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The Chief's Blog - June 2020

Mon 15 Jun 2020

Over the past 3 months we have faced unprecedented challenges as a voluntary sector. We might sum this up coldly as having seen, and indeed met, a massive surge in demand for our support, at the same time as having lost existing income from fundraising, trading and occasionally contracts or grants. At the same time we have of course faced the perhaps even greater challenge that the nation has largely shared, being cut off from family and friends, experiencing additional stress and anxiety and worrying about what the future holds. Our capacity as a nation to come together in communities, through existing voluntary organisations, charities, community groups and through new ones has never been so harshly tested and never proven itself so well prepared for the challenge. I make this somewhat bold claim, because our sector didn’t have anything like the resources available to it that central or even local government had – we made do with what we had and harnessed who we had. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t perfect (far from it) and it hasn’t always been a success, but when we look back as we are now beginning to do, I think we as a nation can be rightly proud of our volunteers, community groups and charities during this period. I for one am willing and happy to share this brief and limited amount of reflective congratulations with local government and other agencies such as police, fire and more. They have on the whole worked their socks off, made good decisions and worked very collaboratively across boundaries and across sectors (they can do their own PR on this, but I shan’t deny them the credit they deserve). Alas, the same cannot be said of central government.

I didn’t and don’t expect central government to be perfect either, especially when the challenge faced is to a degree new and untested. At such a time I have some sympathy with the notion that we all need to support government and show confidence in shared public endeavours; collective doubt can be dangerous. However, what I do expect from any government of any political colour, is for them to learn and to do so quickly. This is not the attribute I would ascribe to our current government. They were less prepared than we would have liked with the lockdown itself and preparing the wider system (social care, hospices and more) with PPE for example. They compounded this with a national Shielders scheme that was quick to be announced and slow to roll out. Many will be oblivious to the fact hat local government (councils) picked up the pieces and ensured that all such residents had food – and to this day they are still feeding some that government promised to feed. That scheme was full of basic errors such as wrong addresses and out of date information. Central government changed its mind twice in late March about how local food hubs would operate, throwing councils and partners into unnecessary disarray.

Closer to home, just when charities were seen as key local partners to reduce the burden on the state, Central Government subjected the sector to weeks of delay in assurances over funding (unlike the quick move to assure business and employers). Then when they did act, the package was smaller and far more bureaucratic than expected. Some of that £750M ‘emergency’ funding still hasn’t landed locally, caught up in Whitehall red tape! In recent weeks, local property grants practically dropped into small business accounts without them asking, have seen charities subject to pages of competitive, ‘prove it’ forms, for less than half the funds. The Prime Minister was quick to be associate with the NHS First Responder volunteer scheme; much less open to discussing the 3 week delay in roll out that followed and the many technical and conceptual issues arising; whilst locally we got on and supported the majority of residents ourselves (councils and voluntary groups).

And more recently, still not learning, the government rolls out schools returns without discussing with schools, track and trace without discussing with local public health teams and changes guidance on wearing of masks in hospitals, you guessed it, without discussing with hospitals. I will stop here, believe me, I could write twice as much.

I’m hoping I will get the chance to meet local MPs in the coming weeks or months (a previously hard won meeting was cancelled in April). And whist it is tempting to talk charities and money (as those are real issues), I have decided that I need to rise above sectoral priorities on this occasion, because we have a far deeper issue here. The disconnect, the disregard, the lack of recognition, respect, understanding even of local governance in the widest sense. Government certainly (parliament questionably) just doesn’t get it – their simplistic top down directive approach, in a Covid-19 era, quite literally costs lives, and they need to learn and change and do so quickly.