Sure Start workers handed notice as funding runs out
A scheme that supports parents and children under the age of four who live in disadvantaged areas across Northern Ireland has issued protective redundancy notices to its 50 employees.
The notice to staff at South Belfast Sure Start was given on Monday, its chairwoman Eleanor Jordan said, because the project is funded by the Department of Education and "there has been no further funding confirmed beyond July 31".
South Belfast Sure Start's 50 staff look after 1,600 infants and young children up to the age of four and support their families.
The programme was set up in 2001 and this is the first time that staff have been sent notice letters, Ms Jordan said.
The staff team of mainly family support and early years workers are worried, she added.
"Taking politics out of it, the reality is that they have only three weeks of secure employment left," Ms Jordan said. "Most of them have families and homes to support and are already struggling because the wages are generally low and they haven't had a pay rise in three years.
"They work extremely hard, often in the most difficult of circumstances, and I know they will be just as worried about what the loss of Sure Start services would mean to the families and children they work with."
The Sure Start programme works in the heart of the most disadvantaged communities of south Belfast, which, Ms Jordan said "have borne the brunt of the Troubles and already feel left behind in many ways.
"I cannot understand why a government would be so dismissive of its youngest citizens, especially those who are the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in society," she added.
"All the evidence is that investing in early years is the most successful way for a government to improve outcomes for the whole of society. How are we going to be able to progress in NI if these babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers get forgotten about amongst all the other things politicians are arguing about?
"We are calling on all politicians to come together and take whatever action is needed to ensure jobs and the essential services provided by this organisation are sustained."
There are 39 Sure Start programmes across Northern Ireland, mostly based in the 25% most deprived electoral wards.
Tina Gregory, manager of Clan Mor Sure Start on Albert Street in Belfast, said their future is equally unclear. "Nobody has been given notice here," she said of the 30 or so staff at the project, "but it's all very uncertain.
"We all got a letter with our interim four-month funding allocation, taking us from April 1 to July 31, stating that there was 'no guarantee' of funding after that because of the political situation.
"We're hoping and assuming that everything is going to be okay. It is very distressing but you just have to remain hopeful."
DUP MLA Christopher Stalford described the situation as "a disgrace" on his Facebook page.
He wrote: "I have just been contacted by a person who works for Sure Start. She, and every other person working for the organisation, has been put on pre-emptive notice that they will be out of a job by July 31 unless devolution is restored.
"Doing this to people over a language act is a disgrace. Selfish madness."
At the time of going to press the Department of Education had not responded to a request for a comment.