In light of the public health situation, Parliament Buildings is closed to the public.

No public tours, events or visitor activities will take place, until further notice. 

Assembly business continues, check the business diary for information on Plenary and Committee meetings.

Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 06 November 2008

COMMITTEE FOR HEALTH, SOCIAL SERVICES AND PUBLIC SAFETY

Funding for Playboard

6 November 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings: 
Mrs Iris Robinson (Chairperson) 
Mrs Michelle O’Neill (Deputy Chairperson) 
Dr Kieran Deeny 
Mr Alex Easton 
Mr Tommy Gallagher 
Mrs Carmel Hanna 
Mr John McCallister 
Ms Sue Ramsey

Witnesses:
Mrs Marna Bell - Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety 
Ms Rosie Drysdale - Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety 
Mr Sean Holland - Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety

The Chairperson (Mrs I Robinson):

I welcome Mr Sean Holland, acting assistant chief social services inspector; and Ms Rosie Drysdale and Mrs Marna Bell of the family policy unit of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS). The witnesses will make a presentation, after which members will ask questions.

Mr Sean Holland (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety):

Thank you, Chairperson. The background to this meeting has been set out in the paper that we submitted to the Committee last week. In summary, the initial support for after-school programmes was provided by the Department of Education (DEL) through EU Peace II funding measure 1.5, entitled “Positive Action for Women”. That funding continued until August 2005 and supported approximately 90 after-school projects.

Following significant lobbying by PlayBoard Northern Ireland, which acts as the intermediate funding body for those groups — and considerable dispute among the various Departments about who should take the lead on after-school programmes — a short-term sustainability funding package was implemented by Lord Rooker, the then Minister with responsibility for children. As a result, Peace II measure 1.5 was extended to support out-of-school-hours projects that would otherwise have closed between August 2005 and December 2005. DHSSPS acted solely as a conduit for the money until the issue of appropriate lead ownership on the matter could be determined.

After that funding tranche, and in the absence of agreement on the ownership of the matter, the Department again undertook the distribution of ring-fenced resources under the then children and young people’s funding package, which had been launched by the then Secretary of State, Peter Hain, in 2006. That package included additional funding for a range of voluntary and community sector projects that worked with disadvantaged children and young people. Those projects related to the work of several Departments, but there was a central funding package, and funding for the after-schools projects was again extended under that measure.

That central funding package ended on 31 March 2008 and, at that point, each Department had to decide on any further funding for projects for which they felt responsible.

Although DHSSPS’s role had been only as a conduit for funding, which ceased on 31 March 2008, the after-school programmes follow the same funding cycle as school term time — from July to June. Therefore, to ensure continuance of the service until the end of the school year, we extended the funding to assist the after-school groups until 30 June 2008. That involved the provision of an additional £225,000 for that period.

We met Jacqueline O’Loughlin from PlayBoard on 20 March 2008 and advised her very clearly that no further funding would be awarded by DHSSPS, because the Department did not believe that after-school groups fell within its responsibilities, and that it had been acting purely as a conduit for centrally determined funds until that point. We suggested that she might approach other Departments that felt that they had responsibility in that area.

Following that meeting, we understand that PlayBoard opened dialogue with the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and with the Department of Education, but it was unable to resolve the matter at that time.

With funding due to end on 6 June 2008, in order to facilitate the resolution of the issue, the Health Minister agreed to extend the funding to groups that were already in receipt of funding through DHSSPS for another six months. That measure was taken on the understanding that DHSSPS was not accepting any policy or funding responsibility for those projects, and that OFMDFM would offer a clear commitment to cover the costs from in-year monitoring funds.

Minister McGimpsey wrote to junior Minister Jeffrey Donaldson about the after-schools projects on 6 June 2008, stating that they did not fall within the policy function of DHSSPS. He offered his opinion that they might fall within the definition of extended schools, but that that was for others to determine. He agreed that an urgent decision was required about what would happen to the projects in the future, but that he would not be prepared to contemplate devoting further resources from an already overstretched health and social care budget to fund projects that were outside his responsibility.

In extending the funding until 31 December 2008, he stated that he was taking that measure only on the clear understanding that it was accepted that the Department was not accepting policy responsibility by doing so, and it was made clear to all the projects that that initiative was time bound, and that, by the end of that period, those projects would have to find their own exit strategy either through support from other Departments or through integration with the extended schools policy, or by some other means. He received a response from the junior Ministers on 8 August 2008, which welcomed his decision to continue to fund the projects, and which stated that they would continue to discuss the issue with all relevant Departments in an effort to identify a way forward.

