Stormont’s top department presided over a phantom project which never existed – despite being a so-called signature programme which was allocated £1.6 million in funding.
More than two years ago, the Play and Leisure Signature Programme was announced as a key issue for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), which has long been beset with serious problems in how it operates.
At the time, the then DUP Junior Minister Jonathan Bell assured the Assembly that “this is all about delivering outcomes”. Mr Bell went on: “The £1·6 million will be spent over three years.”
But now, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, who is chairman of the Assembly committee which scrutinises OFMDFM, has established that nothing has ever come of the programme.
Mr Nesbitt said that despite a “grand announcement” in 2013, the scheme has been abandoned. He said: “To this day the website of OFMDFM records that in October 2013, the then junior ministers announced a £1.6 million initiative to promote play and leisure among our young people.
“My suspicions were aroused when, at a previous briefing, officials failed to mention the play and leisure programme, which was added to the original six programmes.
“Yesterday, Junior Minister Jennifer McCann tried her best to persuade me they were doing lots to promote play in other areas of their work, but it was clear the actual play and leisure programme did not exist. This was confirmed when senior official Dr Mark Browne revealed the £1.6 million never existed and at no point did OFMDFM invite the public or the relevant community and voluntary sector groups to apply for funding.”
Mr Nesbitt asked why the department could not “just be honest” and say that they had changed their minds. And he highlighted the enormous delay in spending the £80 million set aside for the Social Investment Fund.
OFMDFM on Thursday offered no explanation as to why the project had been quietly abandoned. Instead, in a statement the department said that “an approach which maximises resources was adopted to promote play and leisure”.
It insisted that “ministers are fully committed to supporting play and leisure opportunities as a medium for the improved well-being and development of our children and young people” and said it was “supporting play and leisure projects worth over £8 million through the Social Investment Fund”.