Publication: Blog: Public Services and Scotland’s Voluntary Sector during Covid-19

by Accounts Commission

By Andrew Burns, Accounts Commission Member

Scotland’s Voluntary Sector is made up of an estimated 40,000 organisations, from grassroots community groups and village hall committees, to over 6,000 social enterprises. The sector has a combined annual turnover that reached a remarkable £6 billion in 2018.

Collectively, the Scottish Voluntary Sector employs over 100,000 paid staff. Yet nearly three quarters (72%) of Scottish voluntary organisations have no staff whatsoever and rely on volunteers. Social care and health organisations employ over half of all the paid staff in the sector.

And in modern times, the sector has been focused on delivering vital services and empowering some of Scotland’s most marginalised communities. It has a role in all aspects of Scottish society - from tourism and housing to the justice and social care systems. Scotland’s voluntary organisations play a crucial role in protecting our environment, as well as campaigning and advocating for social change. As we’ve reported in our Local Government Overview, it is clear just how fundamental Scotland’s voluntary sector has been in supporting communities tackle the multiple impacts of Covid-19. Their role as the country recovers can’t be underestimated.

The Scottish Household Survey revealed that 28% of adults in Scotland volunteer. That’s approximately 1.26 million volunteers, equivalent to the population of Estonia. Volunteering rates are highest in rural areas, such as the Highlands and Islands.

Nearly four out of five (78%) of Scottish registered charities are local, and likewise around four out of five are small – 75% of Scottish charities have incomes under £100,000. Large charities with incomes over £1 million make up only 3.7% of our registered charities.

All this illustrates that Scotland’s voluntary sector is wide-reaching and covers every area of society. Voluntary organisations work tirelessly to ensure human rights are protected, that the environment is front and centre in policy decision-making, and to uphold the rights of Scottish citizens in our democracy.

Covid-19 has exposed, as never before, the inequalities that existed before March 2020. The third sector have been vital in their quick and sustained support to vulnerable people, and crucial in easing the burden on statutory services. This included supporting those who were shielding or self-isolating. With many council services disrupted, stopped or reduced the impact on some service users was acute and unequal. The impact of Covid-19 on exacerbating inequalities and the response to this will be a key part of the Accounts Commission’s reporting in the months and years ahead.

The Scottish Government’s initial support of the voluntary sector, a £350 million cash injection, was a welcome recognition that without the sector, public authorities would not have been able to meet the needs of people and communities during the initial crisis.

As our understanding of the impacts of the pandemic increases, it is also apparent that demand for the third sector’s services and support is likely to increase. 

Over a third of Scottish charities reported an increase in demand for their services, particularly health and social care services. They anticipate a post-lockdown surge in demand for services including health, mental health, sport, communities, employability, children and families and youth services. At the same time, Scottish charities predict a 30% drop in income and 70% believe there will be cuts to services and budgets after the pandemic.

Despite these enormous challenges, the flexibility, innovation and quality of response has been impressive. Indeed, the rapid response to the pandemic by the voluntary sector, statutory partners, regulators, and funders has shown what can be achieved through positive partnerships, in many cases without unnecessary bureaucracy. It does, therefore, seem crucial that the value of the sector continues to be understood and appreciated by governments and parliaments once the immediate health crisis is over.

Earlier this year, the Accounts Commission held two community-focused roundtable discussions with third and voluntary sector providers and charities. We were keen to hear their views on our emerging work programme and we’re committed to continuing these conversations as we shape and deliver our future work programme.