As MPs packed their bags for recess, the last day of Parliament brought some big news for the employment support sector. In amongst the twenty-one written ministerial statements bundled out of the door before the end of term, two offered details on the European Social Fund (ESF) – one with guarantees for the here and now, one giving some clarity on its post-Brexit future. These developments – called for by ERSA, as the joint lead of a cross-sector Working Group with the NCVO – will impact some of the most deprived communities across the UK.
So, what did the government say?
Firstly, the Chancellor announced that organisations securing funding through EU programmes up until the end of 2020 will be guaranteed by the UK government even in a no deal scenario. The government had previously committed to protect projects that secured funding before exit day. Now, successful bids for EU funding until the end of 2020 will receive their full financial allocation and will continue to receive funding over the project’s lifetime. This not only provides much needed certainty for so many ESF funded organisations to deliver education, training and employment support, but will also go some way to allowing more time to design and develop a successor to ESF and hopefully avoid a cliff edge in funding for disadvantaged communities as we exit Europe.
Secondly, the government has made a modicum of progress in designing the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) – the successor to EU structural funds. Up until this point, a couple of lines from the Conservative manifesto provided the available information about what this fund will do “to reduce inequalities between communities across our four nations”. Now the government has added five bullet points to show progress in discussions.
The ‘new’ news here is that the objective of the fund centres around “strengthening the foundations of productivity”, with emphasis on simplification and integration. The fund will also be UK wide and ‘engage’ devolved administrations. The old news is that it sits in the context of Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) reforms, with a policy paper on LEP roles and responsibilities published alongside, and Local Industrial Strategies will provide the mechanism for mayoral combined authorities and LEPs to prioritise UKSPF spend.
Investments also need to be “supported by strong evidence about what works at the local level”. Across the sectors, we therefore need to provide examples of good practice, evidence and data to demonstrate what ESF has made possible and how we can build on this for the future. Now is the time to show what good employment and skills support looks like and how it can help the UK fulfill its post-Brexit potential.
So there has been some stability afforded by the announcements, but there’s still a lot to do across the board. There will be a public consultation later this year on the UKSPF, where the ERSA / NCVO Working Group will stress the importance of what’s being achieved through ESF and the opportunities to improve and do more after Brexit. All thirty-eight LEPs need to be cognisant that tackling productivity means tackling skills gaps, addressing health inequalities and supporting disadvantaged groups into employment; that integration means transforming the social economy and inclusivity of an area; and that local strategies need to reflect the workforces of tomorrow and not the businesses of today. And the Government needs to understand that replacing the ESF is a multi-layered challenge which requires a multisectoral solution based on deep partnership working. It is vital it engages with the voluntary sector and independent providers of employment and skills right from the outset, not just as delivery agents. In doing so, we can build a world-leading initiative which helps all communities take advantage of the opportunities that leaving the European Union could bring.