I beg to move
That this Assembly recognises the deep public concern regarding the formation, implementation and operation of the social investment fund; and calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to commission an independent review of the operation of the entire social investment fund process, taking particular account of the role of lead partners in this process and the impact that this role has had on good governance.
Quite rightly, a lot of points have been made over the past number of weeks about the situation at Charter NI and its chief executive, Dee Stitt. However, the issues and concerns with the social investment fund (SIF) go much deeper and wider. The overarching question is whether the stated objectives of the social investment fund, worthy as they may be, could be more efficiently and effectively achieved through other means, and therefore whether the social investment fund is a worthwhile use of public money.
The implementation and operation of the social investment fund has been characterised by secrecy and cronyism. Indeed, in at least one respect, the ongoing association of DUP representatives, including the First Minister, with a current paramilitary who is chief executive of Charter NI has undermined the credibility of the Executive's commitment to tackling paramilitarism. It has quite simply been a disaster for the principle of good governance. The Assembly should take very seriously the comments of the former commissioner of standards, Sir Alistair Graham, who said that the social investment fund is "flawed" and requires root-and-branch reform.
The motion calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to review the social investment fund with a view to both learning lessons and determining whether the approach should continue. This review needs to be independent. There are very legitimate concerns that the flawed approach of the social investment fund could be replicated in other funding streams, notably that of the so-called Executive action plan on paramilitarism, which has an agenda of buying off paramilitaries rather than standing up for the principles of the rule of law and promoting a culture of lawfulness. Furthermore, while it is not the role of the Assembly to direct the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO), it is reasonable to anticipate that the operation of the social investment fund will be subject to a full and rigorous investigation.
Listening to comments from some of the advocates of the social investment fund, you would think that the Government's interventions to deal issues of employability, childcare, public health and deprivation were not being dealt with elsewhere. Indeed, the point applies equally to Government interventions that are deployed through the community and voluntary sector. This has regularly been viewed as an efficient way of delivering money quickly and distributing it to the grass roots, effective in producing outcomes and fair in funding decisions based on objective criteria in open and merit-based competitions.
A number of good examples can be cited from the Department for Employment and Learning. The Local Employment Intermediary Service (LEMIS) was a community-based employment intervention which gave assistance to marginalised and hard-to-reach unemployed people, beyond what was provided by the employment service through jobs and benefits offices. Take Pathways to Success, the Executive strategy for addressing people not in education, employment and training (NEET). One of its programmes was the collaboration and innovation fund (CIF). This placed £9 million in the hands of 18 different community-based projects to assist marginalised young people. These programmes were successful and popular; they even received endorsement from the London-based Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion. Money was distributed in a timely and effective manner. However, these programmes had to be discontinued in 2015 due to excessive Executive cuts to the DEL budget. The NEETs strategy is now delivered only through the European social fund (ESF). Similarly, a much reduced LEMIS programme is being delivered geographically to eligible partners and through ESF.
Here is the irony. Through all this, the social investment fund has been protected by the Executive, despite all the cuts to, and underfunding of, the public sector, including cuts that were passed on to the community and voluntary sector. The very organisations that have been delivering quality programmes have been cut back, but not SIF.
The genesis of the social investment fund goes back to 2011.
The public rationale was about innovative approaches by placing decision-making power in the hands of local communities. The real rationale seems to be to concentrate power in the hands of certain local groups favoured by the two dominant political parties, namely, the DUP and Sinn Féin. To achieve this, political membership was locked into steering groups and was distributed by the proportional system of d'Hondt, which, of course, was skewed towards the larger parties. Some of the so-called independent members also have clear links to the two leading parties. Mr Stitt, for example, is also a member of the south-eastern group.
The most disturbing aspect of the process is that only groups represented on the steering groups can become lead partners. This is, ultimately, a closed shop and is clearly a conflict of interest. While we then see a competitive process in the organisations that will deliver the services on the ground, many of those groups, if not all, previously could have, or indeed have, been funded through conventional approaches and directly by responsible Departments. In east Belfast, GEMS, which is the larger and more-experienced organisation in delivering community-based employability programmes for government, including some of the schemes that I have mentioned, is managed by Charter, which is the smaller and less-experienced organisation. That begs the question: what precisely is the benefit of that extra layer of bureaucracy in lead partners and associated management fees? Is it about channelling resources into the hands of the preferred and favoured organisations of the DUP and Sinn Féin? If so, why? There is a growing sense of frustration — I am sure that other Members will echo this — across wide swathes of the community and voluntary sector about resources being steered to certain favoured groups at the expense of others without open and merit-based competition. Without that, we, quite simply, do not have fair play. We may miss out on even better solutions that other organisations might offer. There is a growing sense of grievance.
Even more disturbingly, groups feel disempowered from speaking out lest they lose scarce resources. That is unhealthy and undemocratic. Groups that I have met have expressed those concerns to me. Some may argue that it takes local lead partners to source local client groups for schemes and that that is added value. Frankly, even that is disturbing; it reinforces the belief that there are local gatekeepers in too many communities and that the delivery partners are incapable of doing that directly themselves.
That brings us back to the issue of Charter NI. Let us be clear: the DUP has had a clear agenda of trying to direct funding to Charter over the last number of years. Sometimes Charter has been successful in winning competitive bids but, at other times, the DUP has increased the amount of cunning schemes to try to get it funds outside the normal process. That, in itself, is of significant concern, but the interface between Charter and the UDA should ring alarm bells. Alliance welcomes people with a paramilitary past playing a positive and constructive role in society. However, when people with a paramilitary present are doing so and, indeed, are managing public funds that have been awarded through a closed system, there is clearly a problem. The issue with Mr Stitt is more than the use of abusive language in a 'Guardian' video and more than the reference to his band providing homeland security; it is the reference to working-class areas being jungles, with the inevitability of local hard men. That is the culture that I came here to break down. It is the culture that the Assembly should be breaking down. It goes to the very heart of any credible Executive action plan to tackle paramilitarism. The First Minister allowing herself to be associated with a current UDA leader and then describing the natural concerns expressed across the community as a "distraction" sends out a terrible message to wider society. If it is a distraction, it is a distraction from only the even deeper flaws of the entire social investment fund.
I was sent here to represent all the people of South Belfast but I draw a particular level of support from the type of community that Mr Dickson talked about in his contribution. I think of communities like Sandy Row, Taughmonagh and the Village, where his colleague Ms Bradshaw worked for many years in the community and voluntary sector.
Any dispassionate or reasonable observer looking at communities such as that would come to the conclusion that, for too long, they were sidelined, ignored and left behind. I accept that some of the responsibility for that falls on the shoulders of unionism and on government in general. The fact is that we are talking about communities where the development of capacity and community infrastructure was held back for many years because of the perverse circumstances of life in Northern Ireland.
I was sent here to represent those people, and I am firmly of the view that, for too long, they have been left behind. It is my responsibility, as someone who was born in Annadale and who comes from a working-class Protestant background, to ensure that aspiration is promoted, that education is developed, and that opportunities are opened up that otherwise would not have been there.
