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Supporting Scotland's vibrant voluntary sector

Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations is the membership organisation for Scotland's charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises. Charity registered in Scotland SC003558. Registered office Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh EH3 6BB.

Think before you leap

Last month I joined colleagues from across the UK at a conference on Strengthening Civil Society Impact, chairing a session on the ways in which different governments across the UK interact with the voluntary sector.  It was brilliant to meet so many colleagues that I had previously only spoken to via Zoom, and a real treat to be in the beautiful surroundings of Cardiff Bay; but the best thing about those two days was undoubtedly the time to think.

I have to be honest that by the end of the two days my brain was mush.  So many ideas were swirling, and concentrating on new things for two days was tiring.  The plus side of that, though, was that I didn’t push myself to jump to any conclusions about what I was hearing.  I took the time to let the thoughts percolate, and have continued to do so since I got back.

And so, in the spirit of reflection, here are a couple of things that I heard which I’ll continue to think about.  Unusually for me I’m not advocating for (or against) possible actions at this point, just letting my thoughts settle.  As ever, I’m keen to hear others’ views that might influence my thinking.

Learning from our colleagues in Wales

Since its inception, the Welsh Government has had legislation setting out how Welsh Government and the voluntary sector will work together and communicate.  Facilitated by our colleagues in WCVA, this involves a Third Sector Partnership Council and an obligation for each Cabinet Minister to meet twice a year with the sector.

In addition, Welsh Government and the sector have developed a Funding Code of Practice, including a commitment to multi-year funding, which is also underpinned by legislation.

It was great to have the opportunity to talk to colleagues from Welsh Government, WCVA and the wider sector in Wales about how this works – and the consensus was broadly that it does.  There are tweaks to be made, and it’s not a silver bullet, but in terms of facilitating access to government, and ensuring that funding for voluntary organisations is fair, it does the job.

So why am I not jumping to action, calling straight away for this to be replicated in Scotland?

Firstly, I’m thoughtful about the difference between Wales in 2006 and Scotland in 2024, and what that means for what the creation of such a scheme might look like.  When the Senedd first sat, many Members came from backgrounds in the voluntary sector – they truly understood the value of the sector, and were committed to this collaborative way of working.  To what extent did this early commitment, built upon by nearly 20 years of this becoming baked into how government works, impact on the success of the scheme, and would we get that same commitment from Scottish Government today?

On paper, I’m fairly sure we would.  The FM has talked about his own background in the sector, and the DFM and various Cabinet Secretaries are always keen to talk about the importance of our work.  But.  As those of you who’ve read my musings before will know, I don’t think warm words are enough.  My concern is that we’d all spend 18 months developing something that works for government and the sector on paper…and then nothing would change.  Talking to colleagues involved in the New Deal for Business, or watching the Verity House Agreement from afar doesn’t do much to suggest that I’m being overly cynical to raise that possibility. 

Colleagues from Wales reinforce that the legislative underpinning of their scheme is crucial, and I’d agree that any work like this in Scotland would definitely have to be put into statute.  Even then, with Scotland’s track record on the implementation gap, I’m not entirely sure that we’d see wholescale change, but at least we’d have something to point to if things didn’t happen.

Where I think this might be particularly worth looking at is in relation to funding.  Welsh Government really do provide multi year funding, and where they don’t (usually, apparently, if officials aren’t aware of the Code of Practice), and the sector challenges them, they have to do so.  My concern around a legislative route for Fair Funding, however, is what we’d be able to agree should be in legislation. If we are to successfully achieve the fair, flexible, sustainable and accessible funding landscape that SCVO continues to call for, and that the sector urgently needs, we would naturally want to see all of the required measures formalised in legislation. We would call for that wide array of Fair Funding aspects such as longer-term funding models, greater unrestricted funding and more in-built uplifts to be underpinned in statute.

But while it’s very clear from the sector’s side what Fair Funding would look like, Scottish Government have yet to lay out their own ideas of what Fairer Funding entails, even when that is aspirational rather than enforceable.  If we push for principles to be enshrined in legislation, is there a risk that they are stripped right back to the lowest acceptable levels?  Even if we could achieve multi year funding, for example, might it only be for a small number of years, or on the basis of standstill budgets? And would that be good enough?

All of this, of course, is pure speculation on my part.  But that’s the beauty of thinking time, isn’t it.  It probably comes from a slightly glass half empty perspective, so if you feel more hopeful than me do get in touch – I’d love to chat and think some more.

Last modified on 9 April 2024