Outside Edge: April still the cruellest month

Tash Shifrin, a specialist social affairs writer

It's time the big boys spoke out against the annual savaging of their poorer relations, says Tash Shifrin.

Spring is meant to be a happy time - trees burst into leaf, flowers bloom and baby animals skip about. But it's not like that in the voluntary sector: for years, it has been the season of savage funding cuts.

Household-name charities may have forgotten the feeling, but smaller organisations, often reliant on local government funding, dread the months when councils set their budgets.

Research last year by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations looked at the 3,500 voluntary and community groups working in three deprived east London boroughs. The sector is crucial to the area and has an income of more than half a billion pounds.

But NCVO showed that, although the sector's combined income rose by 3.6 per cent in a year, smaller groups lost out. Those with turnovers of between £10,000 and £1m saw their income plummet by 10 per cent. Black and minority ethnic community organisations were particularly badly hit - in a profoundly multiracial area.

Last year saw council cutbacks devastate voluntary organisations in many parts of the country. Leicester fared worst, with 90 groups and 400 jobs facing the axe. A High Court victory by six groups that hadn't been fully consulted was a landmark, but will do little to secure the sector's finances when the council learns to tick its consultation boxes properly.

This year really ought to be different, though. In a pre-election attempt to make sure council tax rises don't look too hideous, Gordon Brown has bunged extra cash at local government. There is less excuse for cash-strapped councils to squeeze the living daylights out of local voluntary groups.

Yet still the voluntary sector is under threat in cities such as Liverpool, where the local council for voluntary service says groups face cuts of around £500,000. This means that Merseyside Welfare Rights, for example, has had its grant cut from £450,000 to £100,000.

Back in Leicester, the city's lesbian, gay and bisexual centre faces closure due to council cuts. The council's Labour leader blames last year's Liberal Democrat and Conservative administration. Labour is going to review voluntary sector funding policy - "in due course".

We should be hearing louder noises from the voluntary sector's big hitters - the main national umbrella bodies, many of whose members are from voluntaryland's small and skint wing. It wouldn't hurt to have some major charity chiefs raise their voices in support of their shoestring-funded colleagues, either.

One point is worth shouting out. It is nothing but hypocrisy for front-bench politicians of any stripe to love up to the voluntary sector, praising its closeness to service users and the community, if their parties' local representatives - the councillors - slash funding to the very groups that are closest to the grass-roots.

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