I mentioned south Belfast. In reference to the party that tabled the motion, I served on Belfast City Council for 11 years alongside Alderman Tom Ekin of the Alliance Party. Tom not only played a role in the development of Weaver's Court and in the creation of jobs for local people, but he was prepared to put his money where his mouth is to encourage people down a better path and to promote a better path with a higher level of understanding, education and aspiration for the young people in those areas. He and I disagreed on many things, although I probably agreed with him more than any other member of the Alliance Party I have ever met. We agreed on a lot of things because we could see that it was not right that communities such as that should be held back and their development retarded.
The social investment fund was born out of a desire to reflect the fact that local people and local communities know best what suits their needs, what their problems and challenges are, and that they should have a direct and meaningful way of tackling those problems. I am proud that I recently opened my constituency office in Sandy Row; it is situated in a building that is part of a social investment fund project. I revealed that in the Executive Office Committee not so long ago, and it is not a mystery to anyone. The reason why it took so long to get the office open is because the finance office would not allow me to pay rent to an Ulster Unionist councillor who was the previous person to own the building, rather than a community group.
I am proud of community groups such as Belfast South Community Resources, which are committed to peaceful, democratic means and which are determined to drive positive change —
Does the Member agree that the community and voluntary sector signed up to the concordat agreement with government for sustainable and constant funding, not one-off pots that give the communities that you are talking about small glimmers of hope that are taken away when the funding disappears?
The funding that you are talking about and the project that I was talking about are for the provision of a training and employment centre. It will not give a glimmer of hope; it will be a lifeline for many people from the community that I have referenced.
It is important, when people criticise the processes, to note that in the south Belfast area, Jeffrey Dudgeon replaced Bob Stoker, who in turn replaced Michael McGimpsey, on that steering group, so most of the Ulster Unionists in south Belfast went through it. Paula Bradshaw sat on that working group. In east Belfast, Chris Lyttle MLA sat on that SIF working group. Councillors Anne Donnelly and Marion Quinn of the SDLP sat on the Londonderry one. In the southern area, the general secretary of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mr Colin McCusker, sat on that area working group.
Councillor Thomas O'Hanlon of the SDLP sat on that area working group. In the south-eastern —
I declare an interest as a member of the western group. The last Member did not read my name out, but I was on it. I welcome the opportunity to speak about my experience of the steering group and the delivery of the SIF funding.
The group consisted of a wide range and selection of people from the community and voluntary sectors, and it was not a closed shop as the mover of the motion has said. As well as members of most political parties being on it, as outlined by the last speaker, we consulted widely across the region, seeking interest from as many groups and organisations as possible that might be eligible for the funding.
The steering group was guided by OFMDFM officials and involved strict criteria. Our focus was on increasing employability opportunities and tackling the issues of mental and physical health, and deprivation. During those initial periods, there was no criticism from the Opposition parties, only that the money was not being distributed quickly enough.
We were inundated with applications. Indeed, we could have spent most of the SIF money just within our area. However, after much discussion, guidance and consensus, we decided on approximately 10 projects. Unfortunately, not all of the projects could be funded.
The lead partners helped to ensure continual ownership of the projects by those who had organised them. The lead partners were chosen by a consensual process. For example, to demonstrate the value of some of the projects decided upon, a £920,000 new-build project at Fermanagh House was opened when the First Minister and the junior Minister came to Enniskillen. This project will provide much-needed support to local groups and charities.
Two years ago, an SDLP Member, Mr Attwood, suggested the SIF was a "slush fund" for paramilitaries. As a result, a member of the trustees of Fermanagh House, which is made up of a cross-section of people, was forced to pen a letter to the local press to defend the integrity and value of the group and say that Fermanagh Trust was not a political hostage to any political party or group.
At that successful launch, a couple of weeks ago, SDLP and Ulster Unionist Members were in attendance to share in the success of the project.
Today's motion focuses on lead partners and good governance. The Central Procurement Directorate was involved in Fermanagh House from the beginning until the end.
I want to mention a number of other projects that we decided upon, and they are listed in the research pack. Work Ready is a revenue project which seeks to provide employment and opportunities for 120 participants. At the launch, a young woman said:
"I had been out of work for some time. I found it difficult to get back to employment. The SIF Work Ready West programme enables me to return to full-time employment. It has opened doors to other opportunities to allow me to develop my skills, knowledge and further my educational outcomes. It has given me back my self-worth as a person and allowed me to contribute to society."
A director of Women's Aid at the launch in Enniskillen, which I attended, said they had availed themselves of a young woman from the programme. She is now doing good work on their increasing workload tackling domestic violence. This project is hardly a "slush fund" for paramilitaries.
In conclusion, there was extensive voluntary input to the consultation and engagement on and delivery of the SIF programme. The model represented a unique and innovative joined-up approach to tackling disadvantage and enhancing prosperity. There were robust departmental governance and financial checks in place to manage public funds and deliver agreed outcomes effectively. The Opposition parties criticised that the money was not being distributed quickly enough. Now they are criticising that it is going out to good causes. That is a case of opposition for opposition's sake. We oppose the motion.
I support the motion, which calls for an independent review of the social investment fund and, in particular, scrutiny of the role of the lead partners.
I want to look at the timeline of the social investment fund. It was first announced in March 2011, shortly before an election. I have to be cynical about the timing of that. Was that to try to affect a political process? Right from the outset, it was not a good start. Between 2011-12 and 2014-15, the plan was to spend £40 million in resource and £40 million in capital expenditure to improve deprived communities by addressing poverty, unemployment and physical deterioration — all very laudable objectives.
At that time, however, the former Department for Social Development had responsibility for the neighbourhood renewal programme — indeed, the Department for Communities continues to provide that — helping many of the disadvantaged areas that we are talking about. Of course, the programme's remit could have been widened and new criteria could have been set down so that it could have administered such a fund, but, perhaps for political reasons, Sinn Féin and the DUP did not want to give that responsibility and funding to an SDLP Minister, who was the person in charge of the Department at that time. That should not be the reason that public money is directed one way or the other. Rather, it should be used in a way that is based on probity and models of good practice.
Of course, there was also the peace process model, through which we had local strategic partnerships between councils and the community and voluntary sector. Expertise had been built up in that area, and processes that had been built up were rigorous. Why was that model not considered?
The reform of local government was also starting to take place. Such a fund could easily have been passed to the existing councils, empowering councillors moving forward. Why therefore were some of the existing processes and expertise not used instead of the scheme that we are discussing today? That is a big question that has to be answered.
Two years later, in 2013, some £389,000 had been spent, largely on administration, but no schemes had been delivered. It was revealed by 'The Detail' that that was because there was a dispute between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Another year later, in October 2014, the then OFMDFM Committee was advised that, three and a half years after the fund's inception, £34·4 million had finally been allocated, but the expenditure had to be re-profiled from the initial period up to 2015 to a new period from 2014 to 2018. That means that there was at least a three-year delay, and, in that period, disadvantaged communities were not assisted. That needs to be reviewed. What was going wrong? That is worthy of a review in itself.
Commenting on the themes of poverty, unemployment and physical deterioration, my party, in its response to the consultation, said:
"Whilst these themes are commendable, they should mainly be dealt with through the administration of routine government practices."
If that advice had been followed, we would not be in the mess that we are in today.
There are really good schemes in the middle of this. In particular, I pick up on the capital improvements to Sure Start programmes. I am involved in Sure Start, and I know that the money will be very well spent in improving the lot of young children. Therefore, there are many laudable schemes. The trouble is that there are flawed processes. The fund could have been even better.
