The community halls capital grant pilot programme was launched on 19 October 2016 and closed on 23rd November 2016 with 860 applications being received. Following a robust, transparent and accountable assessment, up to 90 projects were selected for financial assistance in 2016-17. Providing this assistance to these applicants will result in expenditure of £1·9 million in the 2016-17 financial year.
I thank the Minister for his reply and for his hard work over the last eight months. Was this scheme only for Orange halls to apply to? I notice some of the media are putting it out there as some sort of sectarian scheme. Was it available to all of the community? Maybe the Minister could tell us some of the organisations that benefited from this scheme.
The answer very clearly is absolutely not. The programme was open to all types of facilities with a hall that is used by the local community. Applications were received from church halls, GAA clubs, Masonic halls, community groups and many others. This funding cannot be used to purchase sporting infrastructure, such as nets or pitches, but sports clubs have applied for money to improve the fabric of their halls to benefit the local community. The scheme was very much open to everybody to apply. Criteria were used to determine which applicants were successful.
It is in the very point that the Member raises — it is a perception when it is not actually grounded in fact. When I was out in the community, people were saying, "We have a need". Applications were put into a pilot scheme that I recognised as very important for those groups. When we look at the way in which the funding for community halls was allocated, we see that we have the GAA benefiting, the Ancient Order of Hibernians benefiting, and parochial halls within the Catholic Church benefiting. So, any suggestion whatsoever that this in any way had a sectarian agenda is completely false. I, as Minister, had no role whatsoever in assessing any of the applications. I only became aware of the successful applicants after they had been made aware of it.
Can the Minister give any explanation as to how it was that St Saviour's Church in Connor, in my constituency, received a letter advising them that they had been successful under the community halls scheme, which brought them great joy, only to be followed by a telephone call from the Department to say it was a mistake? Can that matter be most thoroughly investigated before church representatives and I meet his departmental officials tomorrow?
That is the first that I have been made aware of the situation that the Member has brought to my attention, and of course I would expect how anyone can be informed of a successful application only to have it then subsequently withdrawn to be thoroughly investigated. Obviously, I want to find out the reasons for that.
The Minister's answer indicates very clearly that this was a scheme that reached across the community and the country. I am sure that he will be disappointed by the remarks made by the leader of the SDLP in describing this as a sectarian scheme. I congratulate the Minister for finding the extra money that allowed some halls in my constituency to get some funding. Given the amount of interest and the potential funding required to meet the demand that there clearly was from applications across Northern Ireland, would the Minister recommend to his successor — if a new Executive is ever established in Northern Ireland, with a new Government — that such a scheme be put in place?
The fact that we had 860 applications — it was heavily oversubscribed; we were able to support up to 90 — is a demonstration of the need that exists. When we look at the organisations that were successful, we see that we have 17 churches. Then you have 27 community organisations to which you could not ascribe any particular affiliation, for example, Kilcooley Women's Centre. Then there are other successful organisations such as sports clubs and a Scouts club.
To me, that demonstrates that these are facilities that our community very much values, particularly in rural areas, where, often, the availability of halls is limited. It is churches, Orange halls and other community-based organisations that have these facilities and want to make them available to everyone to use. I think that is something to be encouraged. I hope that, in the future, the scheme can be taken forward in the inclusive way I was able to develop it.