Funding ‘cliff edge’ puts 1,700 community group jobs at risk

ESG Peer Group chair Rev Andrew Irvine
ESG Peer Group chair Rev Andrew Irvine

COMMUNITY groups which provide employment programmes for the most disadvantaged in society are facing a funding “cliff edge” due to a bureaucratic impasse between Northern Ireland and Westminster officials.

And up to 1,700 jobs and critical support services for some of the most vulnerable in society are at risk because of an ongoing failure to replace funding previously provided by the European Union’s Social Fund with money from the UK’s Levelling-Up Fund.

The European Social Fund (ESF) Peer Group, which represents 22 community groups across the north, has been seeking a solution from Northern Ireland and Westminster departments for over a year.

And it has invited permanent secretaries from relevant Northern Ireland departments to join a crunch meeting this Friday with representatives from Westminster’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC).

ESF Peer Group chair Rev Andrew Irvine, who is chief executive of East Belfast Mission, said: “Everyone accepts that the work of our members is invaluable to the most disadvantaged and marginalised in society who find it difficult to access employment.

“Our members currently support over 17,000 vulnerable people and we’ve helped almost 12,000 people secure employment. But if we can’t secure continuity in funding, the 1,700 people who provide this support will face a very uncertain future.

“Much good work has already taken place to secure funding, but a final agreement is still outstanding. There is a small window of opportunity to address these issues this week with the Permanent Secretaries. If no solution can be reached, jobs and our support programmes will be lost.”

Joanne Kinnear, ESF Peer Group vice-chair and Ashton Trust chief executive added: “There’s a moral obligation to help those who find it difficult entering employment, maybe because they have a disability or have fled conflict overseas. We work with people who have so much to offer, but who need some extra support.

“Helping people into work, however, is not only good for them, but also the economy. Levels of economic inactivity are high in Northern Ireland and those in employment put less demand on public services, particularly the social care sector which is already stretched. Investing in these programmes saves money in the long-term.

“Support for the most marginalised is a priority for all our local political parties and everyone understands that the public purse is under severe pressure in the current financial climate. If, however, we can develop cooperation between DLUHC and Northern Ireland departments, particularly Economy, Communities, Health and Justice, we could potentially add millions to the funds available to meet the needs of local people.

“If the ESF Peer Group can’t provide these services, no one will. There’s no alternative in place. That will be a tragedy not just for our employees, but the thousands of people who rely on our support.”

An independent evaluation of the services provided by the Northern Ireland Social Fund Programme (2014-2020) found that, conservatively, they had had a €210m positive wage impact and that 75 per cent of respondents wouldn’t have entered employment or training without the programme’s support.

Rev Irvine added: “Our programmes have a long track record of being more successful than government initiatives, largely because our employees are based in local communities and have a lived experience that understands the difficulties people face.

“We provide practical wrap-around support, helping those most removed from the job market to build their confidence, recognise their skills and start a new positive chapter for themselves and their families.

“Many of the people we work with have faced societal and generational barriers to employment, through illness, trauma or other issues. Our projects help break the cycle and raise up our host communities.

“If local civil service officials cannot partner with their counterparts in DHLUC and NI Assembly funding cannot be found to add to UK Shared Prosperity Fund monies, then we won’t be able to provide certainty of employment for our staff and we’ll lose irreplaceable experience which has been built up over decades.”

The ESF Peer Group members include: Ashton Community Trust,Disability Action, First Steps Women's Centre, DFPF Limited - People1st, Access Centre NI, Workforce Training Services, Derry Youth & Community Workshop, Springboard Opportunities Limited, Upper Springfield Development Trust Group,The Bytes Project , Start 360, East Belfast Mission, The Workspace - Network Personnel, Impact Training (NI) Ltd Belfast, CFSP (21 Training), USEL, Include Youth, GEMS Northern Ireland Limited, Limavady Community Development Initiative (LCDI).