THE voluntary sector has never been so busy.
Voluntary organisations are in the frontline of dealing with the impact of both the recession and the Coalition Government's relentless welfare reforms, as today's report by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) makes clear. Nearly three quarters of charities in Scotland report that demand for their services is up due to the impact of benefit changes, with nine in 10 expecting it to rise over the next few months; some warn that they are already at breaking point.
One might expect this of welfare advice organisations such as Citizens Advice Scotland. What is striking about this survey, however, is that the increase in demand is affecting every type of voluntary body, from mental health organisations, to charities focused on women, to housing associations to faith and refugees' groups. Vulnerable people living in poverty are facing painful choices between paying the rent, heating their home or buying food, and are turning to voluntary organisations for support, sometimes in desperation.
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Charities counting the human cost of the reforms cannot be expected to cope unassisted. They have neither the money nor, in some cases, the proper training. The Scottish Government has a responsibility to answer SCVO's calls to do more to mitigate the effects of welfare reform. It is essential that the needs of small but vitally important frontline organisations are not overlooked – they need funding every bit as much as large scale advice agencies. A one-stop-shop online information point for the general public in Scotland, providing key information about welfare reforms, and good quality training for voluntary sector staff who are expected to advise vulnerable people on the effects of specific welfare proposals, are also needed.
The fall-out from the recession only makes matters worse. As public funding becomes increasingly stretched, many charities that are contracted by councils or government bodies to provide services, face a further difficulty. More than two-fifths of respondents to SCVO's survey report that a lack of long-term funding and the inability to plan ahead are causing serious problems.
That is why the Scottish Conservatives' demand at Holyrood yesterday, for charities to have their funding periods extended to three years, is eminently sensible. Far too many voluntary organisations must live with a constant anxious merry-go-round of funding applications and 12-month grants. Not only is precious time wasted on all this pointless bureaucracy, but staff also live in a state of near-constant uncertainty, unsure whether they will have a job beyond the end of the next contract.
Hard-pressed local authorities might be tempted to keep their financial options open by offering yearly contracts, but this makes strategic planning of service provision harder and makes charities more inefficient.
If voluntary organisations are to stand in the frontline of welfare reform, they must be properly equipped to do so.