Summer school meals plan stalls as blame game unfolds over Troubles pension delays
An Executive promise to provide free school dinners for children over the summer has reportedly been delayed due to a row over rolling out the pension for Troubles victims.
The decision to extend the current free school meals scheme was announced last Friday - Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK yet to approve the scheme, with local schools to close for summer next week.
Stormont ministers were to sign off on a £12m package to extend meals for 97,000 vulnerable children on Monday, as well as cash for the health service and local airports.
However, it is reported that none of those decisions made it on to the agenda, reportedly due to arguments over whether funding to set up the Troubles victims’ pension scheme should also be approved.
Both the DUP and the Northern Ireland Office have accused Sinn Fein of blocking the Troubles pension payments by refusing to nominate the Justice Department to oversee the scheme.
However, Sinn Fein objects that some former paramilitaries will not get payments, especially if they are claiming for injuries sustained in an incident for which they were convicted.
Last week Finance Minister Conor Murphy promised the money would be found to cover the summer meals and Education Minister Peter Weir said he would ask for the funding.
But in a statement yesterday Sinn Fein appeared to blame Mr Weir for the delay. The party’s Foyle MLA Karen Mullan said: “The minister for education must end the delay and extend the payment to the 97,000 children who rely on them over the summer.”
However, the Department of Education responded that the meals plan had been backed by the Executive “and the department awaits approval of the necessary budget” - which it said must also come from the Executive.
Alliance education spokesperson Chris Lyttle MLA claimed the DUP had refused to sign off the funding “following Sinn Fein’s blockage of a pension for victims”, but UUP justice spokesman Doug Beattie said the pension should have been paid 25 days ago and claimed “it is for the deputy first minister to shoulder the blame”.
He claimed the Executive Office has reached “an all-time low as it is now prepared to allow disadvantaged children to go hungry, and use them as a tool in an argument about the Victims’ Payment Scheme”.
TUV leader Jim Allister added that the stand-off underlines “the fundamental flaw at the heart of our absurd system of government, whereby mutual vetoes can be exercised to block necessary measures”.
Meanwhile, Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma noted there was another Executive meeting on Thursday which is “very timely” given that NI schools are about to close for the summer.
She added: “I look forward to an announcement confirming the necessary funding following that meeting.”
SDLP MLA Colin McGrath said his party leader Colum Eastwood wrote to all Executive party leaders requesting an urgent party leader’s meeting to resolve the delay in delivering a victims pension.
“Victims and survivors have waited for far too long for recognition and compensation,” he said. “The way that this matter is being dealt with is disgraceful and parties holding up payments for those who have lived with serious physical and psychological injuries should be ashamed.”
Senior GMB trade union organiser Denise Walker said: “We cannot trade the welfare of vulnerable groups as political collateral.
“There is an urgent need to ensure that families of the children in the most need receive the financial assistance that the free school meals package has provided.
“To set one group of vulnerable citizens against another for political gain is wholly reprehensible.”
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