Politics

Labour peer whose family relied on free school meals says he can still ‘smell and taste the panic’ of holidays

A peer has described how he can still “taste and smell the panic” he had as a boy relying on free school meals when the holidays approached, telling Sky News the government needs to U-turn.

Leslie Griffiths, now a Labour lord, said he and his brother used to scavenge on rubbish heaps for coal to heat the one room where they lived with their mother in the late 1940s in Burry Port, south Wales.

“It was very, very rough,” he recalled, describing how his mother – who worked in a tin plate factory which “broke her body” and left them relying on benefits – used to worry about the school holidays when her two children’s free meals stopped.

“More than once I saw her put food on the table and she was pretending to have some and she didn’t,” Lord Leslie told Sky News.

It was a “threadbare existence”, he added, after speaking up in a House of Lords debate earlier on Tuesday on free school meals.

The issue has blown up again as children spend half-term at home, but Boris Johnson has resisted a campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford to extend free school meals throughout the holidays during the coronavirus pandemic.

The government U-turned to do so over the summer but is refusing a similar move for the rest of the winter.

Ministers argue support can be better targetted and several Conservative backbenchers have warned against creating greater dependency on the voucher system.

But Lord Griffiths praised Rashford as “the best aspect of celebrity”.

He described how his family were looked after for odd nights by friends and then given the spare room in his grandparents’ house in a brick yard.

“I don’t take any pleasure in telling this story to bring tears to people’s eyes or to evoke admiration. We were blissfully happy,” he told Sky News.

“My mother was a very remarkable, resilient woman. But it was very, very tough.

“I can’t remember not having free school meals.”

When he was 11, Lord Griffiths got a place at a grammar school, while his brother went to the secondary modern.

That was the age when he became aware of how different his own position was to others around him.

“I was surrounded by bourgeois people now, I’d never met anyone like this before,” he said.

“But I became self-conscious. Here was I wearing this posh uniform and being given this blue card and being told to stand in a line, quite distinct from the others.”

Lord Griffiths said the only reason he spoke out was to “draw attention to the fact that an old Etonian doesn’t understand what people like us went through, what it feels like and what it means in terms of people’s capacity to manage at all”.

And pouring praise on Rashford, he added: “It’s so rare for those lads who get so much money and so much stardom to break out of the images we create for them just to be ordinary guys.

“He’s been so beautifully understated, he hasn’t flaunted himself. It is the best aspect of celebrity…

“Since he’s had the attention, it hasn’t gone to his head, he hasn’t grandstanded, he’s just stayed true to himself.

“I very much wanted it to be my five minutes worth in support of what is a very worthwhile campaign.”

And Lord Griffiths said while some councils and samaritans had stepped in to pledge to feed hungry kids over the holidays, not all children would be lucky enough to benefit.

“That’s the problem – some will get the benefit and others won’t, that’s what makes it a postcode lottery,” he added.

Responding to his speech in the Lords earlier, minister Baroness Berridge said that “many Noble Lords of all parties and none can recall circumstances in which their own needs – whether that be housing or food – were not met through the circumstances of their family”.

She added: “It is not a postcode lottery.

“1.4 million children in England are entitled to free school meals, saving their families over £400 a year, and in addition to that, particularly through the soft drinks levy, the government has in nearly 2,500 schools been funding new breakfast clubs to provide children with healthy food.”

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he hadn’t spoken to Rashford since June, but praised his “terrific” anti-food poverty campaign.

He vowed to “do everything in our power to make sure that no kid, no child goes hungry this winter during the holidays”.

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