Making it work: the European Social Fund - European Union Committee Contents


Our inquiry into the effectiveness of the European Social Fund (ESF) was launched against an evolving EU backdrop, with the financial crisis and increased unemployment looming large and the successor to the Lisbon Strategy, Europe 2020, being drawn up.

The ESF is an important tool at Member States' disposal to help improve employment opportunities for workers in the internal market, based on partnership. Key to this role is the concept of developing individuals' employability, above all through targeting the hard to reach and the low skilled.

Currently, there is an excessive emphasis on hard outcomes (e.g. numbers into employment and the obtaining of qualifications) over soft outcomes (e.g. interim steps on the path to employment such as acquiring skills and confidence building). Above all, we believe that the greatest value of the ESF lies in improving participants' employability and helping them progress towards, and ultimately move into, employment. We therefore disagree with the Government's rigid approach of increasingly withholding payment from providers unless they get people into work and keep them there.

Moreover, it is essential that, allied to Member States' efforts to make people more employable, there are sufficient jobs available for people to move into. It is not enough simply to provide ESF participants with the skills they need for work; more and better jobs are also needed. National government job creation programmes must therefore complement ESF programmes, and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) too has a role to play in helping to create jobs. The ERDF must be closely aligned with the ESF to ensure that the two can be used effectively alongside one another.

During the course of our inquiry we were struck by the worth of the ESF for all Member States. In particular, we agree with the Commission that the ESF is a concrete expression across the EU of solidarity among all of Europe's citizens. Futhermore, we do not support withdrawal of the ESF from the UK and other more prosperous Member States, at any rate not without a clear indication of what would follow in its place.

It is essential that existing and future ESF projects, and the money directed towards them, are considered in the context of domestic schemes, many of which have similar aims to ESF-funded provision. Regional flexibility is of the utmost importance for the successful operation of the ESF and we consider that regions should have greater flexibility to decide how the ESF can best improve people's employability within their specific local context, while recognising the national and European nature of the Funds.

As the financial crisis has shown, the ability to alter programme targets and move funding between projects and priorities with greater flexibility is desirable. There is however a balance to be struck between flexibility and the need for accountability, as well as avoiding unnecessary and unwelcome alterations in the focus of funding.

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