Don’t lock out support for our poorest communities

by Frank Young
When we lock down the UK, we can’t lock out support for our poorest communities

Propping up our economy isn’t going to be enough to see us through the long days and weeks of the Covid-19 crisis. While the government has stepped in to pay up to 80 per cent of salaries to stop companies laying off staff this is a round peg in a square hole for small charities whose “workers” are the ones who open the doors for the food bank, check on isolated elderly neighbours and offer services that the state simply can’t or won’t provide. They are the first responders and when we get through this crisis we will need them more than ever.

These charities are led by doers on which many vulnerable people rely. There will be tens of thousands of charities out there who need to keep cash flowing (and in comparative terms not a lot of it) to keep going.

The Centre for Social Justice, where I work, is unlike most other think tanks in having a large network of small charitable organisations who feed into our policy work. We talk about ‘bringing the back streets to the corridors of power’ and we do so through the mouthpiece of people who have set up charities to respond to hardships they see on their doorstep. We’ve spoken to these charities at length over the last few days and they are telling us they have a matter of days and weeks to go if nothing is done. 

Wealth creators are fundamental to the success of our economy, no Conservative Chancellor needs reminding of that, but it isn’t the whole story. If we look beyond stock market crashes and employment rates the impact of small charities going under will devastate our poorest communities. It is these charities, far away from Westminster, that do the heavy lifting in times of need. We can’t just rely on the Bank of England to print more money to get us through these tough times.

We’ve brought together hundreds of charities to ask the Government for an urgent £400million emergency grant fund to keep the lights on. Small in comparison to the £330billion in loans and support announced by the Chancellor last week but potentially lifesaving for charities working with our most vulnerable neighbours.

This isn’t special pleading at a time of crisis. We all see the consequences of the crisis developing around us, but if we simply turn away from the organisations offering the last bit of help to the most needy, we will pile up demands on the state with a price tag to match. At the risk of sounding like a management consultant, these organisations are a strategic partner to government now and for the recovery.

Our quick-fire report sets out a plan of action for government officials. It’s ready to go or ‘oven baked’ to use a pre-crisis expression. It’s up to the Chancellor to roll out the measures and save the smallest charities, who do some of the most vital work, from going under.

In our poorest areas, where help is needed the most, small charities are almost always the ones to step up and respond to local need. The UK charity sector is a lop-sided one with a few big names with some big budgets to boot but 8 in 10 have a turnover under £100,000. Lock down the UK and these organisations can no longer put on the fundraising events or rattle collection buckets to see them through the month. Many small charities have virtually no reserves at all and if, like business, the government doesn’t step in they will simply go to the wall.

That means charities stepping in to help older people, disabled people, people who go hungry in good times (let alone in an era of empty supermarket shelves) will all find their vital lifeline disappear overnight.

Number crunchers from the NCVO – the charitable sector’s trade union – have set to work and come up with a figure of £400 million to tide over small charities until they can get back on their feet. As fundraising events are cancelled, trading and in-person donations are stopped and as the stock market plummets, too many charities have already been affected for ministers to turn a blind eye. We’re hearing positive noises from a Treasury working overtime to step in as the guarantor of Great Britain PLC. They need to guarantee a future in our bleakest areas where human kindness and compassion is needed the most.

Stepping in today to prop-up the smallest charitable organisations isn’t a knee-jerk response to a crisis; it underlines the stirring words of a new Chancellor who asked us to show kindness to our neighbours. This is exactly the spirit of the small charitable sector.

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