Voluntary and community sector representatives brief Employment and Learning Committee on changes to the European Social Fund

10 Dec 2014 Seamus McAleavey    Last updated: 10 Nov 2015

Representatives from the voluntary and community sector today met with the Assembly Committee for Employment and Learning in an informal session to address issues with the European Social Fund and the DEL Draft Budget proposals.

Seamus McAleavey (NICVA), Karen Sweeny (Women’s Support Network), David Babington (Action Mental Health) and Koulla Yiasouma (Include Youth) briefed Committee Members on the impact of the proposed changes.

In a previous Committee meeting, the Minister for Employment and Learning had told Assembly Members that, due to the 10.8% cut in the Department’s resource budget for 2015-16, he would be seeking to mitigate this impact through direct applications to the ESF for services provided by statutory agencies. This, in turn, would reduce the pool of money available through the Fund to the many projects delivered by the community and voluntary sector.

Additionally, the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) have revised the guidance for voluntary and community groups applying to ESF in the newly issued funding call for 2014-2020, this includes new requirements and conditions such as:

  • Qualifications will be covered only to Level 1 – equivalent to D-G at GCSE and considered as a ‘failure’ by most employers. For those seeking Levels 2 and 3, they would have to go to a Further Education college or a government training programme that has these on offer, not a realistic suggestion for many vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals.
  • Those delivering training are required to undertake a certificate in teaching programme at the University of Ulster, with no equivalents outlined despite this being the norm across the UK. This will limit the number of people who can work on any ESF project, including many of those who have been successfully tutoring in the past.
  • No cost of living increase will be allowed over the next three years for staff in voluntary and community organisations. Yet the NJC has just agreed a 2.2% cost of living increase from January 2015. There is no similar requirement for public sector providers of ESF-supported projects.

The combination of these proposals and the tougher guidance will have adverse impacts on the many essential services delivered by voluntary and community organisations, on the large number of individuals who benefit from the employability, training and skills, and on the economy, which benefits from the increased participation in the labour market of those who were previously disaffected.

The Committee was told that the voluntary and community sector has never taken a ‘begging bowl’ approach to its funding. Though the money that is provided is called a ‘grant’, it is certainly not a gift as services with firm outcome targets and strict application and certification requirements. What NICVA are asking is that the voluntary and community sector is treated fairly and not seen as an easy target for a department looking to make quick cuts.

The new ESF guidance is a threat to the principle of a level playing field and it also threatens the value that community-delivered services delivered. Reducing the funding available to organisations in order to protect government programmes will not deliver the best value for public money. With reduced public finances from 2015 onwards, innovative solutions are needed. The community and voluntary sector is best placed to deliver these. However, even a small reduction will hit projects and the staff who deliver them, losing capacity that has been built up over the long-term. For many organisations, access to ESF is necessary to their existence and the results that they bring.

Examples of the vital work delivered by the sector were given. For example, the Derry 2020 Project, run by the Triax Neighbourhood Partnership Board, helps many vulnerable people increase their employability and reduce economic inactivity by participating in an innovative one-year training programme. With the support of 32 staff members, the project registered 3,501 people, with 1,645 gaining qualifications (92% at Level 2 and 3) and 788 people moving into employment. It is thanks to ESF and match funding from DSD, DEL and Derry City Council that this project and its beneficial outcomes are viable.

The Pathway to Success project run by Mencap provides specialist and individual support to people with learning disabilities in order to connect them to the labour market. As of September 2014 the project has met or is close to meeting its March 2015 targets. 840 trainees have been helped (95% of target), 70 have entered paid work (104% of target), 93 are in long-term voluntary work (81% target) and 301 have progressed to further education or other training programmes (95% target).

What these examples show is the impact that the expertise and personal dedication of community and voluntary organisations can provide in helping people move closer to the labour market. The added value of dedicated women’s centres, for example, in providing courses aimed at supporting women who have experienced domestic violence, mental health problems or poverty and require childcare in achieving qualifications at Level 1 and beyond is dependent on the quality of its services and the people providing. Without access to ESF to provide resources, that dedicated service may be lost for good.

Minister Farry addressed the same Committee meeting after the sector representatives and said that voluntary and community organisations had ‘misunderstood’ the Department’s intentions and promised to write to NICVA within 48 hours to clear up any confusion. He added that the guidance could be ‘refreshed’ and that ESF is intended to provide fresh opportunities for the sector.

Speaking after the meeting NICVA CEO Seamus McAleavey said, “The voluntary and community sector put a strong case to the committee today and we received a fair hearing from the members present. I welcome Minister Farry’s commitment to write to us on this issue and, crucially, we look forward to meeting with him and his officials to sort this out.”