Education minister David Johnston visited a local community centre in Carshalton yesterday to mark the start of a holiday programme that helps disadvantaged children during the Christmas holidays.
Johnston made the trip to Riverside Centre, alongside local MP Elliot Colburn and Council Leader Ruth Dombey, to see the work of the holiday activities and food (HAF) programme – a £200-million-a-year initiative first launched in 2021, following a successful two-year pilot scheme.
HAF supports children from low-income families for one week throughout the Christmas break, and up to six weeks during the summer, providing food and activities for children aged from reception to year 11 who receive benefits-related free school meals.
Johnston, the MP for Wantage who was given his ministerial role in late August, said: “This program is all about making sure that in the holidays, particularly disadvantaged children, get productive activities to do and get hot meals.
“We know there’s been big cost-of-living pressures in recent years, and often for disadvantaged children it’s in the holidays when they lose the structure of school; they may not get as nutritious food or as good activities as they do when they’re at school.
“So what this program is all about is making sure that we provide those, so that we can keep [children’s] development going and give them positive stuff to do.”
Johnston and Colburn spoke to staff and joined in making mince pies with the six or so children at the centre.
But with cost-of-living pressures continuing this winter and UNICEF recently warning that the UK has the worst child poverty levels among the richest nations, many will wonder if such schemes are enough to tackle the problem and its root causes.
Johnston – who opposed the motion to extend free school meals over the October half-term during the controversial vote in 2020 – stands firm on the Conservative government’s record.
He said: “This government has spent over £400 billion in basically the last two to three years.
“Firstly, supporting people’s jobs and livelihoods through COVID, in one of the most generous schemes for protecting people’s jobs and businesses during that period.
“And then when we came out of COVID, we’ve obviously seen a number of challenges, [including] energy prices, which led to us paying an average of half of people’s energy bills to support them with that.
“We’ve got systems of cost-of-living payments.
“We’ve got the biggest single investment in childcare that’s ever been made in this country, we’re going to be doubling the amount we spend on childcare.
“So there’s been considerable support: £100-billion-plus just on cost-of-living measures. This [HAF initiative] is a very important £200 million pound a year investment, but it’s just part of a much broader package.”
Cllr Dombey, the Liberal Democrat Leader of Sutton Council, has likewise praised the HAF programme, but stresses there’s more that should be done to secure its offering for the long-term.
She told SWLondoner: “The HAF funding from government clearly brings lots of benefits to local people, particularly families that are struggling with the cost-of-living or aren’t able to provide the sort of support and activities that are fun for the kids, but also help them think about how they can develop their skills.
“Making a mince pie, it’s a fun thing to do, but it’s thinking about cooking, and where food comes from. So there are huge opportunities, it’s a great fund.
“My only concern is, like many other [funds], there’s so much uncertainty attached to it.
“Central government is very good about coming up with ideas – a lot of them good ideas – providing the funding and then expecting it to suddenly be put into practice. And that involves a huge amount of work behind the scenes.
“If we had more certainty about how much money was coming and when; or even better, if we had our own funding so that we were more autonomous and can decide what works better for us, it would be so much better. And at the end of the day,
I think it’d be better for the public purse as well, because we’d be able to direct the funding for the activities where it’s needed.
“So HAF is great, we know that we’ve got the funding for all of next year. But we’ve got no idea what’s going to happen after Christmas 2024. And we need to be organising something now.”
In total, the £200-million-a-year funding for HAF is spread across 153 upper tier local authorities, offering support for at least 4 hours a day, 4 days a week for children during the period it runs.
Within the month leading up to each HAF programme, all eligible children receive a code, which confirms their eligibility and is used to book available activities, whilst local authorities also have discretion to use up to 15% of funding for those not on benefits-related free school meals, but who they believe could benefit.