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My Department is funding the Employment Services Board for West Belfast and the Greater Shankill area in order to help in the operation of a Belfast-wide stakeholder forum for the Department’s local employment intermediary service initiative, which offers a community-based employment service for the most severely disadvantaged areas. Officials are also actively involved in several of the board’s employability subgroups.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tugaim buíochas don Aire.
I thank the Minister for that brief answer to my question. In a previous incarnation, during the first power-sharing Executive, the Minister endorsed the ‘Report of the West Belfast and Greater Shankill Task Forces’, from which the Employment and Services Board emerged.
Does the Minister agree that the full implementation of the task forces’ recommendations must be a priority for the Executive, and that the Employment Services Board, which includes representatives from the Shankill part of my constituency, is generating new thinking on policy and effective interventions for a spectrum of marginalised groups, including Travellers, lone parents, political ex-prisoners, and people with disabilities. Consequently, will he confirm that the Employment Services Board’s funding, which is required if it is continue beyond March 2008 — and which will ensure the sustainability of the pioneering work that is under way in the area of the greatest social need — will be secured by his Department? Go raibh maith agat.
I concur that that board does, and has done, a good job. The Executive have set growing the economy and associated matters as priorities in the draft Programme for Government. However, the Department has moved away from core funding for such organisations, and has sought tenders from people who will deliver services on behalf of the Department in particular local areas.
Having said that, I recently met the chairperson and a delegation from that board, and I am awaiting a paper from them about some matters pertaining to work that they have been undertaking over the past couple of years. When I receive that paper, I will consider the available options; however, today, I am in no position to offer guarantees about its future funding, other than to say that the Department’s methodology has changed. I firmly acknowledge the work of that board, and I look forward to receiving its paper as soon as possible. Apparently, there were some hiccups over the holiday period, but I have been promised the paper within a few days.
I accept what the Minister said about moving towards a tendering process, but does he agree that his Department must treat all voluntary and community organisations, or training providers, consistently and equally? In other words, it would be wrong to provide core funding for some bodies, while others do not receive any.
I thank the Member for his question. He has outlined the obvious difficulty. We are in a transition period, and several Members have written to or approached me about several organisations that are being core funded, or whose core-funding contracts are coming to a close.
Instead of spending the Department’s money on paying rent, rates, heating, lighting and staff costs, we have tried to reach the point at which we are paying for actual delivery of service. Several bodies that do not get core funding have approached my Department.
The flip side of the question that the Member for West Belfast Mr Paul Maskey asked is that those bodies are asking whether the Department is operating a closed shop and why it is not giving all groups an opportunity to see whether they are capable of contributing. That is why the policy has taken that particular direction.
Equally, organisations have work ongoing, and I am anxious to ensure that, while we are examining such matters, we do not throw the baby out with the bath water and lose the money that we have already invested in work that we have commissioned. All those matters must be considered. However, the pattern is now well established, and, given the background and the fact that groups are demanding access to opportunities, we must pursue that policy in consultation with the Department of Finance and Personnel’s procurement branch, which usually spearheads competitions for us.
As I have said, the policy does not diminish the efforts that other groups have made or their successes.
As the Minister will be aware, the task force said that it was very important to protect those who provide training and employment in west Belfast. The Minister will agree that one such organisation that does so is USEL — Ulster Supported Employment Ltd — which the Minister has visited in the upper Shankill.
I have two questions for the Minister about USEL. First, will he intervene in order to enable it to receive funding from Invest NI for marketing and other requirements? As a non-departmental public body, it faces the problem of not being entitled to dual funding.
Secondly, will he use his good offices to accelerate an economic business appraisal that is ongoing for proposed new accommodation for USEL in the upper Shankill? That proposal includes a land swap, where there are some technical and other difficulties. I urge the Minister to intervene and to consider how an organisation such as USEL can access funding, including that from Invest NI, in order to achieve the task force’s recommendations of enhancing and extending the providers of employment and training, particularly in the upper Shankill.
The question that the Member asked is somewhat distant from that on the list of questions for oral answer, but I am happy to respond to him. He asked that question with some aplomb, as what he said was well away from the original question. As the Member said, I visited USEL’s premises; I have had a discussion with its chairman and the board of directors; and I have had a tour of the shop floor. I was exceptionally impressed with the work that is being done there and with the attempts being made to market skills and make them commercial. I am aware of the issues concerning Invest NI and accommodation, to which Member referred.
I am not Wikipedia, and, therefore, the Member must excuse me for not having every fact at my disposal. I am happy, however, to write to him with the details. USEL’s status is a major hurdle as far as Invest NI is concerned. I am not sure that that matter can be resolved. The accommodation issue is slightly more complicated, but I will apprise the Member as soon as possible.