We have been engaged in dialogue and have had meetings with OFMDFM and the Department of Education to work towards a resolution of the issues. We will continue to participate in those efforts. However, we must be clear that we do not believe that funding for after-schools projects is the responsibility of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and we do not believe that we can justify awarding further funds to that area, given the urgent priorities that call on our resources across the full range of health and social care.

Based on the current funding award, which includes technical assistance to PlayBoard, acting as an intermediate funding body, an annual investment of approximately £920,000 is at issue.

Mr Gallagher:

We all agree that the extension of the funding until December was a welcome move. This issue again raises questions about functions that are split rather awkwardly among Departments, which is a real heartache and frustration for parents and other people who work with those groups. The only satisfactory resolution is to have one Department dealing with the issue, and it appears that the Department of Education is the appropriate one. Probably, in common with all Departments, it will not want that responsibility — at first, anyway — because costs are involved. However, from the users’ point of view, it would be much more satisfactory for that responsibility to be with the Department of Education — that is pretty obvious from the paper that you sent the Committee.

The Committee meets every week and tries to see how the budget can be stretched across all of the demands, though not always successfully. For that reason, our business would be a bit more straightforward if we dealt with health issues and the Department of Education dealt with education issues. The same situation applies to speech therapy, which is another unfortunate victim of a split in the functions of the Departments.

I propose that we direct the matter back to the junior Ministers and the Department of Education, and ask them to sort it out.

The Chairperson:

Tommy, you can make that a formal proposal if you wish. I will hear what other members have to say first.

Mr Easton:

I agree entirely with Mr Gallagher and I am happy to second the proposal.

Ms S Ramsey:

I support that proposal, but I would amend it.

Mr Easton:

Members of a PlayBoard group in the Holywood area recently told me that they were suffering because of the confusion over funding provision. It seems to be an issue for the Department of Education, because it relates to after-schools programmes. I agree that it is not a health issue, but, in fairness to the Minister, on this occasion, it has been good that he continued the funding until December. However, the onus is on the Minister of Education. Would it be worthwhile to write to the members of the Committee for Education to ask them to examine the issue?

The Chairperson:

It would be appropriate to do that.

Mr Easton:

After-schools provision is a good cause, and it should continue if possible.

The Chairperson:

When the funding from our Health Minister runs out in December, will the groups be in limbo again?

Mr Holland:

We hope that that will not be the case, because we recognise the value of those groups. They have educational benefits, as well as other wide-ranging benefits. That is certainly not a situation that we would like to see. The value of the groups is wide ranging. There are educational benefits, but there are other benefits beyond that.

The Chairperson:

It is November, and the after-schools groups have only about a month left, because they will close for the Christmas break. Therefore, they will go into Christmas not knowing whether they will be back in January.

Mr Holland:

That is the unfortunate situation. When the funding was extended in June, we made crystal clear our reasons for not extending the funding further.

The Chairperson:

As Alex said, the responsibility should rest with the Department of Education. However, on this occasion, the Department of Health has been more than helpful in keeping things running. However, there is only one month left, and time is not on our side.

Ms S Ramsey:

I agree with Tommy and Alex. The Health Minister issued a statement on 10 June in which he said:

“A great deal of good work has been carried out by groups through the Children’s Fund. However, it was always known that this funding would run out which is why I decided to support those existing Children’s Fund projects, whose activities clearly fall within my area of responsibility, for a further year.”

Therefore, health has an important role to play. Although I support Tommy’s proposal, I agree with Sean. It is not just an issue for the Department of Health and the Department of Education. The Department for Employment and Learning also has a responsibility. I am conscious that you might not be able to answer my question, but the briefing paper states:

“Initial support was provided by DEL through EU funding Peace measure 1.5.”

I assume that DEL only provided support to access the money. It did not provide the money; it was merely the sponsoring Department.

Every party in the previous Assembly supported and actively promoted the children’s fund, but who bid for the money from the children’s fund for the projects? If you are saying that the Department of Health was merely a conduit, why would it waste its time bidding for money?

During previous meetings, we have highlighted our concern about DHSSPS using money that should have been additional to support projects. Therefore, the money was not additional to communities, but the purpose of the children’s fund was to target children in need and youth at risk. Therefore, at departmental level, there is a lot of mixing going on.

