21st European Social Services Conference: Day 1

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How can we reshape services in order to transform the lives of all our citizens? This was the main theme of this year’s European Social Services Conference in Dublin, organised in association with the Irish Presidency of the European Union.

Europe faces significant economic and social challenges due to pressure on public finances and high unemployment rates, especially amongst the young. Social services have to protect and empower vulnerable people, whilst continuing to invest in preventive actions for the future. The conference from 17-19 June was attended by 360 delegates from 32 countries who discussed the importance of social investment in transforming the lives of citizens and bringing about a change in the way services are designed, delivered and evaluated.

The conference was opened by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, who stressed the importance of key values of the European project – cohesion and solidarity: “solidarity among citizens and social cohesion are values that must be fostered and maintained – not as mere by products of, or compensations for, a successful economy but as key objectives in their own right.” President Higgins reminded the delegates of the development of welfare states and public health services after the two World Wars. The different models of social protection characterise Europe and are “a gift from our collective heritage that must be shared with the globally interdependent community.“

President Higgins referred to the Schuman Declaration from 9 May 1950: ”Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.” He warned that this commitment to broadening and deepening solidarity is being challenged by unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, and rising levels of poverty and social marginalisation which lead to citizens being unable to fully participate in society. President Higgins called for a European Union that implements policies which build on investment in people and solidarity: “It is a time for socially driven policies based on normative theory. The policies we require need a democratic underpinning, which will only be forthcoming if there is a collective sense of solidarity across Europe. That solidarity requires the reaffirmation of common values, the recognition of the importance of social cohesion and an adherence to the founding vision of an open, generous and interdependent Europe.”

The first plenary session of the conference, ‘Changing society, investing in the future’, brought out more arguments for investing in people. Presenting the achievements in social policy during the Irish presidency of the European Council, Joan Burton, Minister of Social Protection in Ireland, emphasised “the absolute need for an enhanced social dimension to economic decisions.” Minister Burton underlined the significance of social investment in social services as “providing adequate and sustainable social protection, strengthening people’s opportunities to participate in society, making services more integrated, investing in children and young people and giving more independence to people with disabilities.” The Minister also noted that at the EPSCO Council on 20-21 June, Council conclusions for further implementation of the Social Investment Package will be adopted. In addition, the EPSCO Council will seek to gain firm commitments from the Member States for implementing the youth guarantee scheme and will discuss further measures to increase youth employment.

Juan Menéndez-Valdés, Director of Eurofound, underlined that “we are in danger of losing a generation” to high youth unemployment and exclusion. The cost of youth unemployment rates in 2011, estimated at 153 billion Euro, does not take into account the cost of disengagement and loss of trust in society. Menéndez-Valdés highlighted that the creation of a greater number of sustainable jobs is necessary for getting more people into employment, improving the quality of working conditions and ensuring that “people with different needs and capabilities can participate in the labour market.” Addressing the workforce shortage in the care sector, Menéndez-Valdés stressed the importance of investment in new strategies for the recruitment of care workers. “Although the increasing number of people needing services is clear, there is too little recognition of the significance and value of care workers.” Menéndez-Valdés also described a decline in optimism amongst European citizens and that growing inequality is consistent with mistrust in public institutions. In the search for social policies that can address these challenges, he concluded: “It is unlikely that more money will be allocated in the current economic circumstances. This means we have to do more, we have to do better with the limited resources available.”

Jan Truszczyński, Director General for Education, Training, Culture and Youth at the European Commission, spoke about education as the main driver in preventing social exclusion and poverty. Therefore, the Commission calls on Member States to promote “quality education for all” with an emphasis on reducing early school leaving, improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged learners and improving the quality and availability of early childhood education and care. Truszczyński particularly noted the importance of cooperation between different services in promoting early childhood education and care, and the prevention of early school leaving. He emphasised that “Education alone is not sufficient to break the cycle of disadvantage. Cross-sector strategies are required, to link what schools and colleges can do with what other sectors and services such as employment, social work, health, finance, justice, housing and welfare can offer.” By providing equal education and more straightforward access to services, “young people can reap the full benefits of education and training.”