The Director of Legacy presented the above report, details of which had been previously circulated to Members. The purpose of the report was to provide Members with the recommendations from the Welfare Reform Working Group with respect to the Hardship Fund.
She advised that with regard to fuel poverty, some Members had indicated that there was still a need in respect to fuel, particularly in the rural areas. She stated that Officers have undertaken further investigation in relation to this. She stated that the Officer team were also attempting to estimate the approximate number of people who had currently accessed support, whether from DfC support administered through neighbourhood partnerships and local growth partnerships, or Bryson Energy and St Vincent de Paul and other local charities who had provided this type of support within local communities. She stated that Officers were also attempting to identify a proxy indicator to give some level of understanding in terms of need. She advised that at this point, there was insufficient information available in order to give a level of quantification in terms of need and that level of quantification was required in order to make a recommendation on a sum of money for audit requirements. Therefore, she advised that without that level of detail, they were unable to provide a recommendation at this point.
She advised that further recommendations from the Welfare Reform Working group had suggested that Council write to the Northern Ireland Executive regarding uncommitted funding and request that consideration be given to an allocation to the hardship fund and a request to work with Council in terms of Stage 2 of the process.
The Chair thanked the Director of Legacy for a very detailed report. He stated that as Chair of the Committee and the Welfare Reform Working Group, he extended his thanks for all the work and effort taken to present to Members on the matter in such a short space of time.
Councillor Burke echoed the sentiments expressed by the Chair. She referred to the external synopsis and research piece for Stage 2 of the fund and asked where this related to the work undertaken as part of the research carried out by the DfC Anti-Poverty Strategy and the Advisory Panel. She stated that there were local pieces of research that had been undertaken, particularly by the Outer North Neighbourhood Partnership and asked if this would be considered as part of the research as she felt it would ensure that no duplication would take place.
Continuing, she asked for confirmation that the synopsis would present an analysis of the level of poverty and the support available. She stated that if so, the hardship fund could be used to identify potential gaps. She further queried if the synopsis would consider elements such as educational under-attainment, low levels of employment and other factors related to poverty, hardship and economic inactivity in Derry and Strabane. She then asked if the external synopsis or elements of it could be compiled in-house by Council Officers. She explained that the reason for asking was due to Councillor M Boyle being approached by Job Directions in Strabane. She stated that this organisation was not included within the education remit, therefore had not been able to avail of assistance during the pandemic. She advised that the organisation had approached Councillor M Boyle requesting assistance for items such as computer hardware and essential skills and qualifications training. She suggested that some elements of funding could be saved by moving in-house, with savings directed towards this type of project, or if other funding could be available to alleviate some of the pressures the organisation was dealing with.
In response, the Director of Legacy advised that in relation to the synopsis, she had recently spoken to the Lead Policy Officer at DfC on the matter. She stated that he had indicated that whilst the expert panel report was completed, it was currently with the Minister for consideration. She advised that DfC was fairly confident that it would keep to the original timeline which indicated that the report would be ready for December 2021. She advised that it was not the intention of DfC to complete a detailed synopsis to the one currently under consideration by the Council and further advised that they did not have any information for Council officers to access. She advised that information from our own synopsis would be detailed to this Council area rather than across all council regions and that the DfC had indicated that they would work with Council in terms of providing whatever information they had access to in terms of statistics etc.
Continuing, she stated that she was conscious of the DfC Anti-Poverty report and wished to ensure that Council was aligned as much as possible in relation to that. However, Council’s piece of work will be completed in advance of that. She felt that ideally, that piece of work should be able to influence DfC in terms of the consultation process. She advised that Council had a piece of analysis bespoke to this Council area which would be extremely important. She concurred that it was important not to duplicate anything already in place. Therefore, she asked Members to pass on any information to the Officer team. She advised that in terms of the educational aspect, it was recognised that poverty was multi-dimensional and that a single event had not led to someone being in poverty.
She noted that the first section of the report had given an overall context of poverty with the key indicators of poverty and did not draw- down specifically to any one of those elements. She stated that to do that would be a very detailed piece of work and outside of the set timescale. However, the Officer team were aware of work undertaken by labour market partnerships and the social clauses work set up in relation to work being carried out by the anti-poverty working group. She advised that those pieces of work were collated to help form the overall details of the report. She stated that given the fact that it has the potential to be so comprehensive, in-house work would be carried out which would reduce the costs of going out to an external partner.
In relation to Councillor Burke’s comments regarding Job Directions. She advised of the Young People not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) Programme. She advised of the project by Mr Owen Barr, who had requested donations of used hardware. She noted that he had received considerable donations, however there was obviously considerable demand and suggested contacting him on for some assistance.
