Ms Nichola Mallon has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should continually rise from their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically for a supplementary.
All organisations in receipt of departmental funding are subject to governance and financial management checks to ensure their capability to manage public money. This includes, first, a review of the organisational structure to ensure that a board and appropriate management structures are in place and, secondly, a review of the financial and governance processes to ensure that the necessary policies and procedures to manage and account for funding are in place and implemented effectively. This process involves on-site visits and ongoing verification throughout the duration of the project to ensure compliance with policies and implementation of the necessary checks to account for all expenditure. Full checking and validating of spend by lead partners is carried out by the Department, which includes supporting evidence of costs incurred and payments made. The social investment fund (SIF) programme is also subject to normal internal and external audits, which include sample auditing of individual project spend.
The whole issue of conflict of interest was dealt with by the steering groups. We have to remember that the social investment fund is very much community-led. Given the focus on the community developing and prioritising projects to address local needs, a process to manage any conflicts of interest was put in place. Steering group members were required to declare conflicts of interests when potential projects were being proposed. Where a conflict was declared, the steering group member was not permitted to be involved in any discussion or decision around the prioritisation of the proposal. Steering group members involved in the procurement of service delivery organisations were required to declare any conflict of interest in relation to those bidding. If a conflict was declared, the member was no longer involved in the tender and evaluation process to select a preferred bidder. Procurement was in accordance with public procurement policy, and the social investment fund money is provided to organisations that are working for the benefit of the community. No individuals benefit financially. Therefore, I think that it is very clear that this was dealt with during the work of the steering groups.
The Minister makes much of normal checks being carried out by his Department on governance and financial arrangements, yet it is clear that his Department has no central registry of which members of the advisory panels attended which meetings. Such a simple thing is not even held by the Executive Office.
I think that, in my original answer, I made it clear that we can be satisfied with the governance of this entire process from the very beginning.
I remind the Member that, during the initial stages of all of this coming to fruition, he was Chair of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which discussed this matter. All that I can remember is the criticisms, which were legitimate at the time, given that it was a new process, about the length of time that it was taking to bring this to fruition. Never at any stage was there anything from the Member about the controversy that has erupted recently or the questions now being asked about the governance of the entire process. It was the most consulted-on process imaginable. Representatives of the Member's party sat on the steering groups. In the last number of years, I did not hear any of the criticisms that are now being voiced. Those are being voiced only as a result of the controversy — the legitimate controversy — that has erupted over Mr Stitt in east Belfast.
Yes, I can confirm what the Member has just said. It was quite obvious to everybody from the very beginning that representatives of all the major political parties in the Assembly were participating in the steering groups and in all their decisions on the way in which the process was to be taken forward. Everybody needs to remember that it was agreed by everybody from the very beginning.
I represent a constituency where there are a number of these projects doing valuable work on the ground. Can the Minister confirm that many of these projects have now moved into delivery phase? Will he take the opportunity today to reassure them, despite some of the claims and suggestions being made, particularly by people who call themselves the Opposition, that none of these projects will be halted? Indeed, they will create more photo opportunities for members of the Opposition in the future.
During Executive Office Question Time earlier, I mentioned the concern among different projects, areas and steering groups that, as a result of the controversy in east Belfast, finance to other groups will be halted. I want to dispel absolutely any notion that we will call a halt to any of the other SIF projects. In many instances, the projects are up and running, and they are providing valuable contributions to tackling disadvantage and marginalisation in communities. It is very important that we give that reassurance here today.
These are projects that are delivering incredibly for people who are trying to find pathways into employment. They are delivering on educational issues, on supporting families and on a wide range of other issues that we can absolutely stand over and have no concern about whatsoever. It is unfortunate that, as a result of the debate around Mr Stitt, we have ended up with some of the opposition parties calling into question what is happening in other communities throughout the North. That is very unfair.
