Voluntary and Community Sector: Cuts

Oral Answers to Questions — Social Development – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 27th April 2015.

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Photo of Rosaleen McCorley Rosaleen McCorley Sinn Féin 3:00 pm, 27th April 2015

3. Ms McCorley asked the Minister for Social Development what discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues to ensure there is a strategic focus on how departmental cuts are impacting on services provided by the voluntary and community sector. (AQO 8020/11-15)

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

As with all Executive Departments, my Department is required to implement efficiencies in 2015-16, including in services provided by the voluntary and community sector. I undertook a series of formal and informal discussions with ministerial colleagues and MLAs on the proposed allocations to particular funding streams. A transparent, robust approach was undertaken aimed at maximising the delivery of high-quality services to the most disadvantaged and to ensure that available funding was prioritised against the highest-quality projects, where successful outcomes could make a difference to people's lives.

Photo of Rosaleen McCorley Rosaleen McCorley Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for that answer. Does the Minister agree that the nature of the community and voluntary sector is such that it relies on a cocktail of funding from various sources and that, because of that, there are very often adverse impacts on its services and programmes when one gets cut, because they depend on one another? In that context, does the Minister agree that there is a need for a clear strategic approach?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for her supplementary. One element of the considerable work done by my officials was to ensure that we cross-referenced between the offices in the Department, from the north-west office right through to the Belfast offices, to ensure that we were not in any way treating any group or organisation differently because of its geographical position. It is not often that we get praise in west Belfast in the 'Andersonstown News' from the SDLP and Sinn Féin, but there was recognition from west Belfast's political representatives that, while there was some bad news for community organisations from the Department for Social Development, the cuts have not been as bad as was originally feared. The article goes on to highlight a number of issues, and the Member knows that I met her and colleagues in relation to specific issues.

It places a responsibility on Departments to ensure that, collectively — I know that the issue has been raised by NICVA with the First Minister and deputy First Minister — there is a cross-departmental approach that has a positive outcome for the voluntary and community sector as opposed to one Department doing one thing and another Department doing something else. We have seen that particularly in relation to a question raised earlier about early years. The Department of Education cut £1·7 million out of its budget, which has had a clear impact on community organisations, some of which are in West Belfast and other constituencies across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Pat Ramsey Pat Ramsey Social Democratic and Labour Party

I acknowledge the immense contribution that the community and voluntary sector makes across Northern Ireland, particularly on welfare rights. Is there any evidence or indication of collaboration between organisations delivering projects through DSD in the community and voluntary sector?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for the work that he does on the issue. Many examples are used, and the Member who spoke previously referred to a cocktail of funding. It requires organisations in the voluntary and community sector to be innovative in a way that ensures the best possible financial arrangements to deliver the particular project. When you see a project delivered in a way that has brought about collaboration, you see that it enhances the project. It also brings a particular challenge, which is that, as we have seen to date in some areas, when one element of the funding arrangement is not in place or is removed, it could have a long-term effect on whether that project survives.

I referred to preschool places. Some preschools in my constituency now face a very bleak situation, not because money was not available from other elements of government but because the money that had been removed from the Department of Education probably was a cornerstone to that money being used for that organisation. If it is not there, the viability of those organisations becomes untenable, and, ultimately, some projects would close as a result.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

The Minister referred to having conversations with other Ministers: did he have any conversations with the Employment and Learning Minister in regard to the European social fund and how some in the voluntary and community sector, such as the women's sector and young people not in employment, education or training, will lose out on funding?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member. As Chair of the Committee, he will be well aware that this has become a particular problem. We had discussions with some of the organisations that came to see us in the lead-up to us making a decision on the budget. I should have said earlier that I am sorry that it took so long for us to get to the point where we made the announcement, but that came about as a result of a variety of discussions that we had with organisations to give some sense of where they would be post the announcement that we would make. I can confirm that we had consultation and discussion with the Minister on the elements of ESF that have ultimately resulted in some organisations having severe difficulties and severe financial problems.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

Can the Minister tell us if the budget for Supporting People will be affected?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member and welcome him to Question Time. I look forward to working with him. I know that he will continue to do a good job for the people he represents, as he has done as an elected representative on the council in Londonderry. I look forward to working with him in the weeks and months ahead.

It is clear that we endeavoured to do all that we could to protect the Supporting People programme. The funds of a number of community sector organisations providing housing support services to very vulnerable people in our society are supported through the Supporting People programme. I have protected, as far as possible, the Supporting People budget for 2015-16, which will secure the delivery of those housing support services by the voluntary and community sector.

Indeed, on the day that I was appointed Minister for Social Development, 24 September, Members will recall that a lobby group came to the Assembly and, as dutiful MLAs, we all got our photograph taken to ensure that we supported that campaign, but that is not the reason why I was keen to ensure that the Supporting People programme was protected. Little did I know that, that afternoon, I would be responsible for that budgetary head. Maybe the lesson to be learned from that experience is always to be careful of the photographs that you get yourself into.

I believe that the Supporting People programme plays a vital role in ensuring that people have floating services and that the 80% of the money that goes towards the housing element of the scheme is invaluable, and I want to protect it going into the future. I trust that we can build on the success of the Supporting People programme.