Government and the Community and Voluntary Sector
Private Members’ Business
Francie Molloy (Sinn Féin)
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose the motion and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
Roy Beggs (UUP)
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes the invaluable contribution made by the community and voluntary sector, particularly in assisting the most vulnerable people in society; believes that where the sector provides public services, it is appropriate that it should be adequately funded for this provision and any related overhead costs; and calls upon the Minister for Social Development to ensure that there is an effective working relationship between all Executive Departments and the community and voluntary sector.
I declare an interest as a member of Raloo Presbyterian Church, where I also serve as a Boys’ Brigade officer. I am a member of the Carrickfergus Neighbourhood Development Group, a voluntary community group that helps in Love Lane, a disadvantaged area. I am also a member of the Carrickfergus children’s locality group and a committee member of Horizon Sure Start, which operates in Larne and Carrickfergus. I am also a committee member of the Carrickfergus Community Drug and Alcohol Advisory Group, which provides counselling and support to people who have suffered from addiction. I have worked with young people, in particular, to raise awareness of the harm caused by the misuse of solvents, drugs and alcohol. I am also involved in the Carrickfergus road safety committee.
The motion refers to:
“the invaluable contribution made by the community and voluntary sector, particularly in assisting the most vulnerable people in society”.
I suspect that our health service could not survive without the major contribution of the community and voluntary sector and the many specialist health groups that assist those who suffer from particular illnesses. We must recognise the essential work of Macmillan Cancer Support nurses or the Children’s Hospice. We recognise that the health service is essential; equally essential is some of the health work of the community and voluntary sector.
The community and voluntary sector frequently provides essential services and reaches places that statutory agencies cannot go. About a year ago, when the drugs craze was hitting our young people, the Carrickfergus Community Drug and Alcohol Advisory Group and Preventing Addiction Larne organised public meetings in the local town halls to advise teachers and parents. Indeed, I understand that many police officers took it upon themselves to come in civilian clothing to learn more about mephedrone etc.
The community and voluntary sector is frequently at the edge and provides knowledge that the statutory agencies are not aware of. I also think of the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster, which receive relatively little core funding for their headquarters. However, all the local groups throughout isolated rural communities are led by local volunteers. Therefore, a little bit of seed funding has resulted in a tremendous amount of volunteering. We need to reflect on the scale of the contribution of the community and voluntary sector.
The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action estimates that there are 4,700 voluntary and community groups in Northern Ireland employing more than 27,000 people. On top of that, we must add the tens of thousands of volunteers. My own Boys’ Brigade at 1st Raloo receives a few hundred pounds for equipment each year, yet 70 boys there are given training and experiences that benefit them. Volunteers do that for free and on a regular basis. It works very well, particularly for the older boys in the company section, in conjunction with the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. Young people take part in community service and volunteer, usually working with the young, elderly and vulnerable. That provides them with good life skills that they can take with them.
I was a bit shocked when I saw that the sector had an annual income of some £570 million, most of which comes from outside government. About 45% is public funding, about two thirds of which comes from government’s direct purchase of goods and services from community and voluntary organisations.
Most people working in the sector have a vocation to work in it. It is not just a job, and they do not watch the clock. They frequently go beyond the requirements of normal employment. I think of Carrickfergus Home-Start. There is a very dedicated central administrator, and the service is delivered entirely by volunteers who befriend families that may be struggling and give them additional support. Most organisations in the sector have relatively low administration and staff costs of 14%. Fortunately, we now have a Charity Commission to deal with any inappropriate administration levels incurred by those who claim to be charities. Most do not have significant reserves on which to draw should difficulties arise.
There is a huge variety of groups including small local groups such as the village playgroup, church crèches and mums-and-tots, as well as larger groups such as Bryson House. That has won openly tendered contracts advertised by government to administer parts of the warm homes scheme, deliver door-to-door recycling services for local government and deliver specialist equipment for sorting known as material recovery facilities (MRFs). There are also national charities, such as Barnardo’s and Action for Children, which work with parents and families through Sure Start to reduce risks to society and help the vulnerable.
The question is this: why should government invest in and value the community and voluntary sector? As a former member of a local strategic partnership almost 10 years ago, I saw that statutory bodies frequently could not deliver the access and service that others could. At one stage, we had to withdraw a £100,000 contract from a local FE college because it could not get people into basic education classes. It did not have the outreach into the community.
I have heard that the YMCA is delivering successfully by working closely with the local community and by partnering a range of bodies and education providers. I have been advised that, last year, 21 individuals gained qualifications giving them a second chance in their education. Five gained European computer driving licence (ECDL) qualifications, five obtained GCSE maths at grade C or above, and 11 gained emergency first aid qualifications. That brings hope and encouragement to many people in an area of my constituency that includes the Northlands ward, which is ranked 37 out of the 582 wards in Northern Ireland under the multiple deprivation measure.
That funding is at risk. Changes in funding rules could alter some of the legs of the stool, which could cause it to fall. I understand that small pockets of deprivation (SPOD) funding programmes are being offered but not for employment support costs. This is in an area of disadvantage and weak community infrastructure, and the difficulties around services being delivered entirely by volunteers will put them at risk and further endanger the area.
The Larne community care council has lost 100% of its children’s fund support. It is located in the Antiville ward, an area recognised as being “at risk” under the neighbourhood renewal scheme. Essentially, the care council provides a child-minding facility and after-school club. Its manager and administrative worker were put on protective notice some time ago, and it is drawing on reserves while it tries to find another source of funding. However, without a manager and an administrative worker, it will falter at some point.
Volunteers frequently cannot carry these larger bodies without help. It is important that this is recognised and that the good work already being done is not threatened. We need to get better value from what we are doing and better funding, but the Department needs to ensure that it is coherent and that it minimises the bureaucracy involved in the administration of funding. For example, Mencap has numerous contracts with different service providers. The community and voluntary sector needs to be able to get on with doing what it does best: delivering an essential service to the community in need.
Mickey Brady (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. First, I declare an interest as a non-executive committee member of the confederation of community groups of Newry and district.
