In October 2020, Parliament voted against extending a scheme to keep Britain’s most vulnerable kids fed over the school holidays. Spearheaded by footballer Marcus Rashford, the public demand to end holiday hunger had led to meal vouchers being offered to families in need that summer – but now, 322 Conservative MPs had decided that help should end.
When the results of the vote came in, Portia Lawrie, a freelance writer and textile designer from Essex, felt “so angry” that she knew she had to do something. Heading to the 38 Degrees site, she set up her petition: ‘no public money for MPs’ meals’. She wanted to force a change by shining a light on the ‘hypocrisy’ of voting against feeding children before heading off to enjoy a cut-price dinner funded by the public purse. And it turned out that more than 1 million people agreed with her.
Her petition captured the public mood, tapping into a sense of outrage that those with power and privilege could leave children scared about where their next meal was coming from – while enjoying cheap dinners at the taxpayers’ expense.
MPs are allowed to eat and drink alcohol in parliamentary restaurants and bars which, while not directly subsidised, run at a loss and so are effectively subsidised with public money. In the year 2020/21, the costs of running the catering services minus the sales income was £9.1 million .
Portia said: “I wanted to point out the clear hypocrisy between that and the food and drink the public subsidise for MP’s whilst denying support to those most in need of it. I couldn’t quite believe what I was watching unfold as hundreds of thousands of people threw their support behind it in less than 24 hours.
“It’s simply unfair that the government [was] refusing to use OUR money for one of the most basic responsibilities of a compassionate society – feeding hungry children.”
In the aftermath of the vote, a huge public outcry, which included Portia’s petition, forced the Government into a U-turn. On November 8, ministers announced a £396m support fund to provide free school meals over the next three school holidays. While the fight to keep all our children properly fed, in school and out, goes on, this campaign meant millions of meals for families who might otherwise have gone without.
Portia’s story shows how approaching a campaign from a slightly different angle, in this case, shining a light on MP’s own behaviour, can be a brilliant way to engage people, piling on public pressure and forcing decision makers into a change.