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BASW urges the Northern Ireland Executive to continue to provide free school meals this summer

Children will go hungry if the Northern Ireland Executive doesn’t support families who are facing financial hardship through the summer holidays.

BASW is urging the Northern Ireland Executive to follow the example set by its counterparts in Scotland and Wales, and the UK Government, to extend the provision of free school meals for low income families over the summer holiday period.

Close to 100,000 children in Northern Ireland are eligible for free school meals, however, under current arrangements, the system will end in July when schools close for summer holidays.

Not all at risk children have been accessing school services and there is increasing concern about an escalation of poverty levels, severe financial hardship and families not coping.

The number of families facing poverty is growing across the UK, with nearly 2.1 million people unemployed, and the Office for National Statistics reporting that 856,5000 people signed up for Universal Credit and Jobseeker’s Allowance benefits in April, driving up the overall UK claimant count by 69% in a single month.  UK food banks recently reported their busiest month ever, with an 89% increase in need for emergency parcels.

Addressing MLAs on 21 May 2020, Education Minister, Peter Weir highlighted that free school meal payments in the region of £10.7 million had been made during lockdown. However, the Minister stressed his Department does not provide free school meals over the summer holidays and noted there is no single Northern Ireland Executive Department with responsibility for addressing holiday hunger.

We therefore urge Northern Ireland Executive departments to work collaboratively to secure and administer the finances needed to support low income families and ensure children do not go hungry over the summer holidays.

Many people have lost their lives to coronavirus and the impact on the economy has been harsh. BASW restates its call for the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure the forthcoming anti-poverty strategy addresses not just the impacts, but also the causes of poverty. It is vital the Executive recognises that many of the social problems affecting the individuals and families social workers support are rooted in deprivation.