ESF Users Group Briefing Highlights the Need for Urgent Action by both UK & NI Governments

15 Nov 2021 Kathy Maguire    Last updated: 28 Mar 2022

The ESF Users Group briefing sets out urgent recommendations to government for ensuring the replacement of vital EU funding helping 10,000 vulnerable people each year in NI overcome major obstacles to social inclusion & entering employment

Following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) in 2019, the UK Government committed to keeping in place current European Social Fund  (ESF), arrangements until EU funding came to an end and to create an appropriate ‘successor’ fund[1] . Despite this, neither the ESF Programme’s beneficiaries nor organisations as providers have been offered any security or assurances on either the immediate or longer-term future of this provision.

The ESF Users Group supported by NICVA are calling on both the UK and NI Governments to take urgent action to ensure that both the immediate and longer term future of this much needed provision is prioritised and protected.

Mainstream provision does not meet the needs of those individuals currently supported by ESF funded projects; therefore, the loss of ESF funding and the need to replace it with, as a minimum, the same level of resourcing, is a critical issue.[2] This is particularly important to ensure equity of access to skills development and training and employment opportunities for those most removed from the labour market and excluded from meaningful participation in society.

Background & Introduction

The ESF Users Group remains deeply concerned about the absence of any clear plan from both the UK and NI Governments to ensure continuity of funding for European Social Fund (ESF) projects which were formally due to finish in less than 6 months (31st March 2022), with a current proposal ESF Call 3  to extend the programme until end March 2023, remaining wholly dependent upon the securing of adequate match funding.  

Meanwhile, the longer-term future of this provision remains unclear, given the uncertainty with regard to the development of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), which is proposed as a ‘successor’ programme to EU funds and the implications therefore for its delivery in Northern Ireland.

In addition, current domestic policy and strategy does not adequately prioritise or address the longer terms gaps in provision that shall be left by the ending of EU funds.

For decades, the funding provided by ESF has provided critical support to and developed the skills of many of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of Northern Ireland society whose needs have not been met by mainstream public policy and services. It has also uniquely provided outcomes spanning responsibilities in various government departments, such as the Departments for Economy, Communities, Health and Justice.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified many of these aspects of social exclusion, with the need for continued and appropriate investment in effective interventions and supports more critical now than ever.

The current NI ESF budget is £168m delivered across 66 projects[3].  In the 7 years up to March 2022 ESF projects will have helped develop the employability and social inclusion of over 77,000 people, over 9,000 of these will have entered paid employment directly, and over 10,000 will have entered education or training. Recent data from the ESF Managing Authority shows that providers have met or exceeded all impact targets for the programme.[4]

ESF supported projects in NI have demonstrated consistent success and expertise in their work to address inequalities and ensure greater social inclusion, and in providing real opportunities to individuals to ultimately achieve meaningful and sustained employment[5]. Delivery of the ESF programme in Northern Ireland has been recognised as an exemplar model across Europe in addressing many aspects of social exclusion and economic inactivity. External evaluation and review of the programme has routinely evidenced tangible benefits for both individual participants, the wider community, and the economy[6].

Those individuals and communities ESF projects have typically supported are among the most socially excluded in NI. They face significant personal, societal, and financial barriers when trying to access employment or learning; these challenges only amplified by the continued impacts of the pandemic and growing economic uncertainty. This includes young people, particularly those that are not in education, employment, or training; the long-term unemployed; people with disabilities and health conditions; people facing multiple complex barriers to employment, those with convictions and families. To date ESF has been the primary and consistent source of funding for these projects.

In the context of an exceptionally challenging ‘post Covid-19’ labour market, there are likely to be further complex societal and employability challenges emerging and ESF provision has routinely demonstrated its capacity to adapt and respond to emerging need, as highlighted throughout the pandemic. An independent evaluation of the ESF programme by Grant Thornton[7]  found that ESF projects not only demonstrated excellent value for money but noted key strengths as being flexibility of approach; investment in relationship building; and the provision of tailored, demand driven supports. This includes ‘the delivery of ‘added value’ through a ‘wrap around’ support approach including intensive mental health and wellbeing supports to cohorts of unemployed people who are particularly distant from the labour market and who have complex needs.’

