Good morning everybody and thank you for the invitation to speak to you and your member organisations today as Minister for Social Development and lead Minister for relations with the voluntary and community sector.
I am delighted to see such a large turnout of committed and dedicated people here today from the voluntary and community sector, many of whom I have worked with in the past.
I fully recognise the significant contribution that the voluntary and community sector makes to civic society in Northern Ireland. Let me state quite clearly and up front that I am committed to ensuring that my department will continue to work closely with the sector to deliver social, economic, cultural and environmental improvement for the people of Northern Ireland.
The sector has an impact across many facets of life and I believe that in this Executive we have the opportunity to favourably influence policy in areas such as finance, economic development and health.
My Department is about people and the communities of which they are part, it’s about building on assets and opportunities to encourage self reliance and social responsibility. Under my leadership, this message will permeate all of our work, whether social security payments to those who need them, child maintenance, housing provision, physical regeneration, neighbourhood renewal or relations with the voluntary and community sector.
I am conscious that the Department’s work has a huge impact on peoples’ lives, delivering a budget of almost £6 billion per annum through 6,000 staff. Our work impacts on every community, town and village across Northern Ireland. The work is about supporting the most vulnerable, improving the quality of lives and ensuring access to support services.
I recognise that the voluntary and community sector has a major role to play here. The sector’s history of tackling need is widely recognised. Its future could be greater still.
As Minister I want to see my Department working towards sustainability, for individuals; for families, for communities and for voluntary and community organisations. That means:
•working with whoever it takes, whatever their background and wherever they come from, to help get people into work whether that’s part or full time
•facing the difficulties that the world market has placed upon us and helping people stay warm
•asking voluntary and community organisations to prove the value and impact of what they do as a condition of funding, encouraging those who seek to become self sustaining, prioritising support for front line organisations over infrastructure bodies, seeking out and rewarding innovation, and entrepreneurial leadership
•balancing rights and responsibilities, making sure that all parents are encouraged and where necessary required to support their children through child maintenance payments
•working actively in communities to identify the assets and the opportunities and to overcome the obstacles to economic growth
•ensuring affordable housing provision in Northern Ireland.
I am committed to renewing communities and I have already started looking at how we are doing with neighbourhood renewal, building on the good work that has already been done, putting opportunities for economic growth at the forefront. It is imperative that projects develop new kinds of solutions to address needs in neighbourhood renewal areas. I think here, as an example, of the possibilities that may exist around asset transfer and I’ve already opened discussions with the Finance Minister on this matter. My department aims to protect the delivery of front line services by freeing up resources which can be used to benefit local communities. From next year larger scale Neighbourhood Renewal projects will receive the security of 3 year contracts and they will have the opportunity to deliver services to meet local priorities.
Today when I look around this room I see huge potential, I see people of experience and creativity who are called, by strong values, to be of public service. I am excited at the thought that we can work together to create new opportunities in the interests of people and the communities of which they are part, I am firmly of the opinion that the social economy model holds the key to increased sustainability for the sector and I’m modest enough to accept that I don’t have magic solutions at my disposal. My door is open and I invite you to come share with me .your ideas for how, together, we can make changes.
Let me take a moment to outline what it means to me to be the lead Minister for the sector. It doesn’t mean that every matter relating to every voluntary or community organisation in Northern Ireland will concern me. Nor does it mean that I am well disposed towards every voluntary and community organisation. We all know that for voluntary and community organisations, as for civil servants, politicians and those in the private sector – some deliver better than others.
My Ministerial colleagues have well developed relationships with the sector related to the business of their particular Departments. Many of you in this room do business with Edwin Poots and his officials in the Department of Health. Arlene Foster has the the social economy remit, an agenda that I very much want to help drive. SammyWilson as Finance Minister has a particular interest and many of you will know he has been considering the matter of Dormant Accounts. The First and deputy First Minister’s interactions with the sector are considerable – developing thinking on the Social Investment Fund and Social Protection Fund will interest many of you. And other colleagues have similar engagement – whether in the arena of the environment, education or skills development, culture and leisure.
So what role does that leave for the lead Minister to discharge, what is the nature of the need that is to be met at this time? Voluntary and community organisations are on the edge of a new era when old certainties can no longer be relied upon and when a new spirit of self reliance will need to pervade all that you do.
Many of you have already embraced this – I think here of the truly innovative community development work done in Broughshane and District Community Development Association who inspire us all with their spirit of enterprise and self reliance.
I think too of the work of those social economy organisations who have had the foresight to realise that grant aid doesn’t provide long term sustainability and who have set about using capital assets to generate income.