As Deputy Chairperson of the Social Development Committee, I will advise the House of information that the Committee has received from the Department on community development budget reductions to date. That information is directly relevant to the motion. In its regular budget update on Thursday 22 September, the Department for Social Development informed the Committee of a planned 25% reduction in funding to infrastructure support organisations that provide services to the voluntary and community sector at a regional level. The Committee was also informed that the new arrangements will take effect from April 2012, with significant changes to current support arrangements and a clear emphasis on rationalisation, with the ending of current contracts and their replacement with more targeted support arrangements.
The Committee was also informed that that decision, while securing the required budget savings, enables funding to be largely maintained across key community development programmes and essential front line services up to March 2015. The Committee for Social Development expressed concern about the 25% reduction in funding because officials were not able to elaborate on the new arrangements from April next year or on what support organisations are affected. The Committee has formally requested clarification on those points and on the impact of the changes to advice, volunteering and other services to the public.
The DSD briefing referred to the Minister for Social Development’s recent speech to the NI Council for Voluntary Action on this subject. I note that the speech, made on 8 September 2011, referred to achieving a 25% budget reduction through plans to advertise for one strategic partner or consortium to deliver regional infrastructure services. The Minister also said that:
“Broadly similar approaches will be used to support what we describe as thematic work — volunteering, regional advice services, support for women in disadvantaged areas and the faith sector”.
DSD papers referred to a consultation exercise to review its regional infrastructure programme. I note that the 2010 consultation paper listed 10 funded organisations under that programme such as Advice NI, Citizens Advice, the Law Centre NI and women’s centres and regional partnerships. Usefully, the consultation paper refers to the impact of the recession on the third sector — the voluntary and community sector — including an increased demand for key services such as welfare rights, housing and debt advice and the likely decline in income from investments, charitable giving and public sector income.
As I said, the Committee expressed concern about the Minister’s planned reduction of 25% in funding to infrastructure support organisations. The Minister for Social Development knows that the organisations I have mentioned and others in the voluntary and community sector provide public services assisting the most vulnerable people in society, as the motion states.
At this time, as the impact of the recession hits the third sector, there is a clear challenge for the Minister and his officials to get the strategic partner/consortium arrangement right. I note that, in his speech on 8 September, the Minister said that he had asked his officials:
“to ensure that funding is distributed on the basis of clearly evidenced need, for clearly demonstrable outcomes”.
I can assure the House that the Committee for Social Development will scrutinise the Department’s plans and the arrangements put in place next April very closely and report back to the House as necessary.
I will now speak briefly as a Member, rather than as Deputy Chair. As someone who worked in the voluntary sector for 27 years before coming to the House, I have to say that the value of the voluntary sector to the community is immeasurable. I was a welfare rights worker in Newry, and the number of disadvantaged and vulnerable people who do not have access to statutory organisations and use the voluntary sector increases every year. We now face so-called welfare reform — cuts dressed up as reform. Indeed, in an article in the ‘Daily Telegraph’ yesterday it was very clear, as Treasury officials have told the Chancellor, that it is unlikely that the Budget will accommodate welfare reform and that the IT system will not be fit for purpose.
The point I am making is that there will be a much more focused need for advice services. Umbrella organisations such as NICVA perform an essential role, as do the Law Centre, Advice NI, CAB and other organisations. Those organisations depend solely on funding. They need sustained and proper funding.
Alex Easton (DUP)
I support the motion and thank the Members who tabled it. The community and voluntary sectors play a vital role in our society, especially in areas deemed to be at economic disadvantage.
I have worked with many community and voluntary groups throughout the years, and I want to pay tribute to them today. They are Rathgill Community Association; Kilcooley Community Forum; Breezemount Community Association; Beechfields Residents’ Association; Clandeboye Community Club; Redburn Loughview Community Forum; Whitehill Community Association — I hope that the Minister is taking note of all these — Conlig Village Association; Millisle Community Association; and Bloomfield Community Association. There are many others across North Down.
It should be noted that some of those groups secure funding from either central or local government and some none at all. Never have I seen such a more dedicated group of people eager to advance the fortunes of their areas and communities, particularly in tackling social disadvantage and education and health problems. I know that all work very well with government. Each Minister for Social Development has met them, from Margaret Ritchie to the new Minister in this mandate, Nelson McCausland. Those voluntary and community groups form part of the fabric of our society. Many fill a gap that successive Governments have failed to occupy. They act as representatives and lobby groups in order to tell government what they need and what resources they require for their communities. They know best, from working in the sector of their relevant area. They also provide a valuable resource for their local communities.
In a speech to representatives of the voluntary and community sector only a matter of weeks ago, the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, stated that he fully recognised:
“the significant contribution that the voluntary and community sector makes to civic society in Northern Ireland.”
He stated clearly:
“I am committed to ensuring that my department will continue to work closely with the sector to deliver social, economic, cultural and environmental improvement for the people of Northern Ireland.”
That statement has to be welcomed.
In the run-up to the 2010 constituency chooses an MP to represent it by..." class="glossary">general election, David Cameron talked about building a big society. Mr Cameron had no further to look than Northern Ireland to see how a big society works, given the relationship between the voluntary and community sector and government, especially now that devolution is up and running.
I welcome the outcome of the consultation on the concordat for relationships with the voluntary and community sector, in which all consultees welcomed the renewed commitment to a partnership between government and the voluntary sector. I look forward to the publication of a detailed action plan. The community and voluntary sector not only acts as a lobby group for those that it represents but assists and supports various programmes. I know that there are schemes running in my constituency that help young people to obtain some basic skills, such as reading and literacy skills and computer skills, that will help young people when they are looking for a job. Many of those young people have not been helped by the education system, and such local initiatives to help and support them, coupled with assistance from the Department for Employment and Learning, offer one example of the sector’s benefits and value in society.
I am keen to see a good relationship continue with the community and voluntary sector. Therefore, I support the motion.
I commend those who tabled the motion, particularly Mr Beggs. It is an important motion, because it invites the House and government to look seriously at the role of the voluntary sector in Northern Ireland. It calls in particular for an effective working relationship between that sector and government. Of course, this institution is based on partnership between Catholic and Protestant, between nationalist and unionist and among the political parties that have been elected to it. It is right and fitting, therefore, that we should be talking in terms of building a partnership between the voluntary sector and government. That should be the keystone of the approach by government to the voluntary and community sector.
