Charities fear that up to 800 jobs could be lost if European Social Fund money isn’t replaced
"This will have a catastrophic impact the wellbeing of the most vulnerable, who are already feeling the effects of the cost-of-living crisis." David Babington, chief executive, Action Mental Health
Mental health charities in Northern Ireland are concerned about the loss of funding from the European Social Fund (ESF), which is due to end in March.
The £40m a year package funds 1,700 jobs in Northern Ireland, of which 800 could be lost if the shortfall isn’t addressed, according to the ESF Peer Group, which represents 22 community groups. Although the UK government has set up the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) to replace EU funds, only about £20m to £25m of the £50m being allocated to Northern Ireland is likely go to work previously funded by ESF, the group says.
The Reverend Andrew Irvine, who chairs the ESF Peer Group, told the BBC: “Groups are concerned that it’s an open competition and they might not be successful and they realise that the pot of money available is only about 50% of what was available under ESF.”
He added that he was aware that about 250 staff working for organisations in the ESF Peer Group had already received redundancy notices: “We are looking at a serious decimation of the community sector.”
Grainne Close, director of the charity Mencap NI, also expressed concern about the “detrimental impact” of a funding shortfall, which would have significant effect on people in Northern Ireland “with a learning disability, their families and our communities.”
David Babington, chief executive of Action Mental Health (AMH), said that without adequate funding in the future “the most vulnerable people in our society” would feel abandoned. He said that a “significant number of jobs” were at risk at the charity’s workforce of about 240. Babington also told the Irish News that overwhelmed health trusts in Northern Ireland would be unable to meet the demand if the service was lost. “Services from organisations like AMH who support people with serious mental health issues, learning disabilities and a range of other disabilities are at risk of reduction in service and/or closure, and this will have a catastrophic impact the wellbeing of the most vulnerable, who are already feeling the effects of the cost-of-living crisis,” he said.
Dr Richard Wilson, the chair of Psychiatrists Northern Ireland, was also worried about the impact, arguing that Northern Ireland’s mental health services were already underfunded by 27%: “This is a further cut just when we need significant investment with the aftermath of Covid and dealing with the cost-of-living crisis.”
The UK government’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which will oversee the replacement of EU funding, said that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund “will, at a minimum, match previous EU funding in Northern Ireland.”
At a time when mental health services are already struggling with underfunding, the potential withdrawal of £20m in funding to Northern Ireland is likely to have a huge impact on the ability of charities and community groups to provide support to those who need it. The UK government urgently needs to confirm that it will make up the shortfall in funding and provide reassurance that no jobs will be lost in this vital sector.