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Northern Ireland charity jobs and services at risk as EU funds dry up

A charity that works with young people with learning disabilities and autism has warned that a loss of EU funding could put jobs and services at risk.

arne’s Access Employment Learning (AEL) stands to lose £190,000 in European Social Fund (ESF) cash from March next year following the UK’s exit from the EU.

AEL funds its Hands On Training scheme with money from the ESF, with match funding also provided by the Department for Communities and the Northern Health and Social Care Trust.

Lorraine Black, the charity’s head of services, said jobs were at risk and 40 people who used its services stood to lose out.

She also warned that other charities and social enterprises faced going under if alternative funding was not found.

“The worst-case scenario is that we can’t find a replacement for the £190,000,” she added.

“That program won’t exist, and that will have a big impact on the services in this community. There will be redundancies. It will have a knock-on effect on business as trainees are not able to get that work experience.

“The worst thing is that they have suffered enough with Covid. We have seen trainees regress. They lost time over Covid and it impacted their progress.

“Since Covid, there has been an increase in the number of trainees with anxiety and mental health issues.

“They are then further removed from the labor market, dealing with additional needs, poverty and social isolation.”

Since its first ESF Hands On Training scheme in 2015, the organization has supported 165 trainees, 27 of whom have progressed to paid employment, 12 to long-term volunteering and 10 to further education.

“The organization provides opportunities for our trainees. It’s a respite center and allows those individuals to get work experience, but it’s also respite for families,” Ms Black said.

AEL employs more than 30 staff and works with dozens of people each week.

Ms Black said while there had been discussions with the Executive around securing money from Westminster’s Shared Prosperity Fund, she did not believe a plan was in place.

“[It’s not yet clear] what they are funding, how they get it down to what they are interested in, or [what] their priorities [are],” she added.

“We don’t know what that process will be. For that to happen between now and March would be a miracle.

“The best-case scenario is that the funding is replaced and [the programme] continues. I can’t see that coming [in time].”

The Department for the Economy said that the central government had made it clear that any decisions around the Shared Prosperity Fund would be made by Whitehall’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

A spokesperson added: “While the department has no formal role in the negotiation of replacement EU funding, it has sought every opportunity to flag the concerns of the sector.”

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