That will be decided very shortly. We are very conscious of the discussions on many of these issues. The question has been raised, for example, of whether minutes were taken in east Belfast. My understanding is that minutes were taken. In the time ahead, decisions will be taken on the minutes and the issue that the Member has just mentioned.
The deputy First Minister cannot claim that he was not aware of my party's concerns about SIF because they are on the record from many years ago. However, perhaps he can answer this specific question. GEMS is the larger, more experienced organisation when it comes to managing and delivering community-based employability schemes. Can he explain precisely what added value Charter NI, this smaller and less experienced organisation, actually brings to the project for the management fee that it is paid?
All of that is obviously an interesting conversation to have.
At the end of the day, I outlined, in my initial contribution to answering the question from the Member for North Belfast, a complete breakdown of how all this is audited and how we, as a Government, are satisfied. There has not actually been an allegation from anybody, even in the Opposition, that £1 of the £1·7 million was misappropriated in any way. There has been no such allegation whatsoever.
I fully accept that there has not been a wing of money lost, not a wing of that 1·7 million quid. This debate and controversy has been sparked by the case of Mr Dee Stitt and the question of whether he was an appropriate person to be employed at public expense by Charter Northern Ireland, despite his alleged paramilitary role. Is it not the case that he was employed in that position at public expense not despite his paramilitary role but because of it, and that this reflects British Government policy, effectively endorsed by the Executive, which amounts to paying public money to buy off paramilitaries?
I do not accept that argument at all. There are many SIF projects right throughout the North. I remember, when there was some controversy around this issue, that somebody saw a headline in 'The Irish News' that this was a slush fund for paramilitaries. Where are all these paramilitaries? We can talk about Dee Stitt, but the basis on which he was employed by Charter NI is really a matter for Charter NI. It has absolutely nothing to do with the Executive or the British Government. This was a scheme that the British Government had no involvement in whatsoever; it was brought forward by our Executive on the basis that it would deliver substantial gains for marginalised and disadvantaged communities. The scheme is doing that, right throughout the North. In this one instance, yes, we have a controversy. The controversy resides around, in my view, the ridiculous — almost laughable — interview given by Mr Stitt to 'The Guardian' newspaper, which brought him into public ridicule and, in doing so, created massive problems for Charter NI. Indeed, we end up having to discuss it here today as a result of that controversy.
The Member is absolutely wrong. This is a great scheme that is delivering on the ground, including in the Member's constituency. Again, I dispel the notion that we are going to freeze the scheme. It will continue until such time as the £80 million is spent, productively and in the interests of communities.
I suppose that that is one of the more positive points that has been made during this conversation. Obviously, lessons will have to be learned, but, at the same time, I have to place on the public record that there are many people who were formerly associated with the UDA, and there may even be people out there who are associated with the UDA, who have made very powerful and positive contributions to peacemaking and the work of reconciliation.
There are also many people within Irish republicanism who make very positive contributions to peacemaking and reconciliation. It is important that, as we go forward, we do not try to use the situation in relation to Mr Stitt to call into question the motivation of many good people who, for many years — in some instances, decades — bought into supporting this peace process. Cheap shots do not work. We have to deal with the realpolitik of how we resolve conflict and try to involve as many people as possible in the resolution of conflict. If that means working with people who are former paramilitaries or who might even be associated with the UDA, as is the case in the allegation that has been made in recent times, but who are making a positive contribution and are not involved in violence or criminality of any description, I think that it is very important that we do that.
Is this not a mess of the Executive's own making because of their rejection of open competition in the appointment of lead partners? On the question of whether it is a slush fund, can we have an audit of how many paramilitary convicts are on the SIF payroll, including from the deputy First Minister's IRA fold?
Will the deputy First Minister confirm that the structures and processes of the social investment fund were cleared, went through and satisfied the full business case process, were cleared by the accounting officer of the Department, were cleared independently of the Department by the Department of Finance and Personnel and were periodically reviewed throughout the process and policy development by the public-sector exemplar, the gateway review process?
