MARIA Miller, Conservative MP for Basingstoke, has said that an extension to the free school meals scheme to cover school holidays would put “unacceptable pressure” on schools - after joining the 321 other MPs who rejected the proposal.

The Labour motion sought to extend government-funded meals for England’s most vulnerable children to cover school holidays until Easter 2021, as already promised by both the Scottish and Welsh administrations.

However it was rejected on Wednesday evening 261 votes to 322 – majority 61, with the Conservative party whipping its MPs to oppose the motion, and only five choosing to rebel.

When asked by the Gazette about her choice to oppose the motion, and the resulting outcry from many constituents, Maria Miller appeared to support the principle of the scheme.

“ ‘Free School Meals’ are really important for children in low income families,” she said.

“Between March and September the overwhelming majority of school children were told to not come into school because of Coronavirus and they studied from home. The government asked schools for their help to make sure children continued to have access to ‘free school meals’ throughout that time.

“Thanks to the funding from government and the hard work of schools £380 million of vouchers were redeemed in supermarkets over that period. It was right that Ministers recognised the extremely difficult situation families when children were told to stay at home.

“We are now in a different position, local schools are back open to all pupils and children eligible for free school meals are getting that provision once again, at school.”

However, she defended her choice not to back the proposed extension, citing existing state benefits and local authority services as preferable options.

“To extend the ‘Free School Meals’ scheme outside of term time puts unacceptable pressure on school administration,” she said.

“ I believe that the best way to support families all year round is through the existing benefits system including Universal Credit.

“Government has already put extra support in place make sure children and their families do not go hungry during this pandemic by increasing Universal Credit by £20 a week, funding councils to provide emergency food assistance to families, and allocating £63 million to councils for families in hardship.

“In Basingstoke our local Council gave an additional £200,000 to Basingstoke Voluntary Action to co-ordinate grants across the Borough to support community and voluntary groups to distribute food and other essential supplies to vulnerable people in response to COVID-19.”

Many constituents have taken to social media to question Mrs Miller's decision. 

On Twitter user wrote: "Dear @MariaMillerUK why did you vote against supporting meals for children in poverty? There are families in Basingstoke struggling prior to the pandemic and even more struggling since it began."

Another added: "The affects of @MariaMillerUK voting against feeding children during school holidays are setting in with charities in #Basingstoke preparing for the rise in numbers they need to help."

A third said: "@MariaMillerUK How can you defend voting AGAINST free school meals for vulnerable children? #ShameOnYou #Basingstoke"