SERVICES for vulnerable women across Ards and North Down have been ‘switched off overnight’ after an award winning women’s support group lost £300,000 in annual funding.
Kilcooley Women’s Centre learned on Friday that the European Union funding it has received since 1995 would not be replaced by a government scheme that was designed to replace money lost through Brexit.
Just 12 hours before the EU funding formally came to an end, the Kilcooley group was told the money it received through the European Social Funding (ESF) scheme would not be replaced by the government’s Shared Prosperity Fund.
The decision has been described as ‘absolutely devastating’ by a senior centre official while North Down MP, Stephen Farry, said the centre has been left ‘completely in the lurch’.
Kilcooley Women’s Centre, which received a Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service from Queen Elizabeth in 2017, provides a wide range of programmes to assist vulnerable women from across the borough with childcare, health and mental-health services and employability skills training.
Alison Blaney, the executive director of the Women’s Centre, described the news as ‘such a shock’ and she said the organisation is planning to appeal the decision.
She said her organisation failed to score highly enough in the competition for the multi-million pound fund compared to groups and organisations which encompass the whole of Northern Ireland.
“We have been running since 1995 – we were formed the same year as the Good Friday Agreement – and our operating costs have always come from European funding,” she said.
Ms Blaney said Brexit heralded the deathknell for ESF funding but she said the UK government’s promises to bridge the funding gap were ‘hollow’.
She said it was ‘despicable’ that the government had reneged upon ‘the promise that they would match at the very minimum what was coming from Europe’.
“They couldn’t have done it,” she maintained, stating ‘they have been very clever’ with their figures.
She said the UK Shared Prosperity Fund had pledged £57m however that was over two years, compared to the European annual fund of £54m.
“What the government are giving over two years is what was given over one year in European funding,” she explained.
Ms Blaney warned there will be a big constriction of services offered by the Women’s Centre. “We simply can’t plug that type of hole with simple housekeeping,” she said.
“Six members of staff are impacted but we will do our best to mitigate that.”
Ms Blaney said those allocating the Shared Prosperity Fund have ‘concentrated on the massive Belfast organisations’ and she had heard of only one small women’s group in Belfast that has received funding.
“Other than that, women don’t feature,” she said. “Thirty percent of economically inactive people are women and they have been given three per cent of the budget.”
“At the minute there’s nowhere to refer people on to,” added Ms Blaney. “This is the biggest economic inactivity programme in Ards and North Down and it’s been switched off overnight.
“We will just have to challenge the decision now,” she said.
“We’ll continue to do our best but it’s a very bleak outlook. We will not take it lying down and we just have to regroup.”