Northern Ireland news

Calls for clarity on future of disability employment services in NI

MLA Kellie Armstrong, Elaine Leonard of Appleby Trust, David Babington of Action Mental Health, Norman Sterritt of NIUSE, Roisin Mallon of Equality Commission for NI, Conor McGinnity, Mencap service user, Liz Kimmins MLA, and Grainne Close from Mencap
Suzanne McGonagle

THERE are calls for clarity on the future of disability employment services amid fears that cuts to funding could leave some of the most vulnerable in society on a "cliff edge".

European Social Funding (ESF) is set to run out at the end of March 2023, with "no certainty as to how this provision will continue beyond that".

The ESF provides funding for projects aimed at improving the employability and employment levels of disabled people who often find it difficult to access mainstream provision and as a result feel further removed from the labour market.

ESF has helped over 76,841 people since 2015 with more than 16,708 participants moving into employment and another 15,102 into further education and training.

Amid uncertainty about the funding, 22 disability service providers met at Stormont earlier this week to discuss the situation.

The event, led by the Northern Ireland Union for Supported Employment (NIUSE), heard from service users who have accessed the range of support services currently under threat across the north.

They also spoke about the impact the loss of funding would have on their life.

Conor McGinnity, who received support through Mencap's ESF project, told of how he had been helped to get a job in Primark and the charity was "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," he said.

Norman Sterritt, chair of NIUSE, said: "Time is running out and we have gathered a number of disability organisations, politicians, officials, and other stakeholders together to find a solution to this urgent issue.

"Given the current challenges with the cost-of-living crisis, on top of the many health, social and economic inequalities that disabled people already experience, we need to ensure no one is left behind."

David Babington of Action Mental Health said there are concerns that with the funding due to finish "there is no certainty as to how this provision will continue beyond that".

"As a cross-departmental issue, it is vital that departments work together to identify a long-term sustainable alternative to ESF," he said.

"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.

"With no current disability strategy in place, service providers are already working in a particularly uncertain and difficult environment, made even more precarious by the lack of clarity around future funding for this programme.

"Over 21 per cent of the working age population in NI has a disability, matching the average rate across the UK and with many of them experiencing particularly challenging times during Covid-19 and with the ongoing cost of living crisis there is an urgent need for certainty that this much needed support will continue beyond March 2023."

Northern Ireland news