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Ecc 70Th Report: European Social Fund

Volume 416: debated on Thursday 22 January 1981

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6.11 p.m.

rose to move, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on the European Social Fund (70th Report, Session 1979–80, H.L. 361).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. In presenting to your Lordships' House this report on the European Social Fund the European Communities Committee have ventured to begin with a very brief history of that fund from its inception up to the present time—well, up to 1978, the latest year for which the Community's documents were available at the time of the committee's deliberations. This narrative occupies the first four pages of the report; and for much of the material in it we are indebted to our specialist adviser, Dr. Doreen Collins of the University of Leeds, a recognised authority, whose professional erudition and untiring attention to the committee's affairs I should like to acknowledge here. At the same time I would wish to pay tribute to Mr. John Turnbull, the clerk to Sub-Committee C, who bore the often vexatious heat and burden with unfailing thoroughness and indomitable good humour.

It may be that much of what is contained in this section of the report is already familiar to your Lordships—or maybe not. At least it enabled members of the committee to lay down a firm historical base for their inquiries and subsequent conclusions. My second word is of thanks to all those who gave evidence to the committee, written or oral or both. That evidence included valuable memoranda from the TUC, from the Development Commission, and, for those who are more numerate than I, from the European Court of Auditors. Especially, in oral evidence, the committee enjoyed conferring with Mr. Vredeling, the vice-president of the Commission—and we look forward to close and frequent relations with Mr. Ivor Richard—and with the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, who, in the middle of a particularly busy spell last July, enlivened and enlightened the committee considerably from his intimate departmental knowledge of these matters.

All this evidence will be found in the appendices to the report. I have heard it said in relation to documents of this kind that readers can be divided into two mutually exclusive categories; those who read the report but never look at the appendices, and those who read all the appendices but never look at the report. I dare to hope that this time there may be two, three, or even four Members of your Lordships' House who may have the interest and the conscientiousness and the perseverence to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the whole lot.

The committee then, after the historical introduction, deal with the European Social Fund in the broad Community context before going on to examine its application and use in the United Kingdom. And finally, your committee offer nine conclusions which are actually set out in the form of recommendations or exhortations.

Before I turn to a consideration of some of these conclusions, may I make one point which will be well known to many of your Lordships but perhaps not to all? The European Social Fund is not a "social" fund in the ordinary English meaning of that adjective. It is not primarily, but only secondarily or even incidentally, concerned with what in this country we call social problems. It is primarily and fundamentally a training and retraining fund, basically concerned with those problems, throughout the Community, which arise from the need to train men and women (especially young ones) for work, and to retrain for other work those who for one reason or another have lost the work they had.

There is a second general point to be made, so obvious that it is easily overlooked but basic to an understanding of the fund's operation. It is simply that between the date of the inception of the fund and the present day the whole economic picture in the states which constitute the Community has radically and disastrously changed. Since 1971 unemployment has become endemic throughout the Community, and there seems to be little immediate prospect of renewed economic growth within the Community as a whole. The background of the fund's activities has changed in such a way that the perspective of those activities must be adapted correspondingly if it is to preserve any credibility and effectiveness. This situation, I suppose, is likely to be aggravated rather than ameliorated by the further extension of Community membership.

Against that background, my next observation must be of a plainly stark and gruesome kind; namely, the underlying fact (perhaps "overriding" would be a more appropriate adjective) is that the budget allocation of the Social Fund in 1978 was 4·4 per cent. of the total estimated expenditure of the Community in that year. Without making contentious comparisons with other budget items, 1 think your committee is justified in calling 4·.4 per cent. an inadequate share for the work which the fund ought to be undertaking throughout the Community.

It is hardly surprising that this minute allocation was in 1978 oversubscribed to the tune of 93·3 per cent.; that is, legitimate applications amounted to almost twice the amount of money that the fund had available. I know that it is customary nowadays to prefix the adjective "inadequate" with horrific adverbs like "totally", "grossly", "manifestly". If I just say "inadequate", I shall stand, like a distinguished public servant under parliamentary cross-examination in 1773, astonished at my own moderation. Your Lordships will not be surprised that this point is made more than once in your committee's report. How far this gloomy situation is likely to be remedied in the near future it is impossible to say in the uncertainty, not to say chaos, which still surrounds the Community budget for 1981.

After those prolegomena, may I now, very briefly, call attention to four of your committee's conclusions, leaving to others the opportunity of filling in the gaps which I deliberately leave. Each one of these conclusions exemplifies one or other of the intricacies of the fund's nature and operations. The first concerns the problem of youth unemployment, which your committee had no hesitation in describing as "potentially catastrophic". There is, I am sure, no need for me to labour this point today, especially as it is a major concern of another committee of this House. But it must be said, bluntly and without equivocation, that unless young people receive some further education and training after they leave school a great many of them will grow up to be unemployable, especially in a future where higher and higher skills are certain to be demanded.

This is not a problem confined to any one member state; it is Community-wide and industry-wide. It is true, and welcome, that the social fund has paid increasing attention to these young people in recent years. But in 1978 the fund's provision under this heading was 31 per cent. of its budget; that is, 31 per cent. of 4.4 per cent. of the whole Community budget, which is, if my arithmetic serves, just over £100 million for these millions of young people who are at very grave risk with possible consequences nobody dares predict.

My second point is less sombre, vexatious rather than crucial, tiresome rather than desperate. It concerns simply the cumbersome nature of some of the Commission's procedures and documentation. To help intending applicants, the Commission produces guidelines setting out areas of the fund's activities, priorities which it observes and detailed criteria which govern the selection process when, as at present, applications amount to double the amount of money available. The result is a document which would effectively deter any but the most determined and persistent applicant.

Further, there are changes in the guidelines from time to time—rightly, since priorities change—so that applicants must be up-to-date and on-the-ball as well as tenacious and undauntable. The guidelines being mastered, there is an application form to complete, equally formidable and indigestible. Of course it is not easy to produce forms and instructions which cover the different training patterns and systems of 10 member states, but there is no doubt that the existing documents are in themselves a serious deterrent to the non-expert would-be applicant. It would perhaps help towards simplification of these documents if they had to be approved, as at present is not required, by the European Parliament.

My third point concerns what is rather inelegantly called the principle of "additionality". It is central to the whole concept and purpose of the fund that any grant it makes towards any scheme of training or retraining should be additional to any expenditure which the government of the relevant member state undertakes on that scheme. Broadly speaking, one-half comes from public funds in the country concerned and up to one-half from the social fund. It is not the fund's purpose to provide money which will be deducted from a member state's own proposed outlay on a scheme and so save it money. Rather, its purpose is to stimulate Governments into expenditure which, without help from the fund, they would not have undertaken.