The motion acknowledges the invaluable contribution that the community and voluntary sector makes. Together with other parties in the Chamber, the SDLP certainly agrees with that assessment, and long may that continue. However, it is insufficient for us, as Members, to simply acknowledge that. We have to put flesh on the bones. Through government, we have to assist the voluntary and community sector to carry out its work. It is not sufficient, therefore, for us to say, “Get on with it, and we will support you.” There has to be a much closer relationship between government and the voluntary sector if we are to build a serious partnership that embraces the good work of that sector and the work that government requires to be done in the community.
There are certain things that government cannot do in the community that the community and voluntary sector can do, and do much better than government. That is the importance of the voluntary sector. I think of groups like the Simon Community and its work with the homeless. It is very difficult for government to deal effectively with homelessness at a street level. That organisation does so, and it needs the support of government. The Society of St Vincent de Paul is one church organisation that deals with poverty in the community. That is another good example, as are other church groups, from no matter which confession they emanate.
The credit unions have carried out marvellous work to empower individuals, families and communities to build financial resources and share them right throughout the community. It is very important, therefore, that the partnership is developed. We should listen very carefully to the voluntary and community sector. The green new deal emanated from that sector. Unfortunately, however, government has not responded to that in an effective fashion. The idea was to use moneys to prise further money from the European development bank. Government has not responded to that effectively. If government wants to encourage the community and voluntary sector, it should revisit the green new deal so that proper funding may go to that enterprise. It is money well spent, because it means that we will improve the quality of our homes —
Stewart Dickson (Alliance)
Thank you, Mr Principal speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in today’s debate. I also thank my East Antrim colleague Mr Beggs for proposing the motion. I declare a number of interests before I commence: as a leader in 1st Greenisland Boys’ Brigade Company, a trustee of Greenisland War Memorial Sports Club and an elder in Greenisland Presbyterian Church, all of which deliver in the voluntary and community sector.
I am pleased to be able to debate the issue today and to highlight the role of the voluntary and community sector. I will also raise concerns about its sustainability in the current economic climate. Voluntary and community organisations are working on some of the most pressing social issues facing Northern Ireland today. Organisations provide Northern Ireland with an invaluable expertise and specialised services that work to combat crucial issues such as preventing reoffending, preventing family breakdown, helping older people to remain independent, raising levels of educational attainment, helping lone-parent families to find employment that works for them, and regenerating and developing communities. Those are but a few of the voluntary activities that go on across Northern Ireland every day. The organisations have a wide remit, including giving advice, advocacy, campaigning and influencing policies and the delivery of goods and services. By investing in the community and voluntary sector, we gain value for money in front line services, which leads to financial savings in government.
Others have given examples, and I shall also give some examples. Jobtrack is a partnership between the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO), the Probation Board and the Northern Ireland Prison Service. It is estimated that Jobtrack’s programme, by working with ex-offenders, produces an average saving of £1·4 million a year to the economy.
Other Members referred to Home-Start. I was the founder chair of Home-Start Carrickfergus. Home-Start, with its 900 volunteers across Northern Ireland, contributes more than £2 million worth of work to the economy each year. It costs just over £1,000 to provide Home-Start support to a family for a year, and, compared with the cost of taking one child into care, it can support 40 children living at home.
LITE 60+, which is run by the Belfast Central Mission, costs approximately £50 a service user a week, compared with £430 for residential care and £570 for nursing care. Such projects enable vulnerable older people to continue to live in their own homes by providing them with services such as home security, benefit advice, shopping, food preparation and assistance with personal appearance and hygiene. The figures show that postponing entry into residential care by just one year saves £28 a person, and, more importantly, it allows the older person to retain their independence and, quite often, their dignity.
The voluntary and community sector can also contribute to and strengthen social enterprise. For example, reference was made to the Bryson Charitable Group. It works with local councils, including my own in Carrickfergus, as a contractor for recyclable waste, and profits that are generated from its services are put back into maximising the environmental and social benefits that it provides.
I will take this opportunity to highlight a final example of the work of the third sector in my constituency. Seacourt is a mixed housing estate in Larne that has had a troubled profile in the past, both with interface and intra-community tensions. There was a waiting list of people who wished to leave the area. The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland invested some £200,000 in the area to develop new community structures to build community cohesion and invest in community leadership. As a result of the establishment of the Seacourt Community Council, the estate has won the best-kept large housing estate competition three times, through local people undertaking environmental projects and working with agencies to refurbish and re-let empty properties. Housing prices have improved, and there is now a waiting list for people wishing to move into the estate.
As I and many others have highlighted today, the voluntary and community sector plays a vital role in providing services to our community. Unfortunately, it is also too easy for Departments to target it as budget cuts kick in. Yet, in many ways, the recession calls for more services in the voluntary sector, rather than less. As unemployment rates continue to rise, and with welfare reform changes on their way, there is likely to be an increase in those needing quality advice and practical help, and the sector must be able to continue to provide those services. Tackling poverty —
Pam Lewis (DUP)
I declare an interest as I sit on the management committee of Antrim citizens advice bureau. I welcome the opportunity to speak about the community and voluntary sector. I am well aware of the importance of the work that organisations in the sector carry out. They play a huge role, and it is one that is underestimated and not often appreciated. I am sure that other Members will mention the work of such organisations in their constituencies, and, no doubt, they will stress the importance of the sector to them.
As a Member for South Antrim, I want to mention two organisations in particular. In the past few years, I have worked closely with Women’s Aid, and the services and support that it provides to women and children are invaluable. I have spent time hearing stories of countless women who have received support from Women’s Aid. Their stories are often tragic, but the work that Women’s Aid does has a massive positive impact on their lives. It has been there for them when they did not know who else to turn to. I understand how important its work is, and it provides support to the most vulnerable in society.
Home-Start, which other Members have mentioned, is another organisation in my constituency that provides help and support to families who need help in managing day-to-day life. Sometimes, families struggle to cope with managing everything, juggling jobs and home life. That is where Home-Start comes in, bringing relief to parents and help for children.
