EU urged to allow vouchers as aid to the most deprived

Athens' deputy mayor said, "It's a matter of dignity too." [linmtheu/Flickr]

A group of EU member states has urged the European Commission to allow the use of vouchers in distributing aid to the most deprived, arguing they help save costs and uphold the dignity of the people concerned.

The Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) helps EU countries provide material assistance to people in need, such as food and clothing.

According to the European Commission, individual countries are free to choose the type of assistance they provide, based on their own situation, as well as how items are obtained and distributed.

During the implementation of the FEAD in the period 2014-2020, several EU member states, such as Romania and Greece, sent letters to the bloc’s executive and requested to use vouchers as a means to distribute funds.

The Commission’s reply was negative. It believes that voucher programmes represent “financial means”, while the FEAD specifically calls for the in-kind provision of help.

“Vouchers cannot be considered, either in substance or in fiscal terms, as non-financial assistance,” the Commission wrote in a letter seen by EURACTIV.com.

As a result, national authorities purchase the food and goods themselves and supply them to partner organisations, or fund the organisations so that they can make the purchases themselves.

Greece cracks down on voucher misuse by employers

The growing trend of distributing vouchers to employees to avoid taxes has raised eyebrows in the Greek government, which has moved to crack down on unprecedented levels of tax evasion in the cash-strapped country.

A matter of dignity

The national authorities believe that the use of vouchers is the most efficient way to distribute the aid to relevant beneficiaries for a number of reasons, ranging from the cost, food quality as well as the “dignity” of the most deprived people.

In Athens, almost 20,000 people are registered in such programmes, representing around 10,000 families. Greece’s capital has organised monthly distribution in 15 different spots.

Deputy Mayor of Social Solidarity, Welfare and Citizenship in the city of Athens, Maria Stratigaki, told EURACTIV, “Our main demand is not to be obliged to buy our supplies, distribute them with bags and then invite people to get them.”

“We want to be able to use this money to give vouchers, of course with the relevant restrictions (not to buy alcohol etc). In this way, the beneficiaries will be able to use vouchers and purchase what they want from the grocery in their neighborhood,” the deputy mayor added.

She emphasised that the procedures for buying and packing materials for FEAD programmes were quite “time-consuming”.

“Let’s not forget that it is also a matter of dignity for the beneficiaries,” she pointed out.

In a letter sent to the Commission, the municipality of Athens stressed that operational costs and complicated logistics forced the city to select only pre-packed food in order to simplify logistics and reduce costs, while the main advantage of the FEAD is to be able to provide fresh food to the most deprived.

In addition, the letter noted that the use of vouchers will allow purchases in local supermarkets and thus, “support Athens’ neighborhoods by increasing sales in local stores”.

Proper voucher use will move people into labour market, EU official says

In light of recent misuse cases reported in Italy, an EU official told EURACTIV.com that vouchers, if properly used, could result in moving more people into the labour market and tackle undeclared work.

The Commission’s reaction

Last year, the European Commission launched a mid-term evaluation of the FEAD as well as a public consultation which was open until the beginning of May 2017.

Contacted by EURACTIV.com, a European Commission spokesperson said that under the current legislative framework for the FEAD, the use of vouchers is not possible.

“This possibility was discussed during the negotiations on the draft FEAD Regulation, but did not find sufficient support among the member states,” the EU spokesperson said.

“The results of the open public consultation are currently being analysed and will be published at a later stage,” the spokesperson added.

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