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The European Commission’s (EC) annual convention had as its central tenets three goals -to improve the social dimension of the European Union (EU); fighting against poverty, reducing unemployment and making sure no one is left behind. The aim of the convention was to ignite a discussion on the contents of the European Pillar of Social Rights, which is an initiative of the current Commission, through five interactive workshops. ESN CEO John Halloran spoke at the workshop on social investment and the European Fund for Strategic Investment (EFSI) and at a side event jointly organised by ESN, Eurocities and Eurodiaconia. Policy Director Alfonso Lara Montero was rapporteur in the workshop on Active inclusion and inclusive labour market policies.

Social Investment and the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI)

At this workshop, where ESN CEO John Halloran spoke alongside representatives from the European Association of Service Provides for Persons with Disabilities (EASPD), NewB (a cooperative bank) and the Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs (DG ECFIN), participants discussed the opportunities and barriers for using EFSI for unlocking investment in the social services sector. Among the recommendations were:

1) to improve the accessibility of ESFI through the provision of one-stop shops;
2) the improve the technical capacity of local authorities and service providers;
3) to involve social services professionals in the existing platforms in order to improve financial and insurance providers’ understanding of the sector.

Active inclusion and Inclusive Labour Markets

Reporting back from this workshop, ESN Policy Director Alfonso Lara Montero conveyed to the plenary some of the key messages that emerged during the discussions. Discussants emphasised the need to ensure that Active Inclusion (AI) was clearly spelled out and covered comprehensively all areas of AI, including access to social services. It was felt the need for the Commission to involve local authorities and stakeholders at local level (e.g. promoting public-private partnerships and ensuring more direct involvement of employers) to ensure implementation, and the establishment of benchmarks for Member States to ensure their accountability: aligned with the Country Specific Recommendations of the European Semester.
There was division of opinion regarding the social benefits’ role, as to whether it should be a safety net or an activation mechanism. However, there was consensus that an integrated approach to active inclusion needs to combine labour market access with benefits and access to social services.

ESN-Eurocities-Eurodiaconia side event

This side event focussed on local strategies to promote the implementation of the Long-Term Unemployment Recommendation launched by the European Commission in 2014. The main focus was around building partnerships to promote the active inclusion of those furthest from the labour market. ESN member Agy Pasek from Gloucestershire County Council presented their approach on employment for people with learning disabilities. The main motivations at Gloucestershire county council are to ensure social inclusion, to aid welfare reform and to ‘Build Better Lives’, which are very much in line with the EC’s overall goal of making sure no one is left behind.

Agy compared the 18.3% employment rate for people with intellectual disabilities in Gloucestershire with a national average of 7%. In an aim to continue increasing the numbers of people with intellectual disabilities in employment in Gloucestershire, the council has co-produced with service users an employment strategy and a 10 year plan, which includes supported internships, consultations with user-led organisations and self-advocates and social enterprises. These practices could, in theory, be rolled out at local level across the EU as part of inclusive labour market policies.

Conclusion

ESN’s participation in the EC’s 2016 Convention on Inclusive Growth informed the discussion on active inclusion with a focus on integrated approaches to promoting labour market participation, including benefits and access to social services. It also added to debates around the use and application of EFSI for social services, especially in times of financial instability. We will contribute to the European Commission’s consultation on the European Pillar of Social Rights initiative and look forward to see how the Commission foresees the Pillar interacting with the pre-established Europe 2020 strategy.