Earlier this month a group of MPs that form the Work and Pensions Select Committee produced a report urging the government to ensure an immediate replacement of the European Social Fund (ESF) after Brexit.
The ESF provides £500m worth of employment and skills support to disadvantaged communities in the UK annually, much of which goes to voluntary sector organisations.
The report states that the ESF has many strengths, but in creating a replacement programme the government has the chance to improve it. This comes hot on the news that following an agreement reached between the UK Government and the European Union (EU) on the draft Withdrawal Agreement, the UK will continue to participate in all EU programmes in the 2014-2020 period (subject to overall agreement being reached between the UK and EU on our exit from the EU).
The agreed transition period beyond 29th March 2019 to December 2020 provides greater certainty for the remainder of the current ESF programme.
The government has pledged to create a UK Shared Prosperity Fund to replace ESF and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) programmes, but the committee describes the future of this fund as "uncertain" and says there is "still much detailed design work to be done" on it.
The transition period buys more time for the government to complete this detailed design work on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and provides an ongoing opportunity for the VCSE sector to input into the design of this new programme.
As the local VCSE representative of the European Structural and Investment Funds’ (ESIF) Growth Programme Board, VONNE was asked in June 2017 to facilitate an early conversation with VCSE groups across the North to have early input into the Government’s plan for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.
Since then we have joined the ERSA/NCVO cross-organisation working group to influence the design of the successor to the ESF; and jointly produced a paper in December 2017 setting out our key proposals.
Both ERSA and NCVO gave evidence to the Select Committee drawing upon the views of the working group. Large elements of the Select Committee report echo what the ERSA/NCVO working group has set out including:
- the government has a historic opportunity to redesign the fund in the national interest and ensure that current weaknesses and challenges in the ESF programme are addressed;
- failure by the government to immediately replace the ESF after Brexit would be "disastrous" in terms of skills, employment and social inclusion provision for communities across UK;
- there should be no gap between the ESF provision and its replacement;
- ESF is a vital resource, offering dedicated funding for people and communities poorly served by mainstream employability services and allowing local areas both to fund long-term strategies and react to local crises. It calls for government to commit to maintaining both of these features within the UKSPF.
The Select Committee report goes on to call for the government to create a new arm’s-length body to integrate existing funding streams so programmes can effectively meet all of their participants' needs while retaining a separate fund within the UK Shared Prosperity Fund for employment support for disadvantaged groups and communities.
The report says:
"Government does not have time on its side to complete this and ensure a seamless transition. The consequences of a gap in provision – for providers, for local areas and for individuals – would be disastrous.
The UK could create a truly world-leading successor fund that is the envy of Europe, but it must act fast."
I would agree with the need for urgency to ensure no gap in funding provision for ESF type activities via the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, as long as that urgency does not impact upon the ability to transform and redesign the mechanics of the funding to ensure it enables the very best, locally informed, responsive and effective provision to support disadvantaged communities and individuals.
The public consultation on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund is likely to launch later in 2018 but I would urge the government to keep talking to the ERSA/NCVO working group and VCSE partners engaged in the current ESIF programme delivery to continue to inform the design of programme as it develops.
We have a clear understanding of the constraints and challenges of the current ESF programme and the opportunities that exist to make the UK Shared Prosperity Fund a vastly improved replacement and we are willing, able and ready to work with you on this important development.
Carol Botten, Deputy Chief Executive of VONNE, leads our work on European Funding and is a VCSE representative for European Structural and Investment Funds at a local and national level.