HUNDREDS of staff tasked with improving vulnerable people's employment prospects are to be laid off at the end of next month due to a funding shortage triggered by Brexit.
Both the British government and Stormont departments are being blamed for the shortfall that will see 400 redundancies across community groups that deliver employability programmes.
The Community Sector Peer Group, which represents 22 organisations across the north, said the failure to fully replace the European Social Fund (ESF) is putting up to 1,000 jobs at risk.
According to the group, the ESF and match funding from Stormont departments, including those overseeing economy, communities, health and justice, provided £50m a year to support employability services.
It says the British government has allocated just £21m from its new Shared Prosperity Fund to support employability programmes, but the Stormont departments have made no commitment to replace around £13m previously allocated.
Up to 60 per cent of the funding will run out at the end of March.
Rev Andrew Irvine, chair of the Community Sector Peer Group and CEO of East Belfast Mission, said the pending situation would be "disastrous" for the 18,000 vulnerable people helped in to employment every year and the 1,700 staff who deliver the support.
He said the north has the UK’s worst figures for economic inactivity but that the community-based programmes helped those on the margins of society back into employment.
“At a time when public finances are at breaking point it’s incredibly short-sighted to be even contemplating cutting, let alone slashing, employability services," he said.
The community representatives are due to meet senior civil servants on February 13 to discuss the crisis.
The Department of the Economy said it was aware of the funding issues and "empathises with the concerns of the entire sector".
However, in a statement the department blamed the British government, saying it had made a commitment to replace the EU funds.
SDLP MP Claire Hanna MP described the situation as "critical" and said the impact of the funding shortfall would be "devastating".
"The UK government created this cliff-edge and its ministers need to urgently intervene," she said.
Sinn Féin's Caoimhe Archibald called on the British government to replace the lost EU funds.
“Failure to fully replace this money and the delay in rolling out the shared prosperity fund has placed groups in a precarious position," she said.
“I would urge the British government to honour its commitment and restore lost EU funds and not to make our communities the latest casualty of the Tories’ calamitous Brexit mess."
UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt said Stormont permanent secretaries had "taken the view that it is not their problem".
"These employability schemes must not be lost – they offer hope to some of our most vulnerable and marginalised," he said.