The DUP has moved to defend a Stormont funding programme after auditors criticised the lack of a clear paper trail showing how millions were dished out to various community projects.
The Social Investment Fund, set up in 2011 by first and deputy first ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to tackle deprivation, has been derided by opposition parties as a “slush fund”.
A report published yesterday by the Northern Ireland Audit Office found no clear paper trail showing how and why projects were selected for a cash boost. It also criticised the way conflicts of interest were handled in the initial stages of the scheme.
The Social Investment Fund decided which projects to award money to through a series of local steering groups, which were made up of unpaid volunteers appointed by the first and deputy first ministers.
The audit report identified 18 projects with links to members of those steering groups that had been awarded public money from the fund — amounting to more than £12 million.
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said yesterday that he has now written to the chair of the Westminster Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier MP, to ask that she instigates an investigation into the programme.
But the DUP MP Emma Little Pengelly said that there is “absolutely nothing” in the audit office report to “substantiate politically motivated allegations”.
She was speaking after the former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt had compared the fund to the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, and the Alliance Party MLA Chris Lyttle had called for an independent inquiry.
Mrs Little Pengelly, however, said the funding programme had “benefitted so many communities in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods”.
She continued: “The aim was to provide maximum flexibility to enable and empower communities to identify problems and solutions. This was an innovative, co-design approach.
“In adopting a new approach some challenges and early issues arose and the report identifies how many of these were recognised at any early stage and action taken. Whilst there were some issues around local steering group approach given the maximum flexibility context given to them by the department, I welcome there is absolutely nothing to substantiate politically motivated allegations which had been levelled against the scheme.”
She added: “The report identifies some key learning points, recognises that early challenges were addressed and I welcome it recommends the positive outcomes from the projects should be monitored and used in public policy making.”
Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney also highlighted positive aspects of the Social Investment Fund after acknowledging that “lessons must be learned and applied to any future schemes”.
He continued: “The auditor and comptroller general identifies a number of projects that are likely to have a positive impact.”
Mr Nesbitt, responding to those comments, said: “Sinn Fein and the DUP promised people living in poverty that they would invest £80 million in short order to tackle deprivation. It was an empty promise.”
He added: “Sinn Fein weren’t peripheral to this debacle.”