More than £1.2bn of European Union funding could be accessed by third sector organisations over the next two years, according to an EU funding expert.
Andy Churchill, chief executive of Network for Europe, which provides support for charities seeking European funding, told an event looking into how the UK third sector can access more EU funds that about £600m was available from the European Social Fund, and about another £600m from the European Regional Development Fund, until the end of the current funding round in 2013.
Churchill said EU funding was one of the few sources of finance that had not been cut.
He said that in practice there were serious barriers preventing the third sector from accessing this cash. The sector has previously accessed only a fraction of the available funding, with much going to public and private sector organisations, he said.
"The European Social Fund is difficult to access because we’ve ended up with a small number of prime contractors which small third sector organisations find it difficult to deal with," he said.
European cash also requires match-funding as a condition for access, which many third sector organisations find difficult to raise. Oli Henman, EU and international campaigns manager at the NCVO, said his organisation was campaigning for the UK government to allow volunteer time as a source of match-funding. It was allowed as a source of match-funding under previous spending rounds, and is currently permitted in Wales, he said.
Churchill said that applications for EU funds were very bureaucratic, but that he had seen "extremely practical" plans for simplification when it begins its next next "multi-annual financial framework", which will run from 2014 to 2020.
"The question is whether the simplification will make it all the way down," he said. "The UK government has also got to make it simple."
Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, told the conference he was looking for evidence from charities and social enterprises that would help simplify EU funding to the sector, and ensure that the sector accessed more of the money available.
"There’s an opportunity to maximise funding from the current cycle of funding and the next one," said Hurd. "I’m interested in hearing from the experts. I want specific ideas about what government can do.
"I find European funding incredibly complicated. I keep getting very good briefings on it, and I keep having to send them back apologetically to say I still don’t understand. And I’m not thick."