Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 01 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon 
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Ms Frances McCandless ) Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action 
Ms Lisa McElherron )

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

I welcome Frances McCandless, the director of policy, and Lisa McElherron the policy manager of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA). I apologise for the slight delay in beginning the evidence session today.

The Committee normally invites witnesses to make an opening statement, and then asks that they to make themselves available for questions. We anticipate the session lasting no longer than 30 minutes, but that is not meant to rush you.

Ms Frances McCandless (Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action):

Thank you for your invitation. We are delighted to be before the Committee today.

We already supplied the Committee with our written submission; therefore, we will not go over that in detail. We will highlight some areas in which NICVA is involved in European issues, how the sector in general is involved and in what direction we believe that it might be useful to go.

As an organisation, we have a long history of engagement on European issues. For example, we provide members for monitoring committees, such as peace monitoring committees, INTERREG and existing competitiveness and employment programmes. Furthermore we, along with other partners, sit on the monitoring committees of those programmes and are usually involved in their negotiation. Moreover, we have been involved with the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) in the last two rounds of structural funds on working up some of the content of those programmes. Therefore, we have always taken a real interest in how the funding programmes play out.

We tried to translate that engagement into a policy interest, because as we feel that Europe should not be viewed as a cash cow. We are trying to encourage our sector to think about the fact that almost 75% of our legislation comes form Brussels, and that we need to think about intervening early and influencing policy, rather than just thinking about the money. In addition, we have also been involved in selecting representatives for the local peace partnerships.

Up until this year, we were an official Europe-direct information centre, and have been trying to get information out to our members. We also run training sessions on the European institutions, so that people are familiar with them. Furthermore, in the run up to this year’s European elections, we have held one session with all parties that are fielding candidates, and we will be running another hustings session before the elections. That session will attempt to arouse an interest in European electoral issues, which as the Committee will appreciate, is challenging. Therefore, we are engaged with Europe in many different ways.

NICVA also works with its sister councils in England, Scotland and Wales and with The Wheel in the South of Ireland. That work is carried out on a five-council basis on cross-cutting issues, and through that we have been involved in pan-European networks of national member organisations. Therefore, we try to influence all levels.

The Committee will see from our submission that many other organisations are involved in different ways, particularly on support and employment, which is a big issue in Europe. Those organisations are also involved in other issues such as gender, and I am aware that representatives from the Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform (NIWEP) are appearing before the Committee today. Rural issues, older people’s issues and anti-poverty issues are also considered. Therefore, many networks operate in our sector that we are plugged into and that are plugged into wider European networks.

We have often been involved at implementation stages and with funding, but we would like NICVA — and Northern Ireland generally — to move upstream a little, and become much more involved in early conversations on policy and programme development. However, that would possibly involve altering our representation in Brussels.

I was in Brussels last week and was based in the West Midlands in Europe office for a few days. That office is an interesting example of how a regional presence operates in Brussels. It is a partnership of local district councils, universities, notable local health bodies and other big players that work together to sell and influence on behalf of their region. Northern Ireland could also do that, and with the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels moving to a new location we believe that it may be timely for us to co-locate with it on a similar basis as the Scotland Europa office. That new office would form a network of member organisations — including social partners, education and many other different interests — in addition to the political representatives who would work together to maintain a presence for Northern Ireland in Europe.

There are lots of options that we can explore to expand our influence, both as part of the UK — because that is the structure that we are in — but also sideways, because Northern Ireland’s regional interests need to be articulated in slightly different ways from those of the rest UK when the big conversations come up. We are very interested in working on the development of such an idea, or even exploring within the existing office the ideas of social partners having a presence, maybe once a month or through hot-desking. Agricultural representatives could be present one month and the business, voluntary and community sectors, trade unions, and so on could be present in subsequent months.

We think that we can expand the service in many different ways. Having said that, we have always found the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels to be extremely helpful when we have been out there, and we commend the work that it has done.

We cannot talk about this issue without mentioning funding. We know that funding has already decreased substantially and will decrease further. The areas that are currently targeted for funding will be left exposed when the funding finally runs out. We are concerned about how some of those areas can be mainstreamed. I am not talking just about peace and reconciliation; I am talking about areas that are funded under competitiveness and employment, such as sheltered employment, skills development and other areas that are funded almost entirely by European money. Such areas are important to the mainstream issues in the Northern Ireland economy.

We are happy to take questions.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation, it was very helpful.

