Ros Scott writes… The spirit of philanthropy

Christian Aid Week collector, WaterlooThree hours passed in the House of Lords yesterday without a single party political point made by any of the 21 speakers taking part in the discussion. The occasion for this unusual occurrence was my debate on the contribution made to society by the voluntary and charitable sector, held as one of three Liberal Democrat sponsored debates taking place yesterday.

Charitable giving from the public has held up remarkably well despite the long recession, although we should all be concerned that what my colleague Baroness Claire Tyler calls “the civic core” is ageing and shrinking. Public sector money has seen a steady decrease as budgets have tightened, whilst demand has increased, leaving the voluntary sector with the challenge of how to do more with less.

It’s the same picture with volunteering; although it’s still healthy, we clearly need new ways to recruit and retain volunteers and to reach groups for whom volunteering hasn’t previously featured. This is where technology can come to our aid, and a modest investment in developing new ways of giving time and money can really help. Where I do think the Government has gone wrong though, is to focus on that aspect to the detriment of the volunteer centres. With their more personal approach, they have a good record of creating long term relationships between volunteers and charitable organisations.

The dividing lines between public, private and charity sectors have now become totally blurred with each carrying out roles which were previously the preserve of the other. The voluntary sector currently holds more than £10 billion of public sector contracts and it’s a development which has both pluses and minuses. On the one hand, voluntary organisations usually have a much better understanding of the needs of the people they are working with and so the services they deliver are usually better. On the other hand, the whole tending process and the performance management regime of contracts which have been won can straight jacket charities who run the risk of becoming another arm of the state and losing that special quality of independence. I have supported the call from NCVO to take another look at the whole question of commissioning – how we level the playing field between the charities and the monolithic private sector providers, and how we commission in a way which reflects the added value given by organisations who genuinely have the needs of their users at the forefront of their minds.

Our country is massively enriched by the existence of charitable organisations in all their infinite variety. No matter what your political perspective, this sector can be seen as part of the solution to some of our most intractable problems. It faces serious challenges certainly, but so long as the spirit of philanthropy lives in enough of us, it will continue to thrive.

* Baroness Ros Scott is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, a former Party President and now President of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors.

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  • A Social Liberal 27th Jun '14 - 7:28pm

    The charity sector should not supplant those services which should properly be run by the government, whether it be NHS logistics, the Waterways or running libraries in small rural communities. To force such activities on volunteers is an abdication of social responsibilities and cannot be countenanced.

  • Interesting . There was a time when involvement in politics, especially local politics, was a perfect example of volunteering and (for want of a better description) charitable giving of time and expertise for the benefit of the wider community.

    That must seem a very alien concept to those young SpAd lads who don’t write a speech for much less than £60,000 a year.
    Councillors in receipt of more than £30,000 a year must think that previous generations who did it all unpaid in the spare hours at the end of a working day and after looking after the family needs.

    I hope Ros Scott will not take it the wrong way ifnIncriticise her opening sentence. If there were no party political points in three hours of debate — some people were not doing the job they were sent there to do.

    As someone who used to sit in the civil servants’ box in the Lords it used to drive me mad to have to listen to a lot of back-slapping self-congratulation for not ‘being party political.’.

    I would have welcomed a bit more of a party political approach and efficient management of the business in hand and rather less of old folks home, establishment anecdotes which substitute for debate and proper scrutiny of legislation.

    The House of Lords can sometimes be excellent. But it is often absoutely dire. I have noticed how much more efficiently some things are done in Scotland and Wales post devolution because they do not have the ball and chain of HofL flummery.

  • David Evershed 28th Jun '14 - 12:58pm

    I watched Ros Scott’s speech about Charities in the House of Lords on Parliament TV.

    It was a tour de force.

  • Tony Greaves 28th Jun '14 - 4:58pm

    I can waffle on for my breakfast when I have to, but I don’t think you heard me congratulate people for not being political, John! The trick in the Lords is to be political while still being quite polite. The drones are the people (too many on the cross-benches) who think just being polite and “distinguished” is enough.


  • I wonder if the debate looked at low pay in the voluntary sector? One of the reasons local authorities are so keen on awarding contracts to vol sec organisations is that charities pay front- line staff much less than the public sector. For example, the Alzheimer’s Society is currently advertising on its website for Dementia Support Workers at £19,000. This role consists of advice work, emotional support and providing information (I know because I have done the job) – in other words low-level social work at a knock-down price.

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