remarkable. Free school meal extensions have already been implemented in Scotland and Wales through good leadership from devolved governments.

Marcus Rashford has secured the support of many English councils and businesses for his call to tackle food poverty – but last week more than 300 Tory MPs voted down a proposal from Labour to extend free school meal schemes across England.

The Prime Minister’s refusal appears to have backfired with reports that around 100 Tory MPs are now furious with his mishandling of this issue. Rebellion is in the air and Labour look likely to bring the proposal back to the House of Commons for another vote.

The fact leadership for this issue in England has come from a 22-year-old Manchester United centre-forward speaks volumes for the moral chasm at the heart of Boris Johnson’s government. MPs are already on course for a £3300 pay rise next year – that’s 4.1% on top of a 3.1% rise they had earlier this year – resulting in pay of £85,291 per annum.

This is without counting the many benefits MPs enjoy through generous expenses and subsidised dining on the parliamentary estate in London. If we can feed MPs, we can feed poor children. The Westminster bubble is making many Tory MPs look hopelessly out of touch, uncaring and elitist during the pandemic.

Worse still have been the numerous tweets from Tory MPs challenging the need to extend free school meals for fear it will create a culture of “dependency”. More kids are starving because the pandemic has shrunk household incomes. Talk of dependency is nonsense.

Around a third of pupils where Marcus Rashford grew up in Manchester were eligible for free school meals. This is a person who’s leading from his childhood experience. It’s a campaign of common sense straight from the heart of someone who knows what’s going on in communities. The PM has cast himself as Ebenezer Scrooge in this pre-Christmas tale.

The cost of extending free school meals in England over holidays works out at £20 million per week. When you consider how much public money – and it’s in the billions – has been squandered on incompetent test and trace or Covid personal protection equipment, the PM’s intransigence appears astonishing and positively Victorian.

Before the pandemic, around 1.3 million school pupils were eligible for free school meals due to low household incomes in England. It’s now thought that figure has risen to 2.2 million children and young people because of the economic impact of the pandemic. We’ve thousands of pupils going hungry south of the Border and there is no need for this. The first duty of any government is to protect its people.

What the PM has failed to grasp is that 2020 is creating a Covid generation of young people who are missing out on education and their childhood. A London School of Economics report indicates only six in 10 pupils are receiving a full education despite schools having returned. There is a “permanent scarring” taking place for pupils due to the pandemic.

A study by Kellogg’s revealed it costs millions in lost teaching hours if teachers have to do all they can to help hungry children. We’ve known this for a very long time in Scotland. Back in 2000, I worked with a group of MSPs to draft the first Free School Meals (Scotland) Bill. The Bill was sponsored by Tommy Sheridan, Alex Neil and John McAllion.

The Bill was backed by a massive campaign led by Danny Phillips, then of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland. CPAG produced a book to support the Bill which took its name from a comment from a Glasgow school pupil: “Even the tatties have batter!”

The campaign had as much to do with the health and nutrition of meals as with free provision. I remember visiting some schools in Glasgow and young people had to drink water from toilet sinks because their dinner voucher wasn’t enough to include a bottle of water and enough food.

Although that Bill was defeated, it led to a huge investment in school meals from the then Scottish Executive and of course we now have free and healthy school meals for kids in primary one to three.

The PM may be forced to U-turn on his refusal to extend free school meals in England. We are living in an ever-increasing Foodbank Britain where the Trussell Trust predicts a 61% increase in demand across its UK network of 1200 foodbanks when the furlough scheme ends this week. The time to act is now.