I must ask about sharing the office and how that would operate. Do you envisage each interest — business, community or voluntary sector — assisting with the costs of the operation, or do you see it as the duty of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) or the lead Department to fund such an operation?

Ms McCandless:

There are examples of how such schemes operate in other places. The member-organisations pay membership fees into a network that runs the office, and they share costs to a certain extent. It would be useful if the costs could fall more heavily on the organisations that could afford to contribute the most, because we do not want to inhibit voluntary and community organisations from membership.

The Chairperson:

That is almost like the old Northern Ireland Centre for European Co-operation, which was the precursor of the present arrangement, and in which local government had a significant role.

Ms McCandless:

Yes, perhaps, though with rather more of a link into existing institutions. We find that the organisations that we run are not well linked into our representatives on the Committee of the Regions or on the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). We have a European programmes advisory group that brings together all our interactions, but even the people out there who represent Northern Ireland in Brussels are not necessarily well linked into civil society here. We can work on all those issues.

Mr Shannon:

The voluntary and community sector has always sought grants and financial assistance. That is a fact of life, and, I make it clear that I believe that there is nothing wrong with that. If they can source some financial help, why would they not?

However, Europe is retracting, or trying to restrict what financial assistance is on offer and, therefore, the emphasis has changed slightly. How will we focus on the changes that affect us? How can you be involved in that and help that to happen? In the final part of your presentation, you mentioned that your office had a relationship with the West Midlands in Europe office. Was that at local government level? How could we replicate that? It may be that the role of local government in Northern Ireland will change too; however, I do not think that it will become like it is across the water.

Ms Lisa McElherron (Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action):

You are absolutely right about the funding; it is retracting from the more established economies, such as the UK and Germany, and it is moving towards the member states that joined in 2005 and the possible candidate countries such as Turkey and Macedonia. That will change the economic and geographical make-up of the European Union.

We must become cleverer and look towards other funding, rather than the peace and reconciliation fund and structural funds. Each of the directorates-general has its own funding to support individual pieces of work, and much of it is transnational and trans-European. We are not particularly good at that.

Certain sections of the voluntary and community sector — such as youth, and training and employment — are great at accessing that money. In general, however, we let lots of funding opportunities pass because they are transnational in nature and we do not have the resources and structures here to help organisations to get involved in transnational activity.

The EU Culture programme is great, but Northern Ireland got involved in only two projects the last time round. Money is available from that programme. Money is also available from the Directorate-General Communication in relation to European citizenship, engagement and social capital. We do not necessarily tap into that because we take a narrow approach and go for either structural funds or peace funding. Although those funds are contracting, there are other matters that fit into Northern Ireland taking a broader approach to our European membership and working more with other member states on joint activity.

Ms McCandless:

I went to the West Midlands in Europe office through a link with the University of Warwick, which is located in the West Midlands. That office is not entirely driven by local government, but they are key players in it. It is linked into big networks such as EUROCITIES. Of course, you are right; our local councils will not take on the huge number of roles — such as education and social services — that English councils have.

However, Belfast City Council is already a very big player in Europe. Other councils could come in behind it, especially as larger councils. There is a chief executives’ forum, and chief executives from the health bodies, the universities and the local councils work together on European issues and meet in Brussels.

The office also does a lot of work back home in the West Midlands, trying to convey the messages that Lisa just mentioned, such as highlighting the opportunities that are available for tapping into and linking into. It is a two-way process, and it seems to work quite well.

Ms McElherron:

That is the link that we are missing. NICVA works with our members on European issues, and the trade unions are doing the same. Agricultural representatives and local government are also very active, particularly Belfast City Council. The meshing together of all that is where we are missing the step.

The Committee of the Regions and ECOSOC are working well. The idea of presenting Northern Ireland, as a whole, on the European stage is where we are missing a trick. I am a very sad person — I became very excited when I saw that this Committee was examining that matter. It is something for which we, as European activists, have been pushing for a long time. We hope that this inquiry will help us to move that along.

Mr Shannon:

Do not be sad about that. We are also involved in that process and we are not sad.

Ms McElherron:

I also said that I was excited.

The Chairperson:

I think that we all need top get out more. [Laughter.]

Ms Anderson:

The connecting thread that runs through all the evidence that we have received is that we are not maximising opportunities here in the North, and that was pointed out by NILGA (Northern Ireland Local Government Association). We agree with you; we had a presentation and took evidence from Belfast City Council and a number of others, and we could see how far advanced Belfast City Council is.

