Belfast Telegraph

Social Investment Fund 'flawed' and in need of root and branch reform: Former public standards chair

Dee Stitt with Arlene Foster at the Charter NI funding announcement
Dee Stitt with Arlene Foster at the Charter NI funding announcement

By Jonny Bell

The process to distribute funds from the £80million Social Investment Fund - which awarded £1.7m to an east Belfast charity headed by UDA boss Dee Stit - has been described as "flawed" and in need of root and branch reform.

Sir Alastair Graham, the former chair of the Committee into Standards in Public Life, said there was need for reform following an investigation by the BBC's Stephen Nolan Radio Ulster Show.

The show outlined a number of issues around the system developed by the Executive which is used to award money from the fund.

It described how members of steering committees decide among themselves who gets cash and can award it to their own organisations.

The programme also outlined how there was no competitive tendering process in that only those within the steering group were eligible for the money.

It was also revealed that there was no record of a voting process of the decisions taken in awarding the money to those in the steering group.

And there were no checks by the Executive on the people who are chosen as lead partner of the steering groups.

Former head of Committee on Standards in Public Life Sir Alistair Graham said the system appeared "flawed" and that to him there were conflicts of interest built into the system and that it needed root and branch reform.

He described parts of the process as "absurd and unheard of".

DUP MLA Emma Little Pengelly - who was involved in the process to draw up the system - responded: "I have never heard so much nonsense in all my life in terms of the issues that have been raised.

"What is absurd is Mr Graham coming on and discussing matters which he has no knowledge of," she said.

On the matter of there being no vote, she said decisions were taken on the basis of consensus and if that was not achieved, there would be a vote.

She said steering groups were made up of representatives from the political, community, business and statutory sectors.

The South Belfast MLA said steering groups - which included UUP, SDLP and Alliance members,  were the decision making body and not the First and deputy First Ministers.

"There is a process of decision making and consensus is the best way," she continued, "a formal vote is not normally required if there is a consensus."

She said there was nothing to hide in the process and a focus should be on delivery as it "impacted and improved people's lives".

"There was a consultation process which went out to all the people of Northern Ireland.

"There was a project board set up and chaired by a senior civil servant it made recommendations.

"The system in place is robust.

"There is good governance on this project - and that is a fact."

Sinn Fein Belfast city councillor Jim McVeigh - who sits on the west Belfast Social investment Fund steering group said he did not recognise the process described by the BBC programme.

He said: "We were appointed to the steering group on a cross community basis.

"People from community and voluntary organisations are involved.

"We have spent millions which has put hundreds back into work. We have numeracy and literacy projects which has improved the lives and prospects of children from the Shankill and Falls.  Early intervention schemes helped prevent people from getting involved in criminal activity.

"Because of the importance of the projects we wanted to work on a cross community basis, there was consensus so we had no need to vote."

Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, who sits on the east Belfast steering group, said he continually raised concerns while a part of the process and opposed the approach that decisions were taken by consensus and that only steering group members could become lead partners.

"It was flawed from day one," he said.

"This is not a criticism of those groups involved, this is a concern for a process devised by OFMDFM.

"It's a flawed process and needs full independent review."

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt described it as a scandal while the SDLP's Claire Hanna said the scheme was a "slush fund".

While TUV leader Jim Allister said the Northern Ireland Audit Office should investigate the process.

On Thursday night and ahead of the Stephen Nolan show, the Executive Office put out a 14-point briefing note on the Social Investment Fund

The note described the fund as "innovative" and improving the lives of people and community facilities.

It also said reports that Charter NI has been given or is controlling £1.7 million of Social Investment Fund money create a "false impression".

It said £1.5m is going directly to fund training, secure job placements and business start ups for hundreds of unemployed and underemployed people and will be delivered by GEMS NI.

The Executive Office also said governance and financial management arrangements of Charter NI.

  1. The Social Investment Fund (SIF) is an innovative Government programme to tackle deprivation.  A total of £80m has been allocated to SIF projects across the province. These schemes are already making a positive difference.
  2. They include 50 capital projects worth over £44million and 19 revenue projects worth £35million. The capital projects will make vital improvements to 115 premises across the local areas. The revenue projects focus primarily on employment/training support, early intervention services and educational support with others incorporating mental health services, social economy support, transport, fuel poverty and community capacity.
  3. Over £18.3million is being invested in projects to support people back into employment.  While none of the projects are completed yet, over 150 people have already secured full time jobs and credit their success directly to the SIF projects. One participant has spoken about how her children felt like they had a different mother since she has been on a placement.  Another person, now employed, was previously unemployed for 26 years, and said: ‘I would never have had the confidence to look for work, go for interviews or do up a CV without the support from the programme."
  4. The agreed model for delivery of SIF, implemented across all SIF zones, has been based around Steering Groups involving community/voluntary representatives and local political representatives. Opportunities were given to community/voluntary groups to apply for Steering Group membership, with the appointments made by OFMDFM (now the Executive Office).
  5. The agreed model was decided upon after a public consultation process and details of how it would operate were fully disclosed and explained as SIF was taken forward.
  6. The five main Assembly parties all took up places on SIF Steering Groups. The overriding political criticism of SIF has not been about the process but about the time taken to distribute funding.
  7. The Steering Groups' role was to identify the most pressing needs in their areas and develop projects to help address them. OFMDFM then approved the projects. This model was adjudged to be better than a top-down approach where civil servants would have decided what was best for neighbourhoods.
  8. As was explained all along, the lead partners for taking these projects forward were drawn from the Steering Groups. This helped ensure continued ownership of the projects by those who had originated them. The lead partners were chosen by a process of consensus within each steering group.
  9. These lead partners receive some funding for their role in overseeing the individual projects. But the great majority of the funding for SIF projects is being passed to publicly procured delivery partners to actually deliver the projects.
  10.  Charter NI was one of the community/voluntary groups on the East Belfast steering group selected for specific lead partner roles – in Charter NI’s case for an employability initiative.
  11. Reports that Charter NI has been given or is controlling £1.7 million of Social Investment Fund (SIF) money are creating a false impression. The £1.7m allocation is for the employability initiative. Some £1.5 million of this funding is going directly to fund training, secure job placements and business start ups for hundreds of unemployed and underemployed people.  This is being delivered by GEMS NI.
  12. As Charter NI’s website explains, it has received grant-aid from a number of public bodies aside from TEO.  As part of the normal SIF process, TEO/OFMDFM carried out a check on the governance and financial management arrangements of Charter NI, to ensure its capability to manage public money. This included a site visit, a review of the organisational structure including confirmation that a board is in place; there are appropriate management structures; a review of the financial and governance processes to ensure the necessary policies and procedures are in place and implemented to effectively manage and account for funding.  On site verification and governance checks will be ongoing throughout the duration of the project.
  13. The employability scheme is in the process of being established by Gems NI. Calls from Opposition MLAs for the funding to be halted would halt this work, and jeopardise the planned support for unemployed people.
  14. Demands to halt funding need to have a sound legal basis. Governments cannot withdraw funding simply on the basis of media allegations; or because politicians don’t like the outcome of disciplinary or personnel processes within organisations. It also appears to be being suggested that funding of the community sector or appointments linked to any public money should be subject to vetting processes based on police intelligence. Is this what Opposition parties are actually advocating?

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