Poverty is an open wound for our society and has been for far too long. We need solutions and systemic change to tackle its root causes. The gap between the minority rich and ‘privileged’ and the majority of our community - often struggling just to put food on the table – cannot be allowed to continue to grow.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that we may all be in the same storm, but we are certainly not all in the same boat. The crisis has added extreme pressure to many groups including families living in poverty and those on low incomes; one-parent families; people with disabilities; women and young people.
I have witnessed first-hand the unprecedented pressures on our community and moved swiftly last March to put support in place for those who need it most. This support was to mitigate against the social, economic and wellbeing impacts of the pandemic, to protect individuals and safeguard the organisations and supports they depend upon.
Since then my Department has provided almost £304m of funding to address immediate and ongoing hardships with a focus on those in greatest need.
One of the first major schemes to be implemented was the £13.5million Access to Food Package.
In the initial months of the crisis over 204,000 food boxes were delivered to those who were shielding and others in critical need of food support.
Following this, my Department secured an additional £3.5m to address food poverty, £2.5m of which was allocated to Councils to provide food and everyday items and £1m to established charities.
The importance of community support and ensuring people had access to that support was also allowed for in these schemes and was bolstered further by a £6.5m Community Support Fund and £3m for a Warm Well and Connected programme.
The Community Support Fund addressed financial stress for those on low incomes, access to food and access to local support, while the Warm Well and Connected programme helped vulnerable people with support for fuel, along with interventions on well-being and help for those feeling isolated.
The adverse impact of cold conditions on the most vulnerable in the community was also targeted by a £44.2m COVID-19 Heating Payment scheme which provided a payment of £200 to over 200,000 people in receipt of specified benefits.
In the housing sector over £26m in funding has been allocated. This includes £13m in Housing Market Support for first- time buyers faced with tighter mortgage criteria and £7.1m for a Homelessness Scheme to address additional demands resulting from Covid.
£1.6m in Supplier Relief Payments and £4.5m towards Loss of Rental Income was also allocated throughout the last year whilst a £9.6m Supporting People Scheme funded practical support services for vulnerable people living independently. In addition £1.1m was made available to Supporting People providers to source necessary PPE.
Support to sustain many community-based charitable organisations whose vital work and services were severely impacted when needed most, has been provided through funding in the region of £20.5m.
£9.25m was provided to 314 social enterprises delivering vital community services in areas such as Health & Social Care and Well Being, with £2.5m also allocated to the Community, Voluntary and Social Enterprise Sector. This has enabled the safe delivery of essential services particularly those aimed at young people, older people, the medically isolated, disabled people and women.
My Department has also provided over £85m to Councils to support the delivery of their vital services and to help limit the financial impact on ratepayers going forward.
I immediately responded to the crisis in the badly hit sports and culture sectors, with a £5.5m Creative Support Fund, comprising an initial £1.5m followed by a further £4m allocation. A £29m Culture Resilience Fund was then established to further support individuals and organisations across the arts and creative economy sector.
The £25m Sports Sustainability Fund was set up to provide grants to help address the financial stress on Governing Bodies, clubs and sporting organisations. In addition over £2m has been paid out through the Sports Hardship Fund to grassroots clubs.
In response to the increase in demand for benefit support, I authorised a £5m Benefit Delivery Response package plus £3m for the Discretionary Support enhancements which I implemented immediately at the outset of this crisis.
I have invested £19.3m in a COVID-19 Recovery Revitalisation Programme for councils and a further £450k support for Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).
I am committed to exploring how the measures detailed above can be built upon further as our communities begin to recover from the drastic impacts of this global pandemic. However, we need to ensure that the recovery is fair and protects everyone. A rising tide does not lift all boats. We have to see transformative change to an economy that must work in the interests of broader society.
As we move through, what we hope are the final stages of the pandemic, my Department is planning for our social recovery. While many of the interventions I have outlined here were necessary, we must tackle the root causes of poverty.
I have commenced work on a long term Anti-Poverty strategy. We need to change how we do things and my focus, and the focus of this department, will be to see transformative change and delivery for those in most need. I want to establish a departmental advisory group to embed and deliver Community Wealth Building.
We cannot revert to what was done before and must create something better. We need to see systemic and transformative change in housing, economic regeneration, workers’ rights and environmental rights.
The financial constraints in which the Assembly operates also needs radical change. We need to see a transfer of fiscal powers that give our local institutions the economic levers and financial power to work for us locally. Traditional economic development and the financial constraints we operate in are failing to meet the economic challenges many of our communities face. We need to develop a new and ambitious model that gives economic control to local people with collective ownership.
Community Wealth Building can play a key role in this agenda with a focus on: creating a more just and fair labour market; and creating a more inclusive economy with more democratic and social forms of ownership such as community banks, cooperatives, social enterprises and community interests.
We also need to change how public institutions spend money with a focus on growing and rebuilding the local economy and ensuring land and property in our communities generates wealth for the people who live there.
We can create a better society that proactively builds participation, empowerment and accountability: a society that embeds human rights and delivers equal outcomes for our people.
This pandemic has seen communities working for the collective good. Let’s build something better: a society that strengthens the social, economic and environmental rights and protections for all.
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- Public appointment opportunity: Appointment of members to the Northern Ireland Central Investment Fund for Charities Advisory Committee 10 November 2023