Summary of Key Concerns & Asks

In a recent briefing produced by NICVA on behalf of the Group we highlight our concerns and call for clear steps to be taken by both UK and Northern Ireland Governments to:

  1. Meet the match funding gap necessary to secure EU funds available under ESF Call 3
  2. Ensure that continued and adequate resourcing for ESF-type activities is made available through both domestic NI Government Departments and/or delivery of the UKSPF.

Our Concerns           

  1. The European Social Fund[8] (ESF), a vital and unique source of EU funding, helping 10,000 people each year in Northern Ireland overcome major obstacles to social inclusion and entering employment, will end soon post-Brexit with no clear replacement agreed.
  2. The EU has agreed to extend the life of the programme by a further year until end March 2023 (ESF Call 3 ), pledging £20 million but this is wholly dependent on approximately £14 million match funding from NI government departments and agencies, which is currently not all secured. Current ESF funding will end in March 2022.
  3. There is no clarity on how future NI government programmes will meet the social and labour market inclusion needs met for decades by ESF when its funding runs out.
  4. There is also no clarity on how, when, or whether the future promised UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) intended to replace ESF will adequately meet these needs.
  5. Meanwhile 50 voluntary and community organisations currently delivering core services to thousands of people via ESF funding, will be unable to continue their work or retain staffing and expertise unless clear commitments are given as soon as possible regarding both immediate and longer-term funding for services.  This places at significant risk the future of these organisations and unless secured, would mean the loss of over 1,000 jobs of those employed to deliver key services. This would result in a critical loss of much needed support to individuals with acute and complex needs, that has demonstrated strategic level impact across NI Government departments, specifically Economy, Communities, Health and Justice with no suitable alternative provision in place.
  6. An independent report by the Strategic Investment Board[9], jointly commissioned by the Department for Economy (DfE) and the Department for Communities (DfC), highlighted that any break in ESF provision would be highly undesirable, leading to unmet need and a ‘cliff edge’ in terms of access to suitable support at a time of unprecedented social and economic challenge and therefore must be avoided.

Our Asks

Urgent action is needed to meet the match funding gap necessary to draw down the £20M of EU funding available under ESF Call 3 and to ensure that continued and adequate resourcing for ESF-type activities is made available through both domestic NI Government Departments and/or delivery of the UKSPF.

  1. Match Funding/ESF Call 3
  • Urgent clarity is needed regarding the match funding arrangements for those projects who have successfully secured funding through ESF Call 3.
  • The Department for Economy (DfE), as the managing authority for EU Funds, alongside the Department for Communities (DfC) and other key government departments and agencies must urgently work with providers to ensure adequate financial arrangements are in place and to avoid any immediate loss or disruption of provision.
  • The NI Executive, led by the Department of Finance (DoF) should have oversight of the key issues regarding and take timely and appropriate action to ensure that available EU monies are not lost as a result of adequate match funding not being secured.
  1. Domestic Policy and Delivery
  • NI domestic policy and strategy must adequately mainstream, prioritise and address the needs of those previously provided for under the ESF programme, to ensure there is no break, significant reduction in and/or loss of provision.
  • The NI Executive and relevant local Government Departments must ensure the full involvement and participation of the voluntary and community sector and those they support in the design of current and future domestic programmes to ensure need is adequately prioritised and reflected in programming.
  1. Implementation and Delivery of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF)
  • Urgent clarity is needed as to whether the UKSPF will be a viable ‘successor’ programme to ESF, including the level of funding and timeframe in which this is realistically to be made available.
  • The powers to allocate and manage funding through the UKSPF in Northern Ireland should be fully devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive in line with its responsibilities for social inclusion and economic development. This will also help ensure compliance with the statutory duty to promote good community relations and equal opportunities.
  • In the absence of this, all efforts must be made by both the UK and NI Governments to ensure that there is significant practical involvement of the NI administration in the preparation, implementation, and management of the UKSPF funds, including determining funding priorities. This is necessary to ensure that resources are most appropriately targeted in NI; that gaps in provision for those with complex needs are avoided; and to prevent any duplication of effort or misdirection of resourcing etc by either government.
  • The UK Government must urgently engage with all relevant NI stakeholders, including the full involvement of relevant community and voluntary sector partners, to ensure the UKSPF is fit for purpose in terms of its priorities and plans for implementation and delivery in NI. This is necessary to address the unique landscape of need in NI[10] and to help sustain essential, embedded services.

