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NI First Minister Foster to propose free school meals over summer after Rashford victory in England

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Marcus Rashford’s campaign was a success (Mike Egerton/PA)

Marcus Rashford’s campaign was a success (Mike Egerton/PA)

Marcus Rashford’s campaign was a success (Mike Egerton/PA)

First Minister Arlene Foster has said she's "very sympathetic" to calls for the Stormont Executive to continue free school meals throughout the summer months for disadvantaged families in Northern Ireland.

Mrs Foster said she will propose to the Executive that the move can go ahead if the necessary finances can be secured.

"I am very sympathetic to the certainty of ensuring that our young people have at least one good meal per day over the summer months and we know that that is a challenge.

There are exceptional circumstances due to Covid-19 and therefore I will be proposing to the Executive that meals continue to be provided to that cohort of children this year if the necessary finances can be secured," she said.

It comes after the British Government performed a U-turn in setting up a support fund to continue to feed children in England throughout the summer.

Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford championed the call but was rebuffed on Monday.

On Tuesday, Downing Street confirmed it would provide vouchers for children for the six weeks of their summer break in England. The £120million scheme will provide around £15 a week to 1.3m children.

Schemes are already in place in Scotland and Wales.

In Northern Ireland a system was put in place to hand out money to those eligible for free school meals during the school closures brought about because of the coronavirus.

Education Minister Peter Weir said that could not be extended over the summer months saying it was a matter for the entire Executive.

Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK which has not extended free school meals over the summer.

Following the change of heart in England, the Stormont Executive has been called on to act.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, the UUP leader Steve Aiken and Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle who sits on the Education Committee called on the Stormont Executive to extend the provision for Northern Ireland families during the summer.

The UUP has tabled a motion for the Executive to introduce a scheme to tackle "holiday hunger" in line with the programme for government.

"There is no logic to providing Free (School) Meals to children during term time only," said UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt.

"If a child goes hungry in May and June, they will be hungry in July and August. The Executive should extend the free meal deal to cover Holiday Hunger."

Last month, in a statement to MLAs the education minister revealed over 55,000 families were receiving payments for just over 100,000 children and costing £10m. It is to stop at the end of June.

Education Minister Peter Weir, at the time, said: "My department does not provide free school meals over the summer holidays. Whilst the Department for Communities has lead responsibility for vulnerable families, no single department has the lead on food poverty and holiday hunger.

"It will be for the Executive to decide on the way forward over the summer holidays and make provision for the necessary funding to support any interventions.

"The Department for Communities has announced a number of additional measures to provide food and assistance to vulnerable groups and we continue to work closely with them to ensure food is available to these vulnerable children."

The Executive office and Department of Education have been approached for a comment.

Belfast Telegraph