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Troubles money row holds up free school meals extension

Chris Lyttle

Money for free school meals over the summer has been held up over a row about Troubles compensation.

Stormont ministers had been due to sign off June's monitoring round yesterday, with the plans set to be presented to the Assembly today.

However, the monitoring round to reallocate unspent funds was not brought before the Executive by Finance Minister Conor Murphy as anticipated.

The hold-up is understood to relate to a stand-off between Sinn Fein and the DUP about stalled compensation payments for injured victims of the Troubles. The parties are at odds over whether the monitoring round should include the funds to cover the set-up costs of administering the compensation scheme. As a result, the whole reallocation process has been delayed.

One of the issues that was due to be included in the round was the diversion of £12m to the Department of Education to extend free school meal support to eligible families over the summer period.

It is understood ministers may now look at a different way to allocate funds to the department outside of the normal process.

Health Minister Robin Swann confirmed that his department has funding bids in but declined to disclose further details on "internal conversations of an Executive meeting that haven't been made public".

The row relates to the Government's proposed guidelines for deciding who is eligible for Troubles' compensation.

Sinn Fein claims the eligibility guidelines discriminate against former republican prisoners. The party has refused to let the scheme progress until the issue is resolved. In a separate disagreement linked to the scheme, Stormont and Westminster remain at odds on how the payments are funded.

Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle said: "There is an urgent need to end food poverty, particularly for children and young people, and the extension of free school meal payments is vital to achieving this aim."

He added that "it is unacceptable for any party to play the politics of trade off with some of the most vulnerable people in our community".

"Progress the victims pension and extend free schools meals to deliver the social justice many people across our community need and deserve."

Sinn Fein MLA Karen Mullan blamed the DUP Education Minister Peter Weir for the delay - despite Mr Weir putting a bid in to the Finance Minister, who said last week he was "determined" find the money.

"The Minister for Education must end the delay and extend the payment to the 97,000 children who rely on them," she added.

Belfast Telegraph