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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Weir (Local Democracy Reporter)

MEA Councillor’s make u-turn on asylum cash but £50,000 lost

Sign on wall of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has lost £50,000 in funding for asylum seekers and refugees after turning down almost twice the sum six months ago.

Councillors have been told that following the decision not to accept close to £100k in March, there were “complaints made by community partners expressing disappointment and concern” at missing out.

In a U-turn last week, the council has now agreed to accept half the sum thanks to a fresh offer.

The original offer of £96,836 to the local authority was made through the Executive Office Programme for Asylum Seekers and Refugees. It was turned down after 12 votes in favour and 25 against.

A record of vote by Mid and East councillors on Monday 6th March 2023.

A record of vote by Mid and East councillors on Monday 6th March 2023.

The minutes noted: “Several members expressed concern regarding availability of housing stock and current pressures on services.”

The Executive Office has been the lead department supporting Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Northern Ireland, working in partnership with the UK Government, other Executive departments, councils and the voluntary and community sector to co-ordinate the response at a local level.

According to the most recent statistics, there have been 229 visa applications from Ukrainian refugees to sponsor addresses in Mid and East Antrim with 191 issued and 98 arrivals.

A report presented to councillors at the September meeting says that the TEO Programme for Asylum Seekers and Refugees has requested that all councils consider how they, in partnership  with community could “support the dispersal of asylum seekers and refugees as and when the Home Office moves to rehousing those held in initial accommodation” although there is no indication of this at present.

Although this is expected to be a “housing-led process”, the report notes that consultation will take place in each ward to assess resources locally. The PSNI and Education Authority are also expected to be consulted.

“Councils are being advised to use the available financial contribution to support a range of activities that will support the integration of newcomers if and when they are rehoused into communities across Mid and East Antrim,” the report continues.

Speaking at last week’s council meeting, Larne Lough Alliance Councillor Maeve Donnelly said:

“I propose we move forward on this.  It is our moral obligation to provide a safe haven for those fleeing persecution and conflict and it is crucial to ensure they are given the opportunity to integrate into local society.

“In March, some members voted against accepting the money from the Home Office and we were the only council in Northern Ireland to decline the money.

“It was quite distressing the way the debate went last time. I hope members have in some way educated themselves since on what the money could have achieved in the community.

“There are and were organisations waiting for the money so that they can begin to help the asylum seekers to integrate and we must remember than 80 per cent of asylum seekers are granted refugee status to live and work here. We need to do the right thing and move forward.”

Ballymena Sinn Fein Councillor Breanainn Lyness said:

“I think we should welcome asylum seekers and refugees. We are from a post-conflict zone, so we should be welcoming these people with open arms.  Refusing this money last time was a disgrace so I hope that we accept it this time. I would like to second the proposal that we accept it.”

Carrickfergus Castle Ulster Unionist Councillor Bethany Ferris commented:

“We as a borough should support those that are seeking refuge and asylum in our communities. It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of cases concern people who are fleeing situations such as war, religious persecution and modern slavery. Our borough has a proud history of supporting those fleeing tyranny and persecution.

“I have been contacted by seven groups in my own DEA who are seeking resources to support people seeking asylum while their claims are being processed.

“I want to ensure that groups like this across our borough can deliver services to refugees and asylum seekers and I believe this funding will make a positive difference on the ground and for this reason, I am very happy to second that.”

Knockagh DUP Councillor Peter Johnston thanked officers for bringing back the report with “much more context and content”.

“I remember last time that we discussed this, there was a lot of ambiguity and a lot of questions that weren’t able to be answered but I think we have some clarity of this today.

“I still would like to have complete clarity on what this money would be used for. I am supportive of what I am reading in front of me. The reason I am seeking the clarity is that within the community there is a thought that money would be made available for community groups who currently work with refugees and asylum seekers.

“I think it is really important we are clear for the sake of those groups exactly what this money is for and how much of it they will be able to avail of.”

