Alliance MLA urges NI Secretary of State to urgently intervene to help avoid huge job losses in community sector


By VIEW editor Brian Pelan

An Alliance MLA has urged the Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris to urgently intervene as more than 1,700 community sector workers are at risk of losing their jobs due to the ending of the European Social Fund (ESF) on March 31 in Northern Ireland because of Brexit.

Projects helping around 17,000 vulnerable people a year – including disabled people and those trying to get back into work – could be forced to shut or reduce their services if the ESF funding is not replaced.

Concerned: MLA Kellie Armstrong

Kellie Armstrong, MLA for Strangford, said: “Those organisations that provide support for people with learning disabilities have had to put many of their staff on redundancy notice.

“At this stage the Secretary of State is the person who has his fingers on the budget. We need to see what that budget is going to look like to understand if these organisations actually are at threat or if there is light at the end of the tunnel for them.

“In the meantime, the only person that can sign off our budget is the Secretary of State. And for instance, we’ve heard from him to say that in education, there’s concerns about how much money is spent on special education needs, and they’re looking at ways to reduce that down. It always seems to be people with learning disabilities or disabilities that are being targeted.”

Community sector organisations had until January 27 this year to apply for their share of a £42 million pot aimed at tackling economic inactivity.

The money is part of the British Government’s Shared Prosperity Fund, which was set up to replace EU funds lost due to Brexit.

But groups will not know if they will receive any money until late March – just days before the EU funding runs out.

Mencap NI, one of Northern Ireland’s leading providers in learning disability support services, has been forced to make the decision to place more than 50 staff members on protective notice after months of uncertainty regarding ESF funding.

Grainne Close, Mencap NI Director, said: “We have had to make the difficult decision to place our staff on protective notice as we approach the end of ESF funding on March 31. Unfortunately, with no guarantee of replacement funding and the knowledge that any replacement funding will be at least 50 per cent less than before, it is no longer sustainable for the organisation to deliver services at this level beyond the end of March 2023.

“We need local government officials to do the right thing by providing resource and support to allow these services to continue.”

Include Youth Director Paddy Mooney said: “At Include Youth, it is an extremely difficult time for staff and the young people we work with. We are now in March, and at this point, we still have no clarity in relation to our funding situation, which is due to end in a matter of weeks. Sadly, we had to place some of our highly experienced staff on protected notice. This is not the position we, or any other organisations within the sector should be facing.

“We now face many risks; risks that the young people will not be able to access much needed services which upskill and support them into further education, training or employment; further risk of the young people feeling the devastating impact of increasing living costs, and the risk of highly skilled staff facing uncertainty with regards to their employment situation.”

A coalition of charities wrote to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in Britain last year to warn that some charities in the UK would be “unable to sustain” their services without clarity on when funding would be released. 

Richard Sagar, head of policy at the Charity Finance Group, said: ““There remains great uncertainty about when the funds will be allocated and, with every passing day, the time window in which the funds can be distributed and invested narrows.”