Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 129)



  Q120  Mr Stewart: What about Alison and Phil?

  Ms Biddulph: I can only support what Jane says. The consultation period on the UK Government's position does not end until 4 July, so the Government is still receiving views on this issue. I would also underline that the processes we are managing now, through ESF and co-financing, are indeed locking many organisations into some mainstream, key strategic organisations within their sub-region, so that by the end of the programme they will be better positioned to secure their future, post-2006.

  Mr McVey: Yes, I would agree. This might be too micro an answer to what you were anticipating, but I think, in terms of the voluntary and community sector, particularly, and the longer-term engagement in programmes, the way that ESF is operating through co-financing offers a real opportunity for them to build that capacity, so that in the longer term they are able to deliver programmes and services to disadvantaged people.

  Q121  Mr Stewart: I think this Committee has had some evidence of some fantastic programmes in the UK, and indeed in Portugal and Spain, which we have visited recently. My own personal concern is that I feel there is a good deal of overdependency on ESF, which could come to a great shock in 2006 when we come to an end. You have hinted already that there are some exit strategies, do you think this is reflected across Europe, are organisations ready for the shock when the ESF is going to be reduced dramatically?

  Ms Henderson: I would not want to say across Europe, what I would say though is in the UK the proportion of money coming from ESF, when you set it alongside the budget of a Learning and Skills Council, or even an RDA, looks quite modest. I think, in my region, Objective 3 will deliver £136 million over seven years, which is about the same as one year of the RDA's budget, and about the same as one LSC's budget for one year, to get it in perspective. It may be different in Spain, I just do not know.

  Q122  Mr Stewart: Do you think there is strength in the sense that you can get ESF's horizontal programme in Objective 1, 2 or 3, there is a bit more protection there, if you use Objective 1 you can get it under some other Objectives?

  Ms Henderson: I think it is a strength; well, what is a strength is that the people and employment aspects go hand in hand with the more physical aspects of investment; and we know, from long experience, through previous regeneration programmes down the years, that regeneration does not succeed unless you attend to the human aspects and build up a skills base. In fact, all the regions, I think, when they did a submission to the Treasury for the last Spending Review, highlighted skills issues as one of the key factors for prosperity for the future.

  Q123  Mr Stewart: There are still going to be, of course, considerable political barriers before this discussion goes through. As you will know, the UK and Germany, as net contributors, are quite keen on repatriation of ESF, while other countries, such as Spain, Portugal and, indeed, Italy, will be fighting to the last breath to stop this happening. But let us assume we do have repatriation in the UK and we are responsible then for ESF internally, do you see any advantages of that, for example, do you see less bureaucracy being involved, more flexibility, is it going to be more creative, or what are the implications of taking on these bills?

  Ms Henderson: There are pros and cons. Some of the benefits of European Funds one would not want to lose: one is the fact that it is a partnership approach so it involves lots of people and locks them into a strategy for an area, or a theme. The other advantage is that it is generally cross-cutting, going back to the question you asked a moment ago, we are not looking just at skills alone, or building alone. But, inevitably, there are bits of process associated with European Funds, even though we are mitigating some of them, and match funding used to be the bugbear but co-financing is helping address that. The other one tends to be the monitoring regime, which sometimes can seem to people rather onerous, though we try to make sure that it is not excessively onerous in relation to the risk.

  Q124  Mr Stewart: Alison, or Phil, do you have anything else to add?

  Mr McVey: I think Jane mentioned earlier on the Framework for Regional Employment and Skills Action, and, in a sense, whatever scenario arises, those regional documents, and the partnership working that is coming out of those, will ensure that funding on a regional basis meets the needs of that region, and indeed sub-regions as well. This is because of the way the partnership approach can work as a result of the Framework for Regional Employment and Skills Action.

  Ms Biddulph: We have a well-developed regional architectural infrastructure now, from which to administer important funding, to improve skills and also to promote economic development and physical regeneration, and I think there are many advantages in ensuring that the human resource element of that is welded into our regional policy.

  Q125  Mr Stewart: Do you think there are any dangers then, if we do have repatriation, of losing some of the European-wide Objectives, which ESF is all about, for example, benchmarking of best practice and equal opportunities?

  Ms Henderson: I do not think the Government's consultation paper implies that there would not still be a European dimension to a lot of what we do; in particular, that kind of benchmarking and learning would need to continue.

  Ms Biddulph: I would just agree with Jane and say that, yes, there is a clear intention of the Government's position to link any approach to an EU-wide framework, and indeed the Lisbon Agenda, which is very important to the Government and which we are trying to progress at the moment.

  Mr McVey: I will just refer again to the Framework for Regional Employment and Skills Action process, where, in the South West Region, I cannot speak for the other regions, benchmarking, both within the UK and outside the UK, has been identified as something that needs to be built into that.

  Q126  Chairman: You do not think that you are keeping all this too secret, do you? There is a sense that, maybe, if more people knew of the opportunity that is afforded through access to some of these Funds, you might find that you shared the opportunity a bit more widely. It is not really meant to be a criticism, because obviously you are pedalling very hard to stay within the rules and get all this sorted, and there are only so many hours in every day, but do you take steps to try to broadcast the news, the prospect for new opportunities for capacity-building within the work that you do?

  Ms Henderson: Very much so. A couple of months ago I chaired a conference on ESF in our region, which was designed to showcase successes and demonstrate to other potential bidders what was there for them, if they wanted to come forward. Also we have a regional newsletter, I think Yorkshire and Humber has something similar, and numerous other types of workshops are mounted. Phil, you can give examples.[8]

  Mr McVey: Specifically in the South West Region, we work with the voluntary and community sector, for example, to hold a continuing series of workshops to let people know about ESF, particularly in the context of co-financing as well, how to engage with co-financing organisations, the sort of process that you need to go through, as well as the publicity that Jane has mentioned already. Also we work very closely with the Regional Development Agency and their Regional Observatory, which is about collecting information and intelligence about the region, sharing that with people through publications such as this, that I can leave with the Committee, that let people know what ESF is doing in the region.

  Q127  Chairman: Are there extant other projects that you are supporting currently, in your various regions? Is there something on a website somewhere that says, "Little Puddleduck Disability Forum";

  Ms Henderson: Yes, we have a database on that.

  Q128  Chairman: Can we get access to that, if we make arrangements with you?

  Ms Biddulph: Yes, certainly.

  Q129  Chairman: Is there anything that you think we have not covered that you would like to tell us about? We are running a little bit late and I apologise for that, and we have got another group of witnesses; but is there anything that you think we should be thinking about in the course of the inquiry?

  Ms Henderson: I think the ones that we have talked a little bit about, bureaucracy and monitoring. Just to put it all in perspective, I think probably the total direct costs of all the administration in the programme we have been describing still come to only about 2% of the total value of the programme the value of the programme nationally is, what, £460 million about half of which is expenditure in the Government Offices, half back in Whitehall headquarters; That's £10 million altogether, half in headquarters, to administer the programme. So I do not think it stacks up too badly, despite all the reservations people inevitably have about monitoring and appraisal.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. That has been very useful.

8   Please refer to the supplementary memorandum (ESF 20), Ev 56. Back

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