Stormont’s odd debate on free school dinners. “Whatever you do, don’t mention child poverty.”

I cannot think of another polity in which a discussion on the increase in the uptake of free school meals could almost entirely avoid any direct reference to the possible corresponding increase in child poverty.

I say possible, because in yesterday’s private member’s debate on free school meals was based on barely any data concerning the drivers behind the increase beyond a ministerial o extend free meals to independent sector (affecting about 700 pupils)

The debate was scheduled to start at 3.45pm, but it  began at 1pm. Clearly a spare was found by dumping some earlier scheduled piece of business, and everything shuffled forward.

So to the debate. Chris Hazard, one of those who laid it before house introduced the motion. He took his first interruption from Mervyn Storey, the DUP’s Education spokesman, who decided on his own bizarre tack away from poverty:

…can he maybe get to one of the cruxes of the issue? As a result of spending that money, what has been the benefit to pupils in their educational journey through school?

Later in the debate Jonathan Craig, followed that logic with this odd twist

I have with listened with interest to what everybody said about the point that you will not listen as well on an empty stomach. The reverse of that is that, if you eat far too much in your free school meal, you might be a bit sleepy by the time that you get to the teacher, so we need to watch out for that one.

The SDLP’s Sean Rogers offered to an amendment which broached the otherwise unmentionable:

Leave out all after ‘recognises’ and insert:

“the important role of nutrition in the educational attainment of children; and, in light of increased financial pressures on working families, calls on the Minister of Education to explore ways in which to extend access to free school meals to more children.”

Oblique enough, but in the ball-park of reality at least. “Good effort” perhaps, as the deputy speaker told his party colleague. It clearly went over poor old Trevor Lunn’s head, who said:

…the motion and the amendment were so similar that “you could hardly support one and not support the other”

It fell to the DUP’s Robin Newton to point out to Trevor that “Mr Rogers has brought to the motion a wider view of the problem, and brought other issues into play.”

So what was it all about? From oral questions to the Education minister, we know he has accepted recommendations that free school meals be extended post primary schools in time for the school year 2014-15. That will bring another 15,000 pupils, if the work is done in time.

There is no sign that his department have yet arrived at the formula that will make that happen. [A case of living in the future, perhaps? – Ed]

In that decision, the hand of the minister is being forced by Westminster’s welfare reforms. His plain choice was either to expand free school meals to all secondary schools or get rid of it altogether. Given such a choice, he’s taken the logical way out.

In the end, the SDLP amendment was taken. But this debate highlights the way politicians on the hill have allowed themselves to be bound in by arguments over instruments rather than focusing on making new policy choices.

By focusing on the instrument, and almost completely ignoring social context, it is either good news (as several SF MLAs chose to put it) because ‘we are giving out more freebies’, or caught out making faux arguments about the negative effects of feeding hungry children.

The fact is that an increase in the uptake of free school meals is an indication that more people are struggling economically. Anywhere else on these island, it would be: focus on the problem first: choose your instrument afterwards.

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