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Erasmus Plus Programme: Youth and Sport

Volume 635: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2018

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered youth activities and sport within the Erasmus Plus programme.

I applied for the debate, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on youth affairs and former vice-president of the European youth forum, for two main reasons. The first is the big issue hanging over us in almost every decision we make in this place at the moment: Brexit. How will we continue to co-operate with EU programmes after departure day? The Minister for Universities has stated that the Government intend to negotiate some sort of continued access with Erasmus Plus and its successor. However, the Government’s intentions remain unclear on the youth elements of the programme that are part of Erasmus now but may be separated post-2020 in the next EU multiannual financial framework, which is being negotiated.

I note that it will be much easier to continue co-operation in higher education—most exchanges there are bilateral in nature—than it will be in youth and sport, where exchange and co-operation are primarily based on multilateral partnerships, making the arrangements all the more complicated. I remain concerned that when people talk about Erasmus, they are generally speaking about the university sector. When I tried to secure this debate, I was asked multiple times whether the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was the correct Department to respond. The Universities Minister has given assurances about the Erasmus programme but not wider assurances about its youth and sport sections, and particularly how our policy on youth and sport will feed into an Erasmus successor programme. That is why I am here.

As my hon. Friend said, the Erasmus sport programme is not just for universities. One of the Barking Abbey sports academy programmes is a basketball programme. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on basketball, I am proud that 35 basketball apprentices undertook an exchange with the Basketball Federation of Madrid. Sixty-five per cent of Barking Abbey students are from black and minority ethnic communities. Does he agree that the loss of such a programme would be detrimental not just to sport, but to BME communities in the UK?

Totally. I will talk later about how the youth and sport programmes are far more diverse than some of the university parts of the Erasmus Plus programme. The continued participation of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities and other harder-to-reach or economically deprived communities in parts of those programmes is really important. We need to think about not just our continued participation in the Erasmus programme but, generally, how we will continue to co-operate with our European partners on youth policy and sport policy.

Erasmus has secured a place in people’s minds as a university programme—600,000 people from the UK have gone abroad to study in the past 30 years—but there are similar numbers in the youth programme. It is vital to highlight the importance of youth and sport in Erasmus Plus. What are the policy views of DCMS about how that programme should look? Additionally, how will our current domestic programmes intertwine and co-operate with a future Erasmus programme? How will the International Citizen Service and National Citizen Service work in harmony with any future European programmes? How will UK Sport’s international development through excellence and leadership in sport programme continue to work with the sport section of Erasmus Plus?

The sport part of the programme is a good example. More than 10,000 people have taken part in the youth and sport section alone in the past year, while the IDEALS programme has an average uptake of 46 young people. Those are different programmes, but the scale of Erasmus’s youth and sport section outweighs any of our domestic programmes. That is why it is so important that our involvement continues. The current programme runs from 2014 to 2020, so it is in its final half. We await the independent mid-term evaluation report, which was completed in August 2017 and is sitting on desks in the Commission in Brussels. We all want to see what the official report—rather than the drafts—will say.

I have spoken at length to several national agencies and to the evaluation team who wrote the report on EU youth and sport policy. What role is the UK playing to ensure that we lead those discussions? If we are to buy into Erasmus Plus and its successor programmes, we want to ensure that they meet our needs, so we need to roll our sleeves up and get involved in the nitty-gritty of the debate and discussions. If we are to remain in Erasmus, we must ensure that it is in line with our youth policy. That would be much easier to do if we had had the youth strategy that the Government promised before the election. I understand that there will now be a youth chapter in the civil society policy. It is important that we are clear about our policies so that we can influence our European colleagues.

From conversations with colleagues in Ukraine last night, I understand that the Ukrainian authorities tried to opt into only part of the Erasmus programme—interestingly, the youth and sport part, not the university part—but they were rebuffed by the Commission, who said that it is all or nothing; they could not start to take programmes apart. That makes it clear that if we took part, we would be in not just the university section, but the youth and sport section. It is, therefore, even more important that we inform the design of the youth section based on our policies.

