Rebecca Cooney: The idea that £750m 'does the job' for charities is utterly tone deaf

The fact that the government continues to misconstrue or not hear the pleas from charities is beginning to look wilful

Rebecca Cooney
Rebecca Cooney

I might get myself a recording of Karl Wilding sighing. 

When the National Council for Voluntary Oragnisations' chief executive appeared in front of the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee a few weeks ago to talk about the plight of the charity sector amid the coronavirus crisis, one MP asked him whether he felt government listened to the charity sector. 

Wilding paused, appearing to gather his thoughts, and then let out a long, deep, pointed sigh.

It was a sigh that spoke eloquently of the dashed hopes and earnest intentions of a hundred behind-closed-doors meetings that eventually came to nothing. There have been entire books on the subject that said less about charities’ relationship with government than that two-second sigh. 

It was difficult not to think of that sigh this week when Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, blithely told the same committee that he considered the £750m package offered to charities earlier this month “does the job” of supporting them, when other measures were also taken into account. 

Charities spent weeks before the package was announced banging on the government’s door, warning over and over again that vital services were in danger of collapse. 

The coronavirus crisis was going to cost the sector more than £4.2bn in lost fundraising revenue and additional costs over the next three months, they said, and without support the consequences would be catastrophic for service users, for communities, for the NHS and for the country. 

They have explained, patiently, that “voluntary” does not mean “free”. They shouted that “Every Day Counts” to charities on the knife-edge of survival. 

So the idea that you could bung £750m into a £4.2bn hole and say “job done” is astonishing and utterly tone deaf, not least because we still have no idea when that money will make it to the front line, where it is so desperately needed. 

Dowden also pointed to the support available for businesses – the job-retention scheme and business rates relief – despite the fact that the sector has tried to point out that charities are either ineligible for such schemes or not in a position to take advantage of them (if your whole point is that you’re desperately trying to keep your services running, furloughing your staff doesn’t really help).

Yes, there are many areas of the economy that need support right now: it’s estimated that universities need about £2bn to keep doing vital research, for example.

And if Dowden had tried to say that, it might have been possible to have some sympathy with his position. Let’s face it, if anyone understands not having the money to do all the things you’d like to do, or even all the things you need to do, it’s charities. 

The closest he came was to say “we can’t save every charity". On the face of it, that seems like a healthy dose of realism. But, again, it betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of what the sector has been saying. 

The fear driving the #EveryDayCounts campaign is not that charities will wither and die without support; it’s that their vital services – and, in far too many cases, their beneficiaries – will too. 

This sentiment, and the sheer scale of the need out there, has been expressed in so many ways, so eloquently, by so many different people over the past few weeks.

That the government continues to misunderstand, misconstrue or not hear their pleas is beginning to look wilful at this point.

If it continues to ignore the charity sector’s warnings, the government will be sleep-walking into a catastrophe of ruined and drastically shortened lives.

When it wakes to find itself surrounded by the fallout of ruined and shortened lives, it will be the tattered remains of the charity sector to which it will appeal for help.

There will be speeches about the “generous British public”, about “golden threads” and about communities’ willingness to pitch in during a crisis. And the sector, or what is left of it, will do the very best that it can. 

The government has a chance right now to at least try to avert that future. When asked whether they believe the government will or not, I suspect many in the sector will sigh, deeply, pointedly and for a long time.

Rebecca Cooney is features and analysis writer for Third Sector

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