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Extern charity forced to axe 47 jobs and end family service 'due to Stormont collapse'

By Jonny Bell

A family support service which helps vulnerable children and their families has been told to close at the end of the month with the loss of 47 jobs - and the man in charge of it has laid the blame on the collapse of the Stormont institutions.

Belfast’s Intensive Family Support Service (IFSS), is operated by Extern, a social justice charity.

It works with families who are known to statutory agencies, and who have a range of long standing, entrenched and complex problems, ranging from self-harm, to addiction to suicide.

Extern chief executive Charlie Mack said a letter was received late on Friday saying £1.8m in funding would not be made available for it to continue on with the service.

He said the service had the support of both the DUP from its leader Arlene Foster, and Sinn Fein's Jennifer McCann and that ministerial advisers made promises the funding would be made available.

"The first casualties of the Northern Ireland Assembly collapse is vulnerable children and their families," he told the BBC Stephen Nolan show.

Mr Mack said that when he told the 47 staff facing the loss of their jobs, their first thought was for the families under their care.

An emotional Mr Mack said he was shocked and devastated at the decision.

"It takes 83p, per day, per child. This is a service which has been transforming the lives of 260 families every year," he said.

"Words fail me. This is a scandal, only 12 days ago we were told it would be morally wrong not to continue with this service. We had asked each of the five departments for £360,000 per year.

"And yet we have £85,000 a year going up in smoke every day on the RHI scheme."

He added: "The most recent departmental resource budgets for the five departments, totalled £9.5bn. This equates to over £25m per day. We are asking for 83 pence per day, per child or family member.

"I have huge concerns about this. Should funding not be found to continue this service, the sad alternative is that Stormont will be casting a very long, and very dark shadow, over the lives of the most disadvantaged children and families in Belfast, for a long time to come.

"As a society, we cannot allow that to happen, and so Extern remains committed to working with departments to ensure the continuation of this vital service.”

Mr Mack said he received a letter from the permanent secretary of the Department of Health. It was asked for a response and referred us to the Health and Social Care Board.

A spokeswoman from the Health and Social Care Board said: “The Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) procured the Belfast Intensive Support Service on behalf of five government departments, Health, Communities, Education, Economy and Justice on a pilot basis for 3 years in 2014.

"The contract expires on 31 March 2017. The HSCB has, at no time given any notice of extension of the contract, and has been actively engaged with Extern (the service provider) since January 2017 discussing the conclusion of the pilot.

“The service was comprehensively evaluated to ensure the learning identified can be applied to existing and future services.

“Families involved in the pilot have been engaged with and supported by Social Services throughout the pilot and this will continue.  We are working with the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust to ensure minimum disruption and impact to these families as the pilot comes to an end.”

DUP MLA William Humphrey said: “In February I met with Extern alongside my party colleague Frank McCoubrey and heard the concerns about funding first-hand. Had a budget been agreed, or even drafted prior to the collapse of the Assembly many of these problems could have been avoided. However, the key challenge now is to provide certainty for those who require the services provided by Extern.

"I will be working alongside colleagues to seek assurances from the Department for Health as to how they will provide for those impacted by this decision. It would be beneficial if the Department, and the former Health Minister could also share the results of this pilot scheme’s evaluation and what plans had been made for this service prior to the election.

"I remain fully supportive of Extern and its work. My Party Leader also outlined her support to the organisation and we will offer whatever support possible to help Extern and those whom they help.”

Green Party leader Steven Agnew added: "I share the disappointment of Extern CEO Charlie Mack that government funding for the Intensive Family Support Service (IFSS) has been withdrawn.

“This episode illustrates the human cost of the inability of the traditional parties to agree a budget and get on with government.

“This is a devastating outcome for the families who benefited from this service. I’m also angry that Extern staff will lose their jobs as a result of this funding cut.

“The need to agree a budget before the end of the month should be the focus of political discussions.

"If no budget is agreed I am certain that there will be further cuts to service with further job losses also inevitable.

“This is a failure of politics on the part of the traditional parties – there is no budget agreed and at present, parties are posturing instead of doing their job.”

Sinn Fein has also been contacted for a response.

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