What vision do the Minister and the Government have for the content? Erasmus Plus has policy themes based particularly around economic policy, because the current programme was designed in the wake of the economic crash to get young people back into economic activity. Issues of social inclusion and radicalisation have now come to the fore. How will those issues, which I assume the Government will want to tackle, be reflected in a new programme? What are the Government’s priorities?

Additionally, in the latest Commission proposal, it looks as though the European Voluntary Service for Europe and neighbouring countries—in a crude way, I guess it is our equivalent of ICS—will be taken out of Erasmus. The EVS has existed for 20 years, so it is not a new programme, and we have participated in it for all that time. It will be merged into a new European solidarity corps—or, as most of my European colleagues rather unfortunately pronounce it, “corpse”—and how that corps complements NCS and ICS will be really important. Do the Government intend to opt into the new European solidary corps? We have had reassurances about opting into the Erasmus programme, and the European solidarity corps will be a successor, but it will not be part of Erasmus. Do the Government intend to commit to continuing in all successor components of Erasmus Plus, or will we continue only with the core of Erasmus, with everything else still up for question?

Erasmus is the name of the programme we have at the moment, but it was not always thus. Before 2014, there was a separate youth programme, Youth in Action, and before that the EU Youth Programme. There were Comenius, Grundtvig and Leonardo—I could go on with the other European philosophers. Erasmus was chosen in conversations we had with the Commission. I was not in favour of it at the time; in fact, I argued heavily against it when I was in Brussels.

The idea was that everyone knew Erasmus, so we might as well try to make everything Erasmus. In my view, doing so just waters down the other bits of the programme that are not really known about, but that is the direction that the Commission went in. Now it looks as though the Commission is moving towards separating parts of those programmes back out into a solidarity corps, and it would be interesting to know the position of the UK Government and the Minister. Are we supportive of those plans to split out again? How are we having those discussions in Europe?

The higher education sector has a high success rate in achieving Erasmus funding; 90% plus of Erasmus funding is successful in that sector. In the youth sector, it is around the 30%-plus mark. I sat on the European programming committee in a previous life, and the evaluators often state that the youth programmes are just as well written, but they are written by volunteers. It is the same with the sports programme; we are often talking about voluntary sports clubs rather than big, professional HE institutions. How will our influence be brought to bear on the Commission and the discussions in the Council to ensure that the future programmes, and particularly the solidarity corps, are flexible, light-touch programmes to which voluntary groups and small organisations can apply?

One of the outcomes, as I understand it, of the mid-term evaluation is that smaller organisations have been pushed out by the bigger merger. There are other advantages to merging everything into one, and I do not particularly want to get into them all, but it is important to recognise that smaller organisations, which we want to encourage and foster, are at a disadvantage in an integrated programme. I hope that we will welcome the European Commission’s direction.

The only reasons we managed to secure a separate section for youth in the Erasmus programme were the heavy lobbying work from youth organisations, which I helped to co-ordinate, and detailed discussions with Commissioner Vassiliou, who was the commissioner at the time. I wonder whether the Minister has considered, in her discussions with youth organisations, the importance of including the voices of youth and youth organisations in the programme.

Equally, it would be interesting to include the voices of stakeholders such as Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland colleagues. The matter is generally devolved, but we represent the whole UK in the discussions. I am aware that the Belgian authorities take their counterparts with them to Council meetings. The Belgian authorities have no problem with having all their regional Ministers sitting behind them. Are we considering something similar, particularly on these important devolved matters—on sports and youth—to ensure that those voices are included?

I will give some numbers quickly before I finish. I have asked several questions that I hope to hear back on. Erasmus, of course, is a good programme. Some 16,000 higher education students took part last year, and 10,000 youth and sports groups, but only 11% of the money is distributed to youth and sport programmes—1% for sport and 10% for youth. That surely shows the efficiency of the youth and sports programme. The cost per head of a participant in the youth part of the Erasmus programme is €900 or thereabouts. The cost of participating in the Erasmus higher education programme is €2,500 within Europe; if participants take the Erasmus option of going to a neighbouring non-EU country such as Norway or the Russian Federation, it is €5,000 per participant.

