Northern Ireland news

Support floods in for `2,000 families' denied free school meals payments

The Education Authority indicated up to 2,000 families - many with multiple children - are affected

OFFERS of support have been flooding in as it emerged almost 2,000 families are "going hungry" because they are unable to access free school meal payments.

Principals in deprived areas of north Belfast have been buying food out of school funds, with one telling of receiving a message from a pupil through the Seesaw learning app saying: 'We don't have any food.'

The Department of Education has refused to pay the entitlement into Post Office accounts where parents receive their benefits and would not issue cheques as that would involve staff "feeding paper through a machine".

After the issue was highlighted in the Irish News by SDLP councillor Paul McCusker, generous readers have offered everything from "treats for some of the children" to setting up a fundraising page" to help.

Mr McCusker said he understands that the department may reverse its position and issue cheques to those without bank accounts.

The move comes after children's law solicitor Nicholas Quinn warned failure to do so may amount to discrimination and the Education Authority indicated up to 1,812 families - many with multiple children - are affected.

"I have been asking the department to urgently put in place extra measures like cheques and food vouchers for families where children are going hungry," Mr McCusker said.

"Since the Irish News article I have had so many people contact me offering help. A JustGiving page has been set up just for that and it had attracted almost £1,000."

Alliance assembly member Chris Lyttle, chair of the Assembly Education Committee, raised the matter with minister Peter Weir and the department.

"It is, however, my understanding there are approximately 2,000 families for which the Education Authority does not hold bank account details.

"The referral of families not in receipt of this payment to the Department for Communities' Covid-19 Helpline for food parcels is not an adequate alternative for access to these funds and has at least in some cases not resulted in the provision of food to families in need.

"The Minister for Education must urgently scope alternative methods of payment for these families to ensure no children have inadequate access to food during the Covid-19 school closure."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said 98,273 children are receiving direct payments and "the EA has been contacting everyone for whom it doesn't hold bank details and up to 300 have received since the last payment run.

"The figure continues to decrease daily. We cannot provide an exact figure of those who are not receiving payments as there are other factors in play.

"These include some people being unwilling to submit bank details when contacted by EA, others who have advised they don't want to receive payments, and others have been uncontactable as their details have not been updated."

She said the "simplest, most effective way" of making payments is using the EA's system designed for yearly uniform grant payments, but "we are working with the EA to ensure these direct payments can also be issued to families with no bank accounts".

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