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50,000 children hit as free book packs axed by Stormont

By Rebecca Black

More than 50,000 children who received free books last year are set to go without this year due to Stormont budget cuts.

As thousands of children across Northern Ireland dressed up as characters from their favourite books for World Book Day, the plug was pulled this week from a major book gifting programme.

Last year, Booktrust distributed 50,000 packs of books for babies and children in Northern Ireland, funded through a £250,000 grant from the Department of Education.

However, the department has informed Booktrust this week that this funding will not be available next year due to budget cuts.

Education Minister John O'Dowd has had to find £97m in savings for his 2015/16 budget.

Booktrust's Chief Executive Viv Bird said the organisation was "deeply disappointed", particularly because, despite budget cuts in England and Wales, funding there has not been slashed.

"We received confirmation on Wednesday - the day before World Book Day - that the funding was to be cut, it was devastating news. What it means is that 50,000 children will not get their bookpacks next year," she told the Belfast Telegraph.

"Northern Ireland children are the ones who are going to miss out. Encouraging parents to read with their children has been shown to be a first step towards breaking the cycle of poverty.

"It is a great pity that children in Northern Ireland are in danger of missing out on valuable book gifting that is available to other children in the UK," Ms Bird said.

She said her organisation was currently "working around the clock" to find new partners who may be able to help it continue to operate in Northern Ireland.

DUP MLA Pam Cameron has also expressed disappointment. "I recently voiced my concerns for the continued funding of Booktrust with the minister and he promised to look into the matter," she said.

"I can only assume that the minister has decided that spending millions on an Irish language school for a handful of pupils is far more important than supporting early literacy intervention for thousands of children and their parents from all communities who avail of this valuable support to develop reading skills."

A Department of Education spokeswoman has confirmed that Booktrust was among a number of organisations whose funding has been removed due to budget cuts.

Speaking at the Education Committee on Wednesday, Mr O'Dowd said he had concerns about the cuts he had been forced to make, but warned that without the Northern Ireland Executive, the cuts would have been more severe.

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