Yes, I believe that it does. From the very beginning, we were determined that this would not be a top-down process and that it was an opportunity for people in local communities to identify a series of projects that would be funded by SIF to enhance and enrich the lives of the people whom they lived among. I think that it has been a tremendous success, apart from the difficulties with delays and the length of time that it took for what was a new and innovative project. There is absolutely no question or doubt whatsoever that the SIF project is delivering fantastic, worthwhile benefits to local marginalised and disadvantaged communities throughout the North.
Considering the deputy First Minister's continued confidence in the governance of SIF, despite the serious questions that have been raised in the House and elsewhere, when does he intend to publish a full list of all organisations that applied to SIF, all those who received money from it and how much they received?
Even the governance of the fund. The reality is that we are talking about this today only because of a situation that developed over one person in east Belfast. Let us not use that to cast aspersions on the many other good people throughout the North of Ireland who are making fantastic contributions towards enriching the lives of the people whom they represent.
In response to the second aspect of the Member's contribution, we will take into consideration what has been said about how we deal with that in the time ahead. I have no principled opposition to full transparency for this project.
On the work that Charter NI has been doing, one thing that shines through in all the controversy there has been about this in recent times is that nobody has called into question Charter NI's motivation. In fact, all I hear on radio programmes is that nobody is casting aspersions on Charter NI, that it does a fantastic job and that it delivers for the local community. Of course, it is involved in the employability schemes in east Belfast. So, whatever about what has happened, on how Charter NI has conducted its affairs, apart from the controversy around Mr Stitt, nobody that I have heard has raised any questions whatsoever about its contribution towards enriching the lives of people in east Belfast through the different projects, including important employability projects, in that area.
Yes, I absolutely believe the social investment fund is being delivered as intended, apart from the controversy in east Belfast. Some individual members of the Alliance Party certainly voiced opinions at the very beginning of the process, but I heard very little from the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which, obviously, looked at the process from the very beginning and declared itself satisfied with the consultation that took place and the transparency in what was a unique process that tried to empower local communities to decide for themselves what best met their needs.
On a point of order, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. I ask you to review the Hansard report. Standing Order 19(5) says that Members who ask legitimate questions are to receive full answers to their questions. At no time during this discussion did I receive an answer to the substantive question that I put to the deputy First Minister, and under Standing Order 19(5) —
Some of your colleagues are trying to usurp your role. Standing Order 19(5) says that I am entitled to a full response. I would be grateful if you would review the Hansard report to clarify whether I have misunderstood things, and, if I have not received an answer, to ensure that I will in writing.
The Member is an experienced politician and has been here for a long time, so she is well aware that that is not a point of order. She is also aware that it is up to the deputy First Minister to answer as he sees fit. So, that was not a point of order, but the Member has had an opportunity to put her concerns on record.
On a point of order, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. Mr McGuinness used this discussion to imply that some of the criticisms of SIF from parties such as mine were new and by implication, therefore, to some extent opportunistic. SIF was published in September 2011, and before the calendar year was out, the Ulster Unionist Party published a response to the consultation that contained our critiques and concerns. Our chief concern was the exercise of control by OFMDFM. I appreciate the opportunity to balance the official record.
On a point of order, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. Given the statement made by the Speaker to the House this morning, I ask you to consult with the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers about the ruling you made in response to the point of order raised by Naomi Long. This is a matter of accountability to the Assembly under Standing Orders, and it is a matter you should discuss with the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers — something that has not happened in the past.
On a point of order, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. I am also a new Member, and further to the previous contribution, can we then be communicated with if there has been, based on this decision, a change to my understanding of the point of order that Mrs Long raised?
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Maybe the Speaker's Office will look at the number of points of order that have been coming in in recent times and the fictitious nature of huge numbers of them. In fact, for the vast majority of points of order, the Speaker is ruling that they are not a point of order. Perhaps that is a matter that needs to be addressed and —