Angie Contestabile argues that cost-cutting and centralising in the Welsh third sector severely risks the health of a vital part of our society.
The Coronavirus pandemic has brought tensions between the governments in Wales and Westminster to the forefront.
More people are now aware of devolution and the differences between our governments than ever before.
Wales has led the way in pioneering legislation such as Organ Donation, Active Travel and the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act; legislation that has been admired and considered across the globe and sets a precedent for other UK countries to follow.
Despite this, there remains an expectation that Wales should ‘fall in line’ with Westminster’s approach to governance, which has been accentuated since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. It is a longstanding attitude, which continues to spill over into other areas of society, including within the charity sector.
As a result of this perception of Wales, whenever there is a crisis, which results in a loss of income, we see many significant jobs disappear from Wales, with some charities either centralising services in England and managing Wales from there or getting rid of Wales-specific jobs and services completely.
According to the Civil Society, in August there had been over 5,000 redundancies announced in the charity sector since May, but the real figure is estimated to be more than 3 times this amount. Many charities had to lay off workers as their shops had to close and overall donations dried up, while demand for services increased.
“Some charities have recognised that there is a need to have some presence in Wales, but… generally through roles that would be considered lower level.”
In Wales, the charity sector employs over 46,000 people. It supports the functioning of our society, sometimes being commissioned to provide statutory services. It works with some of the most vulnerable individuals and is already picking up the pieces of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many people are in desperate circumstances as a result of the outbreak and often their only source of help is from Third Sector organisations. If those organisations are losing the very resources that underpin their ability to provide such help, then that makes the situation even worse.
It has been said that, longer term, COVID will be more damaging, and on a far wider scale, than that seen after the coal and steel industries collapsed in the 1980s.
People will need support to rebuild their lives. People will need to be and feel represented and this cannot come from someone sat in an office in London. It will need to come from people in Wales who understand the national and local needs of those who need their help the most.
Some charities have recognised that there is a need to have some presence in Wales, but this is commonly through 1 or 2 members of staff and generally through roles that would be considered lower level, with little or no opportunity for shaping the future strategy of the organisation.
This makes it difficult to ensure that Wales has a strong voice in the UK charity sector and to effectively respond to the needs of people in Wales.
Many of these organisations have simply not accepted the importance of maintaining a significant strategic presence in Wales that allows them to continue to manage, and effectively build on crucial relationships with key decision-makers here.
Losing those jobs, losing the people who made them a success means losing those connections. You cannot replicate their success when they are run from afar and expect the same results or better.
“Charities that receive money from the Welsh Government should be required to demonstrate that they are committed, long-term, to investing back into Wales.”
It is paramount that we have a UK-wide charity sector that understands this, and both respects and values devolution. Professionals have been fighting this battle alone for too long. The Welsh Government must take action to communicate with UK charities on why this is important in order for them to effectively support and represent their clients in Wales.
In conjunction with this, and to help minimise the damage being done here, the Welsh Government needs to establish a strategy that ensures continuity of the charity sector in Wales.
The work that charities do reinforces the NHS and many other statutory services. If this support stopped tomorrow then society would fall into a risky situation.
Is it therefore realistic to continue to expect them to fundraise the amount of money needed in order to continue this provision? Can we do more to support them? Essential support for vulnerable people within our society should be properly funded, regardless of who provides those services.
The funding that is then provided by the Welsh Government – including through bodies such as Public Health Wales, Health Boards and Local Councils – needs to become ring-fenced and more closely scrutinised.
A significant proportion of these funds often support core office functions and senior leadership roles, which are based in London/England.
Charities that receive money from the Welsh Government should be required to demonstrate that they are committed, long-term, to investing back into Wales with money that the charity makes (through other means) and with both strategic and service delivery jobs based here.
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Many charities receive short (6 month to 2 year) contracts which do not consider the reality of the time it takes to establish a piece of work. These contracts require applying for further funding soon after starting, causing additional distraction from the work itself.
Furthermore, some may only hear the outcome of their funding applications shortly before their contract ends, again risking losing professionals who have established relationships with stakeholders and restarting the same cycle of problems again.
Therefore, in order to provide value for public money the Welsh Government must ensure that processes become much more efficient. It must be made clearer on what funding is available to whom, how applications can be made and for funding to be agreed within a timescale that allows for continuity.
This will help to strengthen the charity sector in Wales in order to cope with the difficult times that lie ahead. It will also encourage talented professionals to stay in Wales and to draw more skills and experience into the country.
This must be a key mission of the next Welsh Government if we are to build a strong, post-pandemic Wales and throughout the Brexit transition process.
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