Select Committee on Work and Pensions Sixth Report

7 Community Initiative: Equal

104. Equal is a Community initiative that funds new ways of combating discrimination in the labour market, for those in work and those seeking work. Equal is funded from the ESF, but separately from the funding for Objectives 1, 2 and 3. For the current programming period, Equal's total financial allocation is €3 billion. The GB has been allocated £241 million for 2000-06, of which £21 million is for Scotland and £13 million for Wales.[203] Equal is administered nationally by the DWP. Project applications are assessed by the Equal Support Unit,[204] and reviewed by thematic groups of policy specialists before a recommendation is made to the Equal GB Monitoring Committee. The Equal programme operates across eight themes that are defined in terms of the European Employment Strategy, plus an additional theme directed at helping asylum seekers, which is of particular interest in London. The nine themes are: employability, combating racism, business creation, strengthening social economy, promoting lifelong learning, supporting adaptability of firms and employees, reconciling family and professional life, reducing gender gaps, and helping integration of asylum-seekers. To be awarded funding, organisations operate in one of the thematic areas, having agreed a strategy that encourages innovation and trans-national links. According to the Government:

    " Equal operates by bringing together in 'development partnerships' the key players in a geographical area or sector. The partnerships enable partners from the public sector, non-governmental organisations, social partners and business sector (in particular SMEs) to pool their expertise and experience. They operate in one of the thematic areas having agreed a strategy within which they will consider, develop and try out new ways of dealing with problems of discrimination and inequality"[205]

105. Equal's distinctive contribution is to support innovation in countering inequality and sharing good practice across national borders. Organisations taking part in Equal seek to help "victims of discrimination and inequalities, whether employed or seeking employment opportunities. Such groups include women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, older workers, refugees, ex-offenders, drug and alcohol misusers and asylum seekers."[206] One controversial aspect of the GB Equal programme is the treatment of asylum seekers.[207] The Greater London Authority (GLA) told us that "the Government decision to deny ESF support to any training project catering for asylum seekers has serious implications for London." It goes on to add that there is

    "the possibility of giving ESF support to courses that recruit asylum seekers for pre-vocational training: for example ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages] and basic skills, advice and guidance, confidence building and orientation. But this would need explicit agreement by relevant Government departments that asylum seekers could be treated as eligible for these courses."[208]

106. The Greater London Authority (GLA) called on the DWP to encourage the Home Office to repeal its ruling so that asylum seekers would be deemed eligible for pre-vocational training courses supported by European Social Fund resources. In evidence, the Minister told us that the Government was planning to issue new guidance on this. He said:

    "There are now plans to revise the ESF guidance so that asylum seekers, without permission to work, can be eligible to benefit from pre-vocational activities funded by mainstream ESF and from the whole of the Equal programme. As you know up to now it has only been within the asylum seeker element of Equal that pre-vocational training can be provided. It does mean that of course asylum seekers would not be entitled to vocational training or the normal range of help provided by Jobcentre Plus into employment until their status has been confirmed as refugees. However, we are planning to issue new guidance soon to ESF organisations to make it clear that this is now the change that will take place."[209]

We welcome this. The guidance was issued in June 2003 and applies to mainstream ESF and not just Equal.[210] Although Equal encourages innovative projects, it is important that the projects should not just be interesting, but should allow best practice to be shared across international borders. The sharing of information may be accomplished by organisations developing partner organisations in other countries for the purposes of networking and organising exchange visits. Some projects may be involved in "blue skies" thinking on ways of addressing things like gender pay gap issues - without necessarily providing tangible outcomes.[211] The guidance, case studies and examples of best practice are a useful source of information. The Minister told us that Equal was "a programme which should be fairly light on its feet in terms of trying to find new ways forward in a way which is not always possible through mainstream programmes." [212]

203   There are separate programmes for GB and Northern Ireland. The Department is responsible for implementing Equal in Great Britain in partnership with the Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly Government. Back

204   For more information on the Support Unit see Back

205   Ev 95 Back

206   www.go­ Back

207   The asylum seeker theme is managed on a UK basis as part of the Great Britain programme. Back

208   Ev 157 Back

209   Q194 Back

210   Changes to ESF disability rules for asylum seekers, ESF Division, June 2003. Back

211   Q190 Back

212   Q190 Back

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