Two hundred unemployed people from West Belfast are to be taken off the dole and given 12 months employment – with a further one hundred to be handed part-time positions, we can reveal.
The year-long paid placements with local businesses focus on getting people back into mainstream employment while paying them a ‘living wage’ – significantly higher than the minimum wage.
A number of capital programmes for West Belfast are also in the pipeline but have yet to be signed off.
The package is part of a £12 million local investment from the Social Investment Fund (SIF), which was set up by the Stormont Executive to tackle a lack of skills and give access to jobs as well as encouraging businesses to start up in areas which have suffered deprivation.
£80 million has been set aside for projects in some of the north’s most disadvantaged communities. The £12 million for West Belfast is the single biggest allocation for any area.
When the fund was first announced three years ago by the First and deputy First Ministers, it was denounced as “a slush fund for paramilitary types” by its critics.
Three members of Sinn Féin and one member of the DUP sit on the West Belfast Social Investment Fund Board, which also takes in the Shankill.
Last October, we reported that none of the £80 million had been allocated three years after SIF was first set up because the DUP were insisting the money be divided 50/50 between unionist and nationalist areas, even though out of the 20 most deprived wards in the north, 17 are nationalist. This led West Belfast SDLP MLA Alex Attwood to dismiss SIF, saying new money for disadvantaged areas should instead be allocated under the Neighbourhood Renewal programme. However, by the end of 2013 both Sinn Féin and the DUP had finally reached an agreement.
All projects have now gone through an economic appraisal and have been costed. The West Belfast projects will come on stream in a matter of months.
While most of the £3.3 million for the employment project will be spent over two-and-a-half years in taking 300 people off the dole – 200 full-time and 100 part-time – giving them the experience to gain future employment, further training will also be given to 100 people from West Belfast who are currently employed to help them progress up the career ladder. 100 more people will be trained in a pre-employment strand to move them into employment.
There will also be a separate training fund for unemployed people from West Belfast or those who are underemployed. This will accommodate up to 500 people.
An early intervention programme backed by SIF has also been signed off this week. £1 million is to be spent over two-and-a-half years focusing on young people in six areas who are potentially at risk of falling into or are already in the criminal justice system. The project will work with these young people and their families with the aim of helping them reach their potential.
Six full-time Early Intervention Development Officers will be employed to work with 180 hard-to-reach young people from West Belfast, while there will be support for a further 700 young people.
Another project which has yet to be cleared but is expected to be signed off is a £1.4 million numeracy and literacy project which will address the root cause of general educational underachievement in parts of West Belfast.
It’s envisaged that this project will introduce 16 full-time relevantly qualified numeracy and literacy support staff to work with up to 800 young people who will receive dedicated and focused support, while a further 1,920 young people will also be supported.
West Belfast MP Paul Maskey welcomed the investment and said that every payment that has been agreed will help shape the employment needs of West Belfast. He commended all the groups who put bids in and added that he was pushing for a SIF 2.
“Some groups weren’t successful this time round but I will be meeting with and working with them and we will be looking at other options to get them funding,” said Mr Maskey. “I will be giving my attention to these groups. But what has been agreed so far should go some way to help the employment opportunities for people in West Belfast.”
Answering questions in the Assembly on Monday, Sinn Féin Junior Minister at the Department of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and West Belfast MLA, Jennifer McCann, said the financial allocations for each of the nine Social Investment Zones have now been agreed.
“Officials have subsequently met with the chairs of each of the nine steering goups and then with each steering group to agree the projects within each of the area plans which can be funded within the available resources for the zone and to discuss the next steps to progress the delivery of these projects,” she said.
Ms McCann added that officials are currently focusing further efforts on securing approval of those projects which sit within the limits of affordability within each zone but have not yet been fully approved. This process should be completed by the end of the current financial year.
“In securing the £80 million for the Social Investment Fund we were very clear that the priority issues would come from the zones themselves rather than it being a top-down process.
“I know there will be some who are disappointed that projects will not receive funding, however funding is being allocated on the basis of prioritised lists from each of the zones.”