Strong cross party support for voluntary and community sector expressed in Assembly Debate

The relationship between government and the voluntary and community sector was the focus of debate in the Assembly on the 27 September.

Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs proposed and introduced the debate by declaring an interest and mentioning numerous voluntary and community groups in his local area with which he is directly involved. It was striking that this rule, which requires MLAs to declare if they have a personal interest in the topic for discussion, lead to MLA after MLA declaring how they are personally involved in community and voluntary groups in their areas.

Mr Begg's opening remarks introduced a number of themes that were repeated throughout the debate including his belief that “The community and voluntary sector frequently provides essential services and reaches places that statutory agencies cannot go.”

Deputy Chairperson of the Social Development Committee, Sinn Fein's Micky Brady said that Committee “expressed concern about the Minister’s planned reduction of 25% in funding to infrastructure support organisations. The Minister for Social Development knows that the organisations I have mentioned and others in the voluntary and community sector provide public services assisting the most vulnerable people in society, as the motion states. At this time, as the impact of the recession hits the third sector, there is a clear challenge for the Minister and his officials to get the strategic partner/consortium arrangement right.”

DUP MLA Alex Easton spoke about the dedication of the sector, a theme that was also picked up on by others. Reflecting on community organisations in his local area he said “Never have I seen such a more dedicated group of people eager to advance the fortunes of their areas and communities, particularly in tackling social disadvantage and education and health problems.”

The SDLP’s Alban Magennis spoke about the need for strong partnership and used the example of the Green New Deal.

Effective service delivery and value for money was a key strand running thought the debate. Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said that ‘By investing in the community and voluntary sector, we gain value for money in front line services, which leads to financial savings in government.’ DUP MLA Pam Lewis also spoke about this issue and noted that “the motion calls for organisations in the sector that provide public services to be fully funded. I support that, as long as it can be demonstrated that the sector can provide those services with value-added benefit. That has become an even more critical requirement given the financial and funding challenges that we now face.”

Her DUP colleague Simon Hamilton raised the issue of service delivery and said “As well as touching on good examples of community and voluntary organisations, we could all also give examples of where we have seen the fear manifest itself that the centre will seek to protect itself by passing on the ill effects of the downturn to everyone, including the community and voluntary sector.”

West Belfast MLA Fra McCann raised the issue of loss of jobs in the sector and noted that “some commentary from officials, individuals and some Ministers is that this is not about people protecting their jobs in the sector but the core programme: such people should get real. Without the jobs, the programme would not be delivered. That is an insult to those who work at the coalface of communities and deal with the most difficult issues.”

Issues around social enterprise and sustainability were also raised by many speakers including DUP MLA Sammy Douglas who noted “The debate should not focus on grant funding alone. Many individuals in the community and voluntary sector have long recognised the need for sustainability, mainly through the social economy route. This is about safeguarding their future when funding inevitably runs out.”

Welcoming the motion Minister for Social Development Nelson McCausland said that “As the lead Minister for the sector, I see my role as being to advocate on the sector’s behalf across government when the need arises. My role is to support the sector and to make sure that the needs and contributions of the sector are recognised at the Executive.”

“I am proud to be the Minister for voluntary and community organisations that are effective in achieving their missions, collaborative in working with Government and one another to tackle need, able to demonstrate the impact of their work not to me but to the communities of which they are part, and trusted and deliberate in working with my Department and with others for the public good.”

Closing the debate UUP MLA Micheal Copeland said he was aware that many voluntary and community organisations were “genuinely afraid that they will see their resources cut, not because of the effect that that cut in resources will have on them but because of the effect that it will have on the communities that they seek to serve and the issues that they seek to address. Some of them have a feeling, which may or may not be real, that they are seen as a soft touch or an easy target by Departments seeking to rejig spending”

“I hope that the magnanimous and unanimous views expressed by all parties around the Chamber today will go some way towards allowing them to understand that we seriously understand their requirements and anxiously and earnestly seek to address them.”

The following motion was unanimously passed

That this Assembly notes the invaluable contribution made by the community and voluntary sector, particularly in assisting the most vulnerable people in society; believes that where the sector provides public services, it is appropriate that it should be adequately funded for this provision and any related overhead costs; and calls upon the Minister for Social Development to ensure that there is an effective working relationship between all Executive Departments and the community and voluntary sector.”

You can read the full, official text of the debate here.

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