DEL Minister confirms voluntary and community organisations’ worst fears as he plans unfair, disproportionate cuts to the sector

3 Dec 2014 Seamus McAleavey    Last updated: 3 Dec 2014

DEL Minister Stephen Farry spoke to the Employment and Learning Committee on Wednesday, 26 November 2014 about his need to cut over 10% from his department’s budget next year. 

When asked how he proposed to mitigate the negative impact of the cut he said;

“There are some areas that become potential mitigating areas, for example, there are areas of the Department’s work that previously were mainstreamed, covered through block grant, that we could consider making applications under the European Social Fund to resource. In turn that will mean that we are essentially having to remove money that would otherwise be going out to the community and voluntary sector, so there will be ... a smaller pool of funds, subject that is to the bids from the Department being properly received and scored through a competitive process.”

Quite simply the Minister proposes to protect his public expenditure allocations to statutory organisations by sacrificing the work of voluntary and community organisations. Amazingly he went on to say;

“Let’s be very blunt about it, there is a 10.8% cut to the Department: that will have a knock-on impact on the community and voluntary sector that depend on grants coming from our Department … We do have a large ESF pool forthcoming 6-7 years, but yes there is going to be a lot more pressure on that fund. It is a competitive process so that money will be awarded based on the quality of the bids that come into the Department based on the framework that we have already agreed, based on the priorities that we want to see.”

 “We have to make sure that what the Department is proposing stands up to what could otherwise be done in the v&c sector”

First things first, the Minister speaks of a sector that ‘depend on grants’ as if grants are a doling out of free money with no expectation of a return on his part. A grant is a financial instrument paid in support of agreed objectives by a government department and has as many targets attached as any other form of contract. In this case ESF is used for the explicit purpose of supporting people back into employment and to living self-supporting lives in the future. The organisations funded under ESF work with some of the most complex client groups. Those with mental health needs, learning difficulties, physical disability, lone parents and young people furtherest from the mainstream labour market.

Is DEL’s financial support to FE Colleges and Universities in Northern Ireland not grant support too and does the Minister see those activities as grant dependant, with the same negative connotations that he has attached to voluntary and community organisations delivering a different part of his department’s programme?

Voluntary and community organisations have no difficulty with criteria that judges them on quality but is incensed that it will be penalised by a protectionist policy that sees their work relegated to discretionary spend.

Yesterday I chaired a meeting in NICVA of a broad range of organisations involved in delivering the department’s programmes under the European Social Fund and the mood was one of anger with the Minister.

Also under fire was the Minister’s newly published Guidance for organisations bidding for the next round of ESF. The guidance states in one place that organisations should follow NJC pay scales for staff involved in ESF and points to NICVA’s advice on these but no organisation is bound to follow these particular public sector pay scale agreements. Making matters worse DEL then goes on to say and no cost of living increase will be allowed over the next three years for staff in voluntary and community organisations. Yet the NJC has just agreed a 2.2% cost of living increase from January 2015.

By imposing not only salary levels but terms and condition of employment is DEL taking over the employment responsibility of employer organisations and accepting all the risks that go with it? Will DEL enforce the same regime on its public sector employers like FE Colleges?

The guidelines for this new ESF programme are stipulating that they will only fund the achievement of qualifications up to up to Level 1 (equating to a GCSE at grades D-G, including English and Maths at grades D-F) which is a significant change from previous ESF programmes where higher level qualifications could be delivered. This is an odd limit for an employability programme given that  GCSE grades D-G are considered as exam failures by employers. As well as showing a real poverty of ambition for the people voluntary and community organisations work with in ESF programmes this could also lead to a perverse situation were an ESF participant who has the capability of achieving a qualification that equates to a pass a grade at CGSE (A-C) is regarded as a non-permissible outcome within the new programme.

The rationale for this decision is that people who want to achieve a higher qualification should go to a FE or HE college which will be seen as another example of simply moving resources into the mainstream providers at the expense of voluntary and community organisations.

NICVA has taken a reasoned approach to dealing with Northern Ireland’s public expenditure squeeze. We haven’t asked for special protection for voluntary and community organisations involved in delivering public services or Programme for Government objectives.

We have asked for fairness.

Fairness means funding activities on the value of the outcomes they achieve not what sector they sit in. Fairness means not falling foul of protectionism.

The next obvious point is that if the Minister simply tries to do what his department has always done with 10% less money, then he is doomed to fail. Northern Ireland needs to respond to the crisis by being innovative and doing new and different things.

Voluntary and community organisations can respond quickly to new challenges and have often been in the forefront of delivery when government departments needed a quick response to new demands. If Northern Ireland Departments follow the lead of Stephen Farry they will destroy the capacity of many organisations and remove their ability to play a part in the innovative change we need if the public are to feel we have a responsible public administration.