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Northern Ireland news

No 'enforcement mechanism' for community hall grant equality statements

Former DUP ministers Arlene Foster and Paul Givan with Billy Thompson of Orange Community Network at Salterstown Orange Hall to announce the Community Halls Pilot Programme
Connla Young

STORMONT officials have said there was no “formal enforcement mechanism” in relation to equality statements provided by groups benefiting from a controversial community hall grants scheme.

Successful applicants to the Community Halls Pilot Programme, which was operated by the Department for Communities (DfC), were required to provide an equality statement which the department said “was subject to scrutiny”.

It was intended to confirm that the organisation was committed to “equal and fair treatment” on a range of issues including sexual orientation, religious belief and political opinion.

However, it has now emerged that “the assessment process did not extend beyond review of the documentation requested and provided”.

In an email sent to the Committee on the Administration of Justice, an official from the DfC also said that “the existence of an equality policy was required for eligibility purposes and as with other grant programmes, there is no formal enforcement mechanism”.

CAJ deputy director Daniel Holder said the equality duty "is not supposed to be a ‘tick box’ exercise".

 

“Yes, it is good that organisations getting grants have to put their signatures to an equality statement but there must surely be some intention and process to ensure that they also abide by it, otherwise it is just paper."

The community halls programme was launched by former first minister Arlene Foster and DUP communities minister Paul Givan during a visit to an Orange hall last year.

Thirty-four Orange halls and two Masonic halls were among the 90 successful applicants, but just two GAA clubs and two Ancient Order of Hibernians halls were awarded funding.

A department equality screening document later revealed that the scheme was expected “to have a positive impact on people of a Protestant religious belief” as it prioritised organisations that had not previously attracted funding.

It claimed that some “faith-based” groups, including the Orange Order, do not apply for lottery funds because “this is regarded as benefitting from gambling”.

While it had an initial budget of £500,000, the cost of the programme spiralled to £1.9m.

Nationalists were strongly critical of the scheme, but Mr Givan rejected criticism as "narrow-minded sectarianism".

Meanwhile, the CAJ has asked the Equality Commission to investigate the community halls programme.

“Our own work has flagged up 19 breaches of the equality scheme over the community halls fund which we have now referred to the Equality Commission who have the formal investigative powers,” said Mr Holder.

“This needs to stop happening - its now over to the enforcement body to do its job."

A spokesman for the commission said: “The Equality Commission has been considering issues relating to decisions of the Department of Communities and their compliance with its equality scheme commitments.

“As a statutory public body, the commission adheres to the guidance for public bodies during the election campaign and will issue a further statement about this after the general election.”

A spokeswoman for DfC said "all potential successful applicants provided an equality policy which was subject to scrutiny".

“The assessment process did not extend beyond review of the documentation requested and provided."

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