MLAs 'demonising jobless families`
Unemployed families are being demonised by the row over pre-school places, Education Minister John O'Dowd has said.
This came after a string of MLAs attacked the policy on pre-school nursery provision, with critics claiming the criteria disadvantaged working families.
As the Assembly backed an Alliance Party motion demanding the removal of the priority given to children born in July or August, a number of politicians also said the preference given to families on benefits worked against the needs of others.
Mr O'Dowd said legislation would be prepared before the summer to order the removal of the July-August birthday rule, while he also announced millions in funding which he said would boost pre-school provision. He added the Programme for Government taken on by the Executive demanded departments challenge underachievement and disadvantage.
"I have already today (Monday) announced almost £6 million additional funding towards pre-school and early years. I will not be joining the demonise-those-on-benefits crusade, which is so enthusiastically waged by some in this house and elsewhere," Mr O'Dowd said.
He added that he is "prepared to be creative and flexible" regarding funding solutions to tackle the problems in "placing children who have not yet received a place". He announced the extension of existing funding and the provision of additional resources across the life of the Assembly, which he said would bolster pre-school provisions.
Judith Cochrane said: "I was pleased when the minister announced the review of pre-school admissions arrangements. But a review is meaningless if action is not taken on the recommendations."
The Alliance representative said that in January the minister confirmed his plan to revoke the July-August birthdays admissions criterion. She added: "I am extremely dismayed therefore to hear from his officials that the minister wants to wait until he has something more appropriate in its place before he removes a priority criterion."
The SDLP's Conall McDevitt said policies to tackle inequality were vital but said government should not inadvertently create another inequality.
The DUP and UUP was also critical of the provisions, with speakers raising concerns expressed by working families who were declined places at their chosen nursery, plus examples of parents being allocated places outside their local area.