Holiday hunger payments in Northern Ireland to be scrapped, Department of Education confirms

The Department of Education has confirmed 'holiday hunger' grants will be stopped from tomorrow.

The School Holiday Food Grants (SHFG) funding was brought in during the pandemic in July 2020 to provide funding to families during school breaks.

In a statement issued on Thursday morning, the Department of Education said from April 2023 the funding would end and the payments stopped.

A spokesperson added: “The Department recognises the important support the SHFG scheme has provided for low income families who are struggling financially, particularly with recent cost of living rises and realises the huge disappointment this will be for parents.

"It is with great reluctance that the department is confirming that SHFG will be discontinued from 31 March 2023.

“While funding allocations have not yet been confirmed by the Secretary of State, the Department of Education is facing an extremely challenging budget,

“We will continue to work with other government departments and agencies in efforts to tackle holiday hunger in the future.”

SDLP Education Spokesperson Daniel McCrossan MLA said: "Cutting holiday hunger payments right before the Easter break will be devastating for low income families across the North."

The department also confirmed that the Engage and Healthy Happy Minds programmes will be axed.

A spokesperson added: “In light of the significant budgetary pressures facing the Northern Ireland Block in 2023-24 and in the absence of a budget allocation to the Department of Education by the Secretary of State, no further funding is available for the Healthy Happy Minds pilot and the Engage Programme and these programmes will cease on 31 March 2023.

“We recognise how disappointing these decisions will be for everyone involved in the delivery of these initiatives and for the young people who have benefitted from them.  However, given significant budgetary pressures,  it has been necessary for the Department to make these difficult decisions.

“We will draw on the positive learning from both programmes, which were fundamental in helping our children and young people address the impacts of the pandemic, to inform the development and implementation of future interventions.

“The department is extremely grateful to all those who have supported the delivery of Healthy Happy Minds and Engage over the past number of years to provide invaluable support to pupils across all our educational settings.”

Responding to the decision, Justin McCamphill, NASUWT National Official for Northern Ireland, said: "The withdrawal of both of these schemes will have a devastating impact on children and young people.

"It is now clear that there is to be no post-Covid recovery plan for education in Northern Ireland. The Healthy Happy Minds pilot was important to rebuilding the mental health of our youngest children while the Engage programme was making a real difference to supporting disadvantaged young people.

"Like many decisions recently this decision has been made at the last minute. It is simply not acceptable that many teachers will be told today that their jobs will finish tomorrow. 

"Many of these teachers will have been employed for more than a year and will have gained protection from unfair dismissal. The NASUWT expect that all employing authorities will ensure that no school acts outside the law in dismissing teachers and we encourage schools where the budgets allow to keep these teachers on to the end of the academic year.

"This decision is being made in the context of wider cuts to Education and against a back drop of accelerating real terms pay cuts.

"The Department of Education should be in no doubt that cutting services will only strengthen the resolve of NASUWT members to step up industrial action after Easter."

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) said the cuts were required due to years of financial mismanagement and lack of a functioning executive.

"The announcement today shows just how challenging the budgetary situation in Northern Ireland is," a NIO spokesperson said.

"This critical situation has been created through years of financial mismanagement.

"Per head, public spending in Northern Ireland is already 21% higher than the UK average, and NI's block grant is at record levels in cash terms, averaging some £15 billion per year over the next three years.

"For four out of the past six years, Northern Ireland has been without locally elected representatives to take the key strategic decisions to protect public finances.

"It is disappointing that political stalemate continues to paralyse long neglected strategic decision making to protect public finances.

"It is with regret that the Secretary of State and UK Government officials, with support from the NI Department of Finance, are preparing a budget to be introduced for 2023-24 if the absence of an Executive continues."

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