That is important work as it not only provides immediate help to those who need it but has long-lasting positive consequences that help to reduce problems for children later in life, the cost of which the public sector would have had to pick up. That organisation plays a valuable role and should also be recognised. I am happy to support today’s motion because organisations such as those in my South Antrim constituency do a fantastic job, and it is important that the Assembly sends a message to the sector that its work is valued and appreciated.
I note that the motion calls for organisations in the sector that provide public services to be fully funded. I support that, as long as it can be demonstrated that the sector can provide those services with value-added benefit. That has become an even more critical requirement given the financial and funding challenges that we now face. It is only natural that every organisation that provides a service believes that it is best placed to deliver that service at the most reasonable cost to the public purse. Although that is true in many cases, it is perhaps fair to say that, in a crowded field, we must now take more time to evaluate the work of all organisations and the results that they achieve with the funding available.
As Northern Ireland seeks to build on the new political stability but against a backdrop of global financial uncertainty, we no longer have the luxury of providing funding to a whole host of groups that carry out similar roles in different communities simply because that is how it has always been. We must look at new ways of bringing communities and organisations together to deliver real change for all our most vulnerable and needy. I know that organisations such as Women’s Aid and Home-Start will welcome the opportunity to demonstrate their continued value to our communities.
The motion also mentions the need to ensure effective working relationships between all Departments and the community and voluntary sector. I endorse that. However, the nature of the relationship and the key to a good working relationship has been set out in the concordat for relationships between government and the voluntary sector, which has been endorsed by the Executive. I support the concordat and the motion.
Fra McCann (Sinn Féin)
Go raibh maith agat, Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle agus a chairde. I rise in support of the motion. However, I was surprised when I heard that the Ulster Unionist Party had brought the motion, given its support for the Tory coalition and its anti-community, anti-people policies, especially in the shape of welfare reform legislation, which is the single biggest attack on communities and the poor in decades and is supported by the Ulster Unionists. However, I thank the Members for bringing the motion to the Floor for discussion.
The broad message and theme of the motion highlights the excellent work carried out by the voluntary and community sectors and calls for the Minister to ensure that an effective working relationship exists between government and the broad community sector. We are in a period where much uncertainty exists in the voluntary and community sectors about their future. Funding streams are drying up, and many groups do not know whether they will still be providing a service this time next year. The sector has never really been taken seriously by Departments even though it provides a service for the most socially deprived and for those most at risk in society.
When you look at the briefing paper provided by our researchers and by NICVA, the biggest of all voluntary organisations, it is quite obvious that the community and voluntary sectors are big employers in the North. It is estimated that they employ 27,000 people, spend £544 million and that about 4,700 organisations provide a wide range of services to the wider community. That, in itself, is impressive but it does not take into consideration the spend that this money brings to communities and businesses across the North —
Fra McCann (Sinn Féin)
I am trying to get all this in. It does not take into consideration the spend that the money brings to communities and businesses across the North through services procured in the local economy and wages spent. We need to ask ourselves what our communities would be like if those services were not provided by the community and voluntary sectors and what it would cost for government to replicate the services provided by those groups. Would it be double or maybe triple the existing cost? No one can quantify the worth of the service provided by these sectors, yet, in many ways, they are not trusted by Departments and statutory agencies and are seen by some as an irritant that has to be dealt with. They have been vilified, audited to death and are often ignored and not seen as worthy of being brought into central planning when policy and strategy is being brought together.
Yet those people have many decades of experience in their field. “Partnership” has been a much-abused word that promised so much and offered a new way forward that was, by and large, ignored by Departments and statutory agencies which did not trust local organisations to make decisions about future programmes.
What about today? Well, today, things are every bit as bad. I recently attended a meeting with representatives of community sector groups and Departments, and the experience was painful. In one Department’s case, no flexibility existed, but that was my experience of the same Department many years ago. That Department was the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL). Many other Departments and statutory bodies do not fare any better. Some of the comments that I have heard recently across the sector have been about civil servants being more interested in obtaining control and authority than building relationships on an equal footing, which was promised by neighbourhood renewal at its inception. Many feel that the adversarial policies and politics of the past between civil servants and the community sector are back on the agenda.
There are exceptions to that. I have worked with civil servants who are good at their job, professional in their approach and care for the many projects that they work in. A look at recent NISRA figures on deprivation shows that areas of severe deprivation are getting worse. Statutory intervention over decades simply has not worked. We may ask ourselves why. Had there been genuine partnership, firm relationships and a lot of trust between Departments, statutory agencies and the voluntary and community sector, I believe that we could have begun the hard work of dealing with generational deprivation.
To finish, some commentary from officials, individuals and some Ministers is that this is not about people protecting their jobs in the sector but the core programme: such people should get real. Without the jobs, the programme would not be delivered. That is an insult to those who work at the coalface of communities and deal with the most difficult issues. Many of them were there before the jobs existed. It is about the whole package — jobs and service.
Sammy Douglas (DUP)
I thank the Members who tabled the motion. Like many in the Chamber, I got involved in politics mainly as a result of voluntary and community development work over the years. That experience convinced me of the potential for positive change in society when people are mobilised and come together to influence decisions that affect their lives.
The motion is about recognising the hugely important role of the community and voluntary sector in Northern Ireland, and Members have pointed to excellent examples in their constituencies. Of the many that I could highlight in my East Belfast constituency I will speak briefly about the self-help initiative, Helping Hands, an autism support group that is located in the Tullycarnet estate less than two miles from here. The project was set up by local parents, most of them women, two years ago and provides much-needed practical help and support on a purely voluntary basis to around 50 families. The people on that committee carry out amazing work.
Helping Hands epitomises that aspect of the motion which asks that the Assembly “notes the invaluable contribution” of such groups. The motion highlights the need for adequate funding to support the sector, and today we welcome the announcement of the social investment fund, which has the potential to make a real impact in disadvantaged and depressed communities across Northern Ireland. In addition, Members should support the First Minister and deputy First Minister and our MEPs, such as Diane Dodds, in their tireless efforts to secure additional funding through a new Peace IV fund for Northern Ireland and the border counties.
