It’s time for more detail on the Shared Prosperity Fund that's designed to replace the European Social Fund (ESF) when the UK leaves the EU. It should be flexible and locally driven to allow people and places to take back control.
By this stage, most of us probably have Brexit fatigue. The debate seems endless. The bad news is that, even if Theresa May engineers victory in the forthcoming vote on her deal, it’s only really the start. Because the prime minister's deal only covers our exit from the EU, we’d have another two years (at least) of discussion about what our permanent future deal should be.
The good news is that this blog isn’t about that. The bad news is that it is Brexit-related. I wanted to write about the ESF and what replaces it when we leave the EU.
This is of crucial importance. There’s a lot that it’d be great to change about the ESF. In particular, my personal experience is that sometimes it feels like the focus is more on the positioning of the ESF logo on documents than about what the funding is intended to achieve. By the way, that’s perhaps as much to do with how the UK administers the funds as how the EU designs them.
Employment, learning and skills
But there can be no doubting the truly vital employment, learning and skills provision funded through the ESF. Across England, this amounts to around £400 million per year during the 2014-20 funding round, which will support 2 million people, with further investment for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I know from my own time commissioning ESF funds in London that they can help reach the places and people that other programmes don’t. That includes local community support, literacy and numeracy provision, support for people with health problems and disabilities to find work, provision for ex-offenders to improve their skills and find a job, and so much more.
That’s why the Learning and Work Institute brought together 200 people and organisations to campaign during the 2017 general election for a replacement when the UK leaves the EU. The good news is that the main political parties signed up to it, with the Conservatives saying they’d introduce a Shared Prosperity Fund.
Unfortunately, not enough has been heard since. There have been informal discussions and various roundtables, and a ministerial statement in the summer. But a range of fairly fundamental questions remain. What is the main focus and objective of the Shared Prosperity Fund? Will it be as large as the ESF (there’s no reason it shouldn’t be, given we’re net contributors to the EU)? How will funding be distributed? Will local areas be able to integrate it with other provision?
Size and parameters
A consultation on these has long been planned, and I still hear talk of it happening before the end of the year. We’ll see whether that happens. In some ways, it doesn’t seem that urgent: the government has said it will honour ESF contracts to the end of 2020 even if the UK leaves the EU with no deal. But the Spending Review, planned for March, will decide the size of, and parameters for, the Shared Prosperity Fund so discussions about its size and purpose will be taking place in Whitehall now. And the time it takes to commission provision also says we need to get on with this and let as many people as possible input so we get a better programme at the end.
The Shared Prosperity Fund is a great opportunity. We have a chance to design a new programme that could make a real difference, taking the best of the ESF and doing things differently where we want to.
The Learning and Work Institute would like to see longer-term funding – instead of two-year projects, why not five-year programmes? We’d also like funding properly devolved to cities and local areas wherever possible so they can, to coin a phrase, take back control. This should be in the context of local industrial strategies and backed up by local labour-market agreements, mirroring the system in Canada where the federal government devolves funding and the provinces commit to delivering outcomes such as the number of people helped back to work.
This could be an important stepping stone on the way to greater outcomes-based devolution, as set out in the Local Government Association’s Work Local programme, which we worked with them to develop.
It's time for action to invest in our future.
Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute