COVID-19: DFC Response

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 22 June 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP 2:00, 22 June 2021

2. Mr K Buchanan asked the Minister for Communities for her assessment of her Department's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (AQO 2269/17-22)

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

I have detailed previously how my Department has worked in partnership across central and local government and with its arm's-length bodies and stakeholders to provide financial and practical support across a range of sectors.

Since March 2020, my Department has put in place a range of measures to protect the most vulnerable people in the community, to try to put in place safeguards, and to work with the organisations that they depend upon as a consequence of the unprecedented pandemic that none of us could have foreseen at the start of last year. We have given, and continue to give, practical and financial assistance, and, by the end of the financial year, my Department had provided more than £314 million in financial support and assistance, which I have previously spoken about in the Chamber, through a range of schemes. There has also been, and continues to be, a significant demand for our services and for ongoing assistance, and I believe that a range of measures that I put in place to mitigate the social, economic and well-being effects of the pandemic on our communities have provided a much-needed safety net and paved the way on the journey towards our recovery from the pandemic.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

Thank you, Minister, for the answer. Minister, what learning has your Department taken from this, and have you plans on the shelf for future support if — hopefully it is not needed — the need arises?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Obviously, there is ongoing learning. We are still in the midst of responding to the pandemic. Members will remember that, last year, ongoing emergency meetings were called to make sure that, first, we could pay social security payments. Some services were stood down to ensure that that was prioritised, particularly when we saw double the number of people needing those benefits. We stood up the emergencies leadership group, and that worked with the community and voluntary sector at a grassroots level and a strategic level across the North. We want to keep that group going and, indeed, develop it in the time ahead.

We are working with the Executive in looking at a social recovery going forward, and that will pick up on lessons learned. Are there things that we can be doing? One of the areas is working with the community and voluntary sector to ensure that we are responding to its needs. We worked very well with local government over this last year and worked very closely on revitalisation schemes. We tried to get the food support out quickly, and there is a model of good practice. There was also legislation. I accept that it was done very quickly through accelerated passage, but changes were made to, for example, discretionary support, where we increased the income threshold. We also removed certain barriers around that, and that was done at pace. Indeed, there is learning from that, not just for the Department but for the Assembly as a whole, in how we respond to those situations.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

Minister, can you give an update on the establishment of the cultural task force?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Yes. I launched the culture, heritage and arts recovery task force just over a month ago. Rotha Johnston is the chair of that task force, and it is made up of a number of representatives from all those sectors right across the North. I wanted to make sure that there was an urban and rural balance in all the organisations that are represented. The task force started work right away in looking at the needs of those sectors going forward. I was glad, obviously, that, in the Budget and through the COVID moneys, I was allocated the amount that I requested to support this work in the time ahead. We are working with the task force to design ongoing supports for the sectors that are still being impacted. We know that the music industry, in particular, and freelancers — that is an issue that has always come up — are still being impacted now because of the restrictions. We are working with them to look at what immediate supports we can give, but we are also looking at recovery and what can we do, and they are coming up with recommendations and suggestions as well. Freelancers have also been given a place on that task force to ensure that we are listening to their concerns.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, what is your response to the Audit Office report on the sports sustainability fund and do you still regard it as having been an appropriate and prudent use of public money?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Obviously, I welcome the prompt publication of the Audit Office report. It was important that it was produced as soon as possible. The delivery of all the COVID financial assistance, including the sports sustainability fund, was undertaken in a really fluid situation, under extreme time pressures and on timescales in which organisations and elected Members were saying that urgent issues needed to be addressed. Of course, there are lessons that can be learned from the development and delivery of COVID funding schemes across the board, and our review of those is under way.

The societal and economic value of sport is well-documented and understood, and that was reflected in the funding that was provided to 452 beneficiaries. It is also important to add that I welcome the letter from the Chair and members of the Committee for Communities, which was sent after representation was made to the Committee by my departmental officials and officials from Sport NI on 2 April. The Chair wrote to express confidence in how the scheme was being administered and reiterated the Committee's praise for officials. Learning is being taken on board. I welcome the Audit Office's report and will continue to engage on those issues in the time ahead.