FUTURE funding for disability employment services is unknown as European funding will no longer be available for projects from next year, a gathering at Stormont has heard.
The situation has reached a "critical cliff edge" as there is no clear idea how the European Social Fund (ESF) money will be replaced, government officials and elected representatives were told.
“The current European Social Funding runs out at the end of March 2023 and there is no certainty as to how this provision will continue beyond that," said David Babington, CEO of Action Mental Health.
"As a cross departmental issue, it is vital that departments work together to identify a long-term sustainable alternative to ESF. It has become clear that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund will not sufficiently fill the gap that will be left for the 22 disability providers supporting some of the most vulnerable in our society."
The event, organised by the Northern Ireland Union for Supported Employment with sponsorships from MLA Kellie Armstrong and Liz Kimmins, heard from service users from Mencap, Stepping Stones, Specialisterne, Disability Action and Cedar.
Conor McGinnity, supported by Mencap’s ESF Project in his quest for a job, said: "Mencap helped me get a job in Primark and they are always on hand to provide guidance and support. I love being a part of the Primark team and the freedom and independence it gives me. When a customer leaves with a smile on their face, it makes my day."
The ESF provides funding for projects "aimed at improving the employability and employment levels of disabled people who often find it extremely difficult to access mainstream provision".
ESF funding, approximately £60 million this year, has directly helped more than 76,841 people with disabilities since 2015 with more than 16,708 participants moving into employment and another 15,102 into further education and training.