Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will group questions 1 and 3 for answer.
The proposals on the formation of social investment zones received Executive approval on 17 May 2012. Following that, we announced the zones, along with other proposals that allow the fund to become operational. Details are on the OFMDFM website.
There will be nine zones in total: four in Belfast, based on Assembly constituencies, and one in Derry, with the four remaining zones to follow health trust boundaries. The issue of the zones featured strongly in the consultation responses. We have considered all the views and opinions that were expressed and we are confident that the final choice made is the right one to allow those most in need to benefit fairly from the fund. Of course, not all areas in a zone will receive funding. However, those that can identify and evidence objective need will benefit. The strategic objectives of the fund are to support communities, build pathways to employment, tackle the systemic issues linked to deprivation, increase community services and address dereliction. Educational underachievement may be considered under the objectives focused on building pathways to employment and tackling systemic issues linked to deprivation.
It will be for communities — working through the steering groups — to identify, prioritise and evidence need and to propose associated interventions for inclusion in their area plans. Now that the final operational decisions have been reached, our main purpose is to get moneys on the ground as quickly as possible and to establish the structures that are needed to do that. I assure you that we are working to make this happen. Our officials will very soon hold a series of public seminars to provide further information on the fund and advise on steering group formation, following which a nomination and selection process for steering group membership will commence.
We are obviously conscious of the pressures that are clearly out there. Processes are in place to establish the steering groups and to develop the plans in a way that will see delivery on the ground. It is important that we all recognise the need to engage in a sensible way with local communities and to ensure that, in engaging with them, we identify projects that will add to the many other processes and projects that are in place through other Departments. So, producing and delivering against comprehensive, needs-based, strategic area plans is the ultimate goal, but we recognise that zones will need support to get to that stage. Our aim is to have some form of steering group, whether that is a collaboration of existing structures or something completely new, to oversee the development and co-ordination of such plans.
The steering groups will consist of a maximum of 14 members drawn from four key sectors: community and voluntary, political, statutory and business. We recognise that communities will have differing levels of capacity. Some will require additional support to help identify the priority needs and develop proposals to tackle them effectively. That is the primary reason for the technical assistance element of the fund, and it is absolutely essential that we get that right. Only when that is right and there is a proper relationship between projects proposed on the ground coming through the steering groups, can we ensure that the funding is going to them. I suppose that the timing of the funds going to projects will depend on how quickly we get the steering groups established and how quickly they engage with the local community.
Underachievement has been identified by his Education Minister and by the Executive as an issue that needs to be addressed. How does that square with the decision to remove funding from areas such as the Achieving Belfast project, which was clearly dealing with underachievement? Given that he said that underachievement “may be” addressed, will that be re-addressed and dealt with under the fund that he referred to?
Obviously, some of the question that has been put to me would be more appropriately put to the Minister of Education, but I understand the point that has been made. When decisions are being taken on how funds will be used, particularly in the context of how we address educational underachievement, it will be very important that people who can identify what might be a gap in particular areas put that forward through the steering groups so that the issue can be addressed and financial support can be given. Whether we can go all the way towards meeting what might be a gap in funding for the type of projects that you raised will be a matter for some consideration when the final decisions are taken on what size of funds will be given to the projects that are being proposed at grass-roots level.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Obviously the Minister is aware that there is concern in some communities about getting money out onto the ground, and there is a process that has to be gone through. Has the Minister given consideration to allocating any funds to groups that, in the first instance, meet the strategic objectives of the fund but which might also form part of the area-plan proposals in advance of the area plans being agreed?
The Member has raised an important point, and I reassure him that we will put in place mechanisms to allocate money for technical assistance as quickly as possible so that areas can proceed with assembling their plans. We recognise the need to be flexible to the needs and capacities of individual zones and that some areas may be in a position to have plans in place earlier than others. Therefore, we are looking to develop possibilities that will allow these areas or projects to receive early funding and not be disadvantaged or held back while still giving sufficient time to those areas with less capacity to ensure that they get the full support that they need. In addition to that, the point that he made about funding projects and plans that are likely to meet the strategic objectives of the fund is under very active consideration.
On the question of membership, has consideration been given to offering a place on the social investment fund groups to members of local area communities?
Yes, that is very important if this is to succeed in the way that we would like it to succeed. It is very important that community groups are fully represented and that we are dealing with the issues that are coming up from grass-roots level. That is the beauty about this fund. We are saying to communities that we are absolutely willing to work with them to identify the issues that they think can make a difference to their local community. Given the level of interest in the SIF, many community groups will be searching to find how they will play a role. We are determined that they will play a role and that this approach will be inclusive.