Free school meals under threat for children across Mid-Ulster

FREE School meals for many children in Mid-Ulster are under threat because of changes to the welfare system, it has been revealed.

The news comes as Children’s Commissioner Patricia Lewsley-Mooney warned Welfare Reform could have a “devastating” impact on thousands of families in the province.

The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) published two reports last week, both highlighting the adverse impact on children in Northern Ireland of the proposed changes to the welfare system.

One of the changes will mean that children and their eligibility for free school meals and clothing allowances will be assessed differently.

Mid-Ulster MLA Patsy McGlone added his voice to worries over the changes.

The SDLP Assemblyman has already held a number of public meetings over the issue of Welfare Reform in Cookstown and has strongly spoken against it. He has called on the Education Minister to assess the impact the proposed changes will have on children throughout Mid-Ulster and the province.

Mr McGlone said: “The two reports from NICCY highlight the adverse impact of the proposed changes to the welfare system on families with young children.

“One element of those changes is in how children are assessed on their eligibility for free school meals and clothing allowances.

“As the Education Minister admitted in a recent written answer to me, the proposed Universal Credit will replace a number of existing benefits which are currently used to determine eligibility for free school meals and clothing allowances.

“This is a vital assistance many families rely on to ensure their children are in the best possible position to make the most of their educational opportunities, as well as ensuring the children receive basic food nutrition during the school day.”

Mr McGlone has now warned that many parents across the region may completely lose their children’s right to free school meals.

“These changes will affect many families across the north. We have the highest level of households with children, 34%, of any region of the UK. A high percentage of those families may lose their entitlement to this assistance,” said the SDLP MLA.

“We won’t know exactly how high that percentage will be until the Education Minister reveals what the new eligibility criteria are. Despite the massive uncertainty this will create for many families, the Minister has said that he will not bring forward proposals until the autumn of this year.

“I welcome the fact that the Minister has now recognised the problem, but the problem needs to be resolved.

“I will be pressing the Minister to complete his exploration of the options available to him as quickly as possible and to provide his proposals before the start of the summer break.

Mr McGlone concluded: “Parents have the right to know how these changes will affect their children, and they have the right to know in plenty of time to prepare for those changes.”

Welfare Reform legislation was passed in Westminster in March and is due to be debated here next month.

Two reports on the potential impact of the changes were commissioned by Childrens’ Commissioner Patricia Lewsley-Mooney. The first said Northern Ireland will be the worst hit region of the UK apart from London. The second urged MLA’s not to fast-track the Bill.