Opinion: The real victims of public sector funding

Nick Cater

Are all the warnings about charities' public sector funding coming true? Charities raid reserves when stuck in underfunded deals; contract payments don't arrive on time; councils won't cover charity staff wage rises (all Third Sector, 29 March). Who didn't listen, huh?

Manipulated, misled and misused, charities deserve sympathy (plus the brains and the backbone to spot and say no to bad deals). But let's not forget the true victims of state funding debacles.

Take the case of the free bus pass, which costs some pensioners £54.

Seeking the grey vote, Gordon Brown is requiring councils to let all over-60s go free on local buses.

At the same time, primary care, acute and ambulance trusts are all eager to control costs by reassessing their responsibility to provide transport for those too old, infirm or disabled to access health services by their own efforts. Tighter rules mean less help for pensioners travelling to hospital, but not all are fit enough to use their free bus passes, or able to afford exorbitant taxi fares.

Community transport charities will often try to step in if pensioners are denied a free lift to hospital. However, their council subsidies are at risk because funding bus travel for the over-60s is a statutory requirement but volunteer drivers for the sick and elderly are not.

Representing thousands of local groups serving millions of passengers, the Community Transport Association says it is worried that its members and their users will get squeezed.

One problem area is rural Somerset, where hospitals and their elderly patients can be 50 miles apart. This month a 50 per cent subsidy worth £30 on a £60 round trip by Mendip Community Transport was suddenly capped at £6 a time.

If charities have neither reserves nor donations to subsidise the health service, pensioner passengers must meet the entire cost, and a Somerset pensioner's £30 journey jumps 80 per cent to £54.

Those using community transport are not misusing it - they don't have their own transport, or neighbours who can help, and buses or taxis are often no substitute. What's the alternative for some? Cancel appointments and suffer in pain, courtesy of Somerset's cost-cutting primary care trusts and a Government that cares less for pensioners than it does for their votes.

Public sector funding problems can be bad news for charities, but the real tragedy is always for those whom charities try to help.

- Nick Cater is a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk.

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