Sir Alistair Graham, the former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, stated that the social investment fund:
"doesn't stand up to the principles that are generally held to be appropriate for the awarding of public contracts."
Others have spotted that there is something wrong here. Where is the value —
I thank the Member for giving way. Both of us represent East Antrim. Mr Beggs, you referred to Sure Start. Do you agree that there is a growing frustration among long-standing community and voluntary organisations, which have taken government funds and funds from local authorities over long periods and have programmes that are well tried and tested, that they are faced with so-called pop-up community organisations?
I agree entirely with the Member. When there are short-term schemes, there is a danger of not leaving an ongoing legacy behind.
There have been training and employment schemes in most areas. I am certainly aware of the scheme in the east Antrim area and have heard positive news from individuals who have been involved in it. In the training and employment project in east Belfast, £1·7 million was allocated to the lead party, Charter NI, but OFMDFM said that only £1·5 million is handed on to deliver the service. What I have not heard is what happens to the £200,000 that is creamed off by Charter NI. How does it justify the £200,000 expenditure that it receives? It would be much better if that £200,000 was spent directly on providing additional training and services for communities in need.
I support the motion.
"[A] ‘network-closure’, with some favoured organisations being hand-picked by politicians to plan and implement some of the fund’s work."
That is a description of the social investment fund. It is not the words of the SDLP but is as reported in the final research report on the independence of the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector in Northern Ireland by the Building Change Trust and Ulster University, which was published just a fortnight ago. That same academic report, which was based on interviews with government officials, CEOs and a range of individuals in the sector, identified as a major concern the:
"overly close relationship between politicians and some voluntary and community sector organisations."
Does the Member accept that there are some very good organisations receiving SIF money? So far, those who have spoken in defence of the process have completely ignored the point and tried to ride on the good reputational position that those organisations hold in the community.
The Member is absolutely correct, and I will specifically address that issue in my contribution.
As I said, in that academic independent research report, the social investment fund is specifically singled out as a crystallised example of that cosy relationship. Its singling out should come as a surprise to no one. The social investment fund is a masterclass in how not to manage something politically. It was blighted by delay and is now mired in controversy.
The First Minister and deputy First Minister and their Back-Benchers are trying furiously to peddle the myth — we heard it again today — that the blame for the controversy lies with those of us in the House and outside it who have the audacity to ask legitimate and valid questions about the openness and transparency, or lack of it, of the social investment fund. Their second tactic is to try to distract everyone from the reality of that lack of openness and transparency by accusing all of us who ask those questions of deriding and demeaning all the community and voluntary organisations and projects involved in SIF. Let me unequivocally deal with both those failing tactics.
Time and again, my party colleagues and I have been on record recognising and acknowledging that there are good organisations with good individuals doing great work. We are supportive of those projects. Our issue is not with them; our issue is with the process. We have been on record as far back as 2011 raising concerns about the process, and the continual failure by the First Minister and deputy First Minister to address those concerns left our members, in all but one of the steering groups, with no option but to resign.
The social investment fund is mired in controversy. The public do not have any confidence or trust in its operation, not because of the Opposition but because of the approach of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and the way in which they have handled this. It has been crystallised in their lack of courage in standing up to Dee Stitt, a self-confessed UDA boss and the CEO of an organisation that was handed £1·7 million of public money to administer and given half a million pounds for doing so. It is not the Opposition or the media who have called into question SIF and all associated with it; it is the silence from our First Minister and the weakness of our deputy First Minister in the face of Dee Stitt.
The First Minister cites employability legislation as the reason why she cannot get involved, but she is perfectly entitled as the First Minister to express her opinion on whether she believes that he is fit to hold office. She refuses to do so. Why? Almost two months on, the First Minister and deputy First Minister continue to refuse to answer a question that I posed, asking them to list all the organisations that applied to the social investment fund, the organisations that were successful and the funding awarded for each project. Why?
The First Minister and deputy First Minister have been asked to publish the minutes of the steering group meetings. They still have not done so. Why? They have been asked to publish the register of interests completed by all steering group members. They still have not done so. Why? They have been asked to outline clearly the value added by Charter NI to the employability project being delivered by GEMS, given the huge administration fee that it is receiving for it. They refuse to do so. Why?
The House is aware of the controversy and the difficulty that I have had in having my questions for urgent oral answer on this matter heard, and, in advance of today, our amendment calling for a review of the social investment fund process by the Audit Office, along with other amendments, was refused. Why? What is there to fear from an Audit Office review? If all is as the First Minister and deputy First Minister say, they shall be vindicated and its critics will be silenced, but they continue to run away. Let me reassure them that, for as long as they continue to run away, those of us who believe in openness and transparency will not go away. Of that, Mr McGuinness and Mrs Foster can rest assured.
I believe that the social investment fund is a very important funding stream for communities right across Northern Ireland, and that includes my constituency of Newry and Armagh. Many Members will be aware of the fantastic plans being processed for a new community hall and changing rooms at Kilcluney, which is on Mowhan Road in Markethill. In my view, as the town has not, historically, had the same investment in sports and facilities as other towns in the greater Armagh district, the forward thinking, perseverance and persistence of members of the Kilcluney hub committee have to be commended. The significant efforts of the hub members have ensured that the town not only has a state-of-the-art 3G playing surface with floodlights but will soon have a brand new sizeable community hall and changing rooms to service this fantastic full-size sports pitch, all within walking distance of the town. I refer to that project specifically because I am passionate about what SIF will ultimately deliver when the project is complete. Without SIF, this programme in Markethill would not have had the opportunity of this important investment.
I rather feel that the nature of the motion seeks to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It appears that the Opposition have latched on to one single matter relating to an individual in an organisation and are now moving to focus their indignation on the entire social investment fund programme. That is very unfortunate, and it is very unhelpful to the hundreds of people involved in managing SIF projects and targeting need in their communities.
When I was liaising with members of the public and speaking with groups about various matters relating to SIF, I certainly never got the sense that the process was in any way easy; rather, there was definitely a real sense that the funding process was rigorous and that it was designed to ensure that projects were meticulously planned and that all the necessary procedures and protocols were in place to ensure that projects would be managed to completion and operated to a high standard.
That is without doubt what groups were relaying to me on the ground.
The fact that the Alliance Party has called into question the very formation of this programme is such a shame, given the countless hours that have been exhausted by hard-working members of the public and steering groups right across the Province, targeting need and working tirelessly to ensure that projects of real and lasting value are processed. Mr Ford has said that there was never a need for this funding. What a ridiculous statement, and what an affront to the volunteers and groups across the Province. Indeed, Alliance and the Ulster Unionist Party have called it a slush fund, yet I am very sure that we will have members of each party attend the various opening events when projects are completed. What hypocrisy. I will be interested to see in my constituency which members of other parties attend these opening events.
I say to the House that the House's combined community effort on the social investment fund must be supported. Any issues regarding particular individuals must, of course, be handled in an appropriate fashion with due regard to the law and process. That has already been made crystal clear by our First Minister. The social investment fund remains a valuable programme of support for communities, and, with important work ongoing, deadlines being set and contractors being appointed across many projects, there must not be any delay in this programme.
