How NI relies on Europe for employability schemes

18 Jan 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 18 Jan 2019

The European Social Fund represents a small amount of EU money – but supports a huge proportion of the schemes in its sector. Westminster’s delay on developing a replacement is worrying.


The European Union provides a host of money streams supporting a bewildering amount of initiatives in Northern Ireland and the UK.

This will change when after Brexit and has been a major concern for the people who run and the people who rely on these services.

One such funding stream is the European Social Fund (ESF). Westminster had promised a public consultation on a putative UK-internal replacement for this fund before the end of 2018. There is, so far, no sign of this consultation and no real clarity on when it might appear.

ESF funds employability initiatives for various disadvantaged sections of society, including the long-term unemployed, prison leavers, people with disabilities, and young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs).

The current ESF programme is open for applications from 2014-20 (with allocated money available for spending until 2023) and provides millions of pounds of financing to schemes in NI every year.

Currently 69 separate projects are funded here by ESF, including schemes by organisations like Action Mental Health, Start360 and the Orchardville Society, that help a huge number of people all over NI.

The Conservative government has previously announced it is designing a UK Shared Prosperity Fund [UKSPF] intended to “tackle inequalities between communities by raising productivity, especially in those parts of our country whose economies are furthest behind” (in effect, a fund with a wider focus than ESF but which includes the EU stream’s remit within its own).

However, the promised UKSPF public consultation has not materialised and there is no clarity on the what, when, why and how of such a fund would operate.


The biggest worry about the lack of any replacement for ESF is how much we rely on it.

Geoff Nuttall, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at NICVA, said: “There are two ways to look at ESF. Firstly, the amount of money it provides and, secondly, what this money funds.

“The amount of money is a small proportion of the total support for the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland – but what ESF supports is not funded anywhere else.

“It plays a really important role in helping particularly vulnerable groups get into employment. Those furthest away from the labour market need to be brought towards it, and then into it. These are organisations providing mental health services, opportunities for people to become more employable, and they are largely funded by ESF.”

The wider NI context is instructive– both how much we are affected by the problems ESF is designed to address and also what other programmes exist to increase employment and skills.

Northern Ireland has a worrying level of mental ill health, which tends to negatively impact on employment. Our economic inactivity rate is several percentage points higher than the UK overall. The total number of NEETs is rising.

Stormont, when it was functioning, has pursued a number of back-to-work schemes, to varying degrees of success.

For instance, there was Steps 2 Success, an initiative from the then Department for Employment and Learning (DEL, since subsumed into the Department for the Economy/DfE), which received criticism for the low percentage of service users that moved into stable employment.

Steps 2 Success replaced the previous DEL employability programme Steps to Work which itself had mixed outcomes (albeit operating from 2008 to 2012 in trying economic circumstances).

And, of course, all this takes place during the roll out of the spluttering and controversial Universal Credit reform of social security, which people who are out of work (although not only them) rely upon.

Wider impacts

Mr Nuttall said that the impact of losing access to EU funding goes beyond the loss of any services (that are not financed from elsewhere, such as central funds).

“NI gets about £500m [per year] from Europe and about two thirds of that is for farm payments. It is by far the biggest recipient and represents 87% of farmers’ income. The other third goes through a whole range of different programmes.

“Some of that money is available to bid for, including grants like ESF - and some goes into government departments to fund their work, some goes into councils to fund their work. So, when that goes and if it’s not replaced, it potentially leaves a lot of holes not just with grants but also in the budgets of government departments and councils.”

Not only will the state need to find replacements for independent programmes funded by EU money – noting again that ESF, for example, supports a huge proportion of NI’s employability schemes – but there will also be financial holes in existing statutory work.

Moreover, it is not just a case of throwing cash into pots that already exist. EU funding streams come from various fixed-term programmes that tend to be replaced by newer versions of themselves, following evaluation and appraisal of how well the money has been used and also any changes in the socioeconomic context.

After we leave, if we choose to replace these funding streams we will also have to replace the programme-development infrastructure around them.

The EU is a gargantuan organisation and this is often, rather blithely, used as criticism. However, the fact that, say, its funding models are complicated and the rationale behind them is not simple does not mean these models are bad – and, one would hope, quite the opposite; that the complexity has been instructed intelligently and with two eyes on good outcomes.

“There are some sectors of provision that don’t exist in domestic programmes, and that’s not been a problem until Brexit. for a very long time we’ve been used to that situation of having certain services provided for by European framework structural funds.

“We are leaving a whole load of programmes we didn’t have to fill - and also taking away the processes of designing those programmes.”


The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has published guidance relating to the European Social Fund in case of No Deal.

This is alongside broad, if non-specific, promises that ESF money (similar to many other EU funding streams) will be guaranteed during the ongoing programme. In the case of ESF that is money committed before the end of 2020, all of which must be spent by the end of 2023.

The guidance from Whitehall says: “We are committed to ensuring that there will be no gap in funding for regional growth in the event of a no deal. The Chancellor announced in August and October 2016 that the government would guarantee certain EU projects agreed before we leave the EU in order to provide more certainty for UK organisations over the course of EU Exit. This guarantee included European Social Fund projects.

“In July 2018 the government extended the guarantee so that it would cover all projects, including European Social Fund Projects, that would have been funded by the EU under the 2014-2020 programme period.”

However, it is uncertain whether these assurances are legally binding as things stand – let alone in circumstances where we have a change of government (including a new Conservative government that perhaps has a different vision for the UK).

Mr Nuttall said: “I’m not 100% sure if it represents anything legally binding. At the end of the day if forms part of the negotiation and it’s not agreed until it’s agreed so I suppose on that basis nobody could say for certain exactly what’s going to happen.”

This might all read like doom and confusion, but there are some softer aspects to leaving the EU, when it comes to accessing funding streams.

A country does not necessarily have to be a member to receive financial support – for instance, Norway takes contributions from the INTERREG programme.

Both PEACE and INTERREG could still provide money to Northern Ireland, with match funding from the UK government, which could be great news locally. Educational and research programmes like Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ are also available to jurisdictions outside the EU.

Unfortunately, clarity means clarity and there’s none of that right now. We are still scheduled to exit at the end of March – but there is no certainty about any clarity immediately after that, either.

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