Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Michelle O’Neill has said her Department has made significant progress in tackling poverty in rural areas of Northern Ireland.
The minister was speaking during an Assembly debate on Monday evening, tabled by the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, on the impact the Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Inclusion (TRPSI) Framework has had on the farming and rural community; and calling on her to implement the recommendations outlined in the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development position paper on the Review of the TRPSI Framework.
She said: “As Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development and as a rural dweller I am acutely aware of the difficulties facing many people living in our community. I often meet with and hear about the plight of the most vulnerable, be they the elderly who can often feel isolated and alone, young people who feel that they have limited opportunities because of where they live, or those with disabilities who experience disadvantage that is exacerbated by living in rural areas.
“I am delighted to have had the opportunity to help those most vulnerable living in our rural communities and am pleased that the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee have endorsed the various initiatives being delivered through my department’s ‘Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation Framework’ which over the past four years has provided a package of some £16 million to help the most vulnerable rural dwellers facing poverty and social isolation.”
The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, meanwhile, has launched its position paper on the review of the Department’s “Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Inclusion (TRPSI) Framework”.
The committee paper has examined the effectiveness of the current framework and sets out a number of important recommendations for a successor programme.
Speaking after the launch, the committee chairperson William Irwin MLA said: “During the course of our review we heard evidence from the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) and rural community and voluntary groups, as well as commissioning a number of research papers focussing on current issues around rural poverty and isolation. We were keen to find out how the existing programme has functioned, what has worked well and what could be improved to maximise opportunities to relieve rural poverty and promote better social inclusion in the future.
“We were pleased to discover that the existing programme has made a substantial impact, with a number of rural community representatives citing the ‘Maximising Access to Services, Grants and benefits (MARA) Project’ as being particularly successful. This project has managed to target more than 14,000 vulnerable households across Northern Ireland and, in doing so, has increased access to home improvement and energy efficiency grants as well as welfare benefits. There can be no doubt that the key to MARA’s success has been its ability to tap into local knowledge and expertise and to target those most in need quickly and effectively.”
Mr Irwin concluded: “We did find issues around how rural deprivation is currently measured. It is important to note that unlike urban areas which are usually socially segregated, rural deprivation is spatial, with the relatively affluent often living alongside the most deprived.
“We are therefore calling on DARD to work with the Department for Finance and Personnel (DFP) to commission the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) to review how we measure and identify rural deprivation.”
Deputy chairperson Joe Byrne MLA added: “The continuing pressures on the local agricultural sector are very real issues which leave many of our rural communities in, or at risk of, poverty and social exclusion.
“We have some concerns around the £1.7 million capital in the 2015/16 budget, particularly as rural areas often require a more flexible approach to service delivery, with the focus on outreach and partnership directly with grassroots organisations.”