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Coronavirus: Finance Minister Conor Murphy pledges to find funds for free school meals through summer

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Around 97,000 children in NI receive free school meals

Around 97,000 children in NI receive free school meals

Around 97,000 children in NI receive free school meals

Finance Minister Conor Murphy has pledged that the money will be found to extend free school meal payments through the summer in Northern Ireland.

The Education Minister has said he will ask for funding to cover the scheme through July and August.

It follows pleas from MLAs to follow the lead set by all other UK regions.

The payments ensure around 97,000 children here — particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds — have continued to receive support even though many schools are closed due to the lockdown.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK not to extend the scheme over the summer.

On Tuesday in in a U-turn, the Government announced a Covid summer school fund to ensure those who avail of free schools meals in England receive a six-week voucher, following a heartfelt plea by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford.

The striker, who has spoken of experiencing hunger as a child, penned an open letter to MPs after the government said it would not award free school meals vouchers in England outside of term time.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised Rashford’s “contribution to the debate around poverty”.

Wales and Scotland have also announced similar free school meal extension schemes.

However, the Northern Ireland initiative - which sees families receive a £27 payment every fortnight — is due to stop here at the end of June, prompting MLAs to demand the Department of Education extend the policy.

First Minister Arlene Foster said she will be proposing the extension of the scheme, but said approval will be dependent on the necessary funds being found.

I am currently considering options to cover the July and August period and will be making a bid for funding of just over £12m from the Executive’s Covid-19 fund to provide a summer food scheme for those children who normally receive free school meals Peter Weir

Peter Weir, the Education Minister, had previously said his department did not have the money to extend the scheme, which has cost £19m, outside term time.

On Tuesday evening Mr Weir said: “I am fully aware of the concerns that some children will go hungry over the summer period, especially this year when direct payments in respect of free school meals are due to end on June 30.

“I am currently considering options to cover the July and August period and will be making a bid for funding of just over £12m from the Executive’s Covid-19 fund to provide a summer food scheme for those children who normally receive free school meals.

“This will form part of a wider paper on summer activities to be considered by the Executive when they meet on Thursday.

“This will include a proposal to extend the Education Authority’s ‘Eat Well Live Well’ programme which has been running for a number of months and is currently providing healthy breakfasts and lunches to over 3,000 vulnerable young people.”

With Sinn Fein having also called for an extension, it is likely that additional financial support will be approved.

Mr Murphy, the Finance Minister, posted on Twitter: “I’m determined to identify the money necessary for this. Hope to bring proposals to Executive in near future.”

Doing well in education can be dependent on a range of different home and indeed personal factors, but we need to ensure that young people have the best possible opportunity to succeed to when they return to school hopefully in late August/September Arlene Foster

Speaking during Assembly question time on Tuesday, Mrs Foster said: “I am very sympathetic to ensuring that our young people have the certainty of at least one good meal per day over the summer months.”

“And we know that that is a challenge for many families. And I know this is an issue the Deputy First Minister (Michelle O’Neill) also takes very seriously and indeed having spoken to the Education Minister he is also very supportive.”

She added: “Doing well in education can be dependent on a range of different home and indeed personal factors, but we need to ensure that young people have the best possible opportunity to succeed to when they return to school hopefully in late August/September.

“There are exceptional circumstance due to Covid-19 therefore I will be proposing to the Executive that meals continue to be provided to that cohort of children over the summer period this year, if the necessary finances can be secured.”

Greens councillor for Lisburn and Castlereagh, Simon Lee, who is also a teacher, said the Executive has no option but to must follow the Government and help affected children here in Northern Ireland.

“I’ve volunteered across the Castlereagh area during the course of the pandemic and it’s clear that many families are struggling from sudden changes in circumstances,” he said.

“Covid-19 didn’t give rise to holiday hunger but job losses and income drops have exacerbated already difficult situations. This payment represented a lifeline for many families - one that will be lost in the coming weeks.”

SDLP MP Claire Hanna insisted food banks across Northern Ireland will face increasing demands if additional funds are not allocated to extend meal payments.

UUP MLAs Mike Nesbitt and Robbie Butler on Tuesday tabled a motion for Stormont to introduce an equivalent scheme to the Government’s summer school fund.

“Strikingly, Scotland, England and Wales have already said that they will continue with their support for those who receive school meals through the summer,” said Mr Nesbitt. “I would appeal to the Education Minister and the Executive to make sure that children in Northern Ireland do not miss out.”

Sinn Fein MLA, Karen Mullan warned families are facing a “severe” financial “cliff edge” if the matter is not addressed by Stormont urgently.

Belfast Telegraph