John Penrose: Tory MP and husband of beleaguered Test and Trace boss blames ‘chaotic parents’ in free schools meals row

The Tory MP husband of embattled coronavirus Test and Trace boss Dido Harding has been condemned by Labour after criticising “chaotic parents” in the row over Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign.

Former minister John Penrose, a millionaire publisher, made the comment in a letter to a constituent who asked him why he voted in the Commons against a Labour motion to extend free school meals to holiday periods.

In his reply, Mr Penrose suggested the Manchester United and England footballer and his backers in the Labour Party were proposing “sticking plaster solutions” which “increase dependency”, the Daily Mirror reported.

And the MP wrote: “Practical measures which make a genuine difference to the causes of poverty include things like the Pupil Premium, which gives schools extra funding for disadvantaged pupils; breakfast clubs, which help children with chaotic parents who send them to school without breakfast so they can’t concentrate properly.”

His remarks were condemned by Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, who said: “It is completely unacceptable for a Conservative MP to blame parents for the challenges created by his own government’s chronic incompetence.

“Children are at risk of going hungry because of a decade of stagnant wages and cuts to social security.

“Not only have the Conservatives voted against helping these children, they are now blaming their parents. It is not too late to do the right thing and extend free school meals over Christmas.”

Shadow health minister Justin Madders said of Mr Penrose: “He ought to look at the management of Test and Trace if he wants to know what chaotic really is.”

Mr Penrose, 56, was contacted by Sky News but did not respond.

But he told the Daily Mirror: “I’m afraid this says more about the small anti-Tory prejudices of a couple of local Labour activists than about what’s really in my letter, which is clearly about how breakfast clubs can be a valuable way of dealing with one of the causes of poverty, not about everybody else who uses breakfast clubs too.”

MP for the seaside resort constituency of Weston-Super-Mare since 2005, Mr Penrose held ministerial posts under David Cameron and Theresa May.

He was minister for tourism and then constitutional reform under Mr Cameron and then a Northern Ireland minister under Mrs May. He voted Remain and backed Jeremy Hunt for Tory leader last year.

His wife, Tory peer Baroness Harding, is the beleaguered boss of Test and Trace, who was urged to quit last weekend by the senior Tory MP and leading Boris Johnson ally Sir Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the powerful Liaison Committee of MPs.

Denouncing a “vacuum of leadership” in Test and Trace, Sir Bernard wrote in The Sunday Telegraph: “Dido Harding, head of NHS Test and Trace, apparently says that she is struggling with what she inherited when arriving in the role, but during the summer, initial urgency subsided.

“Perhaps some of those exhausted leaders on the government frontline, like Dido Harding, could be given a well-earned break too; they could use their hard-won experience to help this group reflect on the lessons learned so far.”

Sir Bernard’s call came after the faltering Test and Trace system was publicly criticised by Mr Johnson and the chief scientific adviser for England, Sir Patrick Vallance, during a Downing Street news conference last week.

The prime minister said: “I share people’s frustrations and I understand totally why we do need to see faster turnaround times and we need to improve it.”

At the same news conference, Sir Patrick said: “It’s very clear there’s room for improvement on all of that and therefore that would be diminishing the effectiveness of this.”

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