It is of course, to put it mildly, not easy to ensure that all Governments all the time carry out this obliga-

tion in full. Let me leave it at that. But there is the further disagreeable consequence that when a government finds it necessary to reduce its expenditure in these fields, it loses pro tanto any hope of assistance from the fund. Then we are only a move or two away from the harsh fact that countries which are too poor to spend much in these ways draw less from the fund than their more affluent fellow member states, so that the more they need help from the fund the less chance they have of getting it. The principle of additionality, one might say, cuts both ways.

My fourth comment may become complicated, but I will keep it as simple as I can, even if over-simplification leads to some shortfall in strict accuracy. Each member state is required by the Community to appoint one contact organisation for its dealings with the fund. In the United Kingdom this is the Department of Employment, some of whose duties in this regard are to provide information to intending applicants, to help them in the framing of their applications, to forward to Brussels applications which are eligible and to keep in touch with the staff of the Commission.

Besides the applications which arise from the public sector there are applicants from the private sector, individual firms and voluntary bodies, who must be sponsored by some organisation or institution agreed between the Commission and the Department of Employment. In relation to the voluntary bodies, many of whom are eager to help, for instance with the education and training of migrants or the handicapped, the National Council of Voluntary Organisations has done and is doing valuable work in information, help and advice. It would seem that this work could well be extended, not of course in competition with the Department of Employment but in collaboration with it, especially in those spheres where the applicants might be more familiar with the idiom—if I may call it that—of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations than with the idiom of a Government department. It might even turn out that, in certain areas of application, the NCVO might be accepted as a partner with the department in validation and sponsorship.

This is the first time that your committee has ever examined and reported on the European Social Fund. It is perhaps surprising that such a major policy or policy instrument of the Community has not received more attention in the past. I therefore take this opportunity to raise, before I resume my seat, two questions which seem to be fundamental. The first, simply, is this: What is the point of having a European Social Fund at all? I would not presume to offer anything like a comprehensive answer to such a basic question, especially at this time, but I would offer one thought which may seem almost pitifully naïve. We arc talking and thinking and operating in terms of a European Community. In the smaller communities to which we all belong—our families, villages, streets and workplaces—we expect and almost take for granted a degree of concern from each member of that community for each of the other members. I suggest that the European Social Fund is the instrument or vehicle through which a corresponding concern may be felt and exercised in the broader context of the community of Europe to which we stand committed.

Finally, why is it in the interest of our own country that such a fund should exist? In recent years we in the United Kingdom have not done at all badly from it proportionately and comparatively with other member states. From the point of view of sheer self-interest, the fund's attractiveness to us may be reduced as other, comparatively poorer, countries join the Community. We shall certainly not cease to benefit from it, especially in those areas where we most need help. But I repeat, we are talking about a Community, and I for one should be sorry and sad to think that our interest in the European Social Fund was wholly governed, even in these hard days, by nothing but self-interest. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on the European Social Fund (70th Report, Session 1979–80, H.L. 361).—( Lord Wolfenden.)

6.29 p.m.

My Lords, it is all too well known that the European Community no longer has the popular support which as little as five years ago it seemed to possess. It now has an opportunity, if it will take it, to show how relevant the Community can be to the problems which confront ordinary people in this country, and it is only by establishing its relevance to the problems of the ordinary people that the imagination of the voters, and therefore the enthusiasm of Governments, can be recaptured. It is perhaps sad that that relevance springs from the horrors of unemployment which we are enduring today and which there is little doubt we shall continue to endure for months and probably years.

As the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, has already indicated, the Social Fund was established under the terms of the Treaty at a time when the problems facing the Community were of a quite different order from the problems of today, and in those days it was perhaps not unreasonable that the distribution of resources in the Community should have been established along the lines which then in fact took shape.

But the Community is a moving, an alive, and a dynamic institution—otherwise it cannot possibly endure. The problems have changed so greatly since the Community was established and since the Social Fund was set up, and so it is surely reasonable and right that the handling of the budget of the Community, and the way in which the Social Fund is used, should change to meet the changing needs of a Community in which the economy and the social position of so many of its citizens have altered so drastically and so very much for the worse. Therefore this opportunity for the Community to show its relevance has to do with the way in which the Community can help to alleviate the problems of unemployment, and indeed to forestall the development of still more serious unemployment, with which we are threatened.

It seems to me that there are in particular two areas of activity with which the Social Fund is peculiarly suitable to deal, and indeed one at least of these aspects can be dealt with adequately only if it is handled on a Community scale, and if we do not attempt to deal with such problems purely on a national scale. Of course that becomes more difficult the more people forget the idea of a European Community and the more that they tend to think of it as a collection of individual nation states, each fighting to get the best possible pickings out of the Community in their own short-term interests.

The first and major contribution that surely must come has to do with what is, and since the beginning of the Treaty has been, at the heart of the purpose of the Community—the restructuring of industry. Any of us who has looked in any depth at the problem of unemployment must be convinced that, whatever palliatives are introduced in order to deal short-term with unemployment problems, the only longer-term and enduring solution is for a fairly drastic restructuring of industry in the industrialised countries as the less-developed countries become more developed and present a more serious competition, but at the same time a growing opportunity. That restructuring was of course very much in the minds of the founding fathers of the Community, and the major purpose of the Social Fund in its early days was to alleviate the pain that such restructuring would inevitably cause.

If that were necessary in the days when the Treaty of Rome was passed and when the Social Fund was set up, it is far more necessary today. It needs to be a European initiative, a Community initiative, envisaging the restructuring of the old industry on a Community scale, and backed by resources to enable that restructuring to be carried out with a minimum of hardship.

The Social Fund has been set up in order to provide for training and retraining of adults and youngsters, too. The retraining of adults is a subject that we have often talked about in your Lordships' House, but may I once again underline that there is abundant evidence that a very large proportion of people, to a much greater age than used to be so considered, are capable of retraining, of going into new work, of learning new skills, if the resources are there—both the financial resources to support them while the training is going on, and the technical resources to provide training of a modern kind which can revolutionise the opportunities to learn new skills.

So for that purpose the Social Fund was set up; but, as the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, has said, it was on a scale that was totally inadequate for dealing with the restructuring needs on which future employment prospects for the Community as a whole depend. We must urge Her Majesty's Government to put their whole weight behind securing a redistribution of resources, so that the Social Fund has more money for this purpose, and to be prepared also to see more national resources go to the Community, so that the fund can not only draw on moneys that are already there but also have available additional resources.