The debate should not focus on grant funding alone. Many individuals in the community and voluntary sector have long recognised the need for sustainability, mainly through the social economy route. This is about safeguarding their future when funding inevitably runs out. I argue that my constituency has some of the best examples of social economy in Northern Ireland, most of them developed through the inspirational leadership of Maurice Kinkead, chief executive of East Belfast Partnership.
Initiatives such as Avalon House on the Newtownards Road, Bloomfield House at Holywood Arches, the Enler centre at Ballybeen and the Hanwood centre at Tullycarnet, to name but a few, have transformed local neighbourhoods and restored a sense of community pride and, importantly, those projects are generating income to employ staff and to fund other local community projects. Success in motion: for me, seeing is believing.
It is estimated that those projects and other social economy businesses in the pipeline — there are a number of developments taking place in east Belfast — represent an asset base of over £80 million for the community and voluntary sector there. Those assets have been used. It is not just about encouraging local development; it is about attracting private sector investment and bank loans to work on other initiatives. For me, that is self-help and community development in action.
While the Minister is here, I want to say that we have done all those things in east Belfast through a close working relationship with the Department for Social Development. It would not have happened without its intervention.
The motion calls on:
We can all buy into that. However, I believe that the all-party group on the community and voluntary sector is the best model to take that forward. As a member of that group, I look forward to debating those issues at our next meeting. I support the motion.
John McCallister (UUP)
The debate has been useful. We have heard about the work that Members are involved in with different local groups and committees in so many different parts of Northern Ireland to help regenerate those areas. Members help and contribute with their knowledge and work in a collective way with local communities to give them a boost, particularly at a difficult stage in the economic cycle.
I declare that I still have an interest in the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster, I am a trustee of Rathfriland Young Farmers’ Club and a member of Rathfriland Regeneration Committee — like everyone else. I will not bore everyone to death with the list of activities. However, it is good for Members and councillors to be involved in those activities and put something important back into the community.
Picking up on some of the issues raised, the debate was all going terribly well until Mr McCann attacked our Conservative friends. When I am in Manchester next week, I will pass on his comments.
I hope that the Minister will address some of the issues raised. Mr Douglas touched on the social investment fund. We are so far through the financial year now, and we are concerned about whether that money is going to be used up. How is the Minister going to get that money to community and voluntary sectors — the front line — where it is needed and can be most effective?
All Members have described the work of the community and voluntary sectors in their different areas and constituencies and what they can add to society. Community and voluntary groups make an enormous contribution right across the spectrum of public services, and it is true that we sometimes take that for granted. We often underestimate the contribution that our community and voluntary sectors make in education and health and in people giving up their time and talents to volunteer. We also underestimate the benefits that that brings, not only to those they help but to those who volunteer from right across the spectrum. It helps to make a difference to those who retrain and to those who just enjoy putting something back into the community.
Mr Easton has returned to the House, and I will pick up on his point about the big society.
The rest of the UK should look at the Northern Ireland model to see how we live with the big society, what it means and how they could deliver it.
(Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
In his opening remarks my colleague Mr Beggs talked about the contribution that the community and voluntary sector makes to health. Health simply could not deliver all that it does without the community and voluntary sector — it could not afford to. Many of those groups can delve into and help communities with issues that the statutory sector cannot reach. The community and voluntary sector has a great impact on education and health. Furthermore, in justice, the Jobtrack partnership between the Probation Service and NIACRO has managed almost to halve reoffending rates from nearly 43% to 24%. That is making a real difference. It is not just about getting people involved and active; it is about seeing real benefits and improving outcomes in people’s lives. That is where the community and voluntary sector can make such a difference, and improving outcomes for people who most need help from the government and who work to achieve it is the measure that we should always look for.
Simon Hamilton (DUP)
Having listened to Members from virtually every part of Northern Ireland talk about their personal experiences with community and voluntary groups in their constituencies, one cannot deny the size, scale and impact of the sector. It is clear that, across Northern Ireland, many community and voluntary sector organisations work day in and day out with some of the most vulnerable people in society.
During my tenure as Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, as well as in my constituency capacity, I have had many interactions with community and voluntary sector groups, and one thing that comes forward is that there is a feeling that they are sometimes underappreciated and receive little praise and acknowledgement for their work. Therefore, if nothing else, today’s debate gives us an opportunity to put on record our thanks and praise for their work and to acknowledge their great contribution to Northern Ireland society.
Despite that perception, their contribution is recognised by the Government at Stormont, and the concordat puts that appreciation into words. I hope that the Minister robustly enforces that across government in Northern Ireland. Such appreciation is also manifest in the confidence exhibited by the public sector in asking community and voluntary sector organisations to deliver services on its behalf for the people of Northern Ireland. That is not done in any way as a favour to the community and voluntary sector. It is not a matter of giving services to the sector to keep it occupied; it is done, as Mr Maginness outlined, because the type of people with whom the community and voluntary sector invariably works are hard to reach geographically or, on policy issues, by the public sector. I am talking about delivering on health, education and skills issues to any number of hard-to-reach communities in Northern Ireland, both geographically and demographically, including people with mental illness, the elderly and those dealing with suicide issues. Everyone in this place, no matter how wonderful we think we are, must recognise that there is a panoply of issues with which the community and voluntary sector often deals but with which the government cannot deal as effectively.
These days, most debates focus on funding. However, at a time of very difficult budgetary circumstances, the Executive should be looking for opportunities to expand service delivery on behalf of the public sector by the voluntary and community sector, because, what often happens is that not just are they reaching vulnerable sections in society, they are doing so to a very high standard and at great value for money.
In these austere times, we should all be mindful of value for money as a watchword. We should be looking at opportunities to expand the sort of service delivery that the community and voluntary sector provides on behalf of the public sector. As well as touching on good examples of community and voluntary organisations, we could all also give examples of where we have seen the fear manifest itself that the centre will seek to protect itself by passing on the ill effects of the downturn to everyone, including the community and voluntary sector.
In spite of the fact that we should seek to expand, if possible, the work that represents value for money, which is that done by the community and voluntary sector on our behalf, no one, not least that sector, should be immune from what is going on. That lack of immunity is being shown in some of the cutbacks that it is experiencing.
