Belfast Telegraph

Theresa Villiers rejects Assembly call to save charity Praxis cafe at Hillsborough Castle

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has spurned an Assembly appeal to reconsider the closure of charity Praxis Care's garden centre and coffee shop at Hillsborough Castle.

Stormont parties yesterday united to support a Sinn Fein motion urging Mrs Villiers (below) to "explore all avenues" to protect the employment of 16 people with learning disabilities who staff the centre.

MLAs also condemned the Northern Ireland Office's (NIO) refusal to offer compensation or financial help for Praxis to move.

Opening the debate, Sinn Fein Junior Minister Jennifer McCann said the NIO's "cruel and callous" ultimatum for Praxis to leave should be withdrawn immediately.

Describing the current stand-off as a "totally unacceptable situation", she warned enormous stress and anxiety had been endured by staff with learning difficulties after the Coalition at Westminster decided it would not honour an agreement made with the previous Labour administration.

The SDLP's Fearghal McKinney warned the decision to end the holistic and high quality care outside an institutional setting ran counter to the Bamford mental health review, which argued that people with learning disabilities need stimulation and trust.

Health Minister Edwin Poots, speaking from the back benches, said recent noises from the NIO had been more positive, and all parties should focus on a solution which would ensure the well-being of those with learning difficulties were met.

Ulster Unionist Party MLA Michael Copeland called the approach of the NIO "mind bendingly stupid", and said even if it was entirely within its legal rights it could not be justified on moral grounds.

Alliance's Trevor Lunn argued: "Mr Cameron's 'big society' idea seems a bit hollow in the circumstances – they are really pushing the boat out for some of the most vulnerable people."

And NI21 leader Basil McCrea said that there had to be some fundamental misunderstanding for the NIO to get itself into such a poor public relations position.

But Mrs Villiers responded that while she appreciates the work of Praxis Care and the concerns of many, the status quo at the castle was "simply not an option".

She said: "The NIO has neither the finance nor the professional expertise to manage the castle and enable its full potential to be realised.

"In choosing a new operating model for Hillsborough Castle, we were seeking the best option for the local area and for Northern Ireland more widely.

"The NIO has provided Praxis with generous terms over several years, including an annual licence fee of £1. Praxis was aware from the outset that the licence agreement was not open-ended.

"The NIO has extended Praxis' use of the Walled Garden on several occasions in order to provide them with adequate time to seek an alternative location. This is despite the fact that Praxis had agreed to vacate the property with one month's notice.

"We understand that Praxis have identified a number of potential sites."

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