Linked with the problem of the restructuring of industry is the problem of the immediate alleviation of unemployment today, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, has said, in particular the alleviation of unemployment among young people and school-leavers. I would ask your Lordships, if you do nothing else in relation to the report, at least to look at paragraph 19 and to brood upon it, for it contains a horrible and terrifying message. Paragraph 19 says that 35 per cent. of all school-leavers in the Community get no training after they leave school, and it adds that it is likely that many of them will not have regular employment during their so-called working lives.

That problem is made more serious by the restructuring which we must have. Two aspects of the problem are closely interrelated. The kind of restructuring that we need will reduce the demand for unskilled people. The percentage of unskilled people in the employed population will become smaller the more effective the restructuring and the greater the move into the higher technology industries. So while the fact that 35 per cent. of school-leavers receive no training is already serious, it becomes very much more serious as we take the measures which we need to take in order to secure employment prospects as a whole. Thus we need to see that the 35 per cent. is greatly reduced and that as a Community we do not go on complacently allowing that proportion of school-leavers to have nothing that they can sell on the labour market except time and physical strength, as the demand for people with nothing but time and physical strength becomes less and less while the years go by.

This is a matter of the greatest possible urgency, and it is absurd to leave it to 4 per cent. of the Community budget, a budget which in any case is not enormous in its total. If it could be shown that the Community was really making an effective contribution to long-term employment prospects, an effective contribution here and now to cutting down unemployment among youngsters, and to seeing that there are fewer and fewer youngsters who have no skills to sell, then in popular regard the Community would rise in respect throughout this country; and we have the opportunity to press that that should be done.

There are other, perhaps smaller, matters which relate to the need to focus on that question and to take action in connection with it. As the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, has said, at present the applications to the Community all have to be routed through the Department of Employment. The Community in Brussels is accused of being excessively bureaucratic, and certainly there is some evidence to support the accusation. We do not want to compound that by being excessively bureaucratic in this country; we do not want to catch the Community bureaucratic disease. Is it really necessary that all applications should go through the channel that I have mentioned? As the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, has said, it is a complicated and frustrating business. Some of us have managed to get by, through, and under the regulations, but that requires much ingenuity. Is it not possible that reputable voluntary organisations, that schemes which have been backed by reputable trusts which are prepared to put up the money, should be able to go direct to Brussels and obtain money for what they want to do, informing the Department of Employment, so that it knows the total picture, but by-passing all the bureaucratic machinery?

Surely we want people in this country to feel that this is a popular Community in both senses—a Community which is well regarded, but also a Community to which the people in this country can have access; to which they can take schemes which at local level they believe to be valuable for the development of their local communities, and that they can go to Brussels and get backing for them. I cannot believe that, with determination, it would not be possible to open Brussels up to a far wider range of applicants without running any serious risk that resources will be badly wasted. Because it is very plain that a great deal of the improvement in the employment position is going to come, not so much from large-scale schemes developed from the centre but from a multiplicity of small schemes springing up from the grass roots, where at local level people have the conviction that there is some new work, some new activity, that they can get going. If they can get support for this, with some backing, perhaps, from voluntary organisations, by going directly to Brussels, then I believe that not only will this help considerably the unemployment position but it will have a very big effect on changing the attitude toward the Community.

I wonder, too, whether it is not possible to bring pressure to bear to modify the requirement of the 50 per cent. funding. Of course, I can very well understand why this has been laid down. There are certain circumstances in which 50 per cent. funding from the applicant country is not required. It already exists in the Community regulations; there is precedent for it. Surely it would be possible to devise schemes whereby, for areas or for groups of people where the need is very great, assistance can be obtained from Brussels without the 50 per cent. funding from the applicant country. For example, areas of very high unemployment or particular categories of youngsters might be eligible for treatment in this way. Otherwise, in many cases, especially if you are going to allow for a wider range of applications, as one would very much like to see, the ones who need it most are not going to be able to find it at all easy to get financial backing for the schemes that they want to see adopted.

In all these ways there is a great possibility for the European Community, through the extension of the Social Fund, to prove its value and its worth to ordinary people in this country. It means, of course, that the Government have got to give a high priority to getting results in bringing about changes in the Community. It will do this, of course, only if it is seen that there are the funds available to do effective jobs, to meet needs. We are in a double bind, in that there is so little support for the Community that there is very little public steam behind the idea that we should improve Community institutions, that we should give them more resources, and that in doing this we will make it a far more effective institution.

Here, it is surely for the Government to give the lead. We are members of the Community. The noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, has said that it is a community. It was perhaps necessary that at the beginning we should indulge in a fair amount of bickering. We have been told that that is now behind us. We do not want to draw up a very detailed profit and loss account showing how much we put in and how much we get out. We want, surely, now to come out as good members of the Community who see that it is only by working at Community level that we can solve our own problems.

6.44 p.m.

My Lords, when M. Spaak gave impetus to the idea of a European Social Fund to assist in the "re-adaption of labour", there was generally full employment in the Community and, indeed, throughout Western Europe as a whole. It is not so today. In the United Kingdom we are approaching 2½ million unemployed—as many as were unemployed in the whole of Western Europe when the European Social Fund was created. Readaption of labour meant training workers for employment and for better and more useful jobs, and the encouragement of retraining to achieve geographical resettlement. Today it is different.

The title of the fund is misleading. Its title gives an indication of social welfare, whereas the rules make it clear that the fund deals only with training problems over a relatively narrow field of categories. The report makes it clear that some urgent attention is needed for publicity for the fund and its title, so that the man in the street can more clearly see the help available from the Common Market. As my noble friend Lord Wolfenden has said, this is the first time there has been an in-depth public review of the working of the fund, which is a major instrument of European Economic Community policy. A long-term understanding of the political objectives of the fund is needed if public and parliamentary opinion is to insist that the European Social Fund should have a greater share of the EEC resources. More publicity and informed debate is needed. The European Parliament must pay more attention to the allocation of money to the fund, and its work.

For an application to be successful in Brussels it must be supported by a public authority, and then the European Social Fund will meet half the cost of the project, the remainder being met by the public authority. Here I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, has said about having a further look at the question of the 50 per cent. figure. It follows that if the Government engage in economies in this field then there will be less support from the European Social Fund. For example, if the Manpower Services Commission is denied funds to cover its half of the cost, less is obtained from the Social Fund. It would be inexcusable if the Government reduced its potential for retraining to meet industrial and technological change.

One of the complaints mostly made is about the complexity of the application forms. It is wrong, in my view, that applicants feel it necessary that they should go to Brussels personally to present their case. Simplified administrative arrangements ought to be considered. Since 1973 the United Kingdom has averaged 23 per cent. of the Social Fund disbursements. In 1979 we received 26 per cent. We are getting our share. Training of young people gets most of our grant. Over 50 per cent. was utilised for first-time job seekers under 25. This came under the Manpower Services Commission's Youth Opportunity Scheme.

