Statutory bodies and the third sector: Not a real partnership?

Publication Date

In response to the RSE report on the economic contribution of the third sector in Scotland, Richard Simpson sheds light on the disparity between political praise and the actual power dynamics at play, where statutory funders often wield unequal influence.

Politicians of all parties rightly praise the third sector for its essential contribution to wellbeing, its professionalism, and involvement of volunteers. Reference is made to a ‘partnership’ between statutory and third sector services. But the reality is very different. There is often an unequal partnership where all the power lies with the statutory funder.

Short-termism in government and council funding is corrosive.

Most awards are made after a two-stage process: an outline proposal followed by a detailed application. A detailed application incurs a great deal of cost, time, and effort and is beyond the capacity of many smaller organisations.

Once an award has been made, the awarding body sets timelines. But there is much to be addressed and agreed upon before a project commences.

Firstly, there can be negotiation of contract details. One of the charities I am Trustee of has repeatedly had to risk recruiting and commencement before finalising the contract in order to meet the endpoint deadline.

Secondly, there is the time it takes to recruit staff who may have to give notice to a current employer. Staff may need updated disclosure documentation.

Additionally, some projects may require permission from multiple local authorities. Funders may want reports on progress before releasing further funds; however, they can demand detailed audits inappropriately early. Even worse, when there are multiple funders, they may be seeking different data with different deadlines.

A longstanding complaint is that decisions to extend or continue a project are sometimes made so late that statutory redundancy notices must be issued. When I was Justice Minister, my intention, never realised, was to introduce a system I called ‘stop the clock’. In effect, until a decision was reached on termination, extension or renewal, the partner organisation would be guaranteed at least four months of funding to avoid having to issue redundancy notices. 

Cuts to statutory funders can be augmented and imposed on partners. 

There are examples of Statutory bodies seriously delaying payments. 

The third sector is subject to much greater scrutiny than public partners. When, as an addictions psychiatrist, I ran a drug treatment service jointly with NHS, Social Work and the Third Sector, only the latter was required to supply detailed and frequent reporting.

Unlike the NHS in Scotland, programmes in the third sector can be put out for retendering despite all KPIs being fully met and even where there are excellent Care Inspectorate reports.

Programmes can be closed without transparent discussions, resulting in redundancy payments having to be met from meagre reserves. A recent egregious example of lack of transparency and retendering is resulting in the closure of 12 rehabilitation beds for women drug users in the justice system at 218 Bath St, formerly the ‘Time Out’ centre, at a time when Glasgow has the highest rate of drug deaths in Scotland and Europe.

The time has come for a Memorandum of Understanding between the government, COSLA, and the third sector, which lays down agreed practice and fully recognises the sector’s crucial role and establishes the principles for a genuine partnership.