There is nothing wrong with investing in students who go into higher education, but the majority of students who take part in the Erasmus higher education programme are from more privileged backgrounds, by the nature of the fact that they have gone to university and then chosen to opt out. As I have mentioned, more than 50% of those on the youth programme come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. It is important that we continue to opt in and have a voice. A stack of case studies is available on the websites of the British Council and the UK national agency about how the programme—particularly EVS—has turned young people’s lives around, and I implore hon. Members to look at them.

When I was chair of Woodcraft Folk, a national voluntary youth organisation, I applied for those grants and saw this at first hand. I remember a young person from County Durham who came to the programme with very anti-immigrant views. By the end of it, after doing exchanges and working with other young people from across Europe, his views were totally transformed because he was able to see the value of humanity in all of us. That is what I hope this Government will do, by continuing to engage in the programme and by giving a strong commitment that we will continue not only in Erasmus, but in the solidarity corps and the European Voluntary Service substitute.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I will start by thanking the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for calling this debate on such an important issue. It is the first time I have had the pleasure of being in a debate with him and seeing him in action and, if I may say so, his enthusiasm is infectious. I will take the opportunity to suggest that we continue the conversation beyond this Chamber. He has raised a number of questions that I fear I will not be able to answer entirely in this debate, but we will certainly write to him afterwards, and it would be helpful to have a continuing conversation within the Department.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman has previously participated, as he suggested in his speech, in Youth Voice and Erasmus activities, and therefore brings personal experience and knowledge to the debate. His story is exactly what the Government’s support of the UK Youth Parliament and investment in our youth and sports programme are striving to achieve. We want to encourage young people to take part from an early age and continue making their voices heard and their impact felt throughout their lives. The Erasmus offer is an important part of that process.

Hon. Members may well be aware of Erasmus, possibly through a similar personal experience of the highly popular university year abroad, but the remit of Erasmus, as we have just heard, goes beyond the traditional university language experiences into youth and sport-related opportunities. The Department for Education is the national authority for the whole Erasmus programme, while the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for policy on wider youth and sport opportunities. It gives me great pleasure to be the Minister responding to the hon. Gentleman’s debate today.

Erasmus is a European funding programme for education, youth, training and sport, funded from the EU core budget to the tune of €15 billion over its seven-year duration through to 2020. Organisations delivering Erasmus offer activities in a number of areas. First, it enables individuals to undertake work experience, job shadowing and volunteering. Secondly, the programme allows organisations to form strategic partnerships with EU organisations, and thirdly, it provides opportunities for individuals to influence policy reform through dialogue with EU decision-makers.

The sport element of Erasmus is administered centrally in Brussels and is much smaller than the youth element—it pains me to say that—but it is nevertheless important, with organisations able to bid for projects to improve grassroots sports provision, tackle cross-border threats such as doping and match-fixing, and increase inclusion and promote sport for all, which is the issue that the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) referred to in connection with funding in basketball.

According to the European Commission’s impact report, Erasmus youth projects bring measurable benefits for young people, in terms of self-esteem, self-confidence and a sense of purpose. Participants also identify improved access to employment as a result of their experience.

Scottish universities have benefited greatly from the Erasmus Plus scheme; Edinburgh University sends several hundred students a year, Aberdeen University sends 200 and receives 250 and Robert Gordon University concentrates on technology. The programme is not exclusive to EU countries. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the UK will continue to participate in the programme after Brexit?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the programme is not exclusive to EU countries. As I will go on to point out, we have made a commitment to Erasmus for up to 2020. However, on the key point of the question raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown, which I will answer later, no decisions have yet been taken on post-2020. That is all part of phase 2 of the negotiations.

The UK has a good track record of benefiting from Erasmus funding. From the start of the current programme in 2014 until 2017, there have been successful applicants from 928 youth projects, funded to a total of €41.6 million. Those figures will rise, as they do not include the final round of youth funding for 2017. Roughly 12,000 young people and 4,000 youth workers participate each year, with the latter benefiting from job attachments, training and other professional development activities. In 2016, the UK received grant funding of more than €2 million awarded to 51 organisations for collaborative sport partnerships.