The European Social Fund Advisory Committee is tripartite, the TUC and the CBI playing their full part. The TUC wants the fund strengthened and revitalised. Present economy forecasts suggest that the criteria for assistance be extended in particular to meet the wider training of women and to deal with long-term unemployment. Here I again support the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, in underlining this particular issue. In the last 10 years long-term unemployment has increased fourfold. Today, nearly half-a-million adults have been unemployed for over a year. The fund as constituted does not help with this considerable problem. The TUC supports the proposed allocation of £7·5 million to assist in the retraining and resettlement of workers in British Shipbuilders. I hope that the Government will similarly support it.

I am sure that this House will be grateful to the many people in Brussels and elsewhere who do so much to try to meet applications from inadequate resources. Here, I would pay tribute to the chairman of our Committee, Lord Wolfenden, who guided us very expertly in this quite difficult task. Perhaps I could also mention that during our discussions I inevitably sat next to Lord Wall, who is unfortunately no longer with us. I should like to pay tribute to all the work he did on this inquiry. With many industries declining there is urgent need for more money for the fund to improve employment opportunities for workers in the Common Market and, ultimately, to improve our standard of living.

6.50 p.m.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to take part in this debate. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, for putting the matter before the House in such a clear way. I should like to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, for the work that she has done in the past for this committee and also for her speech today. I am certain that all members of the committee would like to join in thanks to the Clerks for their help. I want to refer to page xxiii in the summary of main conclusions. I should like to support the fact that the MEPs should study the method of working the fund and keep an interest in the manner in which the money is allocated. It seems to me very odd that neither the European Parliament nor the Economic and Social Committee is directly involved in the right to be consulted before the Council of Ministers take a major decision upon us. I feel that it is very necessary to interest the MEPs in regard to this fund because this is the only way we are going to get any attention in the European Parliament.

We discussed the question of the guidelines. We asked a question of one of the MEPs who came before us. He said that there is no parliamentary scrutiny of the guidelines as they are adapted each year. He quoted—and I am quoting him:
"The Commission is an extremely interesting animal to deal with because it is at one level Civil Service and, at another level, holder of the political initiative".
At the present time—and it has been mentioned already—applications go through the Ministry of Employment, but it is interesting to note that Greece has no funding system and I understand there may have to be a change when Greece comes in fully and also Portugal and Spain, because the guidelines cannot apply to them. I should like to suggest they may need to have an ad hoc grant. If we are going to have to change the guidelines, let us try to make them better for all countries concerned.

I am a little worried about the number of allocations that go to Government departments: for example, the Manpower Services Commission, and the Department of Manpower Services. We really have no idea what they spent the money on. There were other organisations, such as the textile industry. These are laid out in a report in detail showing what they receive and the names of the firms. Then you get occasionally the handicapped people. St. Loyes' College is an exception, being a voluntary organisation. It is stated that this is because it is very proficient and good at retraining. It would be interesting to have further details of how the money is allocated, especially in the training of women.

Also, on page 18, we are given an idea by a witness on behalf of voluntary organisations of the difficulty he had. He said that he had to fight his way through queues of enthusiastic Irishmen from voluntary organisations when he went to Brussels. But he was successful in getting what he wanted. What I am worried about is what will happen to the future of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations. I understand they have had to close down their Brussels desk and to cease publication of their Inside Europe. They can afford only one member of staff and a secretary for European affairs. Surely this is a time for this organisation to be given extra money. At present it is funded mainly on the Voluntary Services Unit of the Home Office. Could the noble Earl say whether it would be possible to approach the Department of Employment to help this admirable voluntary organisation which co-ordinates so many of the voluntary organisations in this country that are doing an excellent job. Also, there is the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas which is wholly financed by the Development Commission, and this is very successful. I mention this because I think it is interesting to note that they train new entrants and have eight different trades, varying from four years to two years in the training period. Sixty-three students are training at present and 90 per cent. of the trainees who have completed their courses have remained in their trade and have set up their own businesses.

I should like to make one or two suggestions. It would appear (as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden) that in 1978 only 4·4 per cent. of the Community budget was allocated to the European Social Fund, whereas 70 per cent. went to the CAP. I can understand when this fund was first set up that it was necessary to help with retraining of people from agriculture; but surely this amount now needs reconsideration as the industrial situation (as mentioned previously) is causing additional funds to be needed. And there is a minor point which would facilitate the working of the committee. When distinguished members from the Commission come over to give evidence and prefer to give evidence in their own language, this takes a great deal of time. I should like them to send a copy of their evidence in English. At the moment, they read it out in their own language and it has to be translated. A prior translation would enable members of the committee to consider what questions they might ask when the witnesses come. It would be advantageous both for the members from the Commission and also for the members asking questions.

There have been some successes. The Training Opportunities Scheme for all adults completing courses in 1978 resulted in some 73 per cent. being in employment three months after completing their course. For handicapped school-leavers, in the case of the Queen Elizabeth Foundation for the Disabled, it was in the order of 32 per cent. in the first three years being able to be entirely self-supporting. In my opinion, it would be advantageous for more British civil servants to have the opportunity to go to Brussels. This might help them know how the money is allocated and what is going on in other countries. Often when you want to compare one country with another and ask what is happening in Holland, Belgium or France, it is not known. It would be a good thing for them to go over more frequently so as to obtain more knowledge.

I hope that this debate will be widely read because I think it is essential, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, has said, that the general public should know more of what is going on. I hope also—and I refer to Recommendation No. 8—that the Department of Employment will increase its provision for publicity, information and advice to intending applicants for grants from the fund. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Plant, has gone. I wanted to say that I thought that the recommendations on pages 11 to 14 by the TUC were excellent, well-balanced and helpful. Also, we have had some very constructive work by them in this regard. I am glad to end by saying that it is a great pleasure to have the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, to wind up. He gave us sympathetic answers to our questions when he came before the committee.

6.58 p.m.

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, for introducing this debate, as I am to him for steering us through the discussions in the committee when we were talking about the fund. As he and every other participant in the debate has said so far, the most important thing about the fund is that it should have a proper set of priorities and sufficient funds to tackle them. In this context, although we are debating the activities of the fund in the financial year 1978, none the less it was depressing to read recently that the money available to the fund for 1980 represented an increase of only 10 per cent. on its inadequate 1979 resources. But I do not want to dwell on that. I should like to talk about the lesser but by no means insignificant aspect of the fund—its administration.

The noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, described the problem of the fund's procedures as vexatious and tiresome rather than crucial. I would put it higher than that, because unless the procedures of the fund are simple, access to it and the benefits it can supply will be too difficult for many, particularly those outside the official system, and thus opportunities will be lost. Complaints about the complexities of the fund's procedures and administration was a theme which ran through the evidence given to the committee. I accept that there is only the slightest of similarities between administering the European Social Fund and a relatively small private trust. But certainly I would be ashamed if when numbers of applicants were asked if there was any point they wished to make about the trust which I administer, unanimously they complained about its methods and procedure.

