Lowestoft charity pay back shock

A CHARITY which had been told to arrange to repay nearly �200,000 in grants by yesterday has told the government that it cannot afford to pay back the money.

A CHARITY which had been told to arrange to repay nearly �200,000 in grants by yesterday has told the government that it cannot afford to pay back the money.

The Aid and Assist project, which repairs and restores furniture for low income families in Lowestoft and Oulton Broad, has been ordered to pay back a European grant after failing an audit because important invoices had been lost in a flood.

The charity received a letter from the government asking it to arrange repaying the money by yesterday, but the project's bosses have had to write to say that they cannot afford to pay back the grant.

Aid and Assist, which has been working in the town since 1983, was awarded �185,000 of European Social Fund money in 2000 to set up a workshop where adults with learning difficulties were given training in repairing and restoring furniture. In 2006, the workshop in Rotterdam Road, Lowestoft, flooded and boxes of financial documents were destroyed.

MEP Richard Howitt, who visited Aid and Assist, earlier this month and is working with the charity to find a solution, has also written to the UK offices of the European Social Fund appealing against their decision to ask for the money back.

He said on Friday: 'I've now had a clear undertaking from the European Social Fund offices that the February 14 deadline is not going to be the most crucial deadline, and no money has to be paid back by then.

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'There is still no firm indication of where this is all going to go, but at least we've got a little bit more time to play with.'

The Journal revealed that some archive documents have come to light from a Suffolk County Council-supported project - which worked in partnership with Aid and Assist - which could go some way to prove that the grant money was spent properly.

Mr Howitt said that even though the council documents might be some help to the charity, he is still hopeful that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which organises the European funding in the UK, will write off the debt completely.

He said: 'In my view, the money should be waived and written off. That would be the quickest way of dealing with it. If that isn't accepted as a way forward, then we should start a process where the government, the charity and Suffolk County Council work together to reassemble some of the financial records as best we can. Though this will be a long and painstaking process, it will give the charity more time to prove that they did not misuse the funding and hopefully that will show that they do not need to pay all of this money back.'

A spokesman for the Government Office for the East of England said: 'A response has been made by Aid and Assist by the February 14 deadline. The matter is now being looked at by DWP and a decision will be made shortly.'

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