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European synthesis report: Access to essential services for people on low incomes in Europe

The synthesis report from the European Social Policy Network (ESPN) analyses the measures, policy frameworks and reforms that countries have put in place to help people on low incomes to access essential services.

Principle 20 of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) reaffirms the right to access essential services and highlights the importance of ensuring good-quality service provision and adequate support for those in need. As a specific illustration, it lists six such services: water, sanitation, energy, transport, financial services and digital communications.

While there is evidence that countries are developing national and subnational actions to ensure that citizens have access to these six essential services, the synthesis report demonstrates that more needs to be done at national and EU level to guarantee accessible, available and affordable good-quality services to all.

Based on national contributions prepared by the 35 ESPN country teams, key findings of the report include the following:

  1. In most countries, facilitating access to essential services is a public responsibility which entails public obligations.
  2. Currently, the majority of the 35 countries use regional- and/or local-level support measures to facilitate access to water and sanitation services for people on low incomes. However, the analysis shows that the human right to water is only fully protected in a third of the 35 ESPN countries.
  3. Energy poverty is tackled mostly through national-level support mechanisms in an overall adverse context due to issues related to energy efficiency, high energy prices and governance (esp. private vs public and national vs subnational management). In non-EU countries, access is also often hindered by supply instability and illegal use of energy is widespread.
  4. Public transport is made more accessible and affordable for those in need through subnational-level measures, which often target support not directly at people on low incomes, but rather at other groups (older people, students, people with disabilities…). Even though a substantial proportion of these groups are expected to have low incomes, it is important to ensure that people on low incomes are not being missed out by such an approach.
  5. More decisive, better targeted and widespread action across Europe is crucial to tackle the multiple challenges arising from the digital divide. Promising measures include: expanding and/or improving connectivity infrastructure, strengthening digital skills (particularly among people on low incomes and other vulnerable groups), and improving affordability.
  6. 6. Across the EU, credit institutions have established a payment account with basic features in line with the Payment Accounts Directive but further efforts are needed to ensure that customers actually exercise their right to access this account.

The synthesis report also puts forward several recommendations to be implemented at country and/or EU levels in order to improve access to essential services, especially for people on low incomes.

The 35 ESPN national reports, upon which this synthesis report is based, were prepared between November 2019 and February 2020, i.e. before the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent in Europe. Yet the evidence provided in this synthesis report on the persistence of structural barriers and the low effectiveness of some protection/ support mechanisms to guarantee access to essential services for all has become even more relevant with the pandemic.

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