Finally, I wish to add to Tommy’s point. We need to talk to the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department of Education, and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. We also need to talk to the junior Ministers, because everyone has a collective responsibility for providing funding. The Committee should be proactive in trying to get to the bottom of the matter. The community and voluntary sectors need to see us being proactive in bringing the Departments and the officials together. They will not be able to say that it is someone else’s responsibility when they are sitting beside each other. A special meeting should be held with those four Departments.

Mr Holland:

Please forgive me, but some of the issues that you have raised pre-date my involvement in the issue, and I stand to be corrected by my colleagues if I give incorrect information.

Certainly, the Department made a bid for children’s fund money; which was used and welcomed. Much good work was done across a range of issues using children’s fund money. However, to the best of my knowledge, we never made a bid for funding in respect of this specific issue. In fact, a bitter dispute emerged among Departments about who should act as the conduit for the funding. I stand to be corrected, and I am sorry if I give incorrect information, but my understanding is that we were volunteered by a higher authority at the time to act as the conduit; we did not step forward to do so. The dispute was resolved by people from outside the Department who told us to act as a postbox for the money; however, we resisted that quite strongly.

Ms S Ramsey:

You can understand why people are confused.

Mr Holland:

Absolutely.

Ms S Ramsey:

The Department bid for money from an additional funding stream — the children’s fund — which was secured for two years, ending March 2008, because other funding to PlayBoard had run out. However, why did the Department make a bid for money if, as you say, it was only the conduit and it had no responsibility for funding?

Mr Holland:

We made a bid for money from the children’s fund to address a range of issues. That fund picked up a pre-existing problem in respect of money that we had not bid for. The Department was told to act as a conduit for money from the EU Peace II measure 1.5. When that money ran out, we turned to the children’s fund to keep PlayBoard going. When that money ran out, we twice stepped in with core money; however, we really do not feel that we can continue to do so.

I agree with the point about benefits. The responsibility for benefits does not rest with any one Department. After-school programmes provide training and employment; they improve educational outcomes; and they can have an impact on some of our Department’s responsibilities. If a child is in care because his or her family is under stress, local social services, as part of an intervention package, might purchase a place at an after-schools project, much as they might purchase additional music lessons for a child in care. We do not believe that that is our fundamental responsibility.

The Chairperson:

Surely the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister should be able to examine the issue holistically and provide direction.

Ms S Ramsey:

The issue is not simply the responsibility of one Department, but several, such as the Department for Social Development, through neighbourhood renewal. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety made a bid for the children’s fund money, and in so doing took responsibility for PlayBoard. Money for those after-schools projects should have come from several Departments, not the children’s fund.

The Chairperson:

The waters were muddied because of the confusion over which Department should have run with the issue.

Mr Holland:

If I might, I wish to commend the work of officials from OFMDFM over the past months; although they have not been successful, they have certainly tried to engage with us and other Departments to find a resolution. We want to continue to work with them. I do not want to give the impression that they had not worked on the issue.

The Chairperson:

I do not think that there was any criticism that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister was not involved. However, rather than trying to amalgamate all the different Departments, it would be more appropriate to bring the issue to OFMDFM.

Mr Deeny:

Sean, what was the figure that you quoted?

Mr Holland:

It is just short of £1 million.

Mr Deeny:

Is that for one year?

Mr Holland:

That is correct.

Dr Deeny:

Does PlayBoard provide services across Northern Ireland?

Mr Holland:

Yes.

Dr Deeny:

If we were to ask the Department of Education to take some responsibility for after-school programmes, the issue could be bounced from Department to Department, because every Department seeks funds and wants every penny that it can get. I agree with what Sue said. The Department for Social Development and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety may hold some responsibility for PlayBoard.

When I drive through Omagh, some children that I see are heavier than those I would have seen 10 years ago. I have a problem with a school attended by one of my children; it is far too interested in academic achievement and does not place enough emphasis on exercise. The Department of Education has a responsibility. However, obesity levels among children seen by GPs suggest that there must be a health benefit from after-schools clubs.

The health component of the review of public administration may also help through the creation of a new public health agency, which will involve disease prevention. Rather than put one Department under pressure, should four or five Departments not make contributions? Is that where the Office of First and deputy First Minister comes in? There are benefits for everyone in respect of education, health and social development. My concern is that the matter will be bounced from one Department to another without ever being resolved.

