ESN at conference on Community Living for All

We are all here today because we share a commitment to Structural Funds and the value of community living (…) We are not here to ask for more money, but to ask that the money we already have be better spent.” These were the opening words of Professor Gerard Quinn from the Centre for Disability Law and Policy, National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway at a conference on 3 May which aimed to raise awareness of the positive potential of EU Structural Funds in assisting Member States to achieve community living for older persons and persons with disabilities. The event welcomed over 70 delegates from 15 countries and was organised in association with the Irish Presidency of the European Union.

The use of Structural Funds to dismantle institutions and build services based in the local community has been a much debated topic in light of the on-going negotiations on the EU’s long-term budget for 2014-2020. Deinstitutionalisation is particularly interesting issue for Ireland, which currently holds the EU Council Presidency, as a relatively high number of people remain in congregated settings and separate from their communities. In 2011 a report released by a working group of the Health Service Executive in Ireland arguing that Ireland needed to adopt “a multi-agency approach among key government departments and public agencies” in order to deliver a full transition from institutional to community-based care.

At the conference Kathleen Lynch, the Irish Minister of State for older people, people with disabilities, mental health and equality, talked about the importance of shifting negative attitudes towards the type of care people and those with disabilities receive: “As Member States we have the responsibility to move towards a more coordinated mechanism of delivering services. Why should some people be confined to congregated settings just because of their age or disability? Why should the hopes and dreams of people who cannot provide for themselves be different to those who can?

A more evidence-based approach was offered by EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation Maire Geoghegan-Quinn who outlined the importance of using research and innovation funding under Horizon 2020 to provide clear proposals for positive change in the policies of Member States. However, according to Professor Jerome Bickenbach from the University of Lucerne in Switzerland there remains a paradox when it comes to the transition to community living, namely that in order for service users to acquire the independence associated with living in the community they are dependent on others (social services, carers or family members) for learning the skills that they need to live independently. Family and community-based care settings provide for an environment where this kind of learning can be fostered, segregating institutions do not.

Madeleine Clark from GENIO Trust, Ireland, argued that effective solutions for service users should be individualised, fostering inclusion and self-determination. She also warned against sending good money, for example from the Structural Fund budget, to bad practices. “We all have an ethical responsibility to do no wrong and if it is predictable that the (Structural) Funds will be mis-used then the EU has both an ethical and a legal obligation to ensure this can never happen. We certainly cannot preach to others around the world if we fail to get our own house in order”, argued Irish Senator Katherine Zappone.

On behalf of the European Social Network (ESN), the meeting was attended by Policy Officer Adrienn Sz. Nagy and Alexis Jay from the Scottish Government, ESN Member, who said that the conference “underlined the commitment of delegates and their organisations from all over Europe to the empowerment of people who use services to control their own lives, where they live and what support they need. The challenge for the EU is to make the Structural Funds work to achieve these aspirations.

The European Social Network (ESN) recognises the importance of Structural Funds to develop community care in Central and Eastern Europe through its work in the Visegrád countries as part of the European Expert Group on the Transition from Institutional to Community-Based Care.