North of the Border: There's only one thing worse than being talked about...

With Scottish parliament elections looming, it's hard to tell whether the parties' lack of interest in the sector is a good or bad thing, writes Martin Sime

Martin Sime
Martin Sime

Is Scottish politics progressive? I guess that depends on your vantage point, but it is a sad fact of our looming Scottish parliament elections that the most any of our political parties has to say about the role of voluntary action amounts to no more than patronising instrumentalism, where we are called upon to help achieve their priorities. In my experience we ought to be wary of any project that politicians have in mind for us, so being absent from their manifestos ought to be a good thing. But it still feels like an indictment.

I once spent a day with the Trussell Trust at Tesco collecting donations for the local foodbank. I was inspired by the attitude of the shop manager, who had made a serious commitment to help, providing packing boxes, refreshments and tannoy announcements that encouraged shoppers to donate. The retailer’s other partnership, with FareShare to distribute perishable goods, is similarly encouraging. I much prefer this type of practical help to the kind of CSR hogwash that abounds.

The hunt is on for a new paradigm around which to organise care at home. A national hourly rate seems rational, but will force councils to commission on quality – and there isn’t a lot of confidence in their ability to do that. Self-directed care is the way forward, but is resisted by vested interests, including some in our sector. So we are part of the problem as well as the solution.

They say that doing something new every day staves off some of the effects of ageing, so for the first time in my life I complained to the BBC. Instead of frothing at the mouth about John Humphrys and William Shawcross talking down the work of charities everywhere, I wrote a brief critique of their collective failure to mention that the Charity Commission and all its works do not cross the border, whereas the BBC does. I feel younger already.

There is much excitement about new tax powers coming to Scotland and how to deploy them. Even Scottish Labour is sallying forth with tax-and-spend plans, and the Scottish National Party government has just agreed an uplift to council tax. Is a bigger state the answer to our problems? Or might we need a stronger focus on sustainability if we are to meet the challenges of demography? I strongly suspect that more of the same won’t do.

Martin Sime is chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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