Simon Hamilton (DUP)
I agree with the Member. In fact, when I was Chair of the Committee for Social Development, a session on the Budget, which we held at the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA), involved about 80 groups from the sector. The point that I wanted to get across to them, which was reiterated by the Finance Minister during the Budget process, was that the sector should not be singled out or targeted in any way for disproportionate cuts.
The sector must look at itself critically, and I know that, in many regards, it already does so. It must ask whether the existence of so many community and voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland is appropriate and whether some that were established many years ago, with the best of intentions, are still fit for purpose and delivering. There must be that sense of introspection across the sector, so that it can survive the downturn and consequent cutbacks in public expenditure and emerge more strongly than it would without such critical self-examination. Indeed, the Assembly and the Executive must also do that on behalf of government. Some work on that front is ongoing in the sector, but it is not simply a matter of giving it more money. As Mr Douglas said, the sector must look at how it can make itself more sustainable, perhaps through a social enterprise model, to ensure that it will be there into the future delivering —
Steven Agnew (Green)
I thank the proposers for tabling the motion. Before I worked in the Assembly, originally for Brian Wilson and now as an elected Member in my own right, my background was in the community and voluntary sector, mainly working with the homeless. When a motion such as this is debated, it gives me the opportunity to reflect on the importance of the community and voluntary sector’s work and the dedication of the people who work in it. I worked with the homeless for five years, at the end of which, largely because of the stress and pressure of that type of work, I chose to leave the sector. However, I am aware of many others who dedicate their lives to working on behalf of other people and to protecting and supporting the most vulnerable. Despite the personal toll it may take on their lives, they put the needs of others before their own. It is important that we recognise that today. It was interesting to hear Sammy Douglas talk about some of the work going on at Ballybeen. As a young person growing up there, I availed myself of some of those services. It is good to hear that work being recognised. Largely, that work goes on day and daily without the appropriate value being attributed to it.
The sector as a whole plays an important role in innovation. A lot of services that exist today, particularly social services, would find their genesis in the community and voluntary sector. Alban Maginness mentioned the work of the Green New Deal Coalition. I hope that that will become another example of a funded statutory programme with its genesis in the community and voluntary sector.
The sector has the flexibility to meet the needs of people who are falling through the net, which, sometimes, the public sector lacks, due to its size. I think back to my time when I worked in the homeless sector. I worked with young people who were coming out of care or juvenile justice centres. Our education services were, perhaps, not able to fit around the transitional nature of those people’s lives. However, there were always voluntary sector services providing community education that fitted around the young people, rather than expecting them to fit into an inflexible mass model.
Yesterday, we had a debate on youth justice. That is another example of where the ingenuity often comes from the community and voluntary sector. Look at the early intervention strategies in youth justice and the championing work of the likes of NIACRO. They are very important in moving statutory services forward by providing the evidence base. Perhaps those involved in a small pilot scheme can say, “We have done it; it works here. Now, can you expand it throughout the statutory sector?”
It would be remiss of me not to mention some of the charities operating in my constituency. Unfortunately, I did not hear Mr Easton’s contribution. I have no doubt that he mentioned Kilcooley Women’s Centre. [Interruption.] Did he not? Well, I will mention it, because it does excellent work. I know a number of people who avail themselves of its services. I have to give special mention to Positive Futures, a now region-wide charity that was set up and founded in Bangor. It does excellent work with people with learning difficulties. It was the drive and ambition of Agnes Lunny that set up that charity. I know that it provides excellent support to complement the statutory services. It is important that Departments see these services as complementary and that work is done together. Given the cuts, the sector has had to make more strenuous efforts to work together and to ensure that there is not duplication of services. It is important that government works with groups to support them in that. Perhaps the final piece of the jigsaw is the next step of Departments working together more efficiently.
Nelson McCausland (DUP)
I welcome the motion, as it gives me the opportunity to reaffirm the significant contribution that the voluntary and community sector makes to civic society in Northern Ireland. If I may, I will address the important issues raised in the motion in reverse order, so that I can show how policy development leads through to action.
It is appropriate that the motion has been tabled to the Assembly. As a Minister in the previous Executive, I, like my colleagues at the time, approved the new concordat for relations between government and the sector in Northern Ireland. The concordat is the shared vision of government and the voluntary and community sector working together in partnership. It is shaped so that they can work together to build a more participative, peaceful, equitable and inclusive society in Northern Ireland, and it has been operational since April of this year. The concordat provides the foundations for partnership working, based on respect and mutual trust, and it offers opportunities for active participation by the sector in developing public policy. It creates the framework that supports greater co-operation, collaborative working, modernisation, smarter and different funding mechanisms, and it reduces the administrative burden. The concordat provides the platform for other policy issues and support arrangements, such as volunteering and advice services in DSD and across government. I intend to ensure that it is implemented robustly.
Although I am responsible for policy matters as lead Minister for the voluntary and community sector, that does not mean that I can or want to deal with all matters relating to the sector. My ministerial colleagues have developed relationships that relate to the business of their own Departments. For instance, many in the sector work closely with Edwin Poots and his officials in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety; Arlene Foster has the social economy remit, which is an agenda that I very much want to support; and, as the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Sammy Wilson has a particular interest in dormant accounts, which, as Members may know, he has been considering in recent days. The First Minister and deputy First Minister’s interaction with the sector is also considerable, and others have similar engagement, whether it is in the arena of the environment, education, employment, skills development, culture, sports or leisure.
We in government very much realise the importance of the voluntary and community sector to our society. The sector employs some 29,000 people across 4,500 organisations, with many more thousands involved in a voluntary capacity. Some £260 million of the sector’s income of £570 million comes from government to enable them to deliver public services on behalf of, or in partnership with, government.
As the lead Minister for the sector, I see my role as being to advocate on the sector’s behalf across government when the need arises. My role is to support the sector and to make sure that the needs and contributions of the sector are recognised at the Executive. That is why I attach such importance to the concordat as the policy instrument that will help us to achieve that. I will continue to ensure that my Department adds value by convening others to share ideas and good practice, and that includes social economy organisations. My Department has particular responsibility for helping to support the infrastructure or the skills and capacities that are needed in the sector, and it spends up to £15 million each year in such assistance.
