James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union of Great Britain.
Among the notices in the parish newsletter this week was a call for volunteers for the winter shelter which my local church is taking part in again this year.
The Kent-based charity, Catching Lives, is partnering with seven local churches to offer emergency accommodation to rough sleepers from December through to the end of February. This partnering work is needed all the more this year as charities find their resources being stretched to the limits.
The lack of reference to homelessness in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement has not gone unnoticed, although the Government has produced a new strategy with the aim of meeting its manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament.
As with so many other social challenges, rough sleeping is not something the Government can tackle on its own. The physical and social capital provided by churches and charities is vital for reaching those on the margins of society.
Encouragingly, the mindset of those in Government appears to be shifting towards better working with the voluntary sector. The foundations for this were laid by David Cameron with the Big Society, and have been built on by MPs like Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates in their New Social Covenant Unit.
This has led to the Government publishing its ‘New Deal’ fund – channelling resources to tackle social challenges through faith groups. A recent pilot fund saw 13 faith groups share a pot of £1.3 million, with the aim of turning this into a fully-fledged funding stream.
The Government’s most recent rough sleeping strategy contained 20 references to faith groups, with a strong emphasis on the need to work with voluntary, community and faith groups. This is in no small part down to the efforts of Eddie Hughes when he served as Local Government Minister.
Better working between Government and the voluntary sector is extremely welcome, and there is scope to go even further. But we need to address the challenges facing voluntary groups now if this good work is to continue.
There has been a lot of talk in recent months about the need to see a plan for economic growth from the Government. This is clearly important, but we also need to see a plan for growth for our voluntary sector. Many of the pressures being felt by businesses are also being felt by voluntary groups. Ministers should look again at ways to support the sector as it faces a long winter ahead with less money and more demand for services.
Like many people and businesses, inflation and rising bills have put a strain on charities’ cash flow. Research from Charities Aid Foundation found that 40 per cent of charities relied on their reserves to get through the last two years and one in seven regular donors are considering cutting back on donations. At the same time, inflation means that donations are not worth as much, with Pro Bono Economics estimating that a £20 donation in 2021 will be worth £17.60 in 2024.
One way in which the Government could help would be through a temporary increase in the Gift Aid rate. Conservatives introduced Gift Aid in 1990, and now have the chance to enhance it. The current rebate of 25p for every £1 is set against the basic tax rate, but does not reflect the increase in the overall tax burden. A one year increase in the Gift Aid rate to 30p would be a great help to charities, and incentivise giving.
The Government could also help charities by supporting them to become more efficient. There are a number of schemes designed to boost productivity, such as Help to Grow: Digital, which provides free information and discounts to help businesses adapt to new software, but this is only open to SMEs.
The Treasury should expand the criteria of these schemes to include registered charities of a certain size. The support and advice on offer through schemes like Help to Grow: Digital would be hugely beneficial to small and medium sized charities and help them make the most of their resources.
There is also the challenge of recruiting the next generation of volunteers. The take up of schemes like NHS Volunteers during the pandemic showed the willingness of so many people to give their time and talents. But Covid has also made some people less able or willing to volunteer.
Volunteering is on the national curriculum for secondary school pupils in England as part of learning about citizenship, but there is more the Government could do. Giving public sector workers an additional day of annual leave to support voluntary causes, and encouraging other employers to do the same, would be a good place to start.
As the winter months draw on, there are likely to be more calls for help in our parish newsletter. Churches and charities will continue to help those most in need, but more support from the Government would help these efforts go even further. We need a plan for growth for our voluntary sector.