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By Celine Denisot,

We should ask for guarantees from the UK government that it will match the funding received from various EU funds and programmes such as the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) once the country leaves the European Union (EU), given the importance of these funds for disadvantaged and least economically well-off groups in UK society.

The ESIF is made up of five funds, including the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the European Social Fund (ESF) that support employment-related projects to help people most disadvantaged in labour and these regions that are lagging behind. Under the ESIF, the UK was set to receive €17.2 billion for the period 2014-2020 (Armstrong, 2017, Brexit Time, Leaving the EU – Why, How and When?). These funds promote social cohesion and aim at tackling regional disparities. In the UK, Wales, the South-West of England and the North West of England are the main recipients. Once the UK leaves the EU, the ESIF funding will stop.

When it comes to economic inequality, the UK does not fare well compared to other developed countries (Equality Trust). It is therefore imperative that these EU funds be replaced by domestic spending, to prevent the deepening of economic inequalities as these funds were targeting the less well-off. In its 2017 Manifesto, the Conservative Party promised to set up a ‘United Kingdom Shared Prosperity Fund’ (UKSPF) to replace the ESIF, although the specifics are yet unknown. A March report by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee also advocates the replacement of these funds. Any interruption in this funding could be ‘potentially disastrous’ they say (House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee). However, ‘there is little in the public domain about the successor funding’ (Skills For Londoners Taskforce). The Skills for Londoners Taskforce  is an advisory group that was set up by the Mayor of London and is focussed on making sure that individuals and businesses across the capital are getting the professional skills they need. As this Taskforce rightly says, the ESF ‘is an important tool which supports the most disadvantaged’, as well as people with disabilities and from minority groups. It is therefore essential that this new UKSPF matches the same level of funding than the EU. The Taskforce is worried that the UKSPF will deliver less on employment and skills programmes for poor Londoners.

Some sectors could end up being particularly hit due to the withdrawal of EU funding. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is another programme under which the UK is receiving money to subsidise its agricultural sector. Under the CAP, the UK was set to receive €22.5 billion to pay subsidies to its farmers for the period 2014-2020. How will farmers’ subsidies be paid after this date? The environment secretary said that the subsidies will be paid at their current levels until 2022, but what next? Mr. Gove has often voiced his negative opinion of the CAP, saying it is ‘unjust’, and that he intends to reduce the subsidies (BBC). Here again the lack of specifics is not particularly reassuring for farmers, who, with an annual salary estimated on average at £25,578 compared to the national average wage of £26,500 in the UK, can hardly qualify as well-off (Farmers Weekly). Moreover, the trade deals that will replace the current arrangements with the EU are also likely to impact the agricultural sector heavily. These deals and the effects they could have on other social protections are equally uncertain at this stage.

At the moment, all we know is more or less that we know nothing until the government details its plans, but it is crucial that we do not release the pressure at a time when our rights are being picked apart as Just Fair UK’s open letter published in January 2018 with more than 20 other organisations suggested. The removal of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union from UK law under the Great Repeal Bill – which provides a more solid mechanism to enforce human rights than the national legislation – will impact on equality and human rights, due to the loss of guarantees for equality rights provided by EU law (Equality and Human Rights Commission).

As the Women’s Budget Group’s press release dated 27th March 2018 (WBG) reminds us yet again, the rights of more vulnerable groups are at risk because of Brexit (Women’s Budget Group). On the same day, WBG jointly organised a stimulating debate at the House of Lords with the Fawcett Society, with guest speakers from CLASS and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (Exploring the economic impact of Brexit on women). In the context of the EU Withdrawal Bill passing through the House of Lords at the moment, the Fawcett Society is advocating a matching of EU funds, reminding us of the importance of streams such as the DAPHNE Fund, the Rights, Equality and Citizenship (REC) Fund and the ESF in supporting work to tackle violence against women and girls and warning us that some women’s services have already lost considerable funding (European Union (Withdrawal) Bill: House of Lords Committee Stage Briefing). Among other things, the Fawcett Society is calling for support for amendments put forward by Lord Baroness Kennedy in favour of sustaining funding currently provided by the EU, and more organisations should join in this call and press for the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee’s recommendations to be followed (House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee).

To mitigate the risks Brexit poses to deepening inequalities in the UK, we need to make sure that the necessary budget provisions are in place to compensate for losses of EU funding in favour of the most vulnerable groups in society. It is time to urge the government to come up with concrete measures and exact figures of funding levels rather than vague statements.

Céline Denisot studies a MA in Human Rights at the University of London, School of Advanced Studies