The community and voluntary centre will be “devastated overnight” due to the loss of ESF funding a Northern Irish charity has warned, saying it is the result of the Brexit fallout and lack of a functioning government.
On Friday, March 31, the European Social Fund will cease to exist in Northern Ireland and will lead to tens of thousands of vulnerable people losing vital support services that they have relied on for years and countless more having a reduced level of support compared to generations before them.
Gráinne Close, the director of Mencap NI, has said that its employment support services for those with learning disabilities will lose 70% of its funding and that its support infrastructure, which it has developed over the course of 30 years, could disappear overnight.
Read more: Loss of European Social Fund ‘will cripple communities and cost the government more in the long run’
She said that while she is hopeful of a replacement fund for ESF to be announced later this week, not enough has been done to address the issues over the past four years and it is very disappointing that organisations are waiting until the very last minute to discover if they can continue providing support.
Speaking to Belfast Live, Gráinne said that the loss of funding will have a “ripple effect” across Northern Ireland and it is not just those who use Mencap’s services that will be impacted, but families, communities and government departments across the country.
She said: “The emotional upheaval this has caused our colleagues, trainees and their families has just been awful and there are many other organisations like us who are in a similar boat and facing the uncertainty over the loss of ESF funding.
“We are now in a position where we cannot even signpost people in the right direction for support because it is just not there and I fear that if we lose this funding and these services, they will never come back again.
“Mencap has an employment support infrastructure that has been built up over 30 years, so you can imagine the knowledge and skills that have been developed building that up and we could lose it overnight.
“I am holding on to hope for what has been promised to us and there will be a replacement fund. But it must be stressed that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund is not a replacement fund.
“A 30 year infrastructure gone overnight, it is frightening. This is not going to just impact the individual, because there are real lives behind these numbers, but this is looking at their families, their communities, the economy, health service and social justice. There will be an impact on all of this and we will feel a ripple effect from this loss of funding.”
Gráinne said that “broken promises” in the wake of Brexit and a lack of functioning government in Northern Ireland has meant that the loss of funding will have a bigger impact here than Wales or Scotland.
She continued: “The primary issues are twofold, we are looking at the fallout of Brexit and broken promises, where we were promised a replacement fund that has not been delivered.
“We know that there is money in the system, but because there is no functioning government here we are not able to get that money because we need approvals around the mechanisms of moving money from one department to another and without ministers in place and a functioning government, we can’t do that.
“So if you compare us to areas like Wales with its devolved government, they are able to roll the money out and things are happening, they have been able to negotiate with the SPF, but we can’t.
“If Stormont was up and running, a lot more could be done to get this issue resolved.”
Gráinne highlighted how Northern Irish Oscar winner and Mencap Ambassador James Martin , had been a standout success from the employment support services run by Mencap and how the loss of ESF funding will stop future generations from getting the same opportunities that he has.
She also said she is particularly worried that there will be an increase in social isolation for many people with learning disabilities who will no longer have access to support.
She said: “Oscar winner James Martin for example, came to our nursery when he was a baby and that is how his connection with Mencap started and it has continued as he accessed our employment services right through adulthood and has now won an Oscar. Without that support he couldn’t do that.
“These helped him build his confidence and showed that these services are not just about jobs, but supporting trainees and their families and allowing people with learning disabilities to become more independent and a bigger part of the communities.
“The whole premise of the ESF was social inclusion and providing the most marginalised with support and we are at risk of losing that and future generations, even the next James, won’t get that.
“There are a lot out there who have nobody and the employment officer may be the only person they speak to and those are the ones I am really afraid for.
“People feel forgotten about or like second class citizens.
“Our staff also have families and responsibilities and 50 people’s jobs are at risk. These are staff who are very specialised, but the first thing they worried about was the trainees and what will happen to them because they know the impact.
There needs to be a replacement fund for ESF in Northern Ireland in order to ensure that the most marginalised in our society are protected and supported.”
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