In the evidence given to the committee about the fund, the representatives of the Engineering Industry Training Board asked for a clearer set of guidelines and, astonishingly, even had to complain about the quality of the photocopied application forms they received. Mr. Smith, of the Queen Elizabeth Foundation for the Disabled, pleaded for simplicity, and a less baffling form on which to claim grants and described the quality of existing ones as a disgrace. Mr. Abbott, of the London Council for Social Service, complained about the time taken to pay grants, and the method of paying them. The last word from the Society of Education Officers was to plead for more straightforward and simple language. The CBI thought:
"the procedures of the fund could be significantly improved".
Mr. Vredeling was moved to confess that the guidelines had been rather complicated in the past.

It is not surprising that Mr. Vredeling spoke as he did, because no fair person could doubt the validity of the complaints. The new guidelines for 1981–3 are printed as an appendix to the report and have, according to Mr. Vredeling, been simplified. Even so, some paragraphs, notably in the first section, are very complicated. For example, I accept that if your Lordships read paragraph 1.4 on Weighted Reduction very carefully two or three times, it is quite intelligible, and in any case it is describing a complicated formula. It is, though, the sort of paragraph which non-experts could find very daunting. Then, as the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, said, an applicant will be faced with an extraordinary application form. This is also reproduced in the report. Even if he is lucky enough to have a perfect photocopy, an applicant will conclude, as I do, that there must be a simpler way of obtaining details and costs of the projected activity—and his feelings will be certainly echoed by the typist who has to type every single letter and figure in exactly the right spot on the form.

Having filled the form in and sent it off, he must hope the guidelines are not changed while it is being considered, thus nullifying it. If he is successful, he will find that payment of his grant is by no means straightforward. If the applicant is a well staffed and well equipped Government department, with no cash flow problems, he will survive to the end of the course; if he is from a private organisation with ordinary resources, and lacks the determination of the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, who could blame him for falling on the way—or being daunted from setting out on the obstacle course at all? The noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, suggested that the fund's documents should be approved by the European Parliament: my own suggestion is that they be subject to scrutiny at the offices of the Plain English Campaign!

Having said that Government departments have an advantage in the application process, for those of them that do make the grade, a particular form of torture has been devised, but this is not the fault of the European Social Fund. The noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, made some reference to it. As the Development Commission told the Committee in evidence:
"all United Kingdom receipts relating to Government organisations go to the Exchequer instead of to the applicants".
As the Development Commission went on, this means that applicants of this kind will have gone to immense labour, yet derive no direct financial benefit. On this question, I recall an exchange on 29th October last between the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, and the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, when the Minister was asked whether money received from the European Social Fund would be used in addition to British Treasury money. The noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, said that it could be argued that the European Social Fund money is simply Treasury money in the first place. No doubt it could be so argued, but this thinking seems to be directly contrary to the purpose of the fund.

To return to the difficulties encountered by applicants, it was represented to the committee that much of this complexity was inevitable, given the different procedures in each of the member states. My main reason for doubting the validity of this point is that there is some evidence that the administration for pilot schemes is much simpler and easier. I have talked to two successful applicants for pilot scheme funding and been impressed by their account of speedy treatment and a refreshing lack of bureaucracy. If it is possible in those cases, could not a vast improvement be made in the procedures for dealing with the bulk of the fund? My only complaint about pilot schemes is a different point, which is that I suspect that not enough is done to publicise the results of what are often very interesting schemes. Clearly what the European Social Fund needs most of all is more resources for the vast job it has to do. I hope not only that increased resources will be forthcoming but that simultaneously the procedures for their release can be simplified.

7.5 p.m.

My Lords, I apologise to the House for speaking, but with the absence of one noble Lord who was to be the last speaker before we have the pleasure of hearing the winding-up of my noble friend and the speech from the Government, I will trespass on the time of the House for three minutes or so because this is one of the most interesting debates that we have had this week and I hope that more will be heard. Unfortunately, I probably would be right if I said that not 10 people in a thousand that you would meet in the street could define what the European Social Fund is because many of them would be looking at it from the point of view of old-fashioned social security.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, aptly, succinctly and logically said, the purpose was looking at this from the point of view of the reconstruction of industry, The noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, is an expert and has explained to the House that originally we were looking at the reconstruction of Europe at a time when, as my noble friend Lord Plant pointed out, there were less unemployed in the whole of Europe than we have today in Britain. I think first and foremost that one of the tragic facts of the world in which we now live is unemployment.

As a young student and from my experience in my Welsh grammar school, I saw young men who went up to the sixth form with me who years later had no employment. They had first-class IQs—a terrible word. But one of the sad facts which we have heard tonight is that 35 per cent. —and I will be corrected if my figures are wrong, but the general contention will be right—of the youngsters leaving school today, boys and girls, over the whole of the European Community, have no education afterwards.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, aptly pointed out again, we are in a world that is different and is reconstructing. One of the priorities of this fund should be towards the child who is leaving school. We are gradually getting rid of the redbrick and the Oxford and Cambridge university snobbery and realising the importance of the polytechnics and the technical colleges in man's modern constructive society. I should therefore like to see a change in direction in the European Community, and in Britain itself, and more emphasis being given to further education—even if it is compulsory—in regard to the technical know-how of the world in which we are now living, with the microchip and all the modern computer systems.

I mentioned yesterday that the day of muscles and shovels is moving to the day when aptitude and ability will be needed. The technical colleges can assist children leaving school and this fund should be looking at this aspect. My Lords, I promised to speak for three minutes and my three minutes is up. I am grateful to the House for allowing my short intervention.

7.8 p.m.

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, and indeed to his committee for having produced such a comprehensive report on the operation of the Social Fund during 1978. I am sure your Lordships will appreciate the tremendous amount of personal endeavour that had to go into examining the numerous regulations governing the fund, the amendments that have taken place to those regulations, and indeed the somewhat complex evidence that came before Sub-Committee C when they were advising the committee on various aspects of the Social Fund.

As the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, correctly pointed out, the name "Social Fund" gives no real clue as to its significance. It is fundamentally concerned in Articles 4 and 5 respectively with labour retraining and resettlement, and Article 5 deals, by financial support, with the traditional difficulties in various countries which are of a structural or regional nature. It is quite inevitable that in the times in which we are now living some very considerable emphasis has been given to the necessity of helping in one way or another the growing number of those who swell the ranks of youth unemployment. The point has been well made by most speakers this evening and was emphasised in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear.

