The Director of Economic Development reported that a consultation exercise had recently been launched by the Department for the Economy (DfE) regarding support for the social enterprise sector.
He advised that Members would be aware that, similar to enterprise support, the policy responsibility for social enterprise remained with the DfE. Delivery responsibility for social enterprise support transferred to local authorities in 2015 as part of the wider transfer of entrepreneurship support. Since then, councils had supported social enterprises to start and grow both through the Go for It programme and through various ERDF-funded business growth programmes at an individual council level.
He explained that the new Northern Ireland Enterprise Support Service (NIESS) included a target of 10 per cent of businesses engaged or supported to be social enterprises. As a result, delivery partners were developing a programme of targeted support to increase the number of social enterprises accessing support.
He pointed out that, outside of council-funded activity, there had been very limited direct support provided to social enterprises from other government departments. DfE currently funded Social Enterprise NI (SENI) to undertake a range of networking and good practice support. He informed the Committee that the financial allocation to this work was very limited in scope and had not increased since LGR. He highlighted that SENI performed an important network and engagement function but it did not have the capacity for significant service delivery and relied on councils to play that role. He advised that their current three-year work programme would come to an end in March 2024.
The Director of Economic Development reported that, in early September 2023, DfE had issued a call for evidence and was seeking responses to a draft one-year action plan, which was to go live from April 2024. This action plan included a greater focus on the outcomes that the Department would like to see, particularly those aligned to the 10X economic vision. The deadline for responses was 31st October, 2023. The department had indicated that it then planned to commission the delivery of many of the services outlined in the consultation in November 2023.
He outlined that the proposed workplan included four themes:
· Theme one: Promotion of social enterprises to promote individual business growth;
· Theme two: Strategic sector growth;
· Theme three: Cooperation and coordination; and
· Theme four: Research.
He pointed out that an initial review of the work plan (Appendix 1) suggested significant overlap with the work planned as part of the Northern Ireland Enterprise Support Service.
The consultation was focused around four key questions, namely:
1. What are your views on the overall approach of the work programme – connecting a smaller number of objectives to the activities required and the outcomes that would demonstrate success?
2. What are your views on the four proposed objectives?
3. Do you have any comments on any of the objectives in the proposed work programme?
4. Are there other measures of success you would like to propose for any of the activities?
The Director of Economic Development advised that a draft Council response was attached at Appendix 2. The response was structured along the lines of the four questions set out above. The key points, in summary, included:
· Opportunity for greater alignment with NIESS work – with a proposal for additional engagement to consider how this could work more effectively, including an opportunity for DfE to provide additional resources to councils to carry out this work;
· Agreement around scope and focus of the social enterprise work – and the potential to give this greater visibility through a joint work plan; and
· Potential to take a more coherent approach to considering how social enterprises were supported across government (for example social value in procurement; increasing social enterprises in the supply chain).
He highlighted that the Council had, for many years, delivered a dedicated programme of work to support social enterprises. This work was led by Work West. In the last financial year, 27 workshops and outreach sessions had been delivered for the sector, attracting more than 320 attendees. 45 people had received one to one mentoring support totalling more than 1500 hours. He advised that the Council had also supported the creation of 93 jobs in both social enterprises and cooperatives. He highlighted that the Council had won the “council of the year” award at the Social Enterprise NI Awards in 2022 and was in the running for the same award this year.
After discussion, the Committee:
· Agreed to submit a response to the Department for Economy on its call for evidence on social enterprise; and
· Noted and approved the draft response attached as Appendix 2 of the report.