Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

“Voluntary sector’s vital role should be powerfully extended” – Scotsman

This article by Alison Payne appeared in the Scotsman.

Over the past two years, Reform Scotland has published a series of reports outlining the policies needed to deliver more effective public services. A recurring theme in all of them has been devolution of power.

The key to creating a better, fairer society, we argue, is to ensure that power is exercised by people, or as close to them as possible, so that they and local communities assume greater responsibility for their own development. This enables them to choose their own goals and how they might be achieved rather than have government choose for them.

The voluntary, or third, sector is vital to this transformation because its independence allows it to adopt innovative and imaginative solutions to social problems, unfettered by governmental or political pressures.

The diversity of the third sector and approaches open to it are its great strengths. It often finds new and better ways of doing things, bringing enormous benefits to society and offering users of public services a wider range of choice. Voluntary provision is frequently more compassionate because it is administered more personally and, because it is often rooted in communities, it helps them to take greater control.

This in turn strengthens the social fabric by fostering communities within which people come together to meet the needs of neighbours. It not only benefits those who use its services, but also those who provide them by giving people the opportunity to be of service to others.

Already, third sector organisations play a hugely important role in Scottish life, with more than 45,000 voluntary bodies operating with an annual turnover of £4.1 billion and employing five per cent of Scotland’s paid workforce. Some 1.3 million people also give their time freely as volunteers.

The sector is diverse, including large national charities, small community groups and social enterprises. While it is most often associated with the provision of welfare services, it also plays a vital role in many other areas including the arts, sport, heritage, healthcare and the environment.

However, Reform Scotland believes that such organisations have the potential to do so much more. By ending public sector monopolies in the provision of public services and creating a level playing field, the third sector would have the opportunity to play a much greater role in delivering public services in Scotland.

Individuals will often look to third sector providers because they frequently offer more personalised, compassionate and innovative approaches. Reform Scotland’s proposals to reform education would enable third sector organisations to set up and run new independent, publicly-funded schools for parents seeking an alternative to local authority provision. And in healthcare, Reform Scotland has advocated that all hospitals and community healthcare providers become independent, not-for-profit trusts. Such bodies would become part of the third sector and third sector organisations would also be able to set up new bodies providing healthcare.

All this would expand greatly the role of the third sector in Scotland and create a genuine, publicly funded alternative to public sector provision.

Today Reform Scotland has published ‘Voluntary Power – A consultation document on expanding the third sector in Scotland’ to encourage debate as to how we can best enhance the role of the third sector in providing public services. For example, we suggest that one way would be to extend the provision of self-directed help.

This is a type of personal budget or voucher currently available from local authorities to a wide range of disabled people and the elderly, enabling them to purchase some or all of the community care which they have been assessed as needing. Self-directed help gives individuals the power to choose the best social care for their specific needs, regardless of whether that treatment is provided by the public, private or voluntary sectors. Reform Scotland believes there is merit in extending this system further within health and community care.

In tandem with this specific measure to enhance the role of third sector organisations in Scotland, government needs to create the right environment for these independent bodies to thrive.

Reform Scotland thinks that this is most likely to happen if power is more decentralised with local authorities having much greater discretion as to which services they provide and how. This would encourage diverse approaches across Scotland and should provide a better balance between what is done by government and what is done by the institutions of civil society. This would create the space in which third sector organisations could develop to meet public needs.

We also believe that greater financial responsibility for Holyrood would give the Scottish Government the power to create a fiscal environment that encouraged charitable giving by extending tax reliefs enabling third sector organisations to increase funding from non-governmental sources and so enhance their freedom of manoeuvre.

Over time, too much power has been taken away from public and local communities in Scotland and transferred to central government. Many people are increasingly unhappy with the results of this because it has not led to the quality of public services seen in many other countries. In addition, it has opened up an increasing divide between the governing and the governed who have little ability to shape their own lives and the future of their communities.

The policies outlined by Reform Scotland today would help to provide a shift in power from government to the institutions of civil society and, in particular, an increase in the role of the third sector in Scotland.

Such a change cannot be achieved overnight. But we believe that our consultation sets out the direction in which we need to travel and some specific steps that will take us in this direction. We look forward to participating in the debate that follows.