North/South Ministerial Council: Special EU Programmes Body

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:30 pm on 10 June 2024.

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Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 12:30, 10 June 2024

I have received notice from the Minister of Finance that she wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that they must be concise in asking questions.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I will make the following statement on the twenty-second meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in special EU programmes sectoral format, which was held in the offices of the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform (DPENDPDR) in Dublin on Wednesday 15 May 2024.

As Minister of Finance, I represented the Executive and was accompanied by junior Minister Cameron from the Executive Office. The Irish Government were represented by Minister Paschal Donohoe TD from the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform. The statement has been agreed with junior Minister Cameron, and I make the statement on behalf of us both.

The NSMC received a report on the implementation of the 2014-2020 Peace IV and INTERREG Va programmes. Ministers noted that EU expenditure targets to date for both programmes have been met and that both are currently forecast to achieve full expenditure, in line with total programme allocations.

The NSMC noted that the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) is working on the task of facilitating closure of the programmes.

For Peace IV, 95 projects were approved in the priority areas of shared education, children and young people, shared spaces and services, and building positive relations. Eighty-eight projects have concluded, one has been withdrawn and six are due to complete in 2024. Under INTERREG Va, 32 programmes were approved in the priority areas of research and innovation, environment, sustainable transport and health. Twenty-eight projects have concluded activity, one has been withdrawn and three are due to complete in 2024. Ministers welcomed the actions delivered specifically under the environment and sustainable transport themes of INTERREG Va to address the challenges of climate change and loss of biodiversity.

The NSMC noted the SEUPB chief executive's progress report for the 2021-27 PEACE PLUS programme. Calls for funding applications opened in June 2023. Calls in 16 investment areas have opened to date, and 19 projects, to the value of €278 million, have so far been approved for funding, representing almost a quarter — 24·3% — of the total programme value. Ministers received a presentation on the PEACE PLUS young social innovators project. The NSMC noted that the programme has a strong focus on actions to address climate change and loss of biodiversity, including an investment of €303 million in the "Supporting a sustainable and better-connected future" theme. Ministers welcomed the contribution of the Peace IV, INTERREG Va and PEACE PLUS programmes in protecting and preserving peace and providing opportunities for building prosperity.

Ministers noted and approved the SEUPB corporate plan for 2023-25 and the business plans and budget provision for 2022, 2023 and 2024, which were drafted in line with guidance issued by the Finance Departments. Ministers noted the SEUPB annual reports and accounts for 2019, 2020 and 2021 and its draft accounts for 2022 and 2023. The SEUPB annual reports and accounts for 2019 and 2020 have been certified by the Comptrollers and Auditors General in both jurisdictions and have been laid before the Assembly and the Houses of the Oireachtas. The 2021 annual report and accounts have been certified by the Comptrollers and Auditors General in both jurisdictions, have been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas and will be laid before the NI Assembly in due course. The 2022 and 2023 draft accounts are currently awaiting certification by the Comptrollers and Auditors General in both jurisdictions. Following their certification, they will be laid before the Assembly and both Houses of the Oireachtas.

Ministers noted that the SEUPB’s governance structures continue to operate effectively. The Council noted that an independent organisational review of the SEUPB has been completed and has made recommendations on SEUPB staffing levels and grading. Ministers agreed that the approved headcount for SEUPB will be revised to 86, with the potential to increase to 88, and agreed that five posts identified in the review will be regraded.

The NSMC agreed to hold its next special EU programmes meeting in autumn 2024.

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

Thank you, Minister. The current period of PEACE PLUS ends in 2027. Was there any discussion about whether that funding programme will be renewed? We will have a new EU Commission this year. There were EU elections at the weekend. Not to rub it in, but I am sure that the Minister noticed that there were elections at the weekend. What plans are in place to negotiate a new period of PEACE PLUS funding?

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

As the Member will be aware, the current 2021-27 PEACE PLUS programme came into existence as part of the withdrawal agreement in 2019. The proposal for PEACE PLUS was made in the context of our unique and specific circumstances on this island and with a view to supporting North/South cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement. Obviously, any successor programme to PEACE PLUS would require a decision at a political level. An assessment of the benefits of the current and previous programmes and the need for further programme work will be undertaken. Discussions will be required with the British and Irish Governments and the EU, and a direction at political level will allow those discussions to commence.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire.

[Translation: I thank the Minister.]

Can the Minister describe the current position on the PEACE PLUS programme, please?

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

SEUPB officially opened PEACE PLUS for funding calls in June last year. Programme implementation is progressing well, with the majority of the 22 investment areas having opened their calls for applications. The remaining investment areas are scheduled to open for applications later this year.

A number of programme steering committee meetings have taken place, and they make the final decisions on applications, resulting in funding being awarded. So far, over a quarter — £274 million — of the programme budget has been committed to 23 successful projects. That includes approximately £30·5 million that has been committed since the meeting took place on 15 May. Funds have been committed to youth projects, mental health projects, shared education, local community peace action plans, victims and survivors, the Belfast to Dublin Enterprise and geothermal energy.

Photo of Diane Forsythe Diane Forsythe DUP

Thank you, Minister, for today's statement. I note you mentioned the increased headcount approved for the SEUPB. Given this year's challenging budget and the significant pressures and cuts across your Department in IT, HR and Land and Property Services, what impact will those Department of Finance budget cuts have on the SEUPB?