We were in Scotland and we dealt with your sister organisation. Even taking into consideration what you have relayed to us about the work that you are doing, that organisation seemed to have a robust and active engagement with Europe in comparison. Should the Assembly seek to emulate what is happening in Scotland with the organisation there that is the equivalent of NICVA, and ensure that we have that kind of connective link here? Do you think that that is one of the recommendations that we should consider?

Ms McCandless:

It would be. We think that Scotland Europa is an obvious model for us to follow.

Ms McElherron:

When Scotland Europa was set up, not everyone was equally involved. Our sister organisation is of the opinion that Scotland Europa does not necessarily work as well as it could for the voluntary and community sector. However, not a lot of voluntary and community sectors are members, so they are not producing information that is relevant to the sector — but they would if there were more members. The lesson for us is to ensure that all the social partners are equally involved in the setting up of such a scheme.

The Chairperson:

Thank you. In your presentation, you highlighted that matters are moving on and that we will not receive long-term funding from Europe. What is your general view as to how we spent the money that we did receive? There is a view among some that the Republic of Ireland spent its money on infrastructure projects, such as new roads, bridges and motorways, whereas we spent money on building bridges of a different type. Is there an argument for a detailed analysis, review or a study to be carried out, perhaps by one of the universities, into how European money was spent and the value that it accrued?

Ms McCandless:

Very detailed ex post evaluations are done for the Commission after every funding programme. As you said, we went for a different range of benefits because our needs were different, and, on the whole, those evaluations have been positive.

In respect of peace and reconciliation funding, our take is that mainstream Government funding was sometimes pulling in a different direction and we wanted the tail of peace funding to wag the dog of Government spending, which sometimes propped up a divided society. Therefore, we must be careful about what we are looking at and what outcomes we expect. In the context of peace and reconciliation funding, overall Northern Ireland spending was a relatively small amount of money to transform a society that was otherwise interested in doing something else.

The economic development numbers have looked good for our spending on the most recent couple of programmes. There is always a difficulty in drawing down the money and spending it, but from our perspective on monitoring committees, we have been largely happy with how that money has been spent.

The Chairperson:

Finally, the Barroso task force report almost indicated that there was no new money, but that there were, perhaps, different ingenuous ways of drawing down money. What is your overall view on that, on the responses, and on the likely impact?

Ms McCandless:

If we get cleverer — more joined up — we could access more of that money. As Lisa said earlier, transnational elements are often the complications; it is not easy to pluck a French partner out of the air. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:

I have not tried that. I will speak to my wife about that. I am sure that she would be very understanding. [Laughter.]

Ms McCandless:

It is interesting that places such as Scotland also qualify for INTERREG, as does the South of Ireland; therefore, we can get a three-way partnership going for those programmes. However, it is extremely difficult to form partnerships for programmes that require partners in more distant places. A bit of brokerage and more joined-up thinking would help us to access different types of funding.

Ms McElherron:

I agree with the notion — as Frances said — of not seeing Europe as a cash cow and of approaching it in a more positive way by offering rather than asking for things all the time. For example, NICVA was involved with member states around civil society and the creation of an independent voluntary and community sector and charity management. It is the norm for people here to offer information on peace building, but there are other things that we are very good at that we can showcase across Europe and take a lead in transnational partnerships. Supported employment is an issue on which we have led in the EQUAL programme and that has generated a lot of great learning across Europe, led by partners from Northern Ireland.

Therefore, we have much to offer, and there must be a more joined-up and positive approach to Europe. Ultimately, asking what we can bring to the table, as well as maximising what we can get, will serve us all better.

Ms Anderson:

When the Committee met David Trimble at Westminster he said that the British Government was making a recommendation that structural funds should not be skewed towards the North. His view was that that would have no impact here, because it was not additional money and, therefore, it would not have an impact on the system. Last week, trade unions that appeared before the Committee took a contrary view — they thought that it would have an impact and that it was a move that should not be supported. What is your view?

Ms McCandless:

That is the position that the UK Government took last time round on the structural funds from 2007-2013. We did not support that view at that time. We saw that the new accession countries had much greater needs than our member states as a whole, but pockets of deprivation that must be dealt with are still seen within the richer member states.

However, it is true that the funds are additional only at Treasury level. If we were still able to access that money, it would make no difference to us whether it came from Europe other than the scrutiny mechanisms that come with European spending programmes, which we, as social partners, welcome.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much for your contribution and for responding to our questions. I will investigate that French partner thing. [Laughter.]

We will be happy to receive any further information that you can provide. If we have any queries we will make you aware of them so that you can address them in turn.

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