The DUP has defended the Social Investment Fund (SIF) after the controversial scheme was compared to the botched Renewable Heat Incentive.
Alliance’s Chris Lyttle, who referred the SIF to the Audit Office, called for an independent inquiry to be commissioned “immediately” to address the issues raised in today’s report.
He said: “Whilst some organisations may be delivering good outcomes on several projects, SIF has been characterised by a lack of transparency and delivery since its inception.
“The decision of the DUP and Sinn Fein to dispense with proper public procedures for the appointment of steering groups and lead partners is another governance failure by these two parties.
“The management structure, in addition to the lack of minutes and accountability around the entire scheme, are just some of the many reasons Alliance brought an Assembly motion expressing deep concern around the formation, implementation and operation of SIF, while calling for an independent review of the entire process. However, it was defeated by a combination of DUP and Sinn Fein votes.
“These fundamental issues are why there should be an independent inquiry commissioned into SIF and its operation immediately, so the lessons which this report outlines can be learned and we can ensure there is no repeat of the vast sums of public money being spent without proper accountability.”
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon MLA said the findings bore “a striking resemblance” to revelations from the RHI Inquiry. The report is “further evidence of the appalling type of government the DUP and Sinn Fein were running in partnership” she said.
“It is a damning report on how the SIF scheme was devised and operated,” she added.
Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of “taking a good idea and mangling it”.
He said: “The NI Audit Office report is damning in its own right, but in the context of what we have heard from the RHI Inquiry, yet more proof that the 10 years the DUP and SF ran devolution from Stormont Castle was a wasted decade for our people.
“For anyone thinking RHI was a blip, this report shows the failings are systemic.”
However, the DUP’s Emma Little Pengelly MP said “all decision-making on the projects happened at an arms length basis with maximum flexibility given to the local steering groups”.
“The Social Investment Fund represented an innovative approach to tackling issues within communities where previous attempts had failed to deliver outcomes. The programme has benefitted so many communities in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods right across Northern Ireland and many thousands of people’s lives have been improved by it.
“SIF was designed to be flexible, with a ‘community-up’ approach allowing communities to identify where needs lay. The aim was to provide maximum flexibility to enable and empower communities to identify problems and solutions. This was an innovative, co-design approach.
“In adopting a new approach some challenges and early issues arose and the report identifies how many of these were recognised at any early stage and action taken. Whilst there were some issues around local steering group approach given the maximum flexibility context given to them by the Department, I welcome there is absolutely nothing to substantiate politically motivated allegations which had been levelled against the scheme.”
Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney said that the report had “flagged up a number of weaknesses in regard to processes, governance and transparency in the SIF scheme”.
He added: “Those lessons must be learned and applied to any future schemes. The Social Investment approach was based on a progressive ethos, seeking to empower local communities and include them in the decision making process.
“The Auditor and Comptroller General identifies a number of projects that are likely to have a positive impact. Sinn Fein’s focus will continue to be on tackling disadvantage and deprivation.”
In the 1930s the government at Stormont was divided. Unlike the sectarian divide which ran through the administration which collapsed in January 2017, it was divided just between wings of the Unionist Party, which monopolised power. More like today, amidst economic crisis it faced austerity imposed from Westminster. And what divided the unionist leadership was public spending.