DEL Budget Meeting - Key Asks
Six key asks from the sector
Concerning the European Social Fund (ESF), we welcome the commitment of DEL and the Minister to ‘refresh’ the ESF guidance and ask that these issues are addressed:
- The application process is unclear, convoluted and contains conflicting information from the different Departments involved. It needs to be made simpler, as the current difficulty acts as a barrier to accessing the Fund and providing services. It also lacks an overall strategy that needs to be rectified at a high level (e.g. Councils are expected to deliver match-funding but are themselves applying to ESF to deliver projects).
- The restriction in qualifications covered - up to Level 1 only - from voluntary and community providers means that many disadvantaged people will be unable or unwilling to proceed to higher levels required to secure employment (at a time when FE and HE places are being significantly reduced ). This is also inconsistent with targets of securing employment for participants. Though DEL has indicated that it is willing to cover up to Level 2 for services to disabled groups, it needs to reconsider this restriction.
- Likewise, the requirement of a certificate in teaching from the University of Ulster for trainers (with no equivalent alternatives outlined) is highly restrictive to the supply of tutors that can be relied upon and may, in fact, fall foul of employment law.
- The issue is not with what the HE/FE sector provides, but is about the services that the disadvantaged will be able to avail of from the community and voluntary sector if the changes to ESF go ahead. This is seen as a protectionist issue by many in the sector.
Concerning other issues in the Department’s Draft Budget:
- In order to ensure the positive future of the United Youth programme in addressing good relations and employability for young people ‘NEET’, more progress on the initiation of the programme needs to be made. Clearer information on the programme and its provision would be welcome, including the future of any funding allocated to the 2014-15 period but not yet utilised. DEL stated that the employability aspects of ESF may be integrated into United Youth if PEACE IV money is acquired and is on the Executive’s list of priorities. Any collective action to ensure that PEACE funds are forthcoming would be welcome.
- On a wider issue, the Executive’s Draft Budget allocations have provided protection for schools but not for those who have left them. If support to these client groups is to be ensured for the future, DEL will require a larger allocation of funding above its Draft Budget position. We recognise the reality of current public finances (and were among the first to address them) and appeal to the Executive to ensure that services and clients do not suffer disproportionately though a lack of funding to DEL.
Key points from the Department
Officials were keen to stress that the budget consultation process does change outcomes and that it is essential that stakeholders make representations both to DEL and to the Executive on the overall Budget. The points outlined below were raised. Relevant pages in the DEL Draft Budget 2015-16 document are referenced. Also available is a presentation given by DEL officials.
- The Minister’s two key priorities are:
- skills and the economy; and,
- protecting the vulnerable.
- Though the reduction in the Department’s 2015-16 baseline is 10.8%, £35m of time-bound allocations (for the Youth Employment Scheme, Pathways to Success and the Economy and Jobs Initiative) are excluded from this reduction as they were due to end in 2014-15. Including this in the opening position means that there is a total 16.7% reduction in the DEL resource budget from 2014-15.
- DEL is facing large cuts in areas in which savings can be realised. The requirement to find £89m of savings cannot be met solely through efficiencies; for example, the current running costs of the Department amount to £65m annually in terms of staff costs.
- There is a £9m shortfall in the Department’s Draft Budget provision for match-funding from ESF, as well the possibility that the £6.3m that has been allocated being subject to further cuts (p18-19). In order to ensure the full utilisation of the Fund available to NI, the community and voluntary sector should consider other sources that could provide match-funding when applying under the ESF and make representations to DEL and the Executive on the need for adequate match-funding.
- The Employment Service, which forms 12% of DEL’s spending, contains over half of Departmental staff (1,297). Though some of these contracts are coming to an end, a reduction in staffing costs will be necessary and will reduce the frontline service operated across NI in Jobs and Benefits Officers and JobCentres (p18).
- DEL will bid against the £30m on offer from the Executive’s Change Fund for reform projects to support the youth training, apprenticeships and economic inactivity. Success in securing this funding is subject to DFP discretion under the criteria set out in the scoring framework, and the level of other Departments’ bids (p20).