Eric Pickles’ announcement on 1st March that councils will be in trouble if their cuts target the voluntary sector started a debate about whether councils are guilty or not. This is presumably what the Secretary of State wanted when he accused local authorities of being ‘high-minded’, not listening to the sector and failing to give voluntary bodies proper notice of any cuts affecting them.
Largely forgotten, however, is that the government itself funds a lot of voluntary bodies. Has it lived up to the expectations it wants to place on councils, or is the pot calling the kettle… high-minded? Let’s take a look.
First, who started the cuts? It was central government, of course, that was quickest off the mark. The international development secretary announced £½m cuts affecting voluntary bodies only eleven days after the election. Then in June, Michael Gove announced £359m of education cuts: among the victims were voluntary bodies receiving £8m of Youth Sector Development Funds. Eric Pickles wasn’t far behind: in July came the end of the Migration Impacts Fund, which provided £1.7m to voluntary bodies.
Were these cuts essential? Mr Pickles accuses some councils of unfairly cutting the voluntary sector. But the irony is that the government has made cuts when they weren’t needed. The DfiD cuts came from a department whose overall budget is protected. The Migration Impacts Fund was financed by adding £50 to the cost of immigration visas (needless to say, visa charges weren’t reduced when the fund closed in October).
Are the cuts proportionate? Mr Pickles expects councils not to inflict bigger reductions on voluntary bodies than they take on themselves. Shouldn’t the government lead by example? The Home Office admitted cutting refugee support by more than its main budget, which means that the Refugee Council and Refugee Action lost 60% of their funding. But perhaps the government carefully phased in the cuts so charities had time to prepare for them, as it wants councils to do? Not at all. “The speed and the size of the cuts make it impossible to adapt our services quickly enough to stop people falling through the gaps,” said the Refugee Council’s Donna Covey.
Nevertheless, surely the government consulted the sector ‘at a very early stage’ if cuts were inevitable? DfiD started a consultation exercise on the remainder of its £6.5m development awareness programme after it made its first cuts, with the minister making it clear what his ultimate decision was likely to be. The Home Office didn’t consult at all on the ending of its support for refugee integration. Nor did Eric Pickles when he chopped the Migration Impacts Fund – the communities department simply claimed it was ‘ineffective’. Even when there is consultation, the voice of the sector may go unheard. Homelessness charities all challenged the ending of secure tenancies in social housing, but last month the government went ahead with plans to end them anyway.
Finally, the Secretary of State told voluntary bodies that he’s ‘issued in a new era of transparency’. If so, perhaps he should tell his housing minister. Mr Shapps continued to assert in February that he has protected homelessness grants, even though the sector reports almost 27% cuts. What he has protected, of course, is only the small fund he administers himself. He must be well aware that most of councils’ £1bn spending on homelessness comes from their revenue support grant – which his department has cut.
As the government found when it started to require councils to declare any spending over £500, it can be uncomfortable when others expose it to the same tests. Perhaps local authorities should tell Mr Pickles to put the government’s own house in order on voluntary sector cuts, before he imposes new rules on them.
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