Given their commitments to Civil Society, a debate on funding to the voluntary sector should be one where an element of consensus emerges between political parties. However, funding to the voluntary sector is now becoming an area where stark differences are starting to emerge between the different approaches of Labour and the Conservative-led Government.
Over 13 years, the Labour Government increased its support for the voluntary sector. We doubled funding to the sector from £5.5 billion in 1997 to £12 billion in 2009. By strengthening the infrastructure of the sector, we helped volunteering and social enterprise to thrive. We created the first ever dedicated office of Minister of State for the Third Sector at the heart of Government. We also gave the third sector a strong voice in government through the Third Sector Partnership Board. Labour did much to boost and encourage volunteering; there now are 850,000 charity trustees serving on the governing body of a charity and 2.7 million volunteers. Many small charities rely on the work of those volunteers. But there are also 780,000 paid staff working in the sector and they are also vital to the work of supporting and encouraging volunteering and social enterprise.
Ministers in the Coalition Government have talked about encouraging social action and the need to support the voluntary and community sector. They castigate local authorities who cut grants to voluntary groups and charities, despite the Government having cut local authority budgets by 28% over the next four years. Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, has even talked about legislating on local authority cuts to grants for voluntary and community organizations. Yet though the Cabinet Office Minister, Nick Hurd, says the Government sees the voluntary and community sector as “a key partner”, the Office for Civil Society is undermining this by cutting vital grant support to a number of key charities.
Organisations like the volunteering support charity Timebank lost significant amounts of funding when the Office of Civil Society cut the grants which had supported their work as strategic partners. The Office for Civil Society apparently aims to cut the number of strategic partner organizations from 42 to 14. Grants had already been cut to the volunteering organizations Volunteering England, Community Service Volunteers and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers.
The debate on funding must focus on this important issue of support for the infrastructure of the voluntary sector. Organisations like Timebank are at the frontline of finding and supporting volunteers for charities like hospices and for the Olympics. Labour’s support had helped maintain a high level of participation in volunteering. However, cuts to the funding of volunteering charities will cause organisational cutbacks which will lead to a decrease in volunteering, not an increase. It is time for the Government to think again and reverse these cuts which could be very damaging to volunteering.