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Social Investment Fund: Northern Zone

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 3rd October 2016.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 2:00 pm, 3rd October 2016

2. Mr Beggs asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on the social investment fund projects in the northern zone. (AQO 353/16-21)

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

All £9 million of the funding allocated to the northern zone has been committed to the six projects prioritised by the local steering group. Delivery is progressing at pace, with three of the projects, worth almost £4·5 million, now operational and providing vital support and opportunities in local communities. The community capacity hubs project, worth almost £1·7 million and funding improvements to seven community premises, has commenced. The two remaining projects, focused on mental health support and fuel poverty and worth almost £2·8 million, are committed. Work is ongoing to finalise the implementation plan and to commence the projects as quickly as possible.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

It is now some six years since the First Minister and the deputy First Minister first raised the idea of the social investment fund (SIF). Does the Minister agree with me that it is an indictment that, at this date in time, none of the £1·8 million allocated to tackle fuel poverty has reached any of my constituents who are in urgent need and that, if she were a business, she would be out of business?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

The first thing that I would advise the Member to do is to calm down.

[Laughter.]

The second thing that I would advise the Member of is that the strategic investment fund is making a huge impact on areas across Northern Ireland. I am really disappointed to hear that the Ulster Unionists have still not got what is happening in their own constituencies. What is actually happening is that we are making a real impact on constituents. We are helping them through employment programmes. Indeed, Mr Speaker, I was delighted to be in your constituency just last week making a very good announcement about employability and allowing people to be employed where otherwise they would not have had the opportunity to be so. Some £80 million will be spent in relation to SIF. Hopefully, by the time it is implemented, the Members in the official Opposition — that is the Ulster Unionist Party, because it has deemed itself the official Opposition — will get with the programme.

Photo of Gerry Mullan Gerry Mullan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the First Minister provide an update on the community premises support project, which is designed to update the infrastructure of community buildings in the north-west, especially with regard to Limavady?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

If it is the northern zone project that he is talking about, I understand that seven community capacity hubs will be dealt with. Five are ready to go ahead; two, however, have difficulties with health and safety. The business case has been split off so that five can go ahead while the other two have their issues dealt with. I am very pleased that the project is moving ahead.

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

Minister, you mentioned that there are five cases ready to go in the northern zone. Can you give us an example of one of those?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Yes. Under the community capacity hubs, Moneymore, Broughdearg, Ballymaguigan, Castledawson and Coagh halls are ready to proceed, but I understand that there are health and safety issues with the other two halls. Those are being dealt with proactively by officials, and I have no doubt that those issues will be dealt with very quickly.

Photo of David Hilditch David Hilditch DUP

The First Minister has already touched on some of this, but can she share any good examples of the positive impact that the SIF projects are having in these areas?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

SIF is investing £18·5 million in employment-focused projects. Given my background, I am particularly pleased that it is supporting over 800 people through training and paid work placements. I had the opportunity to speak to a young man who was not employed but who had a real desire to get involved with the technology industry. No one would employ him because he lacked experience and had not had the opportunity to gain qualifications in the sector. After securing a placement through one of our SIF-funded employment projects, he not only gained experience and training but increased his confidence and self-belief.

As a consequence of that, he has secured a full-time position with a major software company. That is exactly what it is all about. Others can say, "Oh, this hasn't happened. That hasn't happened": we are interested in real people and the outcome that can be achieved for real people, and that is what we have been able to do with individuals such as the young man whom I spoke to. I think that we will look back at SIF and say, "We are very proud of that project".

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I am sure that even the First Minister will accept that there have been serious problems with the administration of the social investment fund. There have been a number of Executive gateway reviews of that. Is she satisfied and can she assure the House that all government protocols, particularly in relation to ending paramilitary activity, have been followed in the awarding of contracts under the fund?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Yes. I wish that the Member would be more explicit about which one he is speaking about. Is he speaking about the one that I was at last week? I will sit down if he wants to mention the project he is referring to.

All the SIF programmes have been assessed by civil servants and have all passed what they need to pass to be allowed to draw down the money. I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that any of the SIF money that has been awarded will be put to the use for which it has been intended.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The panel on paramilitarism commented adversely on officialdom pandering to paramilitary groups. It said that those that Government do business with:

"should be consistent positive examples to their communities."

Why has the management of a social investment project in east Belfast been handed over to a UDA front organisation? How many Provo front organisations are set to run SIF projects? Is that what the social investment fund is all about?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

The Member reads from the paramilitary panel report but does not reference the part of the report that says:

"Those who have been or are members of paramilitary groups but who wish to transition should be encouraged to do so. This includes the need to make sure that as many ex-offenders as possible are able to reintegrate and live peacefully and productively in society."

That is what the panel report says, and I am standing by that.