The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) has written to the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government Shona Robison MSP to highlight concerns over the recent announcement of the Scottish Budget for 2022-23 – you can view SCVO’s Chief Executive Anna Fowlie’s response to the Scottish Budget 2022-23 here.

Letter to the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government, 17 December 2021

Dear Ms Robison

Over the last 18 months, Scotland – including Scottish Government and local government – has relied heavily on the voluntary sector to support people and communities through the public health and economic emergency. As you said when we last met, voluntary organisations, supported by infrastructure bodies, have been at the heart of our national response to the pandemic.

As the picture becomes clearer as to how this next wave of the pandemic will affect our communities, voluntary organisations are once again playing a key role.  In the first and second lockdowns, the sector’s position was greatly bolstered by emergency funding from the Scottish Government, which was welcome.  We hope this will continue to be made available as circumstances dictate, but as we all come to terms with the new reality of living with coronavirus, it’s also important that we sharpen our focus on overall long-term sustainability, creating a resilient sector that’s not reliant on emergency support.

As discussed in the COVID Recovery Joint Programme Board yesterday, the sudden emergence of the new variant has meant a return to a crisis response which will likely need targeted resources for our sector as well as others, but we can’t let that distract us from doubling down on ensuring recovery takes us to a better place than we were in before the pandemic hit.

Against this backdrop, I am therefore taken aback by the Scottish Government’s choice to reduce the fiscal resource line of the Third Sector Budget by £800,000. This may seem like a small amount of money, but any cut will inevitably result in weakened support for voluntary organisations, and their volunteers, across Scotland, at a time of great uncertainty. It’s a severe blow.

I know that you and your Cabinet colleagues have difficult choices to make. But this decision is a worrying signal that, despite all that’s been said about the importance of the voluntary sector during the pandemic, government isn’t willing to translate that into action.

SCVO and fellow intermediary bodies are committed to supporting the Scottish Government’s ambition of a fair recovery, through the government’s own priorities including the Social Enterprise Action Plan, Volunteering Action Plan, and indeed the Strengthening Collaboration initiative.

If this cut goes ahead, it will have serious implications for delivering commitments relating to these areas and more. I would ask that you take on board our concerns and ask that the Scottish Government rethinks this substantial reduction of investment in the foundations that support the sector.

The government’s high aspirations for Scotland in relation to volunteering, social enterprise and the voluntary sector as an equal partner are welcome, but require resources to deliver. If cuts are coming, we need to know where they will fall as soon as possible so we can assess whether it will be possible to deliver the commitments in the Programme for Government and those made elsewhere. 

The Third Sector budget line funds support across the whole voluntary sector, but it is a small element of the total budget’s implications for the sector. There will be winners and losers across different policy areas. As I mentioned when we last met, we see you as an ambassador promoting the importance of the sector in Cabinet.

One encouraging sign during the budget debate was Ms Forbes’ commitment to multi-year funding for the voluntary sector, and the plans for a resource spending review next May to enable spending to be planned on a three to four-year basis. I welcome the fact that Ms Forbes has committed to engage with stakeholders, including the voluntary sector, during this process. While this is an important step, it’s not in itself enough.

Voluntary organisations are trapped in an annual cycle of chasing funding. Various Scottish Parliament Committees, the Auditor General, and all the party leaders at SCVO’s election hustings in April, have recognised that this needs to be fixed, so we had expected to see movement towards multi-year funding in this Budget. It would make a huge difference to the stability and confidence of charities, community organisations and social enterprises, allowing them to focus on the people they work with rather than wasting time continually looking for money. 

I would encourage you to consider what steps the Scottish Government can take right now. I often hear that Scottish Government and councils are also on single-year budgets; however, their annual settlements are about the quantum, not whether there will be any money. And often grants are for relatively small amounts of money – thousands, not millions of pounds. It’s perfectly possible for Scottish Government and councils to make multi-year awards for money on that scale. Firm awards for the first year and indicative awards for future years would at least offer some reassurance.  In any case, timely decision-making is essential. To give you a real example we’ve had at SCVO; because of process delays inside Scottish Government, we didn’t receive the annual grant letter for Community Jobs Scotland until August – four months after the start of the financial year.  This has meant that c.160 jobs for disadvantaged young people have not been created, and there’s an underspend of £1m.  We had plenty voluntary sector employers and young people ready and waiting, but have not been able to meet that need – all because a letter wasn’t issued.

It’s not acceptable for organisations, who employ staff and often provide vital services to vulnerable people, to not know if their jobs or their service will exist in a few weeks’ time.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Anna Fowlie