I rise to oppose the motion, and I do so for a number of reasons. The first of these reasons is that, unlike my colleague to the left, I cannot agree with the assumption that there is deep public concern out there. That just does not stack up in my eyes. I know that I do not live in east Belfast, but I do speak to people, and, in the conversations that I have had with the public, with constituents and with friends, not once has the issue of the social investment fund been raised to me by them.
I do get that the Opposition have a role to fulfil and need to raise issues to make themselves relevant. They have valiantly tried to use this issue to do so. I have listened to them ask the questions, make their points and table their debates frenetically like a disorientated boxer swinging wildly for all his might and hoping to get lucky and land that knockout punch, but I also have listened to answers from Ministers and others who have responded to all of this with cold, hard facts. The facts say that SIF was consulted on five years ago. In fact, as the deputy First Minister said in answer to one of those questions in this House:
"It is one of the most consulted-on programmes that we have ever been involved in. The process has been open and transparent." — [Official Report (Hansard), 21 November 2016, p30, col 1].
The facts state that all the major parties in this Chamber took part in a process not just around the formation but, in the intervening five years, in the implementation and operation of SIF. As has already been mentioned, they have released the congratulatory press statements and stood in the congratulatory photographs.
SIF is different from other funds. Its delivery model represents a unique, innovative and joined-up approach to tackling disadvantage and enhancing prosperity. That approach of bottom-up engagement with stakeholders from across the community, statutory, business and political spectrums in the steering group demonstrates confidence in the collaborative approach to identifying and delivering what local communities want and need. I also accept that all organisations that benefit from SIF funding are subject to all the normal checks and balances of public funding constraints.
I do not want to ignore the fact that there is a difficulty around an individual in east Belfast, but I have to say that the social investment fund goes far beyond east Belfast. I do not want to — as others in the Chamber seem to want to do — let that individual distract from what the social investment fund is all about, nor do I want to allow either that individual or Members of the House to put a halt to the good work of the social investment fund, which is helping people's lives right across the North. That is the second reason why I will oppose the motion. The social investment fund is not about an individual or an organisation in east Belfast. It is an investment fund that is designed and targeted to support some of our most disadvantaged communities by increasing employment opportunities, by tackling issues such as mental and physical health, by increasing and improving community services and facilities and by addressing dereliction to make areas more appealing for investment.
The Member makes reference to the fact that the fund delivers employability, improvements and the other things that he has just mentioned, but does he not accept and understand that that is already being done and has been done successfully by bona fide and tried-and-tested methodologies? Does he not genuinely understand when he is opposing the motion, that on the motion and the subject that we are talking around, there is deep public concern? Clearly, he seems to be wishing to ignore that public concern.
Go raibh maith agat. I have addressed the issue of "deep public concern", which, I think, is imaginary.
I should have thanked the research facility for putting together this information pack. It quite clearly demonstrates that the social investment fund is an additional fund, going beyond what has already been provided and married towards that, to give added impetus to socially deprived communities.
As I was saying, while the Opposition want to talk about something that was decided upon a number of years ago, I want to support the targeted £80 million of funding going to socially deprived communities: £44 million to improving 116 premises and £35 million to employment, education, early years intervention and the social economy, mental health provision, fuel poverty and community capacity. I look through the projects across the nine delivery zones of the social investment fund and wonder which of those projects the Opposition think should be halted or stopped. The social investment fund is a noble attempt to address years of underinvestment, and its delivery is making an impact. That is why I support it and wholeheartedly want it to continue.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute as a member of the Committee for the Executive Office.
At the outset, I want to focus on the reference to "deep public concern" in the first line of the motion. Of course, I expect nothing less than such negative spin from the Alliance Party, which seeks to add further sensationalism and headline-grabbing to this already "Nolanised" and anti-Assembly BBC non-issue.
Much has been made, and will be made, of the role of Mr Stitt and Charter NI in the context of the social investment fund, but the reality is that it is such an insignificant part of the matter that it could not be further from the melodramatic "deep public concern" referred to. I would like to move on from the pessimism that many Members seek to bring to the Floor and focus on the optimistic, constructive and successful social investment fund. I would also like to take this opportunity to remind the Alliance Members, naysayers and doom merchants that their members have been involved in the consultation process and continue to be involved on the steering groups.
Some £3·3 million has been invested into the West Belfast Works project, which has supported people from the Shankill and west Belfast into employment. We have had £1 million invested in the Bridges Family Practice in east Belfast, to regenerate that rundown facility and make provision for a modern family medical practice. We have had £920,000 to deliver an extension to Fermanagh House in Enniskillen, which will help to provide facilities for community groups and support education and social projects across the county. In my constituency, South Antrim, the £3·3 million invested in the Building Employment through Education project, the £0·8 million in the Access to Employment project, the £1 million in the community mental health and well-being project and the £1·8 million in the fuel poverty project are all delivering for and on behalf of my constituents.
Those examples of investment show clear and tangible results, based on outcomes, of how the social investment fund is working as an effective vehicle to deliver social change. To intimate that there is anything else or give a broad-brush-stroke painting of it as a cover for paramilitarism is, frankly, a slap in the face to those communities that have bought into the process.
No, thank you.
Those 800 people who are now in paid work placements and training, the 1,300 children and families that have gained assistance and support and the 1,000 children being helped by education projects are clear evidence that the fund is providing the results that it set out to achieve. The community buy-in to the fund is central to its ongoing success. Without that commitment, the fund would have been managed in a top-down manner and, given that it aims to reach out to those in the most disadvantaged areas and who experience the greatest disengagement, I feel that that simply would not have worked. Through tackling educational underachievement and the physical regeneration and refurbishment of community facilities, and through dealing with issues such as substance abuse and poor mental health, the fund engages at grass roots and seeks to join up government services with community-based schemes.
I understand fully, and do not mean to sound in any way patronising, that, with Assembly business schedules, we can at times forget that there are swathes of people who are disenfranchised and overlooked. We cannot let those people fall between the cracks and must create effective engagement between the decisions we make in this place and how that filters through onto the ground.
Good governance is, of course, vital to the success of the project and I am satisfied that the organisations that are receiving funding are operating with the appropriate structures, processes and policies required by the social investment fund. I am further satisfied that the Department is carrying out the correct checks and audits to ensure that funding is being administered in the proper manner.
In closing, I recognise that the social investment fund has had delays in getting up and running but is now successfully and effectively delivering real change to communities. My fear is that any review, at this point, would severely impact on these projects going forward. The limit on public finances has meant that we have had to look for innovative and inventive ways to get best value for money for the people of Northern Ireland. The social investment fund is providing community involvement and, simultaneously, tackling some of our greatest social problems. We must look beyond the headlines and see the bigger picture. Rather than pick holes and gripe, we must see the benefits that the social investment fund is delivering currently and will continue to bring in the future.
It is important that we have the opportunity to debate this important issue before we break for the Christmas recess. I think that we have already heard that there are some in the House who would rather the issue was not on the agenda.
The social investment fund was intended to bring relief and hope to some of our most deprived communities. That, in itself, is a very noble thing and is supported by the majority of Members but I am afraid that it has descended into controversy and not a little farce. Whilst there are those who feel the need to try to muddy the waters today and portray valid scrutiny and criticism as an attack on those whom the fund was supposed to help, that is not the case, as those who are slinging that mud are well aware. It is at times like this that the Executive parties reveal how thin their skin is.
