THE screeching u-turn peformed by Boris Johnson on free meals for children in the summer in the wake of the Marcus Rashford letter has served to highlight the fact that the vouchers that will now be distributed in the UK will come with the all-too-familiar ‘Deal not available in NI’ tag.
The issue of ‘holiday hunger’ is not one that has sprung up as a result of the Covid crisis, although that seems to be the general perception. In 2017 the all party group on children and young held an evidence session at Stormont on the subject of holiday hunger, but interest turned elsewhere, only for it now to be resurrected as we see children reliant on free school meals spending an extended amount of time at home and denied the a meal that is for too many the only substantial one of the day. In May, Education Minister Peter Weir announced that his department couldn’t afford to pay for summer meals for schoolchildren. Asked if the £27 fortnightly payment per child being made to qualifying families during the Covid school closures would continue into the summer, he said: “With the normal departmental budget there is not money for free school meals from the department over the summer period. The amount of Covid resource within the Executive is such that at the moment they're moving to a position of over-commitment before even anything could be considered, for instance, over the summer. The Executive, as a whole, will need to take a view on that but in terms of continuation of payments it's certainly not something that can be done by the Department of Education. There simply isn't the money available.”
It’s a simple statement of fact that the economic pressures that make it hard for parents to put food on the table for their children don’t disappear when the final bell rings in June to bring in the holidays. That has always been the case, and with the Covid crisis lockdown heaping more misery on struggling families and the working poor, it is essential that we ensure that the free daily meal on which so many of our children depend continues through the summer.
Hours after the Johnson u-turn was revealed, First Minister Arlene Foster told the Assembly that she will propose to the Executive that the payments continue over the holidays “if the money can be secured”. The Education Minister quickly followed that up by saying he was in agreement and would be “making a bid” for the £12m of funding required. The problem there, as we have already seen, is that Minister Weir was up until very recently firmly of the opinion that the money is not there, so it remains to be seen whether or not we will remain in the embarrassing position of being unable or unwilling to feed our most needy children.
That’s an awful corner for any minister to have painted himself into and the heavy suspicion is that Mr Weir has been railroaded into this by the grubby decision of Boris Johnson to ditch his opposition to feeding hungry children after the intervention of the Manchester United striker.
It is utterly inconceivable that our children will be the only ones to remain hungry across the DUP’s ‘precious union’. It’s now over to Finance Minister Conor Murphy – the funds must and will be found if the Executive is to retain a shred of credibility.
Since this editorial was published, Education Minister Peter Weir has said summer hot meal payments would continue to be made and that Finance Minister Conor Murphy would make an announcement shortly.
Our front page photo shows workers Nicola and Greta at the Ardoyne Community Food Bank