THE GOVERNMENT has announced that it will fund free school meals over the Christmas break, weeks after it resisted calls to do so during half term.

£400 million will be spent on supporting poor children and their families over the winter, including £170 million of ring-fenced money for councils, of which 80 per cent will go towards food and bills.

There will also be a £16m boost for food banks.

It comes after a campaign from Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford.

On Sunday, a letter from Basingstoke's MP to a Labour council candidate the day before the U-turn was shared on Facebook, in which Maria Miller said that "it was right" that extra support was put in place over the first lockdown when schools were mostly shut, but said extending that outside of term time would have "put unacceptable pressure on school administration".

She added in the letter, believed to be from before October half term, that "we are now in a different position" than the first lockdown.

The extra money will pay for the Covid Winter Grant Scheme to support families over the season while the Holiday Activities and Food programme will be extended to cover the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks in 2021, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced.

As part of the package, Healthy Start payments, which help expectant mothers and those with young children on low incomes and in receipt of benefits to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, are set to rise from £3.10 to £4.25 a week from April 2021.

Now, an undated letter from Maria Miller, MP for Basingstoke, has been shared on Facebook by Labour council candidate Alex Lee.

In the letter, Mrs Miller backs the government's previous move to not extend the free school meal scheme, saying: "Free school meals are really important for children and low income families.

"It was right that ministers recognised the extremely difficult situation families [were in] when children were told to stay at home.

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

"To extend the free school meals scheme outside of term time puts unacceptable pressure on school administration. The government believe that the best way to support families all year round is through the existing benefits system including Universal Credit."

Mrs Miller added that £9 billion had been "injected" into the welfare system, as well funding for local authorities, whilst also welcoming Hampshire County Council's decision to provide support to families during the recent October half term break.

But Mr Lee called her response "disappointing", adding: "Yes local governments were given a share of £63 million but this has been used already to combat the issues presented due to Covid-19.

"I'm frustrated that she believes extending free school meals puts pressure on school administration when schools across Basingstoke are having to set up their own foodbanks to fill the void that a lack of government support has created and it is abhorrent that she expects charities to fill the growing gap in support from government.

"I wonder whether she stands by this response considering another U-turn on this matter by the Prime Minister who has announced funding for school meals over the [Christmas break]."

PM Boris Johnson phoned Marcus Rashford personally on Saturday evening to tell him about the U-turn.

Rashford said in a statement: “There is still so much more to do, and my immediate concern is the approximate 1.7 million children who miss out on free school meals, holiday provision and Healthy Start vouchers because their family income isn’t quite low enough, but the intent the Government have shown today is nothing but positive and they should be recognised for that.

“The steps made today will improve the lives of near 1.7 million children in the UK over the next 12 months, and that can only be celebrated.”

The funding will be ring-fenced, with at least 80 per cent earmarked to support with food and bills, and will cover until the end of March.

Local authorities will receive the funding at the beginning of December.

You can see Mrs Miller's letter here.