This issue at stake today is not the idea or concept that addressing areas of deprivation throughout our country is in any way wrong; rather it is the maximum control freakery with which the SIF was planned and prepared by the DUP and Sinn Féin. I am happy to acknowledge the very valuable projects that SIF has supported, including the project in my constituency that was referred to earlier. I have actively supported and encouraged such projects. I pay tribute to those involved in working at the Kilcluney hub at Markethill. I feel more than entitled to attend events at Kilcluney, whether opening events or other events, because I have supported that fully and will continue to do so. We are not criticising the efforts of those at local community level.
Sorry, we are saying that we have legitimate concerns around the control freakery exercised by the funding Department, OFMDFM, now called the Executive Office.
Thank you. As someone who sat on the southern zone, will the Member agree that his colleague Colin McCusker sat on that board, scrutinised everything and was very, very content with the projects that went forward from the southern zone?
Clearly, the Member is in winter wonderland if she thinks that Colin McCusker or any representative from the Ulster Unionist Party would do otherwise, because, at community level, that is what supporting communities is about. We do not see anything wrong with, or strange about, people behaving in that fashion, but Colin McCusker —
The Member is young and inexperienced.
We should be abundantly clear that the mess in this has been with the establishment of the process. The public have been let down, and I think the defensiveness of the DUP and Sinn Féin reveals that they themselves know that.
The social investment fund has come under intense scrutiny over the past number of months, particularly focusing on one individual. However, it is important to remember that concerns about the design and management of the process were raised as far back as 2011. In our response to the consultation on the proposed social investment fund in 2011, the Ulster Unionist Party raised concerns. We identified problems with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister being solely responsible for identifying groups and individuals to form the steering groups, which, even at that time, perpetuated the feeling that the social investment fund could be used as a slush fund by the DUP and Sinn Féin.
It became clear, prior to the Assembly election, that the then First Minister and deputy First Minister could not give the money away. In January of this year, when officials from the Department appeared before the Committee, they revealed that the actual spend had been only £4 million of an available £80 million. January 2016 was 10 months on from the original date on which the social investment fund was supposed to finish. Is that not embarrassing?
Nothing, frankly, surprises me about the management of this at the top political level. This is not a criticism of people on the ground who have spent their own time on effecting positive change in communities. I pay tribute to that work.
I will speak against the motion. I declare an interest as a member of the steering group in the southern zone. I want to pick up on some points that have been made. I agree with Carla Lockhart: Colin McCusker was part of the process from the very start and had the same input as anybody else.
Let me tell those who were not on any of the steering groups that all members had the same input. Many Members spoke about the good work that this money will do, yet still and all they attack the process.
I was going to speak positively at the start of my contribution about the social investment fund, because good work will be done and the money will be well spent. I can only speak about the work that we did on the southern steering group —
I want to make this point first; I will let you in in a minute.
The motion talks about public concern, but I have not heard any public concern. Far be it from me to pick on Belfast, but are we saying that we are going to look right across the North of this island and criticise all the groups because there is an issue that people have raised with a Belfast group? I am not going to speak any more about what has happened, because there has been enough talk about it.
I heard issues raised in some of the radio interviews from this morning and last week, and hopefully I will have time to pick up on them. Last year, the Alliance Party called for the money to be allocated in a hurry for other projects. There was a motion tabled by Chris Lyttle, Judith Cochrane and Stewart Dickson on the issue. The intervention by Roy Beggs in Stewart Dickson's speech was interesting. Stewart Dickson was saying that there are groups already doing this work and asking why should they not undertake it. The fund was to provide added value and be a strategic intervention to help groups that have not been supported.
No, I have to let somebody else in in a minute.
That is what it was about. I represent people in my area who have not had money or interventions. What did Mr Beggs say? He started talking about lead partners. On the one hand, he said that giving work to certain lead partners would cream off the money, but, on the other hand, he asked why the money was not given to councils and other groups that had done such work. The southern steering group has given the lead to Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council and to Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, which have the capacity to deliver these programmes. Mr Beggs, hold on a minute.
I thank the Member for giving way. I hear quite firmly from the Executive spokespeople here today that there is such confidence in the process. Could you then explain the tremor that exists when an independent review is mentioned?
Go raibh maith agat. There is no tremor at all here. The thing about it is this: your colleague sat on a group with me and agreed the projects and, no doubt, will turn up for photographs when they are presented. There is no tremor —
The Member is talking about an independent process, and her colleague talked about an audit. If you genuinely think that I am going to support a process to delay this, after spending four years with all those people bringing these projects forward, there is not a chance.
In answer to your question: no, it is not a fear of an independent process. We have now discussed this with these groups, and these groups are looking forward to this money being spent. Mr Beggs.
The Member indicated that, on some projects, local councils acted as lead bodies. Why has that process not been followed everywhere? How can you justify £200,000 being paid to one lead body, and the project that is actually delivering the funding and helping people on the ground has, I understand, an additional £300,000 of public funding for administration? Almost a third of the project funding went on administration, and fewer people were helped on the ground than should have been.
Through you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. Why did you not ask your colleagues or some of your representatives on those groups? That is the question.
It was interesting what the debate was over the last couple of days. Mr Ford was on last Friday, I think, and he talked about Mr Lyttle going on some of the groups. He was asked why he put him on the groups. I was thinking to myself, "Was Mr Lyttle on that group with eyes wide shut or was it for look-see or whatever?". He had the opportunity, as a steering group member, to ask questions. Paula Bradshaw was on this morning as well. Every one of us who went on the groups signed a memorandum. The rules state:
"a member must disclose any potential conflict of interest on joining the steering group and if they arise during the course of the membership, to disclose them at any point in time."
The other key point for members on a group states:
"a steering group shall be aware that the Department is required to adopt and implement policies and practices to safeguard itself against fraud and irregularity."
"All cases of attempted, suspected or proven fraud shall be reported by the steering group to the Department or relevant authority as soon as they are discovered."
So, there was ample opportunity for people, if they thought there were issues, to raise them. I did not see any issues, so I will not be supporting the motion.
I do not stand here today to defend the social investment fund; I stand here today to commend it. I hope that the Executive Office has the will to do a SIF2 because SIF has been doing wonderful work out there.
It has been targeted by a small number of people who have gone after one individual, who made a stupid and flippant remark, which means that everybody who has benefited from SIF is now the target of individuals in this Chamber who are acting out of political interests and not in the public interest in this instance.
I note all that the Alliance Party have been saying. I note that in North Down council, for example, Alderman Wilson, who is an Alliance person, chaired a SIF meeting on 7 May 2013. In attendance were none other than David Stitt and Robert Scott, and those members were congratulated on the informative presentation on the progress of the Kilcooley Sports Forum project business plan.
That was a meeting chaired by the Alliance Party. Also in attendance was one Councillor Muir. He seemed to pay a lot of attention to these things, because he was in attendance at another meeting when it was discussed, on 7 October 2014. Again, Councillor Wilson was there. He attended a further meeting, on 14 October 2015, which was chaired by none other than Councillor Armstrong, who, I think, is the same Kellie Armstrong who is now in this Assembly.
