Warning over benefits cuts

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A Cookstown teacher is urging families entitled to free school meals to make sure their children take them as benefits look set to be slashed in the New Year.

“We fear that some of the most deprived families will be left struggling to feed their children if so-called ‘mitigation payments’ potentially end in March,” said Cookstown-born Stephen McCord, President Elect of the Ulster Teachers’ Union.

“Yet still only four-fifths of those entitled to the free meals are taking them, according to the Department of Education’s latest statistics,” continued the top teacher.

The mitigation payments were introduced to cushion the effect of changes to the welfare system from 2012, which it was feared would disproportionately impact on Northern Ireland.

“The legislation safeguarding the mitigation packages cannot be changed as Stormont approval would be required and the assembly is not sitting, placing potentially thousands of children at even greater risk of worse poverty,” continued Mr McCord.

“It’s believed that the ending of the mitigation payments in March 2020 would mean that over 35,000 households in Northern Ireland would see their incomes fall suddenly, some by hundreds of pounds per month.

“You can be sure that it is those families in most need which will be most affected and for more parents feeding their families will become a major challenge as they struggle to make ends meet and to make savings on already over-stretched budgets.

“As teachers we are all too aware of the impact of hunger on children’s learning. Children coming to school without breakfast just don’t have the physical or mental capacity to concentrate.

“If the mitigation payments stop we will also be hit with the so-called ‘two-child limit’ limiting household benefits to two children unless certain exceptions apply.

“We have already seen the number of children getting free school meals drop since the roll out of Universal Credit here with stats taking a downward turn from 102,127 entitled to free meals in 2016-17 to 99,142 in the past year.

“That is why it is absolutely essential that those children who are entitled to free school meals take them and why our Assembly must return to work in order to protect children here from being disproportionately affected by these controversial... reforms.”