Community and Voluntary Sector: Funding Cuts Debate
That this Assembly notes the important role of the community and voluntary sector across Northern Ireland in providing effective, efficient and value for money front-line services; accepts that, as a consequence of the 2015-16 Budget, decisions are being made by individual Executive Departments with no consideration of the impact on these services or the effect that they will have on the vulnerable in society; further notes that the ambiguity surrounding the European social fund has also forced many organisations to reduce their staff and their operations; and calls on the Executive to act in a coordinated manner to ensure that the sector and its organisations receive the required level of support and funding allocations.
Robin Swann stressed that this was not about political point scoring and that the Assembly should unite in concern for the future of the voluntary and community sector who support the most vulnerable in our society. He discussed the shared principles of the Concordat that were being breached by departmental funding decisions, the disproportionate nature of the cuts being implemented and the cumulative effect the sector was feeling. Mr Swann concluded that cuts to much of the preventative work the sector carried out was putting our society at risk, such as the funding cuts to NIACRO.
Each of the MLAs that contributed spoke of their personal connection to the voluntary and community sector, either from past employment or through the work carried out in their constituencies. Many had received letters from concerned constituents on the cuts being implemented to local organisations. All of the MLAs agreed that many of the Executive’s own policy priorities and targets would not be met without the support of the community and voluntary sector.
Sinn Fein: Both Bronwyn McGahan and Alex Maskey addressed the Assembly. They attributed the current situation faced by the voluntary and community sector to the Conservative’s austerity agenda and praised Martin McGuinness’ first step taken: to call on all the Assembly parties to unite against austerity and to seek the additional powers from London to grow the economy. Alex Maskey commended the Minister for Social Development on adopting a broader view of the impact of the cuts in his budgeting and ensured they were minimised.
SDLP: Alban Maginness and Sean Rogers discussed groups in their own constituencies and reiterated Robin Swann’s point on the cumulative effect of the cuts. SDLP emphasised the impact that a loss of early intervention funding would have on society.
Alliance: Anna Lo and Chris Lyttle discussed the need for a more strategic overview on budget setting, coordination and decision making. Anna Lo stated that not all Ministers implemented cuts in the same to the voluntary and community sector, and that both the Ministers for Employment and Learning and Justice valued the work of the sector. Anna stated that the focus on the European Social Fund in the debate was unfair and outlined the reasoning behind the decisions that had affected the sector.
DUP: Sammy Wilson refuted Sinn Fein claims that all of the funding decisions taken were the fault of the Conservative government and the penalties for not implementing welfare reform was worsening the problem. Sammy urged the Assembly to reconsider the budgetary process which was biased towards keeping money within departments; that the Assembly should be looking for alternative forms of money in new and innovative ways; and that there should be an honest assessment of the value of organisations outside the statutory sector.
Sammy Douglas told the Assembly that there was a sense from the sector that this had to be addressed urgently. He read an email that he'd received from Greenway Women's Centre:
"Dear Sammy, I am writing both as a concerned constituent and on behalf of my organisation about the effects of the cuts on the community and voluntary sector, in particular the women's centres, groups and organisations. As a director of Greenway Women's Group, I am aware that Ministers and Departments are under intense pressure to cut money. I understand that, as a society, we all have to face considerable restraints. However, it is our opinion that cuts to the community and voluntary sector as a whole are unfair and disproportionate, and we write to urge you to consider the impact that this will have on our local community"
Green Party: Steven Agnew stated that it was time the Assembly had a political conversation as to what we prioritised and other ways in which revenue could be generated to fund public services. He stressed that any revenue generating decisions taken by the Executive must be progressive to ensure the most vulnerable are not affected. He criticised the low wage economy NI had in spite of attracting the biggest proportion of foreign direct investment in the UK. Steven also urged for a new long term budget that sets out a strategic vision and a more evaluation based approach to implemented cuts.
Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey outlined his vision for a strong, vibrant, enterprising and sustainable sector within the community and commended the sector as that was emerging. The Minister recognised the strain that had been put on the relationship between government and the sector as a result of the funding decisions that had been taken. The Concordat clearly and transparently laid the foundations for partnership working between the public sector and the voluntary and community sector, and it was the responsibility of departmental decision makers to use it when budgeting. The Minister spoke about the Joint Forum as an excellent resource for cross sector working on issues affecting both sectors such as collaboration, procurement, policy development, reducing excessive budgeting and outcomes-focused funding.
The Minister committed to continually engaging with Junior Ministers who have been tasked with keeping an overview on how cuts have been delivered in different departments. This will ensure organisations were not being adversely affected by multiple funding decisions.
Roy Beggs summarised and responded to each of the party contributions and welcomed the idea of a transition fund. Roy stated that the Budget process was problematic as it resulted in late decision making leaving very little time to readjust, manoeuvre and change.
The Question was put and agreed to with cross party support.