The Tory minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has come under fire for accusing Unicef of a “political stunt” after the UN agency stepped in to help feed deprived children in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Commons leader hit out at Unicef, which is responsible for providing humanitarian aid to children worldwide, after it launched its first domestic emergency response in the UK in its more than 70-year history.
As part of its programme of support that is set to distribute more than £700,000 to help fund projects for children and their families, the agency has pledged £25,000 to supply nearly 25,000 breakfasts in a south London borough over the Christmas holidays and February half-term.
Rees-Mogg characterised Unicef’s support as “playing politics” and claimed it should be “ashamed of itself”.
After Unicef’s support in the UK was raised in the Commons on Thursday by the Labour MP Zarah Sultana, who also took aim at Rees-Mogg’s personal wealth, the minister replied: “I think it’s a real scandal that Unicef should be playing politics in this way when it is meant to be looking after people in the poorest, the most deprived countries in the world, where people are starving, where there are famines and there are civil wars.
“And they make cheap political points of this kind, giving, I think, £25,000 to one council. It is a political stunt of the lowest order.”
He defended the government’s response to child poverty, including expanding free school meals, adding: “Unicef should be ashamed of itself.”
However, the minister’s comments prompted a backlash, with Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, saying: “The only people who should be ashamed of themselves are Boris Johnson and the rest of his government for letting our children go hungry.”
She said: “In one of the richest countries in the world, our children should not be forced to rely on a charity that usually works in war zones and in response to humanitarian disasters. The only scandal here is this rotten Tory government leaving 4.2 million children living in poverty, a number that will only rise due to the coronavirus crisis.”
The Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, said: “Rees-Mogg’s sneering comments are abhorrent – a modern-day version of ‘let them eat cake’.”
Anna Kettley, Unicef UK’s director of programmes and advocacy, said: “Unicef UK is responding to this unprecedented crisis and building on our 25 years’ experience of working on children’s rights in the UK with a one-off domestic response, launched in August, to provide support to vulnerable children and families around the country during this crisis period.
“In partnership with Sustain, the food and farming alliance, over £700k of Unicef UK funds is being granted to community groups around the country to support their vital work helping children and families at risk of food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic. Unicef will continue to spend our international funding helping the world’s poorest children. We believe that every child is important and deserves to survive and thrive no matter where they are born.”
Kettley said Unicef UK was providing grants of between £5,000 and £25,000, with more than £700,000 being made available in total to 30 community organisations to fund projects for children and families in their area.
“For some of the projects in question, the funding is distributed via a council, but the majority of the grants are being made directly to community organisations,” she said. “In Southwark, the funding has gone directly to School Food Matters, a community organisation.”
Unicef UK said the first round of grants were confirmed in mid-August and all funded programme activity was due to conclude in February next year.
It has given a £25,000 grant to the community project School Food Matters. The charity says it is working with Premier Foods, Southwark council and Southwark Food Action Alliance – a collective of charitable organisations, residents and community partners – to deliver 18,000 breakfasts to 25 schools for distribution around the borough over the two-week Christmas holidays, as well as an additional 6,750 breakfasts over the February half-term.
The prime minister’s spokesman declined to comment directly on Rees-Mogg’s remarks, saying: “What we would point towards is the work and the action that we’ve already taken to support the most vulnerable and the poorest families across the country.”