COVID Support Allocations

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 22 June 2021.

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Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:30, 22 June 2021

T3. Ms S Bradley asked the Minister for Communities whether she agrees that it seems perverse that although she refused to introduce a COVID payment for families with a total income of over £20,000, she awarded hundreds of thousands of pounds to organisations and clubs with huge cash reserves, even underwriting their profits, and to state how that sits with her mantra of meeting objective need. (AQT 1463/17-22)

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Members will know that I moved very quickly last year to increase the income threshold for discretionary support payments. I recognised immediately that not enough families who were in crisis as a result of the pandemic were being covered. I then moved urgently to increase the income threshold, and I took that through the House. That was endorsed right across the House as the right thing to do. On the other funding, as I said, I welcome the publication of the Audit Office's report. That scheme was designed with the sector, and I believe that the intent that had been set out was met. There are, of course, lessons to be learned. However, when representations on the matter were made to the Committee in April, the Committee commended the work on the implementation and administration of the scheme by my officials and those in Sport NI. Of course, we will look at the recent report, and lessons will be learned. We will do that internally in the Department.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, you say that you believe that the intent was met. I am somewhat confused. Are you still of the opinion that the intent of the scheme was to underwrite profits? If so, do you have no intention of looking at options to recoup that money and, perhaps, to distribute it to those who are more in need?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Money cannot pass over: it cannot be lifted from one strand, whether it is sports, culture or arts, and put it into a completely different part of the Department. There is no ability to do that. You mentioned looking at discretionary support. First, I had a budget. That budget was utilised and was not under pressure in meeting the needs. Indeed, as part of that discretionary support, over £20 million was paid out to families and individuals who were in crisis. Again, as with all schemes, I realise that there is a need to make improvements. I have recognised that we were moving at pace. The Audit Office also recognised that we were moving at pace to make decisions. There are always lessons to be learned from schemes. Earlier, I answered a question about the lessons learned as a result of the pandemic overall. With the administration of that scheme, I believe that we kept to the guidance that was laid out, and that was confirmed by the Committee at its meeting in April.