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Why was community halls scheme launched as a pilot?

Former communities minister Paul Givan
Connla Young

CONCERNS have been raised about why the Department for Communities launched a community halls grant programme as a ‘pilot' rather than a fully-fledged scheme.

The disputed £1.9m scheme was launched by former DUP ministers Paul Givan and Arlene Foster at an Orange hall last year.

The department has dismissed suggestions that it by-passed the Department of Finance, which was formerly headed by Sinn Féin minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, by launching the scheme as a ‘pilot'.

Had the cost of the scheme gone over £2m Mr Givan would have needed the approval of the Sinn Féin minister's department.

The scheme's original budget of £500,000 quadrupled to £1.9m by the time the cash was allocated.

The Community Halls Pilot Programme offered cash grants of up to £25,000 to be spent upgrading halls across the north.

Concerns were raised after it emerged that the pilot programme pledged more than £104,000 to upgrade Orange halls though applications made by other organisations describing themselves as Ulster Scots, cultural, educational and historical.

It then emerged that an additional £100,000 was also allocated to several community groups to carry out work at Orange halls while only a handful of groups to benefit were from nationalist groups and clubs.

Heavily redacted documents obtained by the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that a senior DfC official advised the former DUP minister that the scheme should proceed as a ‘pilot'.

“As a £ (redacted) programme will require DoF approval, it is unlikely that it could be approved and delivered to achieve capital spend in 2016/2017.

“It is therefore proposed that a pilot scheme is operated in 2016/2017 as precursor to the full scheme, with a call to organisations to submit applications in October 2016 and spend from January to March 2017.”

A spokeswoman for the department said no decision has been taken regarding the scheme beyond this year.

Daniel Holder from the CAJ said the documents reveal “that the decision to label what ultimately became a £1.9million fund as a ‘pilot' seems to have been taken to avoid needing Department of Finance approval”.

“Furthermore, whilst the Department told us they had only blanked out the names of staff from the documents – which would be fair enough – they have in fact blanked out all the financial information, without explanation,” he said.

“It is also astonishing that there is no real paper trail which sets out the basis on which the funding criteria were determined.”

When asked about redacted financial figures, a spokeswoman for the department said that “information outside the scope of the request” was not included in its response.

Asked if the decision to run the scheme as a pilot taken to avoid needing DoF approval as spokeswoman said: “By the very nature of a new scheme/programme, they can run as a pilot to assess interest, success and to assist with learning for potential as a mainstream programme.

“Indeed when the programme was launched the Minister said that he hoped that the pilot would provide evidence of need to underpin a wider reaching programme of support in the future.

“Additional capital was identified in the Department's Budget for this financial year which enabled the initial allocation to be increased to £1.9m.

“The Programme was compliant with NICS accounting procedures.”

A Spokesperson for Department of Finance said: “The community halls grant programme was below DoF's delegated limits and therefore DfC did not require DoF's approval to proceed with the pilot."

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