Some £27m earmarked for tackling unemployment and deprivation in some of Northern Ireland’s worst-hit areas could end up being spent elsewhere, it has emerged.
First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness may have to ‘surrender’ cash contained in the Social Investment Fund (SIF) back into the overall coffers.
Now UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, the chair of the Assembly committee which monitors their office (OFMDFM), is asking Stormont’s top two to make an urgent statement to the Assembly to guarantee the money will remain ringfenced for its original use.
The revelation of a further delay to the troubled SIF scheme — which the SDLP has branded a “slush fund” — came after a draft paper included in packs for committee members attending yesterday afternoon’s meeting, was withdrawn.
Mr Nesbitt said: “This is an example of the poor governance which the people of Northern Ireland should not become accustomed to.”
Slamming the admissions at the briefing as a “gross failure”, he said: “It became apparent that, based on the original papers contained in our committee packs, that the First and Deputy First Minister are currently considering surrendering as much as £27m which was supposed to be administered to communities through the SIF.
“This means that at present no funding at all has been provided to groups which is a totally unacceptable situation.”
An OFMDFM spokeswoman said last night: “The Social Investment Fund is intended to be an additional programe to tackle poverty, unemployment and dereliction here.
“To ensure the funding is targeted at priority issues and has maximum impact, efforts so far have been on establishing the correct structures and processes.
“We are now at an advanced stage with Steering Group membership to be confirmed in the coming days. We will then move forward with the planning process to assist communities in wider consulation across the zones to identify and evidence need.
“We remain committed to £80m funding over phase one of the programme and have ringfenced funds.”
The Social Investment Fund was launched in a blaze of publicity in the run-up to the last Assembly election with the aim of tackling poverty and unemployment in targeted areas. Earlier this year officials from the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister admitted they had concerns whether it would begin to deliver on the ground in the current financial year.