John Griffiths, MS for Newport East and Chair of the Senedd’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee writes about the Committee’s recent inquiry looking at the impact of COVID-19 on the voluntary sector.
In autumn 2020, the Senedd’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee started a focused piece of work looking at the impact of Covid-19 on the voluntary sector.
As individual Members of the Senedd, we were all aware of the amazing work being done by volunteers, staff and the wider sector in our own constituencies and regions. We could see the vital role they were playing in responding to the emergency and supporting people through the pandemic. From delivering shopping and prescriptions, to befriending services to combat loneliness, the sector has been at the forefront of efforts to help people most in need. But we also knew the sector was under immense pressure. In autumn last year, we decided to investigate what, if anything, could be done to support the sector, especially in advance of an expected second wave of infection and further potential lockdowns.
We gathered evidence from key stakeholders including the WCVA, different CVCs from across Wales; third sector organisations, funders and front line workers and volunteers. We particularly appreciated the time that people took from their very busy work, whether that be paid or unpaid, to share their experiences and thoughts with us.
It was very clear from the evidence that the voluntary sector is playing an immeasurable role in supporting public services, and people in dealing with the pandemic. The sector is using its agility, skills and local knowledge to deliver support and services that best meet the needs of local communities. We applaud all the hard work done by the sector and know it has made a real difference to individuals and communities across Wales. It has helped with the most pressing of needs during this very challenging time.
As we entered lockdown in March 2020, the surge of people coming forward to volunteer was a beacon of hope in what was a bleak and uncertain time for us all. We were told that by the end of December 2020, 22,000 people from across Wales had come forward to volunteer. This figure does not even include all those who volunteered within the NHS, the neighbours and friends who helped each other, or those who set up local mutual aid groups, so we know that number is only the tip of the iceberg.
It was fantastic to see such enthusiasm and community spirit. However, we were told existing volunteering structures were placed under immense strain trying to manage the sheer number of people coming forward. We believe there are lessons to be learnt from this in terms of managing and supporting volunteers for any future emergency responses.
It was clear that even before the pandemic, the sector was facing a challenging future. The impact of COVID has accelerated this, with the loss of multiple income streams like fundraising events, and charity shops closed for extended periods. We were told that in the coming years, the sector is facing a potential double whammy of reduced income but increased demand for services and support. It was particularly concerning to us that those organisations who in recent years have diversified their funding streams to make them less reliant on grants and government funding appear to have been most affected by the lockdown restrictions.
That is why, we have called for the support that is currently available to the sector to be extended past the current crisis. We don’t want to see organisations that have played a vital role in responding to the pandemic closing down simply because the finances have dried up. In particular, we are aware that some of these challenges are especially acute for the BAME sector, and we call upon the Welsh Government to address the barriers they face, to ensure that they are able to access all the possible funding streams.
Looking forward we also believe that the voluntary sector can, and will, play a critical role in post COVID-19 recovery. The energy, enthusiasm and expertise of the sector must be harnessed to ensure we have a just and fair recovery.
In total, we made 20 recommendations to the Welsh Government. The Welsh Government has six weeks to respond to each of the recommendations, and then our report and the Welsh Government response will be debated in Plenary, with all members of the Senedd able to contribute.