However, Erasmus youth and sport is so much more than those statistics. To bring that to life, I will share some examples of projects funded by the programme. Erasmus funding allowed the UK to participate in structured dialogue activities, which give young people a voice on issues that matter to them, such as combating discrimination and equalising opportunity. The UK already has a powerful track record of Youth Voice activities through the annual Make Your Mark process—the largest ballot of youth views in the UK—and the Youth Parliament, which I think the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown and I both managed to contribute to at the end of last year.

Structured dialogue builds on that theme and encourages young people from across the UK to influence the future direction of EU youth policy through dialogue with EU decision makers. The British Youth Council co-ordinates young ambassadors’ roles in the presidency-run EU youth conference and EU youth strategy. Finally, the UK was awarded a grant from the sport fund by the European Commission for the delivery of the European Week of Sport in the UK in 2017. The programme was co-ordinated by the not-for-profit health body, ukactive, and took place in September. More than 5.2 million young people got active, either at one of the official events or after being inspired by the week—especially on its flagship National Fitness Day on 26 September, which I was proud to participate in myself.

Beyond Erasmus, the Government continue to support young people to realise their potential outside school; Members will be familiar with programmes such as the National Citizen Service and our support for the #iwill campaign to encourage young people to build their skills for life and give back to their communities through social action. The Government are also committed to ensuring that all children and young people, particularly those who are currently least active or from under-represented groups, have the best opportunities to engage in sport and physical activity. I have spoken many times on the sports strategy, published in December 2015, which sets out how important it is for children to make sport and physical activity a habit for life.

I will turn to some of the key issues raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown. We have heard questions about the future of UK participation in Erasmus after we exit the European Union. The Government have already stated publicly that the UK is committed to continuing full participation in the Erasmus programme up until we leave the European Union. We have now agreed a fair financial settlement with the EU, enabling us to move to the next stage of negotiations.

The Prime Minister said in Brussels in December that she was pleased to confirm that, under the agreement made on 8 December, the UK would participate in Erasmus until the end of the programme—up until 2020. She also welcomed the opportunity to provide clarity to young people and the youth and education sectors, and to reaffirm the UK’s commitment to the deep and special relationship we want to build with the EU. However, no decisions have yet been made about post-2020 programme participation, since the scope of that programme has not been agreed. Options for that will be discussed as part of phase 2 of the negotiations.

The young people hoping to participate in these programmes are making their plans now and are choosing universities or organisations, depending on how they want to participate. Does the Minister therefore agree that there is some urgency in getting the issue resolved?

I understand that proposals will be published later this year—in May, I think—that will allow us to take the next decisions on that. However, as the programme has yet to be designed, it is difficult to decide what our participation in that will be. We look forward to the Commission publishing its proposals, based on which we can make that decision.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown asked about the European solidarity corps, which is the new European Voluntary Service for young people. It expands the existing EVS to include an occupational element of a job placement or a traineeship. Discussions on the solidarity corps legal base remain ongoing and are expected to conclude later this year. As I am sure he will completely understand, we cannot commit to participating in the scheme until the final version of the regulation has been shared and we have assessed the extent to which it is in line with UK policies. However, we remain supportive of international initiatives for young people—especially those focused on encouraging social action and collaboration between young people from different backgrounds.

I am absolutely delighted to have been given the opportunity to respond to the debate and to reassure the hon. Gentleman about our commitment to wider sporting and social action programmes for young people. We wish to bring the Erasmus programme further to life, and I draw hon. Members’ attention to the Shaping Futures exhibition that will run in the House of Commons exhibition space from 26 February to 1 March. The exhibition will share the impact of the Erasmus programme in the UK and stories from individuals whose lives have been changed by their participation. I urge colleagues to take some time to view the exhibition and find out even more about the programme. I thank all the individuals and organisations that have supported young people to take part in Erasmus for their commitment and dedication to the programme.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.