He was advised by an officer that a third party will be appointed to do some “scoping work” to assess what is needed in the borough at a cost of approximately £7,000 to £8,000.

“It would be my understanding that all of those groups have potential to be part of a reference group because those are the people in the community  working with asylum seekers as we move forward.”

Larne Lough Ulster Unionist Councillor Roy Beggs said:

“One of the most important use of this money is English language courses and cultural awareness has been mentioned.

“I think this money is being offered to us to try and assist those in the local community.  I think it would be foolish not to take it up for the benefit of the entire community.”

Larne Lough DUP councillor Alderman Paul Reid said: m

“There is nobody more supportive of asylum seekers than I am but this is something we need to get right and we need to make sure what our aims are here and I’m not sure that in this report our aims are one hundred per cent clear for what we are going to do with this sum of money.

“At our last meeting, we asked for more information. I am not convinced that the information, the bread and butter, is in this report.”

The officer suggested that some of the money could be used to assist asylum seekers who are living in a hotel in Carrickfergus but she indicated that the local authority would be working with “a variety of stakeholders”.

Interim chief executive Valerie Watts commented:

“If we do not take the money, there are other councils out there who would be more than willing to accept extra income from the Executive Office should we not choose to take it on this occasion.”

Coast Road DUP Councillor Andrew Clarke said:

“I do believe as individuals, as church groups, as communities, we do have a duty to be welcoming to the stranger. I do have concerns that this is the best method of doing it. The third party consultants are swallowing up 20 per cent of the funding. It is disappointing to see it being lost in admin.”

He urged as much money as possible to be spent on those for whom it is intended.

Carrickfergus Castle DUP councillor Alderman Billy Ashe MBE asked for the Home Office to come along and explain its policy to the council.

“Nobody understands it. I don’t think they understand it themselves. We are sitting here in the dark. We are also talking about a Home Office dispersal policy.

“I would like the Home Office to come and explain how they are going to integrate all these people into houses in front of people who have been on the list for years and possibly then ask the Housing Executive how they are going to manage things. This is causing bigger issues.

“You can’t keep giving from an empty cup and the cup is empty. I would love to know how the Home Office plan to manage this.  My big fear is by taking this money is that they dump responsibility for it all on us and they have yet to come and even talk to us.”

Knockagh Alliance Councillor Aaron Skinner said:

“It was very palpable how angry people were at how the vote went previously, especially in Carrick and Greenisland.

“I’m very proud of our town and the work that is done by groups such as Carrick Vineyard, Woodlands Presbyterian, Greenisland Presbyterian, St Coleman’s Church of Ireland and Carrickfergus YMCA. Those groups were betrayed by the vote last time and the whole area was angry.

“We’ve talked a lot about how we’re using some of this money for an outside contractor ignoring the fact that we’re missing 50 per cent of it because the council didn’t make the right decision last time and I hope that lessons are learned.

“The groups in our community who have been working tirelessly to help have lost out on £50,000 worth of support because of poor decisions made a few months ago and I think that is scandalous.”

Bannside TUV Councillor Timothy Gaston remarked:

“The report that has come back before us is ambiguous. I would rather have seen what this would look like on the ground. Nobody in this chamber can put hand on heart and say this is what we are voting for and that really does concern me. I think there is a number of outstanding questions.”

He was told that “time is of the essence”.

Cllr Lyness added:

“It is our moral obligation to house these people. We are being offered money. We should take it. We are the only council the last time that didn’t take it, It is a shame on this council that we didn’t take it. Now we are being offered another chance to redeem ourselves, we should do it.”

Carrickfergus Castle Alliance Councillor Lauren Gray reported that there was “anger in the community” over the previous decision.

She went on to say that a number of community groups had been hoping to deliver with this funding.

“Time is urgent here because of what we did. We have already lost half the funding. Speak to groups in your area and find out the work that is already starting and that is how you will know what will be taking place.”

The council agreed to accept the funding by 25 votes in favour with three against and nine abstentions.


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