In approaching this question we have to take a stance. Are we directly and fundamentally concerned with the welfare of the unemployed themselves and in particular the young unemployed, or are we concerned with ensuring that the Community gives the appearance —I am using the words of the noble Baroness—of doing something or of establishing the relevance of the Community as such? Are we satisfied with that emphasis rather than with the fate of individuals, of which there are millions throughout Europe at this time?

If we are concerned with people as distinct from being concerned with establishing or maintaining the respectability of institutions, then I think we have to take a slightly different look at it because by all accounts the amount of the Social Fund of the European Community is pitifully small. In money terms it is in fact much lower than the administrative costs of the Commission in Brussels, which in 1980 amounted to no less than £421 million under Titles 1 and 2 of the Commission budget. The funds available to the Social Fund in 1978, translated into money terms, totalled £381 million, to cover the various problems supposed to be dealt with throughout the length and breadth of Europe and in particular the problems of those regions in Europe which are poorer than the remainder.

By all accounts, the amount to be spent in Europe as a whole in support of the objectives of the Social Fund is manifestly minuscule, almost derisory. The noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, gave a clue to its magnitude when he said it was only 4.4 per cent. of the Community budget—a smaller percentage than the administrative cost of Brussels itself and its outpost.

How, therefore, can we pretend, and indeed why should we try to pretend, that this particular aspect of Community activity is of any material significance at this time? It is not good for the people of this country that they should be deluded into thinking that in this particular respect the European Economic Community as such has anything very material to offer. Indeed, I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, for reminding me, when he referred to the answer given to a question by the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, that it was, after all, in effect recycling Treasury money.

On going through the guidelines for the operation of the Social Fund—and I refer here to document C.116 of the 19th May last—I invite the noble Earl, when he comes to reply, to say whether there is anything in those guidelines that imposes on Her Majesty's Government any extra obligation that they would not ordinarily undertake themselves. In other words, of what value to Her Majesty's Government are the guidelines that are proposed in this document for implementation in member states? On going through them, I cannot find one particular item which must not already have been taken into account by the Department of Employment and by Her Majesty's Government. What point, then, is there in sending our own money to Brussels—we contribute roughly 20 per cent. of the European Social Fund—and receiving back 23 per cent.? I agree that we make a profit of some 3 per cent., and that is excellent: I defend it. I cannot altogether agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, in matters of this kind and I am quite sure it would make the Treasury Bench blench if they were persuaded that the profit and loss in these matters did not really matter. The Treasury cannot talk with a forked tongue. It cannot apply profit and loss considerations for internal consumption within the country, as it is doing at the present time, and then invite us to ignore them overseas. That will not do.

I come back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, when he asked the first of his last two questions: what is the point of the fund? I would agree immediately that if the European Community were to give to social affairs generally the same kind of priorities that it gives to agriculture there would be some point in the fund. Already, as I am quite sure the noble Lord is well aware, the resources of the Community are nearing the limit imposed upon them by the VAT percentage enshrined in the Sixth Directive, and an increase in own resources beyond that I per cent. can be made only by the unanimous agreement of the member states. From what one reads in the press, it would not appear very likely, in view of the stated stance of our fellow member, France.

Indeed, I believe that the right honourable lady the Prime Minister has given no positive indication of this country's willingness, for own resources purposes, to go beyond the 1 per cent. limit imposed by the treaty; but at the same time expenditure of Articles 6, 7 and 8 of the Community budget on agriculture now occupies some 75 per cent. of Community expenditure. There was some hope at one time that that percentage could be brought down; indeed, when Mr. Peter Walker took his initial look at the Common Agricultural Policy he was almost tempted to echo the words of the right honourable lady the Prime Minister that the conduct of the Common Agricultural Policy was almost insane. But since that time there has been a moderation in attitude by the right honourable gentleman the Minister of Agriculture, who now envisages a gradual transition over the next five years. But of more immediate importance, there is the next price review, in May of this year, and nobody knows which way it will go.

One thing is for certain, that the funds of the Community which are available for the Regional Fund and for the Social Fund will be squeezed and squeezed. Is it not better, therefore, to see the existing social fund for what it is; not for what we should like it to be? Is it not far better to echo the words of the former President, Mr. Jenkins, himself, who recently described the Community as being essentially the Common Agricultural Policy with a few peripherals?

We have a choice. We can either make the Community into a living and vibrant thing, by extending the scope of its activities beyond its central core, which is the Common Agricultural Policy, or we can stop pretending that it has any validity whatsoever over and above what Governments themselves are prepared to do about the other social and regional problems, with which the Community is supposed to deal.

I put it to the noble Earl, as a matter of administrative practice, avoidance of complication and elimination of waste, upon which Her Majesty's Government have set very great store, how can he justify, on the basis that this is already Treasury money—and the words are the noble Earl's—that applications go, first, from private organisations or voluntary bodies to the Department of Employment for processing, then on to the Commission, then after that for review by the Consultative Committee, consisting of six from each member state and then back to the Commission again, with ultimately, at some time, payment back to the United Kingdom of what was Treasury money in the first place? How can that be justified? I do not think it can be.

I am not saying that the day may not come when the Community functions as a community, as distinct from functioning as a mere shield for the Common Agricultural Policy, when it may be possible and, indeed, desirable to have these things on a massive scale. But so long as they are merely tokens—and I am quite sure that the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, will agree with me that, at the moment, they are tokens only—we should not pretend to the public at large that they are any more than tokens. Otherwise, the public will never forgive us for misleading them.

This report is in very great detail and it has been most skilfully and carefully drawn up. I cannot help feeling that any noble Lord who reads through it very carefully, bearing in mind the budgetary strictures that I have seen fit to make—because we have to bring these things out into the open here, and there is no point in having a pretence—will substantially agree with me that we are not concerned with the preservation of the image of an institution. We are concerned, fundamentally, with the welfare of people.

7.25 p.m.

My Lords, I very much welcome the chance that this report gives for us to debate the operation of the European Social Fund. It is, as many noble Lords have said, a relatively little known part of the European Community's activities, and other aspects of Community policy and expenditure normally attract rather more notice. Therefore. I believe that the committee has done a really useful job in its report by illuminating the fund's activities for the benefit of a wider public. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, and his colleagues have gone to a very great deal of trouble to get information and views from those who really know about the operation of the fund. And, if I may say so, the report seems to me to be an excellent example of the kind of study in depth which this House does particularly well.

On behalf of the Government, I should like to thank all those who worked so hard—the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, especially—and to congratulate them on their good work. May I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, and the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, for their generous remarks about myself. Also, I am delighted to think that the phrase "the Wolfenden Report" may now shine in a rather wider or more useful context than earlier.

