The leaders of the main Scottish political parties attended a voluntary sector hustings organised by SCVO this week
Politicians from across the political spectrum have reaffirmed their commitment to multi-year funding for the voluntary sector.
The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) hosted a hustings event yesterday evening (8 April) with the leaders of the main parties standing at next month’s Scottish Parliament elections.
More than 80 questions were submitted for the online session, with an audience of over 200 representatives from the sector attending. The event was hosted by Scottish political expert and journalist Brian Taylor.
Discussions over funding for the sector, and local government, dominated the proceedings, with the leaders all agreeing that organisations need more stability to best serve the communities they support.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish National Party (SNP), said her party is committed to moving away from short-term funding.
“What we want to do, and our manifesto talks about this, is move to multi-year funding. There is a restriction on the ability of the Scottish Government to do that, as such a big chunk of our funding comes from Westminster through the Barnett Formula, and that’s not always given on a three-year basis. But within that we want to find the way of moving to multi-year funding and giving the sector and organisations within it, more ability to look ahead and plan ahead with greater certainty.”
Douglas Ross, Scottish Conservative Party, said financial stability for organisations is even more important that the levels of support.
“We’re probably all going to agree with this. Obviously voluntary organisations want as much financial support as possible. I think even more important than that is financial stability. You don’t get that with one-year funding settlements. We’re setting out plans to extend multi-year funding settlements. We’d like to see our funding from the UK Government agreed on a multi-year level, as we’ve had in the past. We’ve had settlements of up to three years in advance in the past.”
Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour Party, said it is vital the sector is not hit by a further wave of austerity.
“You’ve seen real challenges for local government, and the impact that has on local organisations across the country. Following the banking crisis, we had 10 years of austerity and that was the perfect storm for the voluntary sector. You had cuts to local government funding, businesses were struggling and this meant fundraising opportunities dropped. We risk that same perfect storm again coming through this pandemic. We’ve already seen that 50% of charities being worried about their money running out.”
Willie Rennie, Scottish Liberal Democrats, said stability is needed to help organisations and society recover.
“Multi-year funding is something we’ve aspired to for years, but we’ve not actually delivered it. You can understand why organisations are not as effective if they’re having to spend so much time worrying about whether they have enough money for the next month or the next year. We need to have organisations that can plan ahead and be much more effective for the people they are serving. We’ve had one of the most unstable periods for some time, and that’s why in this campaign we’re calling for a period of stability so we can focus on recovery.”
Patrick Harvie, Scottish Green Party, said the sector would benefit from being allowed to expand, backed by stable funding.
“Expanding the role of the voluntary sector into areas that are currently run by the private sector and profit driven would help to bring in new sources of revenue for the sector. You can open doors that are closed off just now. In terms of multi-year funding, there’s this chain of responsibility from Westminster, so the Scottish Government, local authorities, to the voluntary and third sector. We ned to challenge one-year funding and this bizarre cart before horse position where local councils have to set their budgets, then the Scottish Government, then we find out how much is in the envelope from the UK.”
The leaders also recognised the efforts of the sector during Covid-19, and discussed what role it can play in supporting the recovery of society.
Patrick Harvie, Greens, said: “I’m completely convinced that far more can be delivered by the voluntary sector than is happening now. If only we give it the support that it needs. A huge amount of change is required in our society – whether we’re talking about the Covid recovery, how we ensure it’s a green recovery with investment in sustainable jobs and renewable energy, warm homes, public transport, restoring nature, how we close the poverty and inequality gap and how we address the climate and nature emergencies. These are phenomenal areas of change in our society and the Green movement knows the voluntary sector can give leadership, now just doing the bidding of the state.”
Willie Rennie, Lib Dems, said: “The philosophy of liberals and Liberal Democrats now is firmly rooted in the community action, volunteering and local empowerment. By our nature we are suspicious of big government, especially when it hordes power, and instinctively believe in strong communities. A vibrant voluntary and third sector, leading communities, giving a voice to the powerless, threading a fabric in our communities, is a mark of a civilised society. It’s the role of government to nurture the sector, not control it. The third sector is not a creature of government, and it must never become that. It needs the freedom to act, to criticise, and to challenge.”
Douglas Ross, Conservatives, said: “We want to see and continue to support a strong, vibrant sector with organisations right up and down the country. As we reflect on the very grim statistic of the number of lives sadly lost in Scotland to Covid-19, now over 10,000 people with families broken by that news, we have to look at some of the very small positives from this pandemic. That has been the way that people have come together and built up bonds that weren’t there before Covid-19, and I really hope they continue. All of this can only be done in partnership with the people on this call, our vibrant voluntary sector, who know the need of our communities and serves them daily.”
Anas Sarwar, Labour, said: “The last year has been really tough for all of us. There’s no point pretending otherwise. But even though it has pulled us apart from our loved ones, we’ve actually pulled together as a country like never before. The voluntary sector is a perfect example of that, from the first lockdown and since, you saw the sector coming together with neighbours helping people get their shopping, helping those that needed a little bit of support, and taking up caring responsibilities for people as well. For example, support for cancer patients and mental health all continued. It was a remarkable, remarkable effort by the sector and we’ve got to recognise that role as we come out of this pandemic.”
Nicola Sturgeon, SNP, said: “Over the past year, we’ve seen hundreds of organisations and literally thousands of volunteers help the country through the pandemic. Whether that’s been delivering food and medicine, helping combat loneliness, providing physically distanced activities for children, we would not have got through without that contribution. I just want to say a big thank you. Looking ahead as we start to hopefully rebuild and recover from the pandemic, there are three things that I would highlight. The first is secure and stable funding, support for the sector to adapt and become more sustainable. Secondly it’s how we support the sector and help its many organisations to do more. Thirdly, it’s about harnessing the voice and the leadership of the sector.”
The leaders were also quizzed on what they had learned about the sector during the coronavirus crisis.
Willie Rennie, Lib Dems, said the sector was agile in its response to the pandemic, and the challenge now is to make sure we capture volunteers to ensure they continue to contribute to society.
Nicola Sturgeon, SNP, said the sector had been adaptable, and knows its service users better than anybody else. She recognised the sector is underutilised and that a ‘third sector first’ approach needs to be taken.
Patrick Harvie, Greens, said leaders can agree on the role the sector plays, but there needs to be much more of the economy run on a non-profit basis, highlighting the way private companies are handling contracts for housing asylum seekers as an area that needs to change.
Douglas Ross, Conservatives, recognised how diverse the sector is, and said the way that people volunteered during the pandemic needs to be something that is tapped into across Scotland.
Anas Sarwar, Labour, said the pandemic has exposed how voluntary sector organisations have a relationship with communities they serve, and can reach people in the way that local and national government cannot.
Taylor also asked the candidates what role they see the voluntary sector playing in the upcoming Cop26 environmental summit in Glasgow this year, and in responding to the climate emergency.
Patrick Harvie said Cop26 is a domestic opportunity to change the conversation on climate like never before. Willie Rennie said the sector’s mass membership can be used to help make the changes that are needed to combat climate change. Douglas Ross said the great work going on across the sector must be showcased at the summit. Anas Sarwar said the eyes of the world will be on Glasgow and the sector will help people get engaged with Cop26. Nicola Sturgeon said the sector has a huge part to play in the lead up to the conference, and it can use the power of its campaigning might to secure a Glasgow Agreement.