Voluntary sector caught between hope and despair

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By Stephen Maxwell

Looking ahead to the next five years of an SNP majority Government Scotland’s third sector is balancing on a knife edge, somewhere between hope and despair.

Strathclyde University, commissioned by the Coalition of Care and Support Providers in Scotland (CCSPS), reported last month on a steady decline in the wages and conditions of staff in voluntary organisations providing support and care for vulnerable people to live in the community. It concluded there is no longer “any single element of public sector terms and conditions universally available to staff in voluntary organisations”.

Four years ago the voluntary sector’s leading representative bodies the CCSPS and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) forged an agreement with the STUC  and public service unions to work to equalise wages and employment conditions for front line care staff  between the public and voluntary sector. Voluntary organisations currently employ 56,000 staff to provide about 40% of Scotland’s care in the community needs on contracts from local Councils. 

The agreement was designed to focus competition on the quality of services rather than on reductions in the wages and working conditions of the already poorly paid frontline care workers.  It won backing in principle from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA).

But as widely feared, the credit crunch and the budgetary crisis followed in 2010 by the Conservative coalition’s slash and burn strategy for reducing the public deficit has destroyed the fragile consensus behind the agreement.

The recent Strathclyde University report sets out the full impact on the voluntary sector; wage freezes or cuts, loss of additional payments for overnight attendance, cuts in the support time allocated for clients, the erosion of pension conditions and reductions in staff training budgets.

As Annie Gunner Logan, Chief Executive of CCSPS points out, the cuts leave voluntary organisations facing an impossible choice; hold firm on wages and working conditions and risk losing business to more keenly priced competitors or make prices more competitive by cutting workforce costs?

Gunner believes this comes down to an intractable choice either way, between “excellence and adequacy”. Compromising on excellence of service is at odds with the sector’s track record. It has a clear lead over both its local authority and private sector competitors, according to the independent Care Commission. The other choice on the table is to deliver merely “adequate” services which financially pressed Council are increasingly accepting.

The Strathclyde report has hit a nerve. Voluntary sector chiefs believe that the trials of the voluntary social care sector revealed by the Strathclyde report are being experienced across other areas of voluntary sector public service provision.  And what makes it worse is that it is bound up in an all too familiar cycle of the voluntary sector being expected to absorb a disproportionate share of the pain when the public finances need rebalancing. Only this time it’s in particularly harsh conditions.

SCVO’s Chief Executive Martin Sime has criticised Finance Secretary John Swinney for promoting a ‘no compulsory redundancies’ policy for the public sector while ignoring the claims of workers in contracted voluntary organisations.   In turn he has been accused by UNISON Scotland’s organiser Dave Watson of polarising the interests of voluntary sector and public sector staff.

Yet alongside these fears Scottish voluntary organisations can find some reasons for hope in Scotland’s new political landscape. The imminent launch of Cameron’s Big Society Bank pulling together an initial £60-100m of unclaimed bank assets and £200m of loan capital from the big four banks will provide a new source of capital for the Scottish sector.

The Scottish Government’s £70m Change Fund to promote community based preventative interventions in health and social care offers new revenue options for voluntary organisations. The Big Lottery in Scotland is in the process of creating a £15m  fund for community based economic regeneration initiatives including renewables parallel to the national EU funded JESSICA programme.

And the sector is ready to deliver 2,000 job placements through the Scottish Government’s £10m Community Jobs Fund. The third sector has also welcomed the Government’s push for the repatriation of the Scottish functions of the Crown Estate Commissioners as a way of creating opportunities for coastal communities to access the benefits of marine renewables and will be keen to see action on the new Government’s manifesto promise of a community empowerment bill.

But the potential for change on a scale large enough to counter the erosion of the sector’s public service role lies elsewhere.   Voluntary sector leaders are looking to the Christie Commission on the future of Scotland’s public services, due out next month, to identify a leading role for voluntary providers in a new model of service provision fit for 21st century Scotland.

Meanwhile, let us hope that we will see the voluntary sector agitating to have employability given a prominent place in the new Government’s agenda for constitutional change. The exclusion of any Scottish organisation from the list of principal providers of the UK’s five year £5billion Work Programme caps “an outstanding and unanswerable” case for devolving employability services.