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for the question. Obviously, it is important that SEUPB has the appropriate resource and structures to effectively implement the PEACE PLUS project, which is worth over €1 billion, as well as to close Peace IV and INTERREG Va. Given the magnitude, in particular, of the administrative requirements to develop and deliver PEACE PLUS and the expanse of policy areas covered, it was an appropriate time to reconsider the organisational requirements of SEUPB, and a recommendation was made for additional posts.

I have some costings in front of me on what will fall to the Department of Finance. The additional resource will be funded from the technical assistance budget of the PEACE PLUS programme. That is the budget allocated as per EU regulations for programme management, monitoring and evaluation, and it includes staff costs. PEACE PLUS is 80%-funded through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which is fully reimbursed by the European Commission, and the remaining 20% is provided by the accountable Departments' match funding, which comes from the core budget. DOF in the North and the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform in the South are the accountable Departments. The cost to DOF will be almost 15% of the total additional cost of the posts, which is £300,000. Therefore, the cost that falls to the Department of Finance is £44,640, which, in the grand scheme of the Department's budget, is not a huge amount, but it is something that we will continue to monitor in the time ahead.

Photo of Eóin Tennyson Eóin Tennyson Alliance

Thank you, Minister, for your answers and the statement. On the independent organisational review, are there any significant recommendations other than those relating to headcount and regrading of which the Assembly should be aware?

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I am happy to write to the Member on the review. The significant recommendations were on the headcount, which I mentioned in respect of SEUPB being able to properly deliver the programme, given its scale, while tidying up the closure of Peace IV and INTERREG Va. It is important at this juncture to ensure that SEUPB is appropriately resourced to deliver what it needs to deliver. I am happy to write to the Member with further details.

Photo of Cathy Mason Cathy Mason Sinn Féin

Will PEACE PLUS see a simplified assessment process and a reduction in the administrative burden on applicants and projects?

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

A priority during PEACE PLUS development was to streamline the application and assessment process, focusing on a reduction in the time taken to assess applications and a reduction in the administrative burden on applicants and on the beneficiaries of funding. Department of Finance economists carried out a review of the application template and the assessment process for Peace IV and INTERREG Va and made recommendations on how those could be improved for PEACE PLUS. SEUPB has considered and implemented the recommendations, where possible.

SEUPB provides pre-development support to applicants, which is new for the PEACE PLUS programme. It means that SEUPB engages with applicants to help them facilitate the development of their application before the call for applications opens. That assists applicants in producing high-quality applications and projects. PEACE PLUS provides a small grants programme to help smaller community groups that previously felt that they did not have the capacity to apply for the funding and the opportunity, therefore, to get involved. Grants of up to €100,000 are available under investment areas 1.2 and 6.2, and applications to those areas will be delivered in a more streamlined and simplified manner. There has been engagement with the European Commission in developing that process.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP 12:45, 10 June 2024

The SEUPB's annual report and accounts for 2021 have been certified by the Comptroller and Auditor General in both jurisdictions. They have been laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas and will be laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly in due course. Minister, what is the hold-up, and why are we still awaiting certification for 2022?

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I am happy to write to the Member and furnish him with the details of that. I assume that it is a process issue.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

Given that Peace moneys can often be delivered to the community and voluntary sector in the absence of funds from the Executive, is the Minister aware of any additional emphasis being placed on mental health? Groups across my constituency are struggling for funds and absolutely need additional moneys to do their work. They are groups such as Pop Up Art in Downpatrick; MyMy in Newcastle; the Well in the Kingdom; and even neurodivergent groups, such as the ADHD hub in Newcastle.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I commend the Member for getting the plugs in for his constituency. One of the key themes of PEACE PLUS is youth mental health and well-being. There is a significant role for community organisations in PEACE PLUS, and there was significant engagement to ensure that the needs of communities were addressed and recognised in the development of the programme. There was specific engagement with smaller community groups, which is really important because some of them felt that, previously, there was a barrier to their getting involved. That is why there has been a specific focus on ensuring a more simplified approach to the application process.

There are the specific elements in relation to mental health, but, within those other themes as well, there are opportunities for community organisations and groups, such as those that the Member mentioned, to apply for those smaller grants, which is a new opportunity. Those grants of up to €100,000 will be part of what will be called "the cross-community change maker funds" and "cross-border change maker funds." There might be opportunities there, and I encourage the Member to engage with SEUPB around what additional opportunities there might be in relation to mental health.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Is it another sign of the profligacy of North/South bodies that, in the case of SEUPB, no accounts after 2021 have even been certified, yet the Minister comes to the House today and announces an increase in staff to up to 86 or even 88? She has not told us how many extra staff that is. How many extra staff are being appointed for the body, whose accounts are not in order?

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I am sure that the Member will appreciate that the accounts have not been laid in the Assembly in the last couple of years because the Assembly was not sitting and there was no ability to approve the accounts via the North/South Ministerial Council.

On the specific question about the staffing complement, the current staff complement for SEUPB is 57, and the last time that it was reviewed was in 2012.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

That concludes questions to the Minister of Finance. I ask Members to take their ease for a moment, while we change the top Table.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Blair] in the Chair)