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Covid-19: Charities

Volume 802: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2020


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to provide additional support to charities working with people who are self-isolating as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Dannatt I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, civil society organisations and volunteers are making a huge contribution to ensuring that the most vulnerable across the country are supported. However, we know that Covid-19 presents serious challenges to the sector. We are hearing concerns around income disruption, particularly for those charities where the bulk of their money comes from public fundraising, trading or investment income, and they will be hit especially hard. We are working with partners across government in the sector to gather a picture of the impacts for civil society, including for those working in frontline roles with vulnerable and lonely people.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. As chairman of the National Emergencies Trust, my noble friend has been pressing the Government to put a significant amount of money into the voluntary sector for two specific reasons. First, as the Minister said, general fundraising for charities has almost completely stopped, so that even the big ones, such as the Red Cross and St John Ambulance, are struggling to survive. Secondly, is the need to resource local charities that can help people on the ground now. The amount required —between £3 billion and £5 billion—is a fraction of the £150 billion put in to save businesses and jobs.

Last week, with the support of the Duke of Cambridge, the National Emergencies Trust launched a national appeal, which to date has raised over £5 million—a mere drop in the overall ocean—which will be distributed to where it is most needed by the community foundation. Will the Minister please tell the House whether and how the Government plan to support the charitable sector?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for this Question and commend the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for the work that he has done in his leadership of the National Emergencies Trust. However, this is not a competition between funding for business and funding for the voluntary sector: both need to be funded. We need to keep people safe and make sure that the economy comes through this with as little damage as possible.

In terms of what the Government are doing, many actions have happened already, including the ability to furlough some staff and offering loans, which to certain parts of the sector—although not all, I appreciate—is important. But for some charities, demand is up sharply and income is down sharply, and we are working tirelessly and talking every day to the sector about how we bridge that gap.

My Lords, I remind the House of my railway interests, as declared in the register. The Minister will be aware that the heritage railway sector has effectively been wiped out for the whole of this summer season by the emergency. However, will she commend a worthwhile initiative which the HRA—the trade association—has taken to help Network Rail with its laudable aim to keep trains running for the next six months under government control? The heritage sector is volunteering its members, who are retired railway staff, particularly signallers and station staff, to help Network Rail. Will the Minister encourage Network Rail to take up this offer and, maybe, encourage similar groups where volunteers are available and skilled to take on work in the national interest?

I thank the noble Lord. One thing that brightens my day is hearing stories such as that. People are being extraordinarily generous and creative in how they are sharing their organisation’s assets. I will share the noble Lord’s comments about Network Rail with colleagues in the Department for Transport and I thank him for raising this.

My Lords, community foundations will be critical to ensure that aid is properly distributed to those who need it most. Can the Minister confirm that they will receive the support that they require to do this?

My noble friend makes an important point. In other emergency situations we have seen that aid is not always distributed effectively. Community foundations around the country have extraordinary networks of local charities and can make sure that the money raised gets to the places that need it most. I know that the National Emergencies Trust and others are working actively with the community foundations.

My Lords, I declare an interest as patron of a number of charities, including very local ones. As the Minister is well aware, many people who deliver services for charities and local communities are volunteers who are themselves in the same vulnerable categories as those they wish to support. We know that local charities often find a great deal of bureaucracy in securing funds, especially when they have to match fund or go through a byzantine system of funding applications. Will the Government’s package of support include that element?

We have seen reports of people using the good support for charities for their criminal activities. One example is scammers leafleting people offering to get shopping then taking money and not providing it. Will the Government make sure that our criminal justice system is acting proactively on those who are taking advantage of the most vulnerable in society? This is abuse and there should be zero tolerance of it at this critical time.

The noble Lord made important points about local charities, simplification of funding and older volunteers. I am pleased that we announced this morning, through the Department of Health and Social Care, the launch of the GoodSAM app, which I commend to Members of the House. It allows volunteering both from home, by telephone support for others, and in the community if necessary. On simplifying funding, every funder that I have spoken to is looking at ways to simplify and become more agile and responsive. That is happening across the piece. The noble Lord made an important point about scammers; colleagues across Government are working on that.

I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register. I commend the Government for the steps they have already taken in support of charities. I particularly support the charities on the front line and the dedicated volunteers who are doing such important work at this time. The Charity Commission is taking a flexible and pragmatic approach to regulation where relevant and appropriate, and will continue to do so. Will the Minister assure me that, as the commission continues to explore regulatory opportunities to make life easier for those charities doing such important work on the front line, we will be able to seek government support for that aim should we need it?

My Lords, the noble Baroness has indicated that conversations are going on between the Government and the sector. I wonder whether she could give us more detail on that and on whether new networks are being put in place in the present circumstances, especially to link not just with the larger charities but with the wider sector, particularly those on the ground.

We are working closely with some of the major delivery organisations as well as with the umbrella bodies, particularly organisations such as the NCVO and NAVCA, the latter being responsible for organising the local community response. We are also aware—but think that we need to be supportive but not controlling—of some of the more spontaneous work going on, including from established networks such as faith groups.

My Lords, may I briefly pick up on the last point? How often is the Minister meeting the NCVO, the umbrella organisation? It has come up with a three-point plan; does she have a response to it and have the Government responded to it? It is a diverse sector, and working with the umbrella organisation is vital.

I think the chief executive of the NCVO and I have each other on speed dial. I can reassure the noble Lord that we are talking pretty much every day and certainly were over the weekend. We are in very close conversation. The noble Lord is right that this impacts on the sector in different ways. There are organisations, perhaps more in the arts and heritage, that can mothball staff and then re-emerge, but there are also those where demand is up but income is down, and that is what we are trying to pin down now.