You can read our briefing in full in the attached document.


Who We Are?

The  NICVA ESF Users Group is  a representative group of voluntary and community organisations, from across Northern Ireland, who are currently in receipt of European Social Fund (ESF) funding. Membership of the ESF Users Group includes organisations providing core services to support the long-term unemployed; those with convictions; young people not in education, employment, or training; families and those with a disability.  (A full list of ESF Users Group members can be found in ANNEX 1 of the attached briefing )

Further Information:

For more background and supporting information please also read our earlier Briefing document produced by the group in 2020: ESF Users Briefing on Future Replacement of ESF Funding Post-Brexit | NICVA

For more information in relation to this briefing or to find out more about the ESF Users Group  please contact NICVA via:

Kathy Maguire, Policy and Public Affairs Team Email: [email protected]


[1] Services in NI are currently being delivered as part of the current ESF funding round for 2018-2022, until March 2022. The UK government stated that in the case of a ‘no-deal’ departure from the EU, projects will continue to be funded until the end of the current cycle.

[2] ESF Users Briefing on Future Replacement of ESF Funding Post-Brexit | NICVA

[3]  66 projects (involving 50 organisations across NI), are currently operational under the 2nd Call of the NI ESF Programme 2014-2020. The 66 projects are broken down into the following four categories – unemployment and economic inactive (22), NEET (18), Disability (24) and Community Family Programme (5).

[4] An Impact Evaluation of the Northern Ireland European Social Fund Programme, 2014 -2020, Department for Economy, December 2020 Impact evaluation of the NI ESF Programme 2014-20 (

[5] Chief Inspector’s Report E2016- 2018, Education and Training Inspectorate

[6] Strategic Investment Board Landscape Presentation Paper for Strategic Insight Lab, Feb 2021

[7] An Impact Evaluation of the Northern Ireland European Social Fund Programme, 2014 -2020, Department for Economy, December 2020 Impact evaluation of the NI ESF Programme 2014-20 (

[8] The European Social Fund (ESF) (total value €450m with €210.5m contributed by the EU) provides dedicated funding for projects across the United Kingdom (UK) aimed at improving the employability and employment levels of vulnerable and disadvantaged people who are usually overlooked within mainstream provision. The strategic aim of the ESF Programme 2014-2020 in Northern Ireland (NI) is to combat poverty and enhance social inclusion by reducing economic inactivity and to increase the skills base of those currently in work and future potential participants in the workforce.

[9] Strategic Investment Board Landscape Presentation Paper for Strategic Insight Lab, Feb 2021

[10] As captured in the latest NISRA Labour Market survey (Oct 21) NI had the lowest employment rate and the highest economic inactivity rate of all the UK regions. .  The disability employment gap for NI in 2020 was 42.2pps, compared to 27.9pps for the whole of the UK. Since 2014, the disability employment gap has consistently been higher in NI than the rest of the UK. The number of young people who are NEET in NI has increased to 26,000, equivalent to 13.2% of young people aged 16- 24 years and is above the UK rate of 12.4% (LFS November 2020).




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by Kathy Maguire

Policy Development Officer

[email protected]

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