In the last few weeks, I have held detailed discussions in the Department on future arrangements for the regional infrastructure support programme and for the support of other thematic policy areas, including volunteering, advice services, women in disadvantaged areas and faith sector engagement. I have instructed my officials to ensure that funding is distributed on the basis of clearly evidenced need for clearly demonstrable outcomes that are closely aligned to my Department’s policy objectives and that it is carefully evaluated. A number of Members referred to those points in their contributions.
My party has made no secret of its interest in looking at social impact bonds and alternative finance sources, including philanthropic sources, and in helping voluntary and community organisations to ease their dependency on government grants. The issue of sustainability was raised by a number of Members, and we must support organisations as they try to become more self-sustainable.
I appreciate that many thousands of organisations operate on an entirely voluntary basis without any recourse to public funds. That is particularly true in a number of areas and especially in the faith sector. In those circumstances, it would be inappropriate of me to force mergers or to insist on collaboration; that is entirely a matter for those organisations. However, it is a very different story when public money is involved. That is why the Department for Social Development did so much to light the touchpaper of modernisation, bidding for and administering the modernisation fund and using that fund to help support collaboration and the sharing of services. Since I came into office, I have seen examples of that, such as Omagh Community House, where many voluntary organisations share space and overhead costs while delivering many services to their community. It was clear when we met the different organisations there that there was a synergy and a sense of mutual support as those organisations worked in the same building. DSD has also provided assistance to the Building Change Trust to drive forward work on mergers and collaborations, and it has welcomed the work that is being done by NICVA to help organisations to collaborate. It is important that that work continues.
Neighbourhood renewal provides a vehicle for engagement across government to take forward measures to tackle disadvantage. In the most deprived communities, it provides a flexible, local mechanism for statutory agencies to work together with local residents and voluntary community groups. Efforts to regenerate the most deprived neighbourhoods must be based on real partnerships, both within and between communities and with government. To that end, each neighbourhood partnership was to be representative of key political, statutory, voluntary, community and private sector stakeholders.
As Minister, I lead a cross-departmental ministerial group which takes forward the work on neighbourhood renewal. Its most important role is to ensure that all parts of government remain committed to the purpose and delivery of neighbourhood renewal by continually reviewing work in the most deprived neighbourhoods.
For those groups receiving revenue funding, including via the neighbourhood renewal investment fund, a new funding approach was introduced in April 2011 that seeks to maximise the impact of available resources by reducing overheads and duplication. Where projects were working well, producing results and providing value for money, they were offered funding for up to four years from April 2011. As Social Development Minister, I have agreed to invest more than £20 million each year in the neighbourhood renewal programme.
The principle that voluntary and community organisations must be able to include full overhead costs related to delivering a contracted service is one that I endorse and it is also supported by Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP). As part of a concordat implementation process, we are committed to work with others to develop proposals for imbedding full-cost recovery within contractual arrangements between public sector and voluntary and community sector organisations.
I realise, from the contributions made to this debate, that we all recognise and believe in the value of the voluntary and community sector, and we have heard examples and experiences from constituencies across the Province. My Department is fully focused on supporting vulnerable people, the most needy in society, and we work in partnership with the sector in delivering social, economic, cultural and environmental improvement in Northern Ireland. To support that, over £60 million is spent each year on the Supporting People programme. Additional capital and revenue funding has been secured for the next comprehensive spending review (CSR) period, totalling £128 million, to take forward schemes for people with mental health problems.
As lead Department for relations with the voluntary and community sector, I assure you that I am fully committed to support the most vulnerable, improving quality of lives and ensuring access to services. We all cannot fail to recognise that the current economic climate has had an impact on communities. As unemployment continues to rise, so does the number of those seeking benefits and requiring advice. We have many people dependent on benefits; proportionately more here compared to the rest of the UK. Tackling the poverty problem, and the proposed changes to welfare reform being taken forward at Westminster, will be significant challenges to us all. I commit my officials to engage constructively with representative organisations on issues such as universal credit, social fund reform and personal independence payment.
The role of lead Minister requires clear leadership in helping to raise some of the tough and sensitive issues that confront us all when funding becomes limited. It is all very well to say that we prioritise the front line. The question is this: what does that mean in practice? What is the minimum infrastructure that we need to support to help the sector flourish? How, in practice, do we help voluntary organisations reduce dependency on government? Those are the questions that I want to focus on over the next while.
I will pick up on a number of points that Members have made. Some points I have already addressed; I will not return to them and I hope that the Members who made them will accept that. Mickey Brady referred on several occasions to the address that I gave at a NICVA conference on 8 September. That was an opportunity to set out directly to the sector, and to engage with folk in the question and answer session, our vision for the voluntary and community sector over the next number of years. I found that very helpful, and those who were at the conference also found it helpful in setting out clearly where we stand.
Unsurprisingly, Alban Maginness was somewhat critical when he said that the Government have not responded to the green new deal effectively. However, I assure the Member that we are still waiting for the business case for the green new deal. I am sure that the Member has been here long enough to know that unless there is a business case for something it cannot proceed. As soon as we get the business case, we will look at it very carefully. It has been promised on several occasions; it has still not arrived, but I look forward to receiving it with interest.
Stewart Dickson spoke about value for money. He is absolutely right. We need to look at organisations to see those that are really delivering value for money — there are many of them — and to see areas where there is a weakness and where value is not being delivered.
Fra McCann referred to the cuts that were imposed on us by the coalition Government — those whom John McCallister described as our Conservative friends. He also spoke about the sometimes difficult relationship between Departments and the sector. That is where the concordat comes into play. We need to see the concordat robustly implemented.
John McCallister told us that he is a member of the Young Farmers’ Clubs, and I discovered that the word “young” is obviously very flexible. He also referred to the social investment fund. I wish to inform the Member — I am sure that he will take this to heart — that the matter is being taken forward by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) not DSD. We have a role to play, as will other Departments, but the lead Department is OFMDFM. With the launch of the consultation paper today, I am sure that the Member will take the opportunity to respond to OFMDFM on that.