Here we have the Alliance Party, taking a full part in the process and giving the money to an organisation headed up by Mr Stitt, and they did not have an issue. They were in the meetings commending them — commending Mr Stitt for his wonderful work — and here they are today, complaining because of one stupid, flippant remark.
Let me be very clear: the work that is being done by the communities is excellent work. Mrs Long, at the invitation of her Alliance Party councillors, was to come to Lisburn last week and see the work that is going on with the Resurgam initiative, but, on the very day that she was to come, she cancelled, claiming that she had a conflict of interest because she was going to be participating in today's debate, wherever she is. How is it a conflict of interest to come and see what is happening on the ground? If she had bothered to come and see what is happening on the ground, she would have seen initiatives that involve youth work. She would have seen buildings being put up in deprived communities that are making a tangible difference. Mr Lunn knows what is going on in the Lisburn community. He knows the benefit. When there is something taking place in Resurgam, Alliance Party councillors are tripping over themselves to get into photographs and everything else to be associated with it, but Mrs Long decided to pull out.
Let me tell you about one of the key initiatives that is happening in Lisburn, and that is the early years initiative. I commend it to every constituency in Northern Ireland. We identified a serious problem with the educational tail, where young people were not achieving at the higher end, and those young people are now being targeted at nursery and in early primary years. Money from SIF is going into speech therapy, having been channelled through Resurgam. Resurgam could have kept the money, but it is being channelled through the schools. As a consequence, those children are coming to school ready and able to take on the lessons. They will not form the educational tail that there has been in deprived working-class loyalist areas very often. I commend those kinds of initiatives.
Today, we have heard politicians from all over — Mr Kennedy and others — talk about the great projects that have been happening yet say that it is a terrible fund that is delivering them. The truth is that this is a hypocritical motion from a hypocritical party. SIF is doing great work. It is doing wonderful work. I want to see it going forward. Instead of targeting it because of one individual making a stupid comment, let us look at the good that is coming out of it. The same people did not have anything to say when, through neighbourhood renewal and all sorts of things, ex-prisoners' groups were getting the money, which was going to republican areas six or seven times more —
OK. My colleague Nichola Mallon has outlined our consistent concerns about the process: the lack of open tender; the consistently opaque responses of OFMDFM; and the multi-layered and unresolved conflict of interest. It is worth saying that Government contributor after Government contributor was throwing up as straw men the good projects that we have all acknowledged here and immorally using them for cover. Each one of you has failed to acknowledge the substantive concerns that have been raised by many people and that are acknowledged in the deep concern in the DUP's own amendment that it tabled.
The fact is that the flaws are not oversights in the process. They are doing exactly what, as Mr McGuinness said last month, the fund was designed to do, which is to hand money to the Executive's preferred partners. It is the character of those preferred partners that is troubling very many people. We are told that groups are in transition but with absolutely no deadline for when they are supposed to become former paramilitaries. It is true, of course, that just because you have a past does not mean that you cannot have a future, but you cannot expect to be paid to be the future while simultaneously being the past.
We all voted in 1998 for paramilitary prisoners to be reintegrated. We did not vote for the elitism and patronage that has happened since and that has elevated people above their neighbourhoods. Sending those same neighbours to those people for renewal advice and employment advice is cruel. Two decades after the ceasefires, with most people much longer out of jail than they were in, the time for rewards for good behaviour is long since over. Therefore, as much as being anything about the process, this is about the failing of the Executive to tackle paramilitarism and the out-of-date group think of co-opting the troublemakers in order to make a them a permanent part of our community infrastructure. We are supposed to be —
— giving money to people who are consistently good examples to their communities.
Toy soldier Dee Stitt is absolutely not that. If you will not face down that man, how can we have any confidence that you will face down hundreds of other paramilitaries?
Following the considerable media attention that has been given to SIF in recent weeks, it was inevitable that a motion such as this would be tabled. Of course it is the role of the Assembly to scrutinise Executive programmes, but it is concerning that it seems to be in response to what could be described as sensationalist and at times ill-informed media commentary on the social investment fund project. It is deeply unfortunate that recent media coverage focusing mainly on one individual has proven to be a distraction from what is in reality an innovative government project that is changing communities and lives across Northern Ireland. It is a project that is about communities identifying their needs and how to address them, rather than a top-down government approach that imposes solutions on communities. Before I address the points raised in the motion, I want to highlight some of the valuable opportunities that SIF provides to people in need and the very positive impact that it has on people's lives.
The social investment fund is now in full delivery mode, with all projects prioritised by local steering groups approved and funding committed in zonal budgets. A total of 68 projects will be delivered: 49 capital projects that will make improvements to 115 individual premises and 19 revenue-focused projects primarily on support for employment, early intervention and education as well as mental health, community capacity, transport, social economy and fuel poverty. Whilst the projects committed are at various stages of the delivery cycle, significant progress has been made over the last 18 months, with many projects now at delivery stage. As a result, 42 projects worth £54 million have commenced and 16 projects worth £27 million are operational. Five capital projects have completed their construction works and are providing vital services in local communities.
I had the enormous privilege of opening the Bridges Family Practice in east Belfast, which has totally transformed a once-derelict and unused Bryson Street surgery on the Newtownards Road into a state-of-the-art health centre that is accessible to everyone in the local community. The extension to Fermanagh House in Enniskillen has also been officially opened by the First Minister and junior Minister Fearon. That SIF investment has transformed the property into a larger, more spacious environment with the capacity to offer increased services to local people and provide a one-stop shop. It will make a really positive difference to people in that community.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I will be brief. He will be aware that Charter NI's website lists its funding organisations, which include not only the Government but Belfast City Council, the Housing Executive and a Department that, up until six months ago, was under the control of the Alliance Party. Does he agree that, if there was some vast conspiracy involving a slush fund, the Alliance Party was obviously part of it?
That point about hypocrisy and who has funded that organisation has been well made and aired over recent weeks. However, I do not want to focus on one organisation because that does a disservice to the entire social investment fund. I want to make progress because I have a lot to get through and do not have a lot of time.
I want to talk about some of the other projects, such as the West Lisburn Community Centre, which is also being completed. It is being transformed into a dedicated youth facility. It is modelled on current youth development centres such as those in Laurelhill and the Colin area. It contains a range of spaces, such as a sports hall, drop-in facilities, group rooms, art space and kitchen facilities. Those new facilities allow the centre to become a safe environment where the community can centralise its youth activities and young people can develop and interact. Youth provision will expand due to the increased capacity of the centre and an increased ability to operate projects from a dedicated youth facility.
Only a few weeks ago, I went down to visit the Lanyon tunnels project with my colleague junior Minister Fearon and the Lord Mayor of Belfast to see how innovative solutions can reinvigorate a part of the city that has lain derelict for many years and can connect local communities to the city centre. That is a great example of thinking outside the box in projects.
Those are only some of the valuable projects that capital investment from SIF has brought to local communities. There are many more. To date, over 6,000 participants are engaged in social investment fund revenue projects. They are local people whom we are supporting in key areas such as employment, early intervention and education across all of Northern Ireland.
