As he came under pressure from footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to feed disadvantaged children during the October half-term, the prime minister promised the government would do “everything in our power” to make sure none went hungry over the Christmas break.
But the scheme, announced in June in the wake of the PM’s climbdown over Rashford’s earlier campaign for meal vouchers over the summer holidays, began disbursing funds in July.
And an official update published 12 weeks ago on 4 August said that “the government anticipates that most of the funding will be spent within 12 weeks”.
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman was unable today to say what proportion of the funding still remains.
And the Local Government Association said that the assistance had already been “outstripped” by demand for support from households facing difficulties because of Covid-19.
“Short-term hardship funding provided by the government this summer helped councils try and provide much-needed crisis support to all households - including those without children – struggling to afford food but also fuel and other essentials,” said the chair of the LGA’s resources board, Richard Watts.
“Demand for support from households facing financial hardship as a result of Covid-19 has outstripped this funding now and councils are having to find money from stretched budgets to top it up.
“This is increasingly difficult as they continue to face rising costs of providing services - such as adult social care, protecting children and housing rough sleepers - and income losses as a result of the pandemic.
“As many households are likely to be economically vulnerable for some time to come, it is vital that the government restores local welfare funding so councils can provide preventative support to all households who need it.”
Mr Johnson has come under pressure, including from his own MPs, to provide funding for vulnerable children to receive meal vouchers during school holidays, after dozens of restaurants and councils responded to Rashford’s call to ensure none went hungry over half-term.
Since voting against Labour’s motion to extend the programme over the half-term and Christmas holidays last week, Conservative MPs have been inundated with correspondence from angry members of the public and businesses have stepped in to provide support.
Asked whether MPs were right to suggest he had misjudged the public mood on the issue, Mr Johnson said he “totally salutes and understands” Rashford’s position.
He added: “This is something we need to focus on, the issue of holiday hunger. But the way we deal with it, we think, is increasing the funds available for universal credit, which we put up by about £1,000 a year, but also to put more into local councils.
“In addition to the funding we’ve already given there’s £63m specifically to deal with holiday hunger and with pressure on families.”
Mr Johnson did not confirm whether the £1,000-a-year uplift to universal credit would be renewed in April, when it is currently due to expire. Economists have warned that failure to renew the £20-a-week welfare boost would hit many families’ finances. Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, responding to the Prime Minister’s comments on free school meals, said:
Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said: "Warm words from Boris Johnson will do nothing for the over 1.4 million children at risk of going hungry this half term that he and his MPs refused to help last week.
"Labour will not not give up on the children and families let down by this government, and we will hold the prime minister to his word, forcing another vote in parliament if necessary.
"The government must now make children a national priority, and ensure that no child goes hungry."