COVID-19 Charities Fund: Allocations

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:15 pm on 13th April 2021.

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Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 1:15 pm, 13th April 2021

4. Mr McAleer asked the Minister for Communities for an update on the allocations she has made through the COVID-19 charities fund. (AQO 1852/17-22)

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

I am pleased to say that 887 grant awards have been made for a total of £16 million. I know how important the charities sector has been in helping us through this crisis. My wish was for charities to claim all the £20·5 million that was available, but I am satisfied that the money claimed has met the urgent financial need and kept charities afloat. I am grateful to our delivery partners, the National Lottery Community Fund and Community Finance Ireland, for the swift and agile way that they administered the fund and to NICVA for the support that it provided to the sector throughout the process.

Obviously, it is not possible to name all the charities that were supported through the fund, but I will just give an idea of their diverse nature. We supported charities that deal with chronic illness, such as Action Cancer; animal welfare and environmental charities such as the Kids Pony Foundation; religious groups such as Dundrod Presbyterian Church; homeless charities such as Extern; community groups such as Limavady Community Development Initiative; and many other charities that have relied on this essential funding to keep them going.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 1:30 pm, 13th April 2021

I thank the Minister for her response and for her leadership on this issue. Indeed, that investment will come as a relief to a lot of charities whose traditional means of fundraising have been curtailed as a result of the pandemic. Will the Minister agree with me that charities play a huge role in our community and our society and that they will need our ongoing support and assistance to rebuild as we move towards the recovery phase?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Yes. Charities play a huge role, and we saw that, particularly at the height of the pandemic. No charity looks the same as another. Charities range from the large scale down to the very local, and a wide range of activities take place. Part of our engagement around COVID and around this fund has allowed us to look in more detail at the nature of the charity sector, and, going forward, as we look at the social recovery phase and the economic recovery phase, we want to keep that engagement going to ensure that we have a charities sector that is fit and able to deliver the services that it needs to deliver and that we can mitigate any future shocks, whether economic or health shocks, and learn the lessons from the most recent pandemic.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, will you give us an update on the total allocation from the two tranches of funding for the charities fund? Welcome as it was, you said that £16 million was disbursed, and I think that £11·7 million was the second tranche, announced in December by Minister Ní Chuilín. It would be helpful if you could give us an update on exactly how much was allocated and how much was actually spent.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

During phase 1, which opened last year, there were 501 successful applications totalling £8·8 million. Phase 2 opened in January this year, and there were 386 successful applications and a total fund of £7·18 million. Community Finance Ireland's administration fees were attached to the overall cost as well. The total funding expended was £16·3 million, and that includes the administration costs.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

At the outset, I declare an interest as I am charity trustee. The Minister and Members across the House will no doubt be aware of the vital work carried out by charities right across Northern Ireland and further afield. Minister, can you advise what work the Department is undertaking to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on charities moving forward, and what tailored programmes will be coming in the future to continue to support and sustain those charities?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

First, there is the impact of COVID. We are starting to ease out of restrictions, and, hopefully, there will be more announcements on Thursday. We will keep a watching brief on the immediate issues that charities are facing. This funding was until the end of the financial year, so we will continue to keep abreast of that and look at that, just as we look at other funds that have been administered.

As I say, there has been good learning. The pandemic has allowed the Department to re-engage with charities in a way that, maybe, has not been done in a while, by looking at the needs and impact of the charities. There has been learning from the pandemic as well because it has exposed the vulnerabilities of certain sections and groups in society, and there are also issues with the capacity and vulnerability of the organisations themselves, in the sense of how a shock to society impacts on their organisation.

Officials in the Department are writing up that learning at the moment, and we want to move forward to see how we can support the charities, looking at the relationship that we have established with the lotteries, with Community Finance Ireland and with NICVA, who have done some excellent work in supporting those charities, particularly around building the resilience of volunteers who are involved. We will also look at mental health programmes that have been run through the Warm, Well and Connected programme. We want to build on all that in the time ahead and have a co-design approach to any future provision that we make.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

That concludes the time for tabled questions. Before we move on to topical questions, I say that it is a shame that we managed to get only to question 4. It is a disservice to other Members who have tabled questions and to the public who are looking in that we were able to discuss only four issues in tabled questions today. The Lord above knows that there is nobody more windy than me at times, but I appeal to Members, please, in future, to try to focus their questions so that we can get through more issues and allow the people who are watching to get more answers to those issues. Fortunately for Mr Lyttle, who was to ask question 5, he is the first person on the topical list, so he will get to ask his question if he wishes to.