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EASPD International Conference“Investing in Social Services, Investing in People”

From the EU’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to its provision of funding programs supporting the transition to community-based care and support, or its development of the Voluntary European Quality Framework for Social Services the European Union has proved itself to be a key contributor to the development of quality community-based care and support services across Europe.

Despite this contribution, when it comes to the funding of such services, an action so crucial to the implementation of quality support, the EU has had mixed results and must look to further strengthen its activities in this field. With the upcoming European Elections come new opportunities to advance the European Union’s social dimension and the European Association of Service providers for Persons with Disabilities (EASPD) calls on the EU to support the funding of inclusive quality care and support services, promoting active participation and protection of all those living in Europe.

But how can this be done? And what is the reality of the EU’s role when national and regional authorities continue to be the main actors in the funding of social care and support?

On 16th-17th of May in Bucharest, Romania EASPD held a European Conference ‘Investing in Social Services, Investing in People’. The conference brought together support services, service beneficiaries, representatives of the European Commission, public authorities, as well as public and private investors, to discuss the future that they want for the support services sector. The two-day conference explored the key funding and financing models that are currently being developed across Europe to help the sector meet its significant and growing investment needs.

They all discussed the possible actions they could take, including:

• The timely approval of the next EU Multi-annual Financial Framework (long-term EU budget) 2021-2027 with strong quality requirements, which provides funding opportunities for social service providers among most if not all EU programmes.
• The stronger focus on the role of support services in implementing the UN CRPD in the next European Disability Strategy 2020-2030, with a dedicated section on how all EU funds, investment programs and policies should help support services to enable people to become active citizens, to enter into the labour market, to benefit from the same education as all others and to participate in cultural life.
• A commitment by all EU institutions to further invest in research and data collection, assessing elements such as staff shortages, the link between quality of services and quality of life, the cost of inappropriate social infrastructure, the potential of innovation and the economic and social consequences of underinvesting in social care and support.
• The promotion of the effective use of reserved contracts, rather than procurement processes, for the funding of most care services.
• Bridging the gap between the social services sector and private investors, by maximizing the potential of the future InvestEU programme.
• Ensuring that Employers and Trade Unions in Social Services have a dedicated European Social Dialogue Committee at EU level, to enable them to unlock the sector’s job creation potential, identify bottlenecks, and identify how funding rates and models impact workforce recruitment, retention and development.

Katarina Ivankovic Knezevic, Director for Social Affairs at the European Commission, joined participants as she reaffirmed the crucial contribution support services make to a more social, inclusive and prosperous Europe. Speaking from the conference she asserted, “social services represent a smart and sustainable investment in people, they not only assist people, but they also have a preventative, activating and enabling factor.” To be able to fulfil their potential however, service providers must able to provide high quality, person-centred and community-based support and this quality comes at a cost which cannot be ignored.

The conference provided a vital opportunity to address the implementation of public procurement across Europe, where authorities at local or national level have over-emphasized cost factors when procuring support services in their communities. “If public procurement is to promote high-quality services the use of quality criteria in the procurement process must be compulsory,” Thomas Bignal, EASPD Investment Policy Officer emphasized. Adding, “Public procurement may not be the best tool that authorities can use to provide high quality services. The use of Public procurement is a choice and authorities should reconsider their use of this model.”

Dr. Vasilka Dimoska, Secretary General of the Republic centre for Support of Persons with Intellectual Disability – PORAKA speaking at the conference, emphasized that the existence of a wide range of support services (specialized and mainstream) is basic precondition for successful inclusion of persons with intellectual disability in the society, in line with Article 19 of UN CRPD. She stressed, “If we want to build inclusive society, we must respect dignity of people and social justice including persons with disabilities, empowering them to achieve their full potential. The challenge is to change the system of financing the services, so it will respond to the needs of the people and be available for them no matter where in the system the services are provided – the principle of “money follows the user”.

Looking to the possibilities of private investment, to compliment public funding and support the sector to innovate, Luk Zelderloo, EASOD Secretary general, underlined the need for EU instruments to unlock additional opportunities for support service providers. Speaking on the importance of capacity building he stressed that: “the new InvestEU programme will invest €500 million in capacity building for implementing partners. While this is a step forward, the programme does not recognise support services as a key partner and instead this money will be invested into building the capacity of banks. The European Commission must acknowledge the important role support services play in the implementation of the program and support us in our capacity building”.

The long-term sustainability of the sector was also a key concern of participants. Representatives from Romania, as well as elsewhere in Europe, rose awareness for the dangers of using short-term contracts, which do not allow for quality care or an individualisation of support. To overcome this, authorities must take more responsibility and ensure that the contracts that they offer facilitate the provision of consistent, person-centred care to those who need it.

On a day to day basis, quality social services provide the care and support which enables millions of people in Europe to be socially and economically active: the persons with support needs themselves, their families and close network, as well as the millions of dedicated professionals and volunteers who provide the services. This has a knock-on effect for Europe as a whole; allowing all people to participate, our communities to strengthen and our economies to develop. In short, investing in social services is about investing in people!

Guaranteeing the continuity and development of person-centred social services is a necessity for the continent: legally, politically, economically, socially and especially in terms of access to human rights.

Adequately funding quality social services should thus be a priority for Europe. This can only be achieved if Public Authorities assume their role in developing and guaranteeing sustainable funding frameworks to support the development of quality person-centred social services. Social services have significant and growing investment needs: to support and strengthen the transition to person-centred and community-based services, to recruit and retain qualified staff, to build the right infrastructure, to innovate, to digitalise and to reach out to other mainstream stakeholders.

To close the conference EASPD President, Jim Crowe, drew on the key messages of the conference highlighting that, “funding models must further empower service users, giving them choice and control in deciding the type of care that they want to receive. For this, personal budgets are the way forward.” Addressing the importance of coproduction, he added, “well structured dialogue between authorities, persons with disabilities and support providers is essential to the success of the funding of services. To be able to invest in services, we must invest in our partnerships.”

The Conference was an opportunity for participants to gain practical and theoretical knowledge about the variety of effective funding models across Europe and exchange views on their suitability for the development of quality support services, in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.