Regional social centres will be opened as part of the government’s comprehensive welfare reform, Social Solidarity Ministe r Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca said yesterday.

Addressing a press conference for the launch of a welfare programme called Leap, Ms Coleiro Preca said it was a major step towards combating social exclusion.

“This is one step in the reform that began some eight months ago and will help thousands of Maltese facing tough times,” she said.

The programme will link 90 NGOs through a regional welfare network and set up six regional centres to combat exclusion.

These, she said, will be supplemented by some 30 social mentors who will provide hands-on support to more than 900 people.

These will range from people with disabilities, to young unemployed, elderly people and those at risk of poverty.

Parliamentary Secretary for EU funds Ian Borg said the programme will cost €3 million and is being funded through EU grants that were previously untapped.

He said that even though the current funding period closes next month, the programme will not use money from the next period.

Instead, the government secured financial packages from the European Social Mobility Fund that would have otherwise gone unused.

“We have managed to access these funds and we want to make the best use of them. To do this the funds will finance areas that will reap the best return,” he said.

The programme was drawn up after a lengthy consultation process coordinated by policy consultant Maria Rauch, who identified kinks in the welfare chain.

She said integrating NGOs into a consolidated network would help some 200 people at risk of poverty and provide them with the tools to break free of the poverty trap.

European Commissioner for Employment and Social Mobility László Andor, who was at the launch, welcomed the scheme as a step in the right direction for Malta.

He described it as a tangible example of how European funds can help tackle social exclusion and pointed out that some 92,000 Maltese were still at risk of poverty.

He also cited Eurostat figures lambasting Malta for its relatively high number of early school leavers. The situation was not much better across the EU, he said, adding that some 125 million EU citizens were at risk of poverty last year, nearly seven million more than in 2010.

This tenuous economic and social climate was “fertile ground for extremist political ideals”.

“The [European] Commission has not been idle. But, if the EU does not do enough to combat social problems, I’m afraid the eurosceptics will win,” he said.

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