Certainly it seems to me that part of the lead Minister portfolio is to advocate on the sector’s behalf across government when the need arises. Now, we need to remember that you are skilled in advocating on your own behalf and you’ve got ready access to ministers, senior officials, committees, all party working groups. My role is not to supplant that but to support it and to make sure that at the Executive, the needs and contributions of the sector are recognised and you can help me do that. That’s why I attach such importance to the Concordat as the policy instrument to help us achieve that. We do however need to bear in mind that it will be useless if you as a sector don’t get behind it .
So too I will continue to ensure the department adds value by convening others to share ideas and good practice and that includes social economy organisations. And of course the department has particular responsibility for helping support the infrastructure or the skills and capacities needed in the sector. In recent days I have held detailed discussions in the Department on future arrangements for the regional infrastructure programme and for the support of other policy areas, volunteering and advice services among them. In keeping with the views expressed during consultation, the arrangements which will take effect from next April will see very significant change to current support arrangements with a clear emphasis on rationalisation and the ending of current contacts to be replaced with more targeted support arrangements. I expect officials to begin detailed discussions with organisations over the next few weeks. Let me say this – effecting these kinds of change will mean having to end historical allocations in order to meet new needs. I have asked my officials to ensure that funding is distributed on the basis of clearly evidenced need, for clearly demonstrable outcomes, closely aligned to the department’s policy objectives and that it is very carefully evaluated. My own party has made no secret of our interest in looking at Social Impact Bonds and alternative finance sources including philanthropic sources and at helping voluntary and community organisations ease their dependency on government grants.
In respect of generic regional infrastructure, the Department plans to achieve 25% reductions effective from the start of the next financial year and to advertise for one strategic partner or consortia to deliver. Broadly similar approaches will be used to support what we describe as thematic work – volunteering, regional advice services, support for women in disadvantaged areas and the faith sector although the detail is yet to be finalised.
I appreciate that many thousands of organisations operate on an entirely voluntary basis without any recourse to public funds. In those circumstances, it would be inappropriate of me to force mergers or insist on collaboration. That’s a matter entirely for the organisations themselves. It is, however, a different story when there’s public money involved. That’s why DSD did so much to light the touch flame of modernisation – bidding for and administering the Modernisation Fund, using the fund to help support collaboration and sharing services and I’ve seen examples since I came into office. The Department has provided assistance to the Building Change Trust to drive forward work on mergers and collaborations and has welcomed work being done in NICVA to help organisations collaborate, it’s important that this work continues.
The role of lead Minister requires real leadership in helping raise some of the tough and sensitive issues that confront us all when funds are limited – it’s all very well to say we prioritise the front line – what does that mean in practice what is the minimum infrastructure that we need to support to help the sector flourish and how, in practice, do we help voluntary organisations reduce dependency on government. These are the questions that I want us to focus on over the next while.
As a Minister in the last Executive, I, like all of my colleagues at that time, approved the new Concordat for relations between Government and the sector in Northern Ireland. The Concordat provides a supportive platform for other policy issues and support arrangements within DSD and across government and I intend to ensure that it is implemented robustly. The Charities Act of 2008 introduced by DSD was the most radical overhaul of charities legislation in Northern Ireland in over half a century and in the next few weeks I meet with the Attorney General before coming to a final view on amendment to the public benefit test. Once resolved, and I appreciate that legal complexities have meant it has taken longer than any of us envisaged, the way is cleared for the Charity Commission to begin the registration process in earnest.
We cannot fail to recognise that these are challenging economic times that impact heavily on communities and families. We all know that in the current economic climate that, as unemployment continues to rise, so does those seeking support from the Social Security Agency and requiring quality advice. We have many people dependent on benefits, compared to the rest of the UK.
So tackling poverty and the proposed changes to welfare reform being taken forward at Westminster will be a significant challenge to us all and I can commit that my officials will engage constructively with representative organisations on issues such as universal credit, social fund reform and objective assessment progress.
In closing, let me say this. The challenge facing us is enormous - let that not deter us. The opportunities facing us are considerable - let us grasp them. Mine is a vision of a society where rights and responsibilities are balanced, where assets are identified and built upon, where social responsibility and economic opportunity are the norm, not the exception, where neighbour helps neighbour because it’s the right thing to do. I’m proud to be the Minister for voluntary and community organisations that are effective in achieving their missions, collaborative in working with government and each other to tackle need, able to demonstrate the impact of their work not to me but to the communities of which they are part and trusted and deliberate in working with my Department and with others for the public good. I look forward to working with you.