Paul Streets: Behind the coronavirus headlines, there are signals that the government could be waking up to the third sector

For the first time in decades, the cause areas for funders and charities have become important to the survival of a Conservative government

Paul Streets
Paul Streets

A Budget to be thankful for? I wouldn’t go quite so far, but behind the big headlines on infrastructure and coronavirus there are some signals that charities dealing with disadvantage might welcome, and a number of things charities have been pushing for. 

A couple of measures stand out in investment, including tackling rough sleeping and prioritising tackling violence against women and girls in a #MeToo era. As the Domestic Abuse Bill re-enters parliament there is a key investment in approaches to preventing domestic abuse and notably expanding projects such as Drive, which is set to receive £10m from the government. 

We have been funding the programme with others. It works with perpetrators to change their behaviour. This is a great example of a programme in which partners on the delivery end – at the domestic abuse charities SafeLives and Respect – at Social Finance and at funders such as the Tudor Trust, Comic Relief and ourselves, alongside statutory funders, have come together to develop a model, prove a point and scale it up. 

This is also proof that, with the right momentum and backers, charities and their partners can still work in the niche areas that they often tackle so effectively. However, Women’s Aid has rightly pointed out that domestic abuse services for survivors are still under real pressure, largely from local authorities that have themselves been hammered. Let’s hope the Comprehensive Spending Review later this year says more on this.

There are promises of funding for rape victims, but this needs to reach specialist services and there aren’t enough signs that it will. There are also promises of funding to support people facing multiple and complex needs. We now need to translate these promises into a reality that reaches the services and organisations best placed to provide support, which are often small and local charities.  

More broadly, there are some positive changes to universal credit, which dominates the lives of many people who come through the doors of the charities we fund: the end of the benefits freeze, waiting longer to recover advances, removal of the maximum sanction period and a reduction in the frequency of personal independence heath checks. 

Alongside the £500m hardship fund for "economically disadvantaged people" to be allocated through local authorities, these will be helpful, while stopping short of the wholesale reform many of us would have hoped for. 

However, in what was effectively a Budget about coronavirus, charities in general were notable for their absence. There were some announcements to support small and medium-sized businesses coping with coronavirus, but calls from charities for similar support appear to have been overlooked. Just as much as businesses, charities will face challenges from likely rising demand, falling income and increasing numbers of staff unable to work. They will also need additional support. 

The Budget pointed towards the Comprehensive Spending Review being more substantive for some areas, such as plans for the Shared Prosperity Fund and social value reform, and what levelling up will really mean in practice. Our task must be to shape and influence these announcements over the next few months.  

One swallow doesn’t signal the arrival of summer, but there were signals in this Budget – albeit with a focus on physical infrastructure – that perhaps we are beginning to see the end of the dominant political geography of the past decade, concerned largely with the south east and London. There might – perhaps – even be a desire to build a genuine "Northern Powerhouse". 

This is unsurprising given the political context and is probably driven more by pragmatism now that the red wall – and beyond – has turned blue. Bolton North East, Barrow and Furness, Redcar, Derby North, Grimsby, Vale of Clywd, Wakefield, Wolverhampton South West. Unthinkable 10 years ago, all now Conservative. 

But who cares about motive. Perhaps we can now expect the spending review to reflect this agenda too and hopefully broaden to include social infrastructure, not just physical infrastructure. 

This matters to many of the issues charities address at the rump end of austerity, as we know through our funding. By dint of our focus as a funder on disadvantage and complex social issues, these are the places where our own footprint is deepest and where the stark reality of indices of multiple deprivation hit you in the face.

For the first time in decades, the places where we and many others focus much of our work have become important to the survival of a Conservative government if it wants more than one term. They matter to the government. As they have always mattered to us. 

These are the places where many of the small local charities that funders such as the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales support make the most difference, and where they will have most to offer, because they have an intimate knowledge of what matters most. They know just what a challenge "levelling up" is after decades of neglect and marginalisation. And they know what could be done about it.

This is why it’s so important we ensure the Comprehensive Spending Review is as much about social infrastructure as it is about physical infrastructure. Make sure you get your say before 20 May. Let’s see: perhaps a government with a large and stable majority might be a blessing in disguise. 

Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation

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