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  • Writer's pictureTanya Fowles (Local Democracy Reporter)

NI council calls on Stormont Ministers to consider free school meals for all children




Members of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council have voted to write back to the Minister of Finance, Conor Murphy, after he indicated the issue of free school meals is a matter for the Minister for Education, Michelle McElveen, to whom members agreed by majority should also be contacted.


Statistics provided by the Education Authority indicated 5,644 applications for free school meals in the district, of which 3,397 were issued.



In addition, the Fermanagh Primary Schools Principals Group confirmed children entitled to free school meals receive the same food as those who pay, and meet the nutritional standard guidelines.


Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh, Independent, felt the statistics “confirm a strong desire for this”.


He continued: “Some English councils, cash-strapped as they may be, are affording free school meals for all. Why doesn’t Stormont do this, considering the obvious demand that exists which is not being satisfied?”


He proposed writing back to Minister Murphy as well as Minister McElveen requesting “consideration for all children to receive free school meals – it is vitally important young people have adequate nutrition”.


O’Cofaigh added: “This is probably one of the easiest ways to address real poverty.”


Seconding, Independent Councillor Emmet McAleer noted Minister Murphy has yet to receive a bid from Minister McElveen.



Continuing, he said: “We should encourage her to do so. We need to keep the pressure on.


“The percentage of our population suffering as a result of quite draconian measures is really concerning. It is perhaps much bigger than we were aware of.”


Councillor Josephine Deehan, Independent, felt the process to apply for free school meals “is cumbersome and results in some being unfairly disadvantaged; children who rightfully should have free school meals are losing out”.


She added: “We know of the high levels of food poverty and how important it is for growing children to be able to avail of a nutritional school meal, to aid physical and psychological development.


“Any responsible government would see the benefit of ensuring children are well provided for.


“The figures are disappointing, and as a council we need to continue to lobby very strongly for easy access and finance for the provision of free school meals.”


However, while entirely in support of free school meals, and agreeing Minister McElveen should be contacted, Sinn Fein’s Councillor Siobhan Currie opposed writing back to the Minister Murphy, who “has made it clear this is a matter for the Department of Education”.



She continued: “All ministers are required to put their bids to the Minister for Finance. It’s not his job to do everybody’s else’s.


“Maybe people see Sinn Fein Ministers doing their job so well they expect them to do all the other work.


!I wholeheartedly support free school meals, and we should fight for them, but this must be directed to the right place.”


Councillor Eamon Keenan, Independent said: “Send it to whatever ministers it needs to go to.”


He criticised what he called the “tit-for-tat of ‘not my minister – send to some other minister’. Stormont is supposed to make the decisions. Bouncing about from minister to minister, then sending it back to us, proves it’s not working.”


Councillor Currie suggested splitting the proposal to write only to Minister McElveen, but this was rejected.


The proposal passed, with 24 in favour, three against, and six abstentions.


However, despite this being a ‘recorded vote’ whereby each member’s individual vote is noted against their name, the breakdown won’t be known until the minutes are published ahead of the next relevant meeting, due to the current digital system.



 

Across Northern Ireland 97,631 (28.4%) children were entitled to free school meals in 2020/21.




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