The Equalities and Human Rights Committee’s 2019 Valuing the Third Sector report and our most recent budget scrutiny work have highlighted the significant contribution of the third sector in providing support to the most vulnerable in society, while also demonstrating the need for a new approach to funding and collaborative working to ensure this vital work in realising equalities and human rights in Scotland can continue in a post-Covid world.
Covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on many who already face disadvantage and discrimination. Our 2019 report emphasised that the voluntary sector has a valuable role to play in supporting the equality and human rights agendas in Scotland. It is therefore no surprise to us that the work of charities was key to providing immediate support to many people during the pandemic.
However, as incomes fall and demand for services grows, many charities are now in a situation where they may not survive for much longer. The debate at Holyrood today (1 December) is important to ensure the committee’s recommendations are not lost sight of, and indeed are implemented, to ensure the sustainability of the voluntary sector, so it can continue to play its vital role – not just during the pandemic – but in Scotland’s recovery and beyond.
While the committee acknowledges that councils are under pressure to make savings, it is voluntary groups and charities feeling the force of these financial constraints.
The committee’s inquiry heard that reduced and short-term funding led to job insecurity, loss of talent and essential services either being reduced or stopped altogether, directly affecting the communities and vulnerable people who rely on them.
In 2019, the committee welcomed the Scottish Government’s move to a three-year equalities funding model, but there is work to be done to ensure that more people benefit from the support services provided by charities promoting equalities and human rights.
We have asked the Scottish Government to show leadership in this area by setting up a working group, involving key stakeholders, to examine longer-term funding models and for its conclusions to be made available before the end of this parliamentary session.
Working in partnership was a key theme that arose in our 2019 report. But by far the greatest barrier to partnership working was the competitive funding environment in which the sector operates, which acts as a disincentive for organisations to work together.
Conversely, in responding to the pandemic there have been many examples of strong partnership working between the voluntary sector and local authorities, the Scottish Government and the private sector that highlight what can be achieved.
At a national level we’ve seen extraordinary outcomes, such as the temporary eradication of rough sleeping. This success that has come from a partnership approach, shared goals between partners, and the temporary removal of hierarchy and bureaucracy.
Our report called for “strengthening collaboration” around involvement of the sector in service design; involvement of the sector in decommissioning; and a thorough examination of partnership working in the context of a competitive funding environment.
In conclusion, we must embrace the adversity of the pandemic and seize it as an opportunity to do things differently. We must learn from innovative practice shown by some funders and the third sector during the pandemic.
Indeed, it is now more important than ever that the recommendations in the committee’s report are implemented.