We are investing £18·5 million in employment-focused projects and supporting over 1,300 people through training and paid work placements. These place local people with local employers, and over 100 people have already secured full-time jobs out of it. They credit their success directly to their engagement with SIF projects, particularly as most of the jobs are with SIF project employers. One of the projects, Work Ready West in the western zone, has just completed its interim evaluation and demonstrated real examples of people turning their life around as a result of the intervention received. Thirty-one individuals have left the project to date, and, of those, 20 have moved into employment or self-employment. That is a 65% success rate, which shows just how much impact the project is making. In addition, local people are openly speaking at events to demonstrate how much the project has impacted on their lives. One of the participants spoke about how her children felt that they had a different mother since she had been on the placement. Having been out of work for several years, she acknowledged that she had no confidence or self-belief and could not even attempt to apply for a job. She spoke about how straightforward the process was of securing a placement and how the ongoing support from the employer and the project officers had truly changed her life and that of her family. I have had the opportunity to visit a number of employability projects in south Belfast, west Belfast and Portadown, and I was able to speak to people who have been encouraged back into work, set up their own business and been given the confidence to try to make a difference and move on in their life.
Some £5·7 million is also being invested in early intervention projects across the SIF zones, providing a range of family support interventions in schools and communities to support physical, intellectual, social and emotional development. Over 2,000 participants are already availing themselves of the services, and many are sharing positive examples of how the support has helped them.
One of the other key areas in which SIF funds focus support is education. One project is now operational, with another two due to become operational over the coming months. That equates to over £5·5 million of investment in educational support to improve the life chances of those who need it most. Over 3,000 people are already engaged in support from the projects being rolled out, including improving educational skills to create greater employment opportunities; dedicated maths and English support at Key Stage 2 and 3; literacy support for primary-school children; and family support to better integrate schools and communities.
I am not giving way.
I want to emphasise those points because the social investment fund really is making a difference to people's lives and benefiting communities. The negative press coverage and the continued focus on a process that was openly consulted on and finalised on the basis of the outcome of that consultation continue to distract from the real value that the programme brings, which is, as I have said, a shame.
I will address some of the points raised. First, the motion refers to the:
"deep public concern regarding the formation, implementation and operation of the social investment fund".
The fact that some opposition politicians have welcomed SIF projects in their own area, sat on steering groups or turned up smiling for photographs, whilst choosing to criticise the fund, is a point that will not be missed by the general public.
Let me make it absolutely clear to the House that the development and final operation of the fund was the subject of in-depth public consultation. Not only was a pre-discussion paper published for public comment but this was followed by a formal public consultation process that included public events, an online questionnaire and the option to provide written responses. Almost 600 people engaged in the process and provided views on how SIF should operate. That included views on how steering groups should be selected and how the programme should be delivered.
I emphasise that the Department took the process very seriously, and the final programme that emerged was the direct result of what the public told us they wanted. On the establishment of steering groups, for example, 48% of respondents preferred option 4: the then Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister would invite groups and individuals to indicate interest in serving on the steering group. Subsequently, that was the approach that was adopted. Similarly, when asked about the delivery method, 72% preferred option 2, the community option: resources would be allocated directly to one or more organisations nominated by the steering group, and they, in turn, would deploy those resources to projects included in the strategic area plan. Again, that was the approach adopted. I have to come to the conclusion that it is contradictory to imply that there is "deep public concern" about the "formation, implementation and operation" of a fund when its operation is based on exactly what people told us, as part of the public consultation, they wanted.
The motion also refers to an:
"independent review of the operation of the entire social investment fund process".
The Office of Government Commerce developed the gateway review process for projects and introduced it across government as part of the modernisation agenda to support the delivery of improved public services. That process has been operating since January 2001. The gateway review process is a series of short, focused, independent peer reviews at key stages of a project or programme. The review highlights risks and issues that, if not addressed, would threaten successful delivery. The reviews are carried out by a team of experienced people who are independent of the project or programme team and were chosen because of their relevant skills.
All reviewers have to go through an accreditation process and training. The social investment fund programme has undergone no fewer than four gateway reviews, commencing in 2011-12 and continuing as the programme has developed, with recommendations from each review being implemented. We are in the process of preparing to undergo a fifth gateway review as part of the ongoing quality assurance of that programme.
I will not give way because I have very little time left.
If people want government to be innovative in policymaking, it requires continual review and adaptation and an agile response, and this is an example of the type of innovative project that government has tried to do. It is also worth saying that all government programmes are subject to internal and external audit, and SIF is no different from any other programme.
As I said, the decision to adopt a lead partner approach was a direct result of the consultation responses in which the public selected this as a preferred delivery option. The lead partner has an oversight role to lead and manage the procurement of delivery agents and their resulting contract. It also reports to and draws down funding from the Department in respect of the project. This approach is not specific to SIF; it is an approach used in other programmes and funding schemes as well. It is a perfectly legitimate way of providing project oversight and ensuring that the original thinking behind the project is never lost sight of in the process of development and delivery. This oversight role is quite distinct from that of a project delivery that has been implemented through open public competitive procurement.
The motion also talks about the impact that the lead partner role has had on good governance. Good governance, of course, is a fundamental part of government funding, whether there is a lead partner approach or alternative delivery methods. As we have confirmed on many previous occasions and, indeed, as was acknowledged by an Alliance MLA on the radio this morning, a robust process is in place in relation to all social investment fund projects and, indeed, any departmental funding to ensure the capability of lead partners and delivery organisations to manage public money and manage a project prior to any funding commitments being given. All projects are required to have an approved business case that takes account of advice from accountants and economists. There are also robust vouching and verification processes in place to ensure that projects are delivering and that finances are being allocated appropriately. We take good governance incredibly seriously, and we have the necessary checks and balances in place to ensure that money can be properly accounted for. I cannot, therefore, see how the lead partner role has had any impact on good governance.
I would like to pay tribute to all the people and communities involved in the development and delivery of social investment projects. I regret that the ongoing, unwarranted criticism is taking away from their dedication, hard work and genuine success in improving people's lives. Some are willing to ignore this good work and risk tarnishing the good name of the individuals and organisations working to improve the quality of life of some of our most deprived communities. Others have welcomed initiatives in their own areas and acknowledged the positive impact that a project is having whilst, at the same time, going on the airwaves to criticise the programme. We have had more of that in the Chamber today. One could be forgiven for thinking that Members support the programme but not those who thought it up.
SIF is an innovative and community-led approach to addressing long-term issues associated with poverty, unemployment and physical deterioration. It is an example of government trying something new and working in a genuine partnership with local communities. It is also a project that is transforming and will continue to transform communities and the lives of people right across Northern Ireland. This is exactly why councillors, MLAs and MPs from Alliance, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party turn up to support SIF projects in their local areas. It is exactly why a UUP member of the Executive Office Committee last week described the local SIF project in his area as very successful and said that he was happy to support it. It is exactly why the House should reject this motion.
At the outset, I want to say that this is a valid and legitimate debate. It is shining a spotlight on what is in effect a DUP and Sinn Féin scandal. I want to thank those who have spoken in favour of the motion and who have joined in highlighting the very serious and substantial concerns voiced about SIF for their very positive and constructive comments. There is a consensus, certainly in this corner of the House, that this is a major and legitimate public concern.