Mr Holland:

The Department highly values those groups, and they provide a wide range of benefits. I am not saying that after-school clubs cannot have health benefits, but among those currently funded, it is fair to say that health activities and health promotion do not feature significantly. I accept the broader point that there is a wide range of ways in which to deliver health-promotion strategies and messages. In respect of young people, that might include youth clubs and after-schools clubs, but those groups do not use their funding for strong health activities.

Ms Rosie Drysdale (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety):

That is right. They state that their core activity is their childcare quality play programmes, homework support, indoor and outdoor play experiences, and cross-community and cultural programmes. They do not specify health issues.

Dr Deeny:

There is a health element in respect of disease prevention because encouraging children to exercise more will save the Department of Health money in the long run.

Mr Gallagher:

I understand that point, but those measures are included the school curriculum as part of the education programme. The problem facing all of us, including elected representatives, parents and people running the groups, is the daft situation in which no one knows who is responsible for what. I could widen that statement, but it would not be relevant to the discussion. There is a host of equality issues in relation to early-years provision, nursery provision, and programmes sponsored by the Department of Health. There is confusion.

Cross-departmental initiatives are all right. Some of them are good, and others are a gloss for everybody opting out of everything and nothing getting done. However, the Committee is, essentially, discussing after-school clubs. Those take place in an education setting and it is an education issue. The only way forward is to seek more clarity and, therefore, better outcomes for everyone involved.

The Chairperson:

We are all keen to see the continuation of good projects. It is rather sad that, in a month, jobs will be on the line and all the good work that has gone into setting up those programmes will be lost unless we get our act together.

Mrs O’Neill:

They are undoubtedly excellent projects. However, we are going around in circles, because this issue has been before the Committee for Education. I believe that that Committee wrote to this Committee. The issue has also been discussed by the Committee for the Office of the First and deputy First Minister, and we seem no closer to someone taking responsibility.

The briefing document from the Committee for Education states:

“in February 2006 it was agreed that the policy responsibility for Early Years and childcare functions should be moved from DHSSPS to DE”.

I understand that a memorandum of understanding drawn up at that time did not include after-schools projects. The officials from the Department of Education made that clear. It would be helpful for the Committee to have a copy of that memorandum of understanding so that we can examine it and see for ourselves exactly where the responsibility lies.

I assumed that the Department took responsibility for Playboard in June 2008 when it agreed to fund the project for another six years. Does that not suggest that the Department has policy responsibility? How can you fund something that you do not have a policy remit for? That is confusing. I imagine that an auditor would have something to say about that. We must have a copy of the memorandum of understanding so that we can clarify what matters were transferred from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Health to the Department of Education.

Mr Holland:

The transfer of policy responsibility for early-years services from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to the Department of Education was at the direction of the direct rule Ministers, who had the experience of bringing together some wide-ranging aspects of education and social services for children in England, and were keen to replicate a similar arrangement in Northern Ireland.

Our organisational basis for the delivery of health and social services and education is very different to the arrangements that pertain in England, and we have a very different legislative basis for doing so. Officials advised Ministers that the transfer would be a complex undertaking. It was suggested that it would take a significant period of time to effect that transfer safely, to ensure that there were no misunderstandings between Departments, and to ensure that all functions were transferred properly and that all legislation was amended appropriately. However, the deadline that was suggested by officials was not accepted by the direct rule Ministers at the time, and we were told to proceed within a matter of months.

Rather than addressing the legislative issues, we were told to draw up a memorandum of understanding that would cover the transfer. We drew up a draft memorandum of understanding, which included the transfer of those groups to the Department of Education. When we presented that memorandum of understanding to Department of Education officials, they said that they were not prepared to sign it, because they did not believe that the after-school groups fell within the remit of early-years provision.

After some discussion, we felt that the Department of Education officials had accepted that the after-schools groups fell within the ambit of the extended-schools policy. We may have misunderstood that, because they subsequently contradicted our assumption. As a result, the memorandum of understanding has still to be signed — in effect, it does not exist. There are drafts, some of which reflect our position and some of which do not.

Mrs O’Neill:

That shows that there is a lack of understanding between the two Departments. This issue was highlighted in June. We should not be sitting here, in November, approaching a crisis point again while no one will accept the responsibility for funding those groups. It is a desperate situation, which is simply not good enough for the children who take part in those projects, and, as the Chairperson said, for the people who are employed in the sector. I am not necessarily saying that all of the blame should fall on your shoulders, but we must get to the bottom of this matter urgently.

