After Brexit, the government must replace the £500 million provided every year by the European Social Fund for people in disadvantaged circumstances, says Shane Chowen

It’s only been a month since that windy Tuesday morning when the prime minister announced that the country will face a general election on 8 June.

When parliament resumes on June 19, the new government will have to negotiate Britain’s exit deal with European leaders.

But among talk of negotiations, “divorce payments”, trade deals and “remoaning”, the next government also has to find ways to align its domestic policy agenda to a post-EU legislature. The Conservatives want a great repeal bill to cut many EU laws from the UK.

The new government must also provide some clarity about the future of projects and provision currently in receipt of EU funding, specifically the European Social Fund.

The Brexit white paper, published in February, confirmed that projects funded through European Structural Investment Funds, which includes the ESF, that were signed before the 2016 autumn statement and which have end dates after the UK leaves the EU in 2019, will still be fully funded.

But £400 million-worth of projects currently cofunded between the ESF and the ESFA have an end date of March 2018 – a year before we’re due to leave under Article 50 – and the 76-page white paper makes no specific reference to ESF at all.

Learners and providers have been offered no security or assurances on the future of their funding

Elsewhere, there are 19 open calls for proposals for projects funded through the current ESF programme through DWP: Enterprise M3 LEP is looking for projects to improve digital skills for unemployed people, Hertfordshire LEP has £1.5 million to invest in upskilling its health and social care workforce, and Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire LEP have £5 million available for projects to develop higher-level skills in key sectors.

These calls for proposals specify varying end-dates; some stipulate that projects have to be done by October 2020, and others “after three years”, with the caveat that you could be told sooner at DWP’s discretion.

Providers have the right to know where they stand. Users of the ESF span the private, public and charity sectors. They employ specialist practitioners who work with often the most marginalised and disadvantaged across the UK.

At the Learning and Work Institute, the work we’ve seen done with ESF funding over the years through the Festival of Learning and the Adult Learners’ Week Awards has been extraordinary.

Take Bad Boys Bakery for example. With support from ESF, this programme based in Brixton prison provides skills and work experience to offenders which improves their chances of securing a good job on release. That investment has also led to a dramatic cut in reoffending rates. On average, 47 per cent of ex-offenders reoffend within 12 months of release from prison. For participants of Bad Boys Bakery, that figure is just 3 per cent.

Despite this, learners and providers have been offered no security or assurances at all on the future of their funding, which just isn’t good enough.

The breadth of organisations that have signed up to the campaign to protect the kind of learning opportunities that the ESF currently provides following Brexit demands action. The country cannot afford to lose the £500 million that is invested every year in the life chances and opportunities for people in deprived areas, people with disabilities, older people and ex-offenders.

Replacing the ESF with domestic social investment must be central to the next government’s economic and social justice strategies; whether that’s “a country that works for everyone” or “for the many not the few”.

 

Shane Chowen is head of policy and public affairs at the Learning and Work Institute