Budget day: hopes and expectations

In a church that is as broad as the UK voluntary sector it is difficult to summarise the wide range of asks that have been made of the Chancellor for today’s budget. A mix of issue-specific recommendations (such as health charities’ calls for increases in so-called ‘sin’ taxes) and recommendations that cut across the sector (such as changes to increase levels of charitable giving) will be no surprise to Her Majesty’s Treasury. George Osborne certainly will not be short of advice from the voluntary sector. Much of the counsel from voluntary organisations will, increasingly, be evidenced with hard data and compelling stories that highlight the sector’s commitment to a fairer society and an economy that is not just growing, but inclusive of all.

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NCVO has been working with our partners in the sector who collectively represent charities and social enterprises working at the front line. We have made recommendations to the Chancellor that recognise the Coalition’s aims and circumstances for this budget: the ongoing need for deficit reduction, a return to growth for the British economy; and a bigger society characterised by fairness and social justice, where active citizens play a larger role.

Growth is clearly the defining narrative for this week. Here, we have made recommendations about the emerging field of social investment, where investors can blend social and financial returns by providing finance to social enterprises and charities. Simplification and modernisation of the Community Investment Tax Relief (CITR) is top of our list, but there are other, longer-term public policy goals including reform of the overly-complex regulatory framework for social investment. Getting resources to voluntary sector service providers starved of working capital will give a kick start to innovation in our public services.

Growing the social investment market will contribute to economic growth. It will also contribute to deficit reduction by growing the pool of public service providers in the voluntary sector. Many of these organisations are developing innovative approaches to public service delivery that are reducing costs and reducing ‘downstream’ demand for taxpayer funded services.

Core to the approach of many is early intervention. The Department for Education’s recently announced Early Intervention Foundation is an excellent start to supporting this approach, but government needs to be more ambitious. Deep, entrenched challenges require bold solutions. The work of David Robinson’s Early Action Task Force highlights such solutions and we have recommended that short-term investment in early intervention in our most deprived communities will generate the sort of long-term savings needed by the government.

Social investment and early intervention are long-term solutions to intractable issues. But there are problems in the here and now that need attention, not least of which is the impact of public spending reductions on voluntary organisations. We could highlight numerous examples of the negative impact of cuts across many communities. Particularly worrying are cuts to advice services, organisations working with children and young people, and organisations working with black and minority ethnic communities.

At NCVO’s annual conference Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander MP highlighted some limited support for advice providers, but the test of any such commitment is how much. Sticking plasters will not cover open wounds. We continue to argue to government that the loss of capacity in these areas will be an own goal for public spending: service users will surely turn to already hard-pressed local government as other independent organisations reduce their opening hours or close. Moreover, these are not services where the tap can simply be turned on or off: committed, trained volunteers, once lost, may be harder to find in the future. Long-term, joined-up thinking – and commitment – is required now if we are to build that bigger society.

Amidst the usual array of leaks and rumours circulating over the weekend it probably appears that these recommendations are minor, technical or niche. In short, what you might call a distinct lack of game changers. But these recommendations can become game changers when voluntary organisations work with them. We’ve long argued that the sector is too often seen as a public spending problem: too many organisations too dependent upon the public purse. We hope that the coalition instead recognises that voluntary organisations are often the solution to the public spending challenge: a source of enterprise, of innovation, and a source of leverage for new investment.

Karl Wilding

A version of this blog originally appeared on The Information Daily.

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding, Director of Public Policy and Volunteering, leads NCVO's volunteering, policy, research and campaigning work in the UK and internationally. With lead responsibility for shaping the external environment for the voluntary sector, he blogs about the big issues facing voluntary organisations.

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