Northern Ireland

Coronavirus: Funding found for free school meals, health and the arts

School dinner Image copyright The School Food Plan
Image caption Extra funding will cover the cost of free school meals over the summer holidays

A free school meals scheme for the summer holidays will go ahead after £12m was found from existing Stormont budgets.

The money has been reallocated as part of a budgeting exercise known as a monitoring round.

Health got the largest reallocation with about £90m to be spent on elective care and mental health services.

The finance minister said the allocation would "provide vital funding vulnerable people and businesses".

Three business support grant schemes have been underspent by £53m.

Those funds will be held by the executive until ministers agree what the next stage of business support should be.

That holds out the prospect that some business and sectors who have so far received little help could get a grant.

However, it is likely to fuel criticism that the most recent scheme, for hardship grants was too difficult to access.

Image caption The package announced by Finance Minister Conor Murphy also provides funding for "the most vulnerable in society"

The Department of Infrastructure has been allocated an extra £35.5m, that includes £20m for Translink, £10m for other transport lost income and £5.5m for NI Water.

Northern Ireland's public transport operator has struggled during the Covid-19 crisis, with revenue falling.

Arts and sports funding

The money for free school meals was welcomed by Education Minister Peter Weir.

"These payments will help ensure that those children most in need do not go hungry during the summer months," he said.

"I am also pleased to announce the Education Authority's 'Eat Well Live Well' programme will be extended over July and August to provide for up to 5,000 young people.

"The programme has been running for a number of months and is currently providing healthy breakfasts and lunches to over 3,000 vulnerable young people."

The finance minister said there would also be additional help for children, aside from the school meals money.

'I have allocated £12m for a summer food scheme, £12m for summer activities and £10.5m for childcare," Conor Murphy said.

"Over £15m has been provided for the most vulnerable in society. This will help meet increased benefit delivery costs, assist vulnerable people to live independently and will provide support for the homeless.

"I am also allocating £20m for business start-ups and investment in tourist attractions. In addition I have allocated £4m to assist the arts sector and £2m for the sports sector."

Troubles victims' pension scheme

The reallocation also sees £2.5m set aside for the administrative costs to implement the Troubles victims' pension scheme.

However, as yet there is no sign of when that scheme will start.

The victims' payments were approved by Westminster but they have been delayed.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill resisted designating a department to administer the scheme as her party objected to the eligibility rules.

Sinn Féin regarded the rules governing who could apply for the the pension as discriminatory against ex-prisoners.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) then held up final approval for a series of financial decisions at Stormont until the preparatory resourcing for the pension scheme was provided.

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