The Chair advised that Councillor Duffy wished to raise a matter regarding the third tranche of Department for Communities (DfC) funding towards the Community Support Service and suggested that the item be discussed under confidential business.
Councillor Duffy queried the rationale behind the suggestion to discuss the matter in confidential business.
The Chair advised that the matter may be better suited to be discussed in confidential business due to the financial aspects and also that there was no report available. However, if she wished to discuss the matter in open business he was content for her to proceed.
Councillor Duffy stated that she wished to raise the matter under Chairperson’s Business.
Councillor Duffy stated that she appreciated the Chair allowing her the opportunity to raise this matter. She stated that whilst she was aware that financial matters would be discussed, unfortunately she and other Elected Representatives had been contacted by community support hubs regarding the Warm, Well and Connected Programme. She stated that the funding for the first and second tranches to the programme had resulted in it being oversubscribed. She noted that the Outer North Area Partnership were using their own money in an attempt to sustain the programme, due to the increased hardship during the month of January. She stated that January was already a difficult month for many people but had increased with Covid, furloughed staff, job losses, children being at home and increased pressure within households. She advised that requests for fuel was a significant issue over the past number of weeks and that a number of the neighbourhood partnerships were currently running at a loss due to providing people with fuel. She noted that a report on the funding would be presented at a future Committee meeting. However, the urgency of the matter meant that it had to proceed rather that waiting until February or the beginning of March to have the report ratified by full Council. She stressed the importance of the funding being immediately allocated to those partnerships to allow the community support hubs to continue their vital work.
Continuing, she stated that community workers hoped that by February, the need for their services would be lessened. In terms of the additional funding, she asked how much was available as she was aware that a recent announcement had been made by the Department for Communities (DfC) towards funding for community support and also connectivity funding from Council. She stated that if money was now available, she proposed that it is directed to the community support hubs as a matter of urgency. She stressed the urgency for the immediate allocation of funding as there were elderly people and children who were without heating in their homes.
The Director of Health and Community advised that Officers had given a verbal indication just prior to Christmas that further funding would be received. She stated that it was estimated, based on previous allocations from tranche 1 and tranche 2 of £280,000, that this would be a similar amount. She stated however, that they had been advised that it would be a more significant amount of approximately £440,000. She advised that Officers had been working on proposals across the three criteria themes of food, income and connectivity and continued to do so. She advised that a meeting scheduled for the following day with Council’s audit, procurement and legal teams, with a view that a report would be presented at full Council on 28 January. She stated that she was unaware of today’s announcement, therefore did not know what further funding was proposed but certainly would follow up on the matter. She noted that Officers would discuss the implications of the Warm, Well and Connected programme with DfC and stated an update would be provided to Members on the relevant issues and what the likelihood was of further allocations becoming available.
Councillor R Barr concurred with the sentiments expressed by Councillor Duffy. He stated that as a volunteer with Strabane Community Project, he had witnessed a dramatic increase in demand for services over the past few days. He stated that the need had increased in relation to food and fuel poverty. He stated that he had been involved with the community project since March 2020 and had not seen such an escalation in demand such as he now witnessed. He stated that as expected, mental health had also become a major issue with isolation, fear and health worries as well as worries regarding food and fuel poverty. This has exacerbated the problems that were being experienced prior to the coronavirus pandemic. He stated that the community project in Strabane had been instrumental in delivering meals on wheels, the good morning call and a social supermarket as well as being the main delivery partner in the Access to Food Programme funded by DfC and administered by Council. He expressed concern that staff in Strabane and other districts did not have the additional resources needed to cope with the extra demand.
Councillor Duffy Proposed, Seconded by Councillor R Barr
That the additional funding from DfC go directly to community support hubs for food and fuel, with the original money continuing towards connectivity.
Councillor Harkin stated that he had been contacted by organisations who reported having to shut their doors as they no longer had vouchers for fuel, electricity and food. He stated that this was a worrying situation and that everything should be done to ensure that those in need received help. He stated that there was a £2m underspend by the DfC for the Covid-19 Discretionary Support Scheme, which he described as alarming. He did not understand how this could happen, given the current situation. He stated that Council had requested on numerous occasions for the Executive to fund the Hardship fund and that linking this to the £2m underspend for the Covid-19 Discretionary Support Scheme was concerning. He stated that this Council area was now in a situation, as predicted, that there would be far greater need.
