T4. Mr McKay asked the Minister for Employment and Learning why the European social fund (ESF), for those who are delivering on the ground, is not a priority for him, especially in light of an awards ceremony this evening in Portglenone at which a number of people will receive awards through a return to employment programme funded by ESF, albeit that it looks quite likely that the group that runs that programme will cease to exist if the ESF funding is discontinued. (AQT 2204/11-15)
The Member is wrong to assume that it is not a priority for me. Indeed, we have probably spent more time on this issue over the past number of weeks than on anything else. To be very clear, one round of funding is coming to its natural end, and the duration of the funding was made very clear to every group bidding in the outgoing round. I am not aware of the precise context of any fresh bid by the organisation that the Member referred to, but no funding decisions have been made; nor will they be until we have the full picture, having scrutinised all the applications. We are oversubscribed by 1.8 times the amount available, so some organisations will be unsuccessful and, no doubt, very disappointed. Others, however, will continue to receive funding for their projects. We are, at this stage, trying to pull out all the stops to ensure that we make decisions on funding before the end of April so that the work of many organisations can continue.
To put it in context — lest people accuse us of running very close to the deadline — we put a lot of focus on getting our European social fund operational programme cleared by the European Commission. We achieved that back in 2014. Our counterparts in England have yet to have their operational programme cleared by the European Commission. We are now in the context where we have the option of ensuring continuity between programmes. In England, that will not be the case; there will be a break for many organisations, which will have a devastating impact on staff and the participants with whom organisations engage.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am not here to talk about people in England or to discuss what Europe is or is not doing. You can blame Europe all you want, but the message that we are receiving from the community and voluntary sector is that the Department is putting blockages in the way of the groups and putting down criteria that are resulting in the situation where those groups are being put on the line. Does the Minister recognise that fact? What is he going to do to ensure that those groups do not go to the wall? Does he also recognise that the women's sector, in particular, is going to be decimated by his Department's actions?
There were probably four or five questions in there. I will do my best to pick them up. The Member said that this has nothing to do with England or Europe. It is very much everything to do with Europe given that it is European money that is coming down. We have to abide by the rules coming from the European Union. If the Member wants to do a UDI on this, that is fine; we would have to find the resources locally. We simply do not have those, so let us be sensible about this and use the opportunity that comes from our membership of the European Union to invest and extend what we would otherwise not be able to do with our available resources here in Northern Ireland.
No particular guarantees can be made to any organisations. Our officials are working tirelessly to ensure that we can have decisions made by the end of March. I made the point about England to make the point that we are being far more proactive than others in ensuring that that is the case. Issues of coverage regarding the women's sector may not necessarily be the outworking of the final decisions, but, if that were to be the case, there may well be different ways in which we can reassess the distribution of funds to ensure that we invest in the policy objectives of the Department and that we have proper coverage not just geographically but across the different aspects of engaging with those who are most marginalised from the labour market.