No need for Social Investment Fund which looks after Executive pet projects: Ex-Justice Minister David Ford
Former Justice Minister David Ford has said there was never a need for the Social Investment Fund, describing it as a scheme to "look after Executive pet projects".
It comes following the controversy surrounding the awarding of £1.7m in public funding to ex-prisoner charity Charter NI.
The organisation's chief executive and self confessed UDA leader Dee Stitt then gave an interview to The Guardian in which he described his North Down Defenders flute band as "homeland security," protecting his territory, "from anybody".
Calls were made for Stitt - who now says his paramilitary history is in the past - to stand down, which he has resisted.
He apologised to the Charter NI board which issued a final written warning following an internal review.
Following on the back of the controversy, questions have been raised over the £80m Social Investment Fund system, set up to help fund community projects and deliver "social change".
South Antrim MLA and ex-Alliance leader Ford, speaking to BBC Stephen Nolan Radio Show on Thursday morning said there was never a need for the fund in the first place describing it as a "slush fund".
Asked what his plan would be to tackle paramilitaries, he said he would not pose for pictures alongside paramilitary leaders, referencing Arlene Foster's recent photograph alongside Dee Stitt.
He said: "Clearly we need a strategy which doesn't just reward paramilitaries but actually assists those people caught up with these organisations and can't get out and deals robustly with paramilitaries.
"There is work being done, but not by the Executive and the Executive completely fails to get a cross-departmental approach.
"The reality is that the Social Investment Fund did nothing which couldn't have been done and in many senses should have been done by the Department of Social Development or possibly the Department of Employment and Learning over things like job skills.
"There was no need to set up a fund to bypass normal tendering processes to pass on money in a way which did not meet the good standards of managing public money policy.
"It was clearly being done in a way which bypassed normal processes to enable the Executive Office - as it now is - the Office of First and Deputy First Minister, to work with particular pet projects rather than working through normal procedures."
He also said former Deployment and Learning Alliance Minister Stephen Farry was put under "significant pressures by the DUP" to put funding through "abnormal procedures" without doing proper business cases, which was resisted.
"That is what ministers should be doing and not what ministers are doing now," he added.
Although Charter NI did received funding for one project from Mr Farry's department following a successful tender process, Mr Ford said.
Justifying Alliance party members sitting on steering group committees of the fund which managed the distributing of money, Mr Ford said it was "essential to see what was going on" and that without them and "good journalism," there would have not been the revelations in the past weeks.
The Executive Office responded: “The Executive is committed to the vital task of ending the scourge of paramilitarism, in conjunction with law enforcement agencies.
“The recommendations from the Fresh Start independent panel report have been accepted in full, and the Executive action plan published in July is being actively progressed.
“This involves developing a range of detailed initiatives and deploying funding at the right time to the maximum effect. Work this year includes initiatives in the areas of forensic science, organised crime, reducing re-offending and speeding up the delivery of justice. Next week will see the launch of the first phase of a new public awareness campaign on organised crime.
“The independent panel report notes that the nature and scale of paramilitary activity has altered significantly since the 1990s but that paramilitary activity continues to impact on many individuals, businesses and communities.
“Tackling this scourge is a major priority and challenge – it will be done by relentless, patient work rather than rhetoric and grandstanding."
The statement continued: "The Social Investment Fund (SIF) is an initiative to tackle deprivation in some of our most needy communities. It has not allocated money to individuals but to organisations to deliver specific programmes that are rigorously overseen and audited.
"Political parties criticising SIF in recent weeks have been happy to attend SIF project launches, just as they were happy to sit on SIF steering groups overseeing the development of projects."
A DUP spokesman added:"The Social Investment Fund represented a new approach which was deemed necessary because previous attempts to tackle issues within these communities had failed to deliver outcomes.
"Alliance representatives remained on SIF steering groups throughout the process they are now criticising. It is notable that a previous claim [regarding lack of minutes for an east Belfast SIF steering group meeting] made by Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle relating to SIF had later to be withdrawn.
"When the Alliance Party criticises funding processes they appear to have forgotten the huge problems under the former DEL Minister’s watch in relation to the application process for the European Social Fund. This forced criticism from all three Northern Ireland MEPs, the DEL Committee and led to community groups protesting outside Mr Farry’s office."