Nelson McCausland (DUP)
Not to DSD. That is absolutely right. Steven Agnew spoke about the need to avoid duplication. That is something that we are very keen on. We want to get the maximum impact. At a time of financial constraint, which has been imposed on us by Mr McCallister’s friends in the Conservative Party, it is important that we ensure that we have value for money. Therefore, we will work with the sector to ensure that that happens.
I will close by saying that I am proud to be the Minister for voluntary and community organisations that are effective in achieving their missions, collaborative in working with Government and one another to tackle need, able to demonstrate the impact of their work not to me but to the communities of which they are part, and trusted and deliberate in working with my Department and with others for the public good.
Fra McCann (Sinn Féin)
On a point of order, Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker. It was remiss of me not to declare an interest when I spoke that I am a member of a number of community organisations in west Belfast.
Michael Copeland (UUP)
I, too, must declare an interest in — to borrow a phrase from Mr McCann — a number of community and voluntary organisations in east Belfast. This is not the first occasion on which I have been asked to wind up; however, it is the first occasion on which I have been asked to wind up a debate, and I will perform the duty to the best of my ability. However, I ask for Members’ forbearance.
This is an important issue, and we have to look at the information that we use in order to decide what we are going to do. My belief is that, at some stage, we need the publication of the full register of charities, for example, so that we will know how many organisations actually exist in the sector. The absence of compulsory registration makes it difficult to determine accurately the number of groups involved. However, I have no doubt at all that the statistics that Members quoted today are accurate. I would like to use this opportunity when we have the Minister present to urge respectfully that he attempt to find a quick resolution to the public benefit dispute in the Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008. It is an issue that has been dragging on for a long time, and there are organisations in the community and voluntary sector that are unsure of what their new or current legal obligations may be.
I would appreciate it if the Minister would bear those remarks in mind.
I am sure that I am not the only Member in the Chamber who has concerned groups coming to them to say that they are genuinely afraid that they will see their resources cut, not because of the effect that that cut in resources will have on them but because of the effect that it will have on the communities that they seek to serve and the issues that they seek to address. Some of them have a feeling, which may or may not be real, that they are seen as a soft touch or an easy target by Departments seeking to rejig spending. I hope that the magnanimous and unanimous views expressed by all parties around the Chamber today will go some way towards allowing them to understand that we seriously understand their requirements and anxiously and earnestly seek to address them.
As the Health Minister said in his statement earlier, the community and voluntary sector makes an important contribution not only to the things that we know about but to other things such as providing services and assisting the health and social care sector to find solutions to difficult issues. Be it the former alcoholic helping others to fight their battle against drink or the students supporting a local youth club, volunteering builds a sense of trust and understanding. The fact that people freely and without expectation of reward — certainly not in this life — give of their time, effort and skills solely for the benefit of others is not unique to these islands, but it almost is.
Another point that needs to be and has been made and stressed is that local groups sometimes know how to do things better than large government organisations. Their driving force and will to do things make them do those things all the better and, generally, less expensively. It, therefore, follows that, if those groups continue to feel undervalued, whether or not they actually are, and to fear that their resources will be cut, even greater pressure will be put on them. The motion calls on the Minister for Social Development to ensure that there are effective working relationships in the community and voluntary sector. There is hardly a Department or public body in Northern Ireland that does not deal or interface with or have knowledge of some of those groups. However, there is need for improved co-operation and co-ordination across all Departments and public bodies.
As I listened carefully to what Members said in the debate, I tried to distil the essence, rather than the totality, of what they said by taking one key word from each contribution, in the hope that an analysis of those key words would subsequently give an overall view of what has taken place here. In a very good opening speech, Roy Beggs stressed the word “need”. No one in the Chamber believes for one second that we live in a society where need is not relevant or important. Mickey Brady, who has a long history in the field, used the word “value”, which is about how we look at and hold an object and where we place that object in relation to other things. Alex Easton used the word “dedicated”. It is a notion that someone will not be detracted or put off from doing something that they believe to be right.
Alban Maginness used the word “partnership”. What is possible in this life without partnership? Whether we in the Chamber hold hands and dance around daisy chains does not matter. There is an effective partnership here, in which we are all involved, be it the partnership at home, which is the foundation of the family; the partnership of convivial company; or the partnership of people who will not lie down and accept something that they know is less than what they can otherwise have.
Mr Dickson used the word “cohesion”, which is about sticking together, the inability to be separated, and the refusal to be broken off or hived off. Pam Lewis spoke well. She used the word “aid”, which means help and assistance — what people seek when things go against them. Fra McCann introduced a note of surprise, which was surprising. He said that the situation was getting worse. He went on to examine the past links between my party and damage to people, which was, perhaps, even more surprising.
Sammy Douglas, from East Belfast, used the word “positive”, which describes the refusal to lie down in the face of adversity. He mentioned Helping Hands — a group that I know well — Hanwood Trust and the East Belfast Partnership. Their work goes on day and daily behind the scenes to occasion change. Generally, they do not appear in newspaper headlines, nor are they mentioned in dispatches. Without their work, however, society would be a much poorer place.
John McCallister used the word “contribution”, among others. That is what each of us, corporately and individually, can bring to the table for the benefit of other people. Simon Hamilton mentioned “delivering”. We hear much about that in government. It is a mysterious thing; we really do not know what it means. However, we know when it does not work. In the case of the community and voluntary sector, it does work. Steven Agnew mentioned “innovation”, which means thinking outside the box and refusing to be bound by past principles or experience. It is the notion that the situation can be changed because somebody dares to say that it can be different.
All of those words sum up and distil the essence of the debate. I hope that people in the community and voluntary sector take heart from what has been said. The most important words were those of the Minister. He used such words as “shared vision”, “inclusive”, “mutual trust”, “modernisation” and “value”. Most important, he said that he was fully committed. In that statement, he must deserve the support and congratulations of the entire House. I hope that he will take what Members have said to his Executive colleagues, because many people in the sector need just that little lift.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the invaluable contribution made by the community and voluntary sector, particularly in assisting the most vulnerable people in society; believes that where the sector provides public services, it is appropriate that it should be adequately funded for this provision and any related overhead costs; and calls upon the Minister for Social Development to ensure that there is an effective working relationship between all Executive Departments and the community and voluntary sector.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker.]