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Free school meals in NI to be extended over summer

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Finance Minister Conor Murphy

Finance Minister Conor Murphy

Manchester United‘s Marcus Rashford

Manchester United‘s Marcus Rashford

PA

Finance Minister Conor Murphy

Local pupils who qualify for free school meals will continue to receive them over the summer months after Education Minister Peter Weir confirmed the scheme would be extended.

The decision brings Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK.

Mr Weir said Finance Minister Conor Murphy would be making an announcement regarding the matter soon.

The decision to extend the scheme for two months is expected to cost around £12m.

The move comes after a high-profile campaign by England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, which forced a U-turn in the UK government's policy.

The scheme, which has provided meals for millions of children during lockdown, was due to end in England ahead of the summer holidays, but on Tuesday Number 10 changed its mind.

Scotland and Wales had already committed to continue providing free school meals, leaving Northern Ireland the only part of the UK that had not.

The scheme had been scheduled to close here on June 30.

Last month the Education Minister indicated that his department would be unable to match the cost of keeping the programme open during the summer months.

But earlier this week there were indications the scheme may remain open, with the Department of Education confirming that the minister was "considering options to cover the July and August period".

Mr Weir has now said that the Executive has agreed to extend free school meals over the summer break.

"I think there is unanimous support and it is more far-reaching than, for example, England," he said.

"We are also backing this up with the Eat Well, Live Well strategy, which targets the most vulnerable children out there to make sure they have meals."

The current system in Northern Ireland, where direct payments are transferred into parents' bank accounts, will continue over the summer, unlike in England, where parents receive vouchers.

The families of approximately 97,000 children have been receiving payments of £27 every fortnight per child since schools were closed.

The scheme was introduced on March 26 at an initial cost of £19m and was due to run until the end of June.

Belfast Telegraph