I naturally want to concentrate my remarks today on the main points raised by the committee in their report and, of course, on some of the additional points that have come up in the course of the debate. However, before I do that I want to make a few general points about the Social Fund and the United Kingdom's interest in it. As the excellent historical summary at the start of the report shows, the fund goes back to the Treaty of Rome which originally set up the European Community. It reflects the recognition at that time that a dynamic economic community would need to tackle problems of unemployment and changes in patterns of employment, at least in part, at the level of the Community itself.

I must say at this point—I shall come back to some of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, with some of which, to his surprise, I agreed—that the much feared Common Agricultural Policy was in its inception, to some degree, a social, employment and retraining fund and, as such, it was successful. Its problem is not in its success or its inapplicability to Europe. Its problem is in its lack of success and its inapplicability to Great Britain. Of course, it is a major cornerstone of our policy to smooth out that difference, but it takes time. Therefore, these are important objectives. The report also makes clear that the Social Fund, despite its slightly misleading title, which I regret, is thus concerned almost exclusively with employment and training matters. That is why I myself, rather than my noble friend the Foreign Secretary, am dealing with it tonight. It does not extend to providing assistance for schemes of social welfare more generally—though I know that some people regret this. It is, therefore, very important when discussing the fund that we always keep in mind these limitations in its scope.

Over the years since we went in, the United Kingdom has consistently been a net beneficiary from the fund. This has justly reflected the scale of the employment and other problems which we face. Over the years, we have secured an average about 23 per cent. of the fund. Last year, 1980, we were allocated a total of £135 million—that is, 22.7 per cent. of all allocations—for a wide variety of employment and training schemes. These ranged from large national programmes, such as the Youth Opportunities Programme and the Training Opportunities Scheme, down to much smaller projects run by voluntary bodies, as well as individual companies and local authorities.

But given the way in which the fund currently operates—in particular, the absence of fixed national quotas and the excess of eligible applications over available resources—it is never possible to predict accurately from year to year exactly what we shall be allocated. We naturally hope that the fund as it develops—and we want to see it develop—will continue to give as substantial support as possible to the task of resolving the United Kingdom's problems and pre-occupations. The rules are, in fact, due for review by the end of 1982. That review will have to consider the implications of further enlargement of the Community, whether the fund's current priorities are likely to remain appropriate in the late 1980s, and whether changes in the way the fund is administered are required in the light of its rapid expansion. I very much hope that this review will put the fund on a basis which will allow it to play an increasingly important role in the affairs of the Community in the years ahead not least, because of its connection with what the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, called the inevitable restructuring of industry—inevitable, but none the less painful for that, as she herself reminded us.

May I come to the point of the size of the fund's budget, which virtually all noble Lords mentioned. First, the committee has in its work highlighted the gap, which has been persistent in recent years, between the level of eligible applications for assistance and the resources available to the fund. In percentage terms, that gap was narrower in 1979 and 1980 than it was in 1978 but it has nevertheless remained substantial. The Government have no doubt that spending on employment, industrial and regional policies ought to take up a significantly higher proportion of the Community's budget than it does at present. As the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, pointed out, this is particularly important in the context of the economic problems facing the Community in the 1980s. We have therefore supported the expansion of the Social Fund.

I must add a note of warning. The scope for this is not unlimited except as part of our wider policy of obtaining agreed restructuring within the Community budget itself. The scope is not unlimited because the United Kingdom taxpayer contributes towards the cost of the fund as he does towards other Community policies. We cannot therefore let things rip at Community level while pursuing policies of public expenditure restraint domestically. Other member states who are in much the same position as ourselves in this recession take this view as well.

An additional factor in the next few years will be, as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, reminded us, the 1 per cent. VAT limit which will impose an absolute ceiling on Community expenditure. That will make it all the more important for the Community to consider its priorities within the budget. It is realistic therefore to assume that for the foreseeable future it will be necessary, as it has been over the last few years, to find some way of determining priorities among applications. Of course this is very difficult and of course the fund is faced with a variety of competing requests for assistance from different groups of workers and individual countries which at present it is not possible to reconcile completely. The committee's report recognises this, implicity at least, in recommending, to my great pleasure as the Minister responsible in this field, that in particular priority be given to the problem of youth unemployment.

I was rather surprised that my noble friend Lady Vickers, whose speech I very much enjoyed, had no idea what the MSC spend all the money on. Under the policy direction of Ministers they spend it on the Youth Opportunities Programme, on the other special programmes, on training. Lady Vickers mentioned women in this context. Very large numbers of women in the United Kingdom benefit from schemes which secure support from other parts of the fund. For instance, in 1980 the Training Opportunities Programme secured an allocation of over £20 million from the fund. That was almost twice the amount allocated for special women's schemes in the Community as a whole. And 43 per cent. of those people who completed TOPs courses were women. May I also say to my noble friend that we, both Ministers and officials, do go to Brussels. I myself go a great deal, as I am responsible in this field. And we have permanent representatives in Brussels.

I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, that we in the Community have common problems and that we are seeking common solutions. The noble Lord will be well aware that it is a cornerstone of our entire foreign policy to try to get these budgetary inequities sorted out. Where the noble Lord and I perhaps part company is in that, though the imbalances within the Community's budget, for the historical and other reasons of the period of its development that were earlier mentioned, are a cornerstone of our foreign policy, we do not think that the European idea, the European venture, or the sheer sound practicality of our training and tariff relations with the Community are limited by the problems we have on the budget, problems which, the Government are proud to say, they have gone a very considerable way—further than any previous Government—towards solving.

May I say another word about youth unemployment. As I said, I am glad that to a significant extent the pattern of spending from the Social Fund indicates that this has come to be a special priority. In 1976, when provision was first made for schemes for young people, the percentage of the fund's budget going to such schemes was only 16 per cent., whereas in 1980 it was almost 40 per cent. That is a priority which the Government wholeheartedly share. Within the limited resources available to us for employment and training programmes in this country, for two years running, we have found scope for major increases in the size of the Youth Opportunities Programme. The Social Fund has contributed substantially towards the cost of this, providing allocations of over £47 million for the Youth Opportunities Programme this year. As the noble Lord, Lord Plant, reminded us, that is out of a total of £71 million for young people's schemes in the United Kingdom. I very much hope that this support from the fund for our efforts will continue and grow. I am sure that the fund must continue to regard support for young people as a major priority because, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, reminded us, this is a restructuring problem which we all share, regardless of individual differences of policy.