I want to highlight the failure of the DUP and Sinn Féin to address the heart of the arguments that have been voiced by a number of Members today. We have seen quite a lot of deflection in this regard, so let me run through some of the issues. First, it is claimed that parties are only raising concerns over SIF now, following the particular scandal around Charter and Dee Stitt. In fact, a number of parties have been raising concerns about SIF consistently since 2011. It has certainly been raised by me in a number of Budget debates, looking at the inefficiency of SIF and whether we could spend the money in support of communities in a more efficient and effective way.
There has also been a lot of mud thrown at various elected representatives who have been sitting on SIF partnerships and other forums with some of the groups that we have been discussing. That is elected representatives doing their job by representing their constituents and engaging in public scrutiny.
Yes, Charter NI, if you want to talk about that, has been funded through other Departments. However, the key point is that it was funded through open, competitive, merit-based processes. Yes, when I was Minister for Employment and Learning, I funded Charter through the collaboration and innovation fund. Let me give some background to that. That came after a meeting in which I was invited by the then First Minister to run a pilot involving Fastrack to Information Technology Northern Ireland (FIT NI), with Charter as a subcontractor, with the potential to channel £7 million directly to that organisation outside normal procurement. That was some pilot. I said no to that. I advised that Charter could apply for public funds like any other organisation.
My experience of working with Charter was disappointing. Out of the 18 organisations on the collaboration and innovation fund, Charter gave us the most difficulty in terms of management. It is not actually a paradigm of good management, if that is what it is being asked to do in SIF. Everyone else was able —
Has the Member not come to the heart of the matter? In all that we heard from the Minister, who did not want to take interventions, he never addressed the key issue: why was the scheme designed to exclude competition in respect of the lead partners? The answer is clear: it was always intended to be a vehicle for cronyism, but it could not be that if they dared to have open competition.
Yes, that is very much the case. At the heart of this is the suspicion, which has not been addressed — so we assume, therefore, that it is by silence confirmed — that the point of SIF was that money was not being channelled to the so-called right community organisations. So a plan — whether we call it innovative from the standpoint of OFMDFM or cunning from the standpoint of others — was designed to ensure that the money went into the so-called right hands, at the expense of others in the community.
Some people have spoken about issues of public concern and said that there is no public concern. Frankly, there is; there is actually huge public concern. In particular, there is concern right across the community and voluntary sector. What we have seen here is a top-down approach to picking winners. There is a lot of talk about this being a bottom-up approach —
When the Member talks about the right organisations getting money, I presume he includes the Greater Village Regeneration Trust (GVRT). Perhaps he would like to speak to his colleague in front of him about its capacity to deliver successful projects.
Let me be very clear: Paula Bradshaw was not the person who said that should be the lead organisation on the South Belfast Partnership Board. Again, the winners were picked from the top. We have not had a bottom-up process to choose the groups.
I have to say that there is a real air of tension across the community and voluntary sector. Groups are afraid to speak out about funding decisions, lest the few pennies that they still get are cut by the two parties in the lead. That is not healthy in any open, democratic and pluralistic society. We are building up a client state, and that should be of great concern to anyone who believes in democracy and the rule of law. We have to get away from that. Most people in this room know exactly what I am talking about.
Let us talk for a moment about the issue around Charter. I was frankly stunned to hear Edwin Poots talk about Dee Stitt's comments as "flippant". This is an ongoing problem every single day. The issue is not simply one set of remarks made in a 'Guardian' video; the issue here is that we have someone who is a current paramilitary, on a day-by-day basis, running an organisation in receipt of £1·7 million of public funds. That situation is not being addressed or faced up to in any respect. Let us be clear: the DUP has had an open agenda of trying to steer money towards Charter. It is not simply that Charter happened to win contracts in an incidental way; money has been steered to it. It is no accident that Alex Easton, for example, did a reference for Dee Stitt. It is no accident that we have two members of Charter sitting on two different steering groups. That is all done by design.
Comments were also made about the fact that the projects on the ground are of good quality. I have no reason to doubt that but I cannot make a full judgement because I do not know how they would stack up against other projects procured through other means. We can say, in absolute terms, "Yes, things are good" —
Does the Member agree with me that it is only right and proper that we are concerned about a group like Charter, which is headed up by a UDA leader, receiving that funding given the number of death threats, attacks on our properties and bullets to our homes that we have received from the UDA in recent years?
The Member will be aware that the Executive have a strategy for eliminating racism. However, they are providing millions of pounds of public money to a man who openly brags about his paramilitary connection. Does the Member find this issue concerning given the links between paramilitaries and racist attacks in our society?
Those links are obviously of concern. In terms of strategies, the even wider concern that we have to have is the fact that we have a so-called action plan from the Executive on combating paramilitary activity, the credibility of which has been ripped out by the fact that we are openly having photographs taken with current paramilitary figures. There was no point in having a big campaign launch yesterday about tackling organised crime and paramilitarism if, at the same time, people are giving comfort to current paramilitaries. It is a mixed signal for those in the community. Are people really going to be empowered to come forward and talk about their fears around organised crime and paramilitary activity if they see how the leadership in this society is reacting to them?
I respect the Member very much, but he is crossing the line between being a legislator and a prosecutor. For eight or nine minutes, the Member has been speaking about who may or may not be a paramilitary leader. Surely the criticism in that case should be directed at not the Executive but the police, who are responsible for gathering evidence, giving it to prosecutors and bringing people before the courts to decide whether they are guilty.
I agree with the Member: there is certainly a role for the police. They have questions to answer in terms of this particular issue and how robustly they are taking on paramilitaries. However, they cannot do so in a vacuum and without strong leadership from the Executive around these issues. I remind the Member that his leader in the Assembly — the deputy First Minister — has expressed concern about Mr Stitt, so it is not simply coming from these Benches and others in that regard.
The final point I want to stress is around value for money. We said that the rationale was about tackling deprivation and employability issues. All those things were being done and could have been done more through legitimate processes of Departments. I dare say that the money would have been spent a lot quicker; that certainly would have been my experience. Here is the rub: projects, particularly those using the community and voluntary sector, across the board have been cut over the past number of years while the favoured processes and groups through SIF have been protected. That is part and parcel of the resentment. Deprivation has built up. A report on educational underachievement from Queen's and Stranmillis has been buried by the Executive. People talk about —
— dealing with the community. It is the self-picked community. The process by which people emerged was far from clear. A lot of voices in communities are not being given fair play or their fair share in that respect.
Question put. The Assembly divided:
Mr Agnew, Mr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Ms Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Ms Bailey, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Beggs, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Butler, Mr Carroll, Mr Chambers, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dobson, Mr Eastwood, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Hanna, Mr Kennedy, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle, Mr E McCann, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McKee, Mr McNulty, Mr McPhillips, Ms Mallon, Mr Mullan, Mrs Overend, Mrs Palmer, Mr Smith, Mr Swann
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Dickson, Mr Lunn
Mr Anderson, Ms Archibald, Mr Bell, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Ms Gildernew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kelly, Mrs Little Pengelly, Ms Lockhart, Mr Logan, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyons, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCausland, Mr McElduff, Mr McGuigan, Miss McIlveen, Mr McMullan, Mr McQuillan, Mr Maskey, Mr Middleton, Mr Milne, Lord Morrow, Mr Murphy, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Seeley, Mr Sheehan, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Ms Sugden, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Noes: Mr McGuigan, Mr Robinson
Question accordingly negatived.