Alderman Devenney concurred that Council should do everything possible during this difficult situation. He asked the Director for clarity regarding procurement. He then referred to the underspend in the Hardship Fund with St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army, and asked how the underspend would be used.
In response, the Director of Health and Community advised that procurement and detailed governance issues would be discusses with relevant Officers at the meeting tomorrow regarding DfC’s additional funding. In terms of the Hardship Fund, it had been agreed that a further report to the Welfare Reform working group would be presented in the New Year, outlining options and proposals in relation to the implementation of stage two of the Hardship Fund. She stated that it was her understanding, that a meeting was scheduled to take place on 2 February 2021 to accommodate the Voluntary Trust. However, this could be rescheduled to take place at an earlier date and advised that she would contact the Director of Legacy to convene that meeting early next week. She advised that conversations had taken place with partner organisations, however these would be formalised at the meeting of the working group next week.
Councillor Donnelly stated that it was obvious there was a significant need and demand within local communities, particularly those who were currently disadvantaged. He stated that there were issues with the procedures currently in place and had spoken to a number of people who had been ringing numbers for days and had not been able to get through. He reported that he had also spoken to two people recently, who eventually when they did get through, were told that it could take a further week to process their referral. He had spoken to Council officers on the matter and hoped that some of the issues raised would be addressed.
Councillor Ferguson stated that she supported the proposal. She stated that residents throughout the rural areas were experiencing similar issues. She stated that the community hubs in the area had to go out of pocket to purchase a second phone due to the significant increase in calls from people requesting help with fuel.
Councillor Farrell stated that if there was funding available, it should be allocated to those in need. He asked that in terms of the funding, it was his understanding that there was £300,000 allocated for connectivity, with a further £140,000 for food and fuel. He asked if this £140,000 would go directly to community support hubs. He advised that the Mayor had recently engaged with those community hubs and that a clear need for support was identified. He referred to the £200 Covid-19 heating payment, allocated to those in receipt of Pension Credit, Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Payment at the higher or enhanced rate. He noted that it has yet to be issued and there was a target date for the end of January for that support. He believed that if those £200 payments were allocated earlier it could reduce the burden on the community support hubs.
Councillor Farrell Proposed an Amendment, Seconded by Councillor Reilly
That the additional funding from DfC go directly to community support hubs for food and fuel, with the original money continuing towards connectivity. Council calls for the immediate release of the Covid Heating Payment.
The Director of Health and Community advised that in regard to the Covid heating payments, during the course of the meeting, she received an update from DfC in relation to the schemes of support and timelines which has been updated on the NI Direct website. She advised that she would forward Members the update once she had read it in detail as it may answer Members’ queries raised around wider programmes and timelines. With regard to the discussions, she advised and she was not in attendance at yesterday’s consultation meeting. However, she would receive a report from officials on the meeting the following day. She stated that support teams in legal and procurement and audit would be in attendance to discuss what level of consultation had taken place, how much the money was exceeded by and what was anticipated that Council would receive. Therefore, there was a level of discretion in terms of how the remainder of that funding would be spent. She stated that she would take Members’ views and considerations as part of that determination.
Councillor Gallagher stated that as a Committee non-Member, he requested that the Committee consider adding to the proposal that Council provide a resilience plan as part of that package. He expressed concern that some programmes would come to an abrupt end which would leave communities disadvantaged due to no resilience package being in place. He stated that this was important to ensure that everyone in need, affected by the pandemic, could access help.
Councillor Duffy stated that whilst she appreciated and concurred with the sentiments expressed by Councillor Gallagher, she felt that the request for Council to provide a resilience plan should be presented as a notice of motion at full Council.
Councillor Burke referred to comments made by previous speakers regarding problems with telephone lines and queries being answered. She stated that whilst working with the community in the Moor DEA, particularly over the past 10 days they have been inundated with referrals. She stated that there were also issues highlighted regarding money becoming available. She asked that Officers take this into consideration going forward.
Alderman Hussey welcomed the proposal and had no doubt that when presented at full Council it would achieve the full support of Members. He stated that it highlighted the fact that the communities needed immediate help. He asked if there was any indication why the Department for the Economy would be considering the delay in the issue of the £200 household vouchers, released by the Department of Finance, for families to use in their local shops.
Members were asked to vote on the Proposal, the result of which was unanimous.
Recommended That (i) the additional funding from DfC go directly to community support hubs for food and fuel, with the original money continuing towards connectivity and (ii) Council calls for the immediate release of the Covid Heating Payment.