I now turn to the question—I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, that it is an inelegant term—of what is termed "additionality of social fund expenditure". May I take this chance to explain to your Lordships the Government's approach to this issue. In deciding between competing priorities for public spending, account is taken of the extent to which assistance might be available from the Community. The general effect of this assistance is that programmes can be sustained at a higher level than would otherwise be the case, but this in turn implies that the Government cannot simply add the money received from the Community to the resources they have already decided to make available for such programmes. To do so would be contrary to the basis on which the programmes had been decided and would drive a coach and horses through any of our attempts to control public spending and keep down the public sector borrowing requirement in order to lower inflation, lower interest rates and release resources for industry to invest and create more permanent jobs.

A further point is that the United Kingdom makes a large contribution—this is at the core of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington of the order of 20 per cent. towards the cost of the Community budget as a whole. It needs therefore to look for a contribution from that Community expenditure to offset the cost of national programmes if our borrowing is not to be further increased. That again is a central core not only of our economic but of our entire foreign policy. This policy of non-additionality is one which has been applied by successive Governments to receipts from the Community. While this is a general rule, there are some exceptions. In the case of the social fund, assistance towards the costs of programmes run by organisations outside government, notably by voluntary bodies (and some of these have been mentioned), is genuinely additional to the money which has been put into the project from other resources, including resources coming from the Government themselves.

Much mention has been made of publicity. In the light of the Select Committee's recommendation we will do what we can to see that the fund is better known and understood among potential applicants. My department's staff are always ready and willing to provide information and advice about the fund. I was naturally pleased to read the generally favourable account the committee had of the work done by my department in this respect. I am also pleased to be able to say that a new and I think an improved version of the explanatory booklet which we issue about the social fund will be distributed in the next few weeks to a wide variety of organisations which have some potential interest in the fund. I will see that this is laid before the House as well.

May I come quickly to the National Council of Voluntary Organisations. I have already touched briefly on this subject but there is an element of genuine additionality in the resources that voluntary organisations can receive, through the conduit of my department, from the fund. We have welcomed the work and we join with the report in praising the work of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations in keeping the voluntary sector abreast of development on the Social Fund, and were glad to co-operate with them in the provision of information about the fund. I very much hope that this fruitful relationship will continue, and I myself have had the benefit of hearing the NCVO's views on the operation of the fund within the last few months.

The noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, has suggested that the NCVO might, in respect of certain applications, be accepted as a partner with the department in validation and sponsorship. As I pointed out, we arc responsible for the submission of applications from the United Kingdom, but I would be pleased if the NCVO found itself in the position of being able to extend its own role as a first port of call for voluntary organisations, or perhaps it would be better to call it a clearing house in that regard. I hope that also answers the point made by my noble friend Lady Vickers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and others raised questions about the work of my department as the sole channel for applications. As indicated in one of the appendices to the minutes of evidence, all member states have nominated only one or two agencies through which applications are transmitted to Brussels. This is in line with the rules of the fund, reflecting the Commission's need to limit the number of organisations they have to deal with, rather contrary I think to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington—that is, to slim down bureaucracy and the necessity for different organisations to have to sit in perhaps conflicting judgments on the quality of applications being put before them—and I think it is working reasonably well.

However, my department in no way acts as a barrier to potential applicants to the fund. One of its functions is to help and advise such organisations and we welcome any further eligible applications; but we have to be frank with organisations whose schemes stand little or no chance of success. Therefore, when we are saying "no" it is not that we, as it were, are turning down the application, hut we are advising the organisation that the way the fund is structured at present gives them little chance of benefiting from it. I think we owe it to the Commission not to waste their time by submitting manifestly ineligible applications.

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Earl the Minister, but I wonder whether I may have a direct answer to this question. The noble Earl has said that the function of the department is to advise. If the advice is: "We do not think that you will get the grant", is it still open to the body wishing to apply, to go ahead and take the risk of being turned down? If that is not the case, then I really do not think the word "advise" is appropriate because then it is in fact a question of making the decision.

My Lords, I think the way it works is this. The noble Baroness is right in logic in that things have to be channeled through ourselves. It might be, however, that we would advise a given organisation that they have little chance of success. If they really pressed me—and I use that pronoun advisedly—as the Minister responsible, and felt that they must "chance their luck", I certainly would not stand in their way and I would instruct my officials to process it all the same. I think that is how it would work out in practice.

I note what everyone has said and the noble Baroness in her intervention as well as in her speech has said, about direct access by applicants to the Commission. I personally think that the way we have it cuts down on bureaucracy, but I am sensitive to the feeling about this and I am quite happy to consider whether we have got it right and perhaps return to the question.

May I come again quickly to the issues about the simplification of rules. The committee's report also discussed the way in which the fund is administered. The committee recommended that the administrative procedures of the fund and especially the guidelines should be simplified. The noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, had something to say about that. I can assure the House that the United Kingdom Government have supported and will continue to support measures to these ends. I am glad to say that the Commission have taken steps to try to speed up payments, and in the last couple of years they have introduced a new system of advanced payments. They are also reviewing application forms to see whether they can be simplified. My department seeks to give applicants as full information as possible on the time which an application is likely to take to be decided and on any subsequent procedures. Again I refer back to our new guide which T laid before the House, because I think that will give a clearer picture of what is required. Again on the issue of duplicating bureaucracy, I was pleased to see from Mr. Vredeling's remarks and submission that he says that the United Kingdom is among the best in the speedy submission of claims for payment.

My Lords, I have done my best in the relatively brief time to cover, so far as I can, all the main recommendations set out by the committee in what I regard as a most valuable report. As I and other speakers have made clear in the course of this debate, the fund's rules and structures are due for review in the not too distant future. It is too early, of course, to say what new ideas may be forthcoming from the Commission. It is for them to make the proposals in the first instance. Nevertheless, in the light of experience we shall be considering what changes and improvements can be made to the fund which would improve both its operation and our essential interests. In this context the ideas and suggestions in the committee's report, as well as in this debate tonight, have been most pertinent, and I can assure your Lordships that we will give them most careful consideration in preparing our own position for this important review.

7.47 p.m.

My Lords, I think we have had a useful debate. Naturally I could have wished that there had been a more populous attendance, but I think this has done something towards one of the desiderata that the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, mentioned, of bringing this whole business about the European Social Fund in its context in the Community to the notice of the great British public, who know so little about it and I think ought to be encouraged to know more. I hope it is just possible that this evening we have added one element to the publicising of this operation.

There has been a considerable measure of agreement in the comments that have been made—of course not totally unanimous, as one might expect. But at any rate I think contributions of great value have been made and I hope we may have provided some ammunition for the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, in the good fight that I know he is fighting, both in London and in Brussels. We hope that we have helped him a little in that.

Finally, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have attended this evening, especially those who have spoken, and to add my own very warm personal thanks to my colleagues on Sub-committee C and my colleagues on the Select Committee itself. With those very sincere words of gratitude, I resume my seat.

On Question, Motion agreed to.