Office of the First and deputy First Minister – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 27th June 2011.
2. asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline the criteria used to determine why some victims and survivors groups were subject to a risk-based audit in relation to the establishment of a new Victims and Survivors Service. (AQO 180/11-15)
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. First, let me make it clear that there is no relation between the risk-based audit that is currently being conducted and the establishment of a new Victims and Survivors Service. Those are two unique areas of work, and neither impacts directly on the other. In relation to the audit, groups were selected on the basis of a rigorously conducted risk-analysis exercise conducted by the Community Relations Council on all victims’ groups in receipt of core and/or strategic support funding from the council at that time.
Four areas were reviewed: the value of funding received; the level of financial controls; the organisational governance arrangements; and the extent of multiple sources of funding. I am sure that the Member will understand that it would not be appropriate to identify the groups selected for the funding verification and control process while the audit is still being carried out. Once the findings have been presented to our Department, any weaknesses in systems or controls that might be identified will be addressed.
Work is progressing in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) to establish the new Victims and Survivors Service. We are still working to our previously agreed two-year time frame of April 2010 to April 2012. The new service will provide support for all victims and survivors, those who belong to victims’ groups and those who do not. Our aim is to establish a service that will listen and be responsive to the needs of victims and survivors. Support will be provided to victims and survivors based on identified and agreed need.
The time frame for the establishment of the service will not be impacted by the ongoing audit. We continue to be committed to delivering the highest level of support and services to victims, and that is evidenced by the amount of funding in that area. We have planned provision of £50 million to meet the needs of victims and survivors over the Budget period 2011-15.
I declare an interest as a former commissioner for the victims and survivors of the conflict. I thank the Minister for his answer. I wonder if, when he allocated an additional £3 million to victims in the 2007 comprehensive spending review, he imagined that the period would elapse without the service having come into being, that groups would largely feel that they will have no future once the service does arrive, and that the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund would stop processing new applications and would have a backlog of some 1,500. What does he intend to do about that?
Work is progressing in OFMDFM to establish the new service. We are still working to our previously agreed time frame of 2010-12. The new service will provide support for all victims and survivors, and we continue to be committed to delivering the highest level of support and services to victims. In fact, we are still awaiting the completion of the comprehensive needs assessment by the victims’ commissioners. That is vital to identifying and developing the support necessary for victims and to the work of the service. I would have thought that the Member, given that he was previously involved with the commission, would have understood the difference between the audit and the establishment of the service.
In relation to the Northern Ireland Memorial fund, before releasing further funding to it, we need to ensure full accountability and value for public money. We now have the necessary authorisations in place to confirm the memorial fund’s budget for 2011-12, which will be approximately £3 million. Officials are currently working on a letter of offer for 2011-12, and we expect that to be with the fund very shortly. When it accepts the terms and conditions of the letter of offer, further funding will be released to the memorial fund, and that will enable it to issue letters of award to those individuals whose applications have been fully assessed.
Last autumn, we approved the memorial fund’s proposals for moving to a new individual-needs-based approach to provide financial support to victims and survivors. The memorial fund launched that new approach on 8 November 2010 and so far, it has distributed over £3·5 million. A total of £4·4 million was provided through the fund in 2011, which was more than double the allocation in 2008-09.
It is true that the memorial fund received a higher than anticipated number of applications. That put serious pressure on the fund’s budget, which, ultimately, placed a strain on the Department’s overall budget for victims and survivors. In light of that funding pressure, we wrote to the memorial fund on 29 March 2011, asking it to close its grant schemes to further applications from 18 April 2011, to facilitate a full consideration of the grant schemes and the new approach. Letters were sent to every previous applicant to the fund and to all victims’ groups to ensure that news of the 18 April closing date was conveyed to everyone and that nobody missed out. Those issues are being dealt with, and, over the coming period, we hope that any outstanding applications will be expedited.
I understand that this issue has been in the media recently. I know that people have, understandably, been frustrated by the length of time that it has taken to release funding via the memorial fund. I have already explained why that is the case. However, I am, again, very pleased to confirm that we now have the necessary authorisations in place for the memorial fund’s budget for 2011-12, which will amount to approximately £3 million. Over £3·5 million has been distributed so far under the new needs-based process that was introduced in November 2010. Along with the £4·4 million that was provided through the fund in 2010-11, that is more than double the allocation in 2008-09. Officials are currently working on a letter of offer, which we expect to be with the fund very shortly. When the fund accepts the terms and conditions of the letter of offer, further funding will be released that will enable it to issue letters of awards to those individuals whose applications have been fully assessed.
Why has the deputy First Minister’s Department not responded to several letters drafted by the victims’ commissioners? Given the importance of those issues, will his Department respond at its earliest convenience?
It is not true to suggest that we have not responded to letters from the victims’ commissioners. In fact, the First Minister and I will meet the victims’ commissioners later this week.