Communities: Charities and Volunteers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:31 pm on 13th February 2019.

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Photo of Hugh Gaffney Hugh Gaffney Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill 6:31 pm, 13th February 2019

I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding my position as a councillor for Thorniewood on North Lanarkshire Council.

In all our communities, charities carry out work on a voluntary basis, from supporting the elderly to assisting families who have fallen on hard times. In many cases, they are only able to do so because of the dedication of volunteers and the generosity of the public. I often ask myself where we would be without volunteers. I look at the work that charities do in my constituency for the good people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, and it reaffirms my belief that they are a key part of the very foundations of our society.

I look at the fantastic work and dedication of the volunteers at Coatbridge food bank, which I helped to grow. It exists because of the Tory austerity and welfare reforms like universal credit. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions herself now accepts that there is a link between the increasing use of food banks and the botched roll-out of universal credit. Isn’t it a shame that some volunteers are getting sanctioned for helping?

Considering the work of local charities, I am not surprised that the Charities Aid Foundation found that 80% of the public believe that charities play a vital role in the UK. It saddens me that our charities are now facing difficult circumstances because of the actions of this Government; just look at the way they are handling Brexit. The charity sector currently relies on £250 million of funding from the EU—funding that the Government said they would match through the UK shared prosperity fund after Brexit. Just like so many other promises made by this Government, it has been broken, leaving the charity sector in a state of deep uncertainty about its future funding.

Charities find themselves gagged because of the Government’s lobbying Act—the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. Charities do important work in highlighting issues within our society and across the world. They campaign, build public support for a cause and take their arguments to MPs to seek change. The lobbying Act prevents charities from speaking out and doing this important work. Indeed, the Government have used gagging clauses to prevent charities from speaking out—otherwise they risk losing contracts from Government Departments. The Charities Aid Foundation found that 67% of people felt that charities were best placed to speak for the disadvantaged, yet they are being denied the chance to do so because of the lobbying Act. It should be abolished, and the next Labour Government will ensure that it is consigned to the dustbin of history.

It is worth reflecting on the increasing need for charities in our society. Charities are assuming greater responsibilities in providing support for our elderly, the disadvantaged and others who would once have used services offered by the Government. But the Government’s continued pursuit of austerity has led to a loss of local services and charities having to plug the gaps with decreasing funds at their disposal. In England, we are seeing council cuts of 60%, and Scotland is no different. We have austerity in Scotland. We are losing community centres, volunteer groups, libraries, and other much-needed services. This year, my own council has been asked to find £30 million. It saddens me that the Government have cut vital local services without pausing to think of the consequences or of whether the charity sector would be able to step in to cover the gaps in public service provision.

As I said, I am the councillor for Thorniewood on North Lanarkshire Council. I receive a salary that I donate to local charities, groups, associations, and anyone I can help in their hour of need. In a time of austerity and increasing pressure on charities, I want to do my bit to ensure that their vital work can continue across my constituency for the good people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. I have been pleased to help many charities—in particular, Bumblebee Babies, which does so much work to support parents of stillborn children. That group nearly closed and finished because of a lack of funding.

I will continue to support charities whenever I can. I call on this Government to provide the support that our charities need nationally as well. It is time to stop the cuts to their funding. It is time to stop gagging them in their campaign efforts. It is time to stop leaving them in uncertainty about their future after Brexit. It is about time that our charities were properly supported so that they can continue the vital work that they do in all our communities. As I said earlier, where would we be without the volunteers?