Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, has sparked a backlash after he accused Unicef of “playing politics” in its announcement that it would help to feed children in the UK for the first time.
The charity said earlier this week that it would begin an emergency response in the UK to help feed children affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
It promised to give £25,000 in funding to the community project School Food Matters, which is expected to use the funds to provide 18,000 breakfasts to 25 schools in Southwark, south London, during the Christmas holidays and February half-term.
In the House of Commons yesterday, Rees-Mogg was asked about Unicef’s work in the UK by Zarah Sultana, the Labour MP for Coventry South.
Rees-Mogg said Unicef’s work was a “political stunt of the lowest order” and said the charity “should be ashamed of itself”.
He said: “It is a real scandal that Unicef should be playing politics in this way.
“It is meant to be looking after people in the poorest and most deprived countries in the world, where people are starving and there are famines and civil wars, and it makes cheap political points of this kind, giving £25,000 to one council.”
Rees-Mogg returned to the point when asked later in the debate about what the government was doing to support the safe return of 300 schoolboys who had been kidnapped in Nigeria.
“To go back to an earlier question, one does wonder whether Unicef might think a bit more about this than faffing around in England,” he said.
Responding after the debate, Sir Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “Rees-Mogg's sneering comments are abhorrent – a modern-day version of ‘let them eat cake’.
“There was a time when Conservatives praised charitable works. Now not only does this Tory government refuse to give families enough support to keep food on the table, they also denigrate others for stepping in to fill the gap.”
Angela Rayner, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, said the fact that Unicef was having to step in to feed hungry children in the UK was a disgrace.
“We are one of the richest countries in the world,” she said. “Our children should not have to rely on humanitarian charities that are used to operating in war zones and in response to natural disasters.
“Charities and businesses across the country have done a brilliant job stepping in where the government has failed, but it should have never come to this.”
Unicef UK declined to directly address Rees-Mogg’s comments, but Anna Kettley, director of programmes and advocacy at the charity, 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 £700,000 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.”