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Lives could be lost if charity cash isn't released, Stormont Executive warned

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Anger: CO3 chief Nora Smith

Anger: CO3 chief Nora Smith

Anger: CO3 chief Nora Smith

The body that represents the charity and voluntary sector has accused the Stormont Executive of being "dangerously slow" to release vital funding as charities face financial meltdown during the Covid-19 pandemic.

CO3 chief executive Nora Smith criticised the Department for Communities for delaying a scheme that was meant to alleviate some of the immediate pressures.

The department's Covid-19 Charities Fund was announced on May 7, but no further information on eligibility criteria or the application process has been published, according to CO3.

A recent survey by the body and the Institute of Fundraising illustrated the problems facing local charities.

Over three-quarters of charities reported serious financial difficulties and said they had been cut off from many previously announced government support schemes.

Last week Cancer Focus NI launched an emergency appeal for funds to save its vital services.

Ms Smith said that charities and voluntary groups had been an "afterthought" throughout the coronavirus crisis and feel they have been left behind.

"While hundreds of millions of pounds have been committed and released to businesses across Northern Ireland, the third sector has been left to fend for itself," she added.

"Continuing to prioritise business over people will be absolutely disastrous for our society. We are now 10 weeks into this pandemic with no clarity about how groups in our sector can get help.

"There are over 45,000 third-sector jobs in Northern Ireland and a lot of them are at stake. We need to see details and eligibility criteria for the £15.5m charities Covid fund as soon as possible."

Ms Smith added that jobs and key services which help the most vulnerable were being lost.

"Ultimately, lives could be lost if significant funding and support isn't directed towards our charities immediately," she said.

"We have proposed simple and straightforward support measures to save our charity sector: releasing funds that have been set aside to help those charities facing the biggest funding threats; amending the furlough scheme to allow charity staff to volunteer back into their organisations; establishing a stabilisation fund, as has been done in Scotland; and setting up a third sector resilience fund.

"We have been in regular contact with departmental officials on these issues and proposed solutions, but now is the time for action or many charities face imminent collapse."

A spokesperson for the department said that the Covid-19 fund would "open soon".

"The minister [Deirdre Hargey] fully recognises the issues faced by the sector and has confirmed that a £15.5m Covid-19 charities fund will open soon to provide essential access to funding for charities who have exhausted all other avenues of support and are facing imminent closure," they said.

Belfast Telegraph