Mr Holland:

I agree. Mrs O’Neill asked why we continued funding if we did not believe that it was our responsibility. That was exactly because we felt that those groups were important and valuable, and that a clear lead responsibility for them had to be identified. However, in the absence of that, we did not want the groups to go to the wall.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety took a unilateral decision to extend the funding in order to safeguard the groups and to provide an opportunity to resolve the situation. However, he did not feel that he could give that commitment indefinitely, for the reasons that we have outlined. He was prepared to go out on a limb for six months. He was also aware of the very point that Mrs O’Neill raised: that taking that course of action would give people the opportunity to say that he had accepted responsibility. He made it clear in statements and letters at the time that, by extending the funding, he was not accepting policy responsibility. That measure was taken in order to allow others to resolve the issue, and our Department was ready to participate in those talks.

Mr McCallister:

I join colleagues in paying tribute to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department for extending the funding to the groups. We all agree that that was a very important step. I agree with Tommy Gallagher that this is a matter for the Department of Education. Other members have made the point that there are cross-cutting elements, as there are with regard to many policies. The Committee has, on numerous occasions, made sure that we work across Departments.

However, one Department must take the lead. I agree with Tommy and Alex that the obvious one to do that is the Department of Education. Committees can write to one another until we are blue in the face, but a ministerial decision must be made. The only place where Ministers can get together and make that decision is around the Executive table. The decision belongs there, and the issue must be sorted out there. I accept Michelle’s point that there seems to be a correlation between the warning from the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that he will not continue with funding for PlayBoard from June 2008, and the fact that the Executive have not met since June 2008.

The issue belongs at the Executive table; Ministers must sort out and get to grips with the issue there, and I hope that that happens soon. I am sure that this matter affects the constituencies of all members and that none of us wants the funding to stop. I am in favour of sending a message to the Minister to get the issue on the agenda of the Executive.

The Chairperson:

You think that the issue should be brought to the Minister —

Mr McCallister:

The issue must go to the Executive so that they can decide which Department should take responsibility, and I think that that responsibility belongs with the Department of Education.

The Chairperson:

Most of the responsibility for lies with the Department of Education. We will write to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to indicate our grave concern at the lack of time that is left and to ask whether there is any likelihood or prospect of the Executive meeting to decide where the funding will come from.

Ms S Ramsey:

I take that point on board, but, from some of the motions that individual Members have proposed in the Assembly, I am conscious that Departments have said that certain issues will be dealt with by the ministerial subgroup on children and young people. It may be important to set a time frame to invite the junior Ministers from OFMDFM to the Committee. They chair the ministerial subgroup on children and young people, which is made up of relevant Ministers.

The Chairperson:

We can certainly do that.

Mr Gallagher:

I agree with John’s comments about the fact that the Executive are not meeting. My only difficulty with his comments is that he seemed to propose that a resolution of this issue may be conditional on the Executive’s meeting.

Mr McCallister:

I do not think that there is any likelihood of an Executive meeting taking place soon.

The Chairperson:

Christmas could come early; we must be optimistic.

Mr Gallagher:

We should not even consider this matter to be in the pipeline for an Executive meeting. Why can the junior Ministers not get to work with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department of Education to sort the matter out? Instead of asking for the matter to be raised at an Executive meeting, we should simply be asking for it to be sorted out quickly, and once and for all.

Mr McCallister:

I have no problem with that, but how can we keep an eye on whether something is happening, given the fact that only four or five Committee meetings are left before the funding is due to expire?

The Chairperson:

The Committee should ask to be informed because the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is responsible for funding until it ends at the end of December 2008. The junior Ministers should provide us with feedback.

Mr Gallagher:

We do not want to be blamed.

The Chairperson:

We will not take the blame. We have done what is right and proper in respect of an issue that does not fall under our remit. We shall immediately express our grave concern that, as it is now November, the matter must be dealt with expeditiously.

I thank the panel of Sean, Marna and Rosie for their attendance.

Find MLAs

Find your MLAs

Locate MLAs

Search

News and Media Centre

Visit the News and Media Centre

Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly

Follow the Assembly on our social media channels

Keep up-to-date with the Assembly

Find out more