Alderman Devenney commended the Director of Legacy and Officers for the substantial piece of work carried out and the swift turnaround. He stated that at the meeting of the Welfare Reform Working Group, Members had agreed to target those areas where gaps in provision was evident. He stated that Council had £35,000 to spend before the end of the financial year and Officers considered the issues reported by Members. He stated that most issues had been identified and highlighted within the report. However, there were still issues regarding fuel poverty in the rural areas that perhaps could be identified at a later date. He welcomed the recommendation in the report for funding towards the Advice Services and felt that this would be needed as they would become the frontline services once the pandemic came to an end.
Councillor Ferguson also thanked the Director of Legacy and the Officer team on an intensive piece of work. She commended Officers who were asked to consider funding for £35,000. However, they reported a substantial figure of £73,000 funding required with a number of different aspects being taken into consideration. She welcomed that the Churches’ Trust have been included in that funding allocation.
Alderman Hussey thanked Officers for the work undertaken in what was clearly a very fluid situation. He particularly welcomed the recognition that a significant number of students from the Derg area and areas in Sperrin, e.g. Plumbridge, attended school in Omagh. He referred to Sacred Heart College in Omagh and believed it was a school with one of the smaller intakes of pupils from the Derg area, therefore he felt that the figure within the report was underestimated. He referred to schools such as Loreto Convent, Christian Brothers, Omagh Integrated, Omagh Academy, Omagh High and Omagh College, and stated that there were a number of pupils that attended those schools from the Derg area. Nonetheless, he stated that the recognition was extremely welcomed. He stated that he hoped the additional money towards Advice Services would include the ability to contact people from the rural areas as it was important to have outreach in those areas from the Advice Services. He referred to the Anti-Poverty Training Programme and asked if this could be made available to Elected Representatives throughout the rural areas. He stated that the original motion passed at Council regarding the Hardship Fund, had asked that local businesses be approached in regard to contributing to the fund. He asked if any businesses had contributed thus far.
In response, the Director of Legacy stated that this would be considered as part of stage 2 of the fund. She advised that the design of stage 2 would be to identify those priority groups that required support and a campaign would go out to businesses and other potential grant bodies that would be able to provide support. She advised that the £50,000 allocated to the Hardship Fund was primarily for immediate support to carry out a number of interventions, given the level of need that had been identified before Christmas. She advised that stage two was considered more as a longer term intervention.
Councillor Harkin referred to the statistics within the report for this Council area, particularly, relative poverty at 23% compared to 18% across the North, absolute poverty at 21% compared to 15% and 50% of the youth living in the 20% most disadvantaged and deprived areas. He described the figures as startling, particularly as they were pre-pandemic. He stated that Officers had undertaken a lot of work to try and establish where money could be spent. However, he felt that the reality was that a lot more money could be spent due to the level of need which was significant across the city and district. He believed that in his opinion, Council had taken this course of action due to the failure of the Executive and the Conservative Government to protect people.
Continuing, he stated that people were living in poverty because of a welfare system that was not fit for purpose and that punished people rather than helping them. He further stated that a lot of people in employment were also in poverty and that this number has dramatically increased. He expressed his lack of confidence in the Executive’s ability to present a strategy to address those issues. He felt that Council was trying to help people as much as possible and it was necessary to lobby the Executive to start to address the matter systematically.
Councillor Edwards stated that he appreciated and welcomed that fuel poverty in the rural areas has been recognised in the report and requested details on future provision in this regard. In terms of digital poverty, he stated that it was a major issue that had been raised within the Derg Growth Partnership. He stated that RAPID would be introducing an application process and asked if Council would be engaging with schools to identify eligibility. He stated that the Minister for Education had a scheme in place. However, only certain year groups could apply for digital devices and asked if there was also a timeframe involved.
In response, the Director of Legacy stated that RAPID would receive the funding and would work with the three rural growth partnerships to identify the best approach in terms of allocating the funding and the eligibility criteria. She advised that the organisation would then present their recommendations to Officers for approval. Therefore, there was time before now and the full Council meeting on 25 February. She further advised that Officers would contact RAPID, obviously pending approval of Committee and Council. She stated that she could not currently comment on the process as RAPID would be engaging firstly with the three local growth partnerships.
Recommended that (i) Members approve the allocations within the report; (ii) St Vincent de Paul be granted an extension for expenditure to the end of March 2021 for the sum of £15,000 as previously approved in their letter of offer and (iii) write to the Northern Ireland Executive, asking them to identify any budget underspends and direct them to Stage 2 of the Hardship Fund.