Who owns all the oranges? by Oran Burke

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Who owns all the oranges?

Photograph © Yanni Koutsomitis 2012

The EU flag

January 3, 2013

Britain and the European Social Fund

The recent debate concerning Britain’s membership of the European Union has generally centred around a referendum on leaving and the fractious budget discussions which are yet to be fully settled. Regarding the latter, the UK has long been a net contributor, paying in about £4.66 billion pounds in 2011, the fourth most behind Italy, France and Germany. This amount includes the infamous €3.6 billion rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s but this isn’t the only money the country receives from Brussels.

The European Social Fund is one of the EU’s main structural funds and, according to its website, was set up to reduce differences in prosperity and living standards across member states. In practice it helps those who struggle to find employment by providing additional skills and training through small community organisations.

This can include anything from adult literacy and numeracy programmes to courses for young people who’ve given up on education. Although Britain is considered one of the wealthier countries in Europe, it is still set to receive almost €4.5 billion in the 2007 to 2013 budget period to run schemes in deprived areas of the country. The government tops this up with an extra €4 billion as part of its agreement with Brussels.

Daniel Hannan, a British MEP for the South East of England, is a vocal advocate of leaving the EU based on the theory that Britain would be better off outside, relying on independent trade agreements made directly with countries like Brazil and China to maintain the economy.

However, when questioned about whether it would be better to be without the associated social programmes as well he dismissively replied, “Well, they are very valuable to the people who administer them. I wonder how valuable they are to the recipients.”

The allocated ESF funds for his constituency from 2007 to 2013 are £185.8 million, low in comparison to other regions as the South East is wealthier. It seems unrealistic however to claim that this money is spent on a wide range of programmes providing no beneficial effects to participants, though it is also unlikely that every scheme yields stunning results where everyone gets a job afterwards, particularly in the current economic climate.

The KS4 Pre-Engagement Programme ran for two years up to September 2010 and targeted young people aged 14-16 in the East Sussex, Brighton and Hove areas who had disengaged from mainstream education. Participants were offered a range of courses from sports leadership to hair and beauty with the objective being to encourage them to return to full time learning afterwards. The project, run by Brighton and Hove and East Sussex Councils, received more than £400,000 in ESF funding which was used to pay for counselling and support services for more vulnerable youths, as well as running the scheme itself.

Nikki Boys, the support worker who covered the Brighton and Hove area, explained their ethos: “We gave them a fresh start, the approach was positive not negative. It was about what they want and where they are going now, not their history. They had a clean slate and so they responded.” Of the 314 teenagers who started the programme, 244 completed their allocated course and 229 went on to further education, a 73 per cent success rate.

Another project, Enterprise for Change in Newhaven, received £900,000 to run a programme for convicts to provide training and advice on starting their own business after leaving prison. The participants continue to be mentored after they finish their sentences and the pilot project, which dealt with 37 men, found that 29 per cent of them went on to become self-employed while overall reoffending rates were 11 per cent, significantly lower than the most recent national figures for 2010 of 25.3 per cent of adult offenders. The scheme, co-financed by the National Offender Management Service, was aiming to cater for 100 men up to the end of 2012.

There is also the possibility that the loss of financial support for charities and community organisations, needed more than ever as the economy stagnates, could prove fatal. Surrey Community Action distributes grants of up to £12,000 to fund projects that “engage participants in activities that will encourage further learning and/or lead into employment.”

For the three years from 2011 to 2013 it has over a million pounds to distribute, with priority given to groups who work with lone parents, women, people with health or disability issues, those over the age of 50 or ethnic minorities. Smaller organisations rely on several sources of funding to survive and the loss of one, such as these grants, could halt their operations.

Many projects are co-funded by the Department for Work and Pensions, Skills Funding Agency or National Offender Management Service. These partnerships are deemed to be secure until the end of 2013 but if austerity is to become the norm for government departments over the next five years then it is questionable whether these programmes will be able to continue.

This is likely to make those projects that are wholly funded by the ESF all the more valuable to the recipients. Should Britain decide to leave the EU and in the process forsake ESF grants then the future of many of these programmes is even more precarious.

As for those that administer them somebody has to in order for a participant to benefit and several programmes come under the government’s Big Society label, including Enterprise for Change and six others in the South East. Surviving the loss of a notoriously difficult to rationalise umbrella idea might be easy compared to the loss of nearly a million pounds of EU funding should Britain exit Brussels stage left.

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