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Government must support charities to help vulnerable Londoners

Over the last week or so, the UK’s voluntary and community organisations – charitable funders, charities, community groups, and social enterprises – have been campaigning hard to persuade national government to do more to support the sector and its work through the coronavirus crisis. 

The need is perhaps greatest in London, which faces peculiar issues, that the government and other funders need to understand.

London’s vulnerabilities 

London is in many ways particularly exposed to the current epidemic. The virus has spread fast through the capital – the latest figures show that nearly a third of coronavirus related hospital deaths have been in the capital. According to the Financial Times’s tracker, London currently has the 5th highest city death rate in the world  and only New York is on similarly steep upward trajectory.  

London’s population is also unusually vulnerable to the lockdown the government has established and to the economic impact of the virus. The city has high levels of poverty (27 per cent of households are in poverty after housing costs, compared to 21 per cent in the rest of England) and horribly low levels of financial resilience – many Londoners have no wealth or assets to fall back on. It also has a large working population and the largest private sector workforce of any region. These will be disproportionably affected by bankruptcies, redundancies and pay cuts – pensioners and public sector workers are less vulnerable 

The lockdown is no doubt particularly difficult for many London families. London is a young and dense city and many Londoners live with children in small or overcrowded flats, with little access to outside space. Contrary to the widely held view that London is the spoiled favourite child of UK governmentlife for many Londoners is very tough. This is especially true now. 

Pressure on the voluntary sector to support vulnerable Londoners  

While government and many responsible businesses are doing their best to support people through these difficult times, much of the burden will also fall on the voluntary sector. Its role at a time like this is extensive and varied. But I single out four areas where needs have grown as a result of the crisis. 

1. Food and other basic needs

We know that putting the economy in hibernation is leading to job losses and a fall in income for individuals and families across the city. A disproportionate number of Londoners are likely to lose their jobs or suffer a pay cut, with a jump in the number of people unable to afford basic needs like food, shelter, heating and digital connectivityAccording thSurvey of Londoners published last year, around one in six families struggle to provide full and healthy meals – for single parents and black Londoners it’s one in three. Government policieslike the Coronavirus Jobs Retention Scheme, the Coronavirus Self-Employment Income Support Scheme and reforms to Universal Credit, are helping, but many people will fall through the gaps. To take just one example, the Mayor has reported of big increases in demand on foodbanks. 

2. Loneliness, social isolation and domestic abuse

London is a young city and young people choose to live here in part because of its rich social life. But the city also seems to have more than its fair share of lonely people. Older people forced to self-isolate, single people living alone, single parents and other carers are all particularly vulnerable to isolation and while some can draw on friends and family for company and help with things like shopping, many will need support from charities and community groups. For others, the lockdown poses the threat not of isolation but domestic abuse and neglect – this is particularly true for children now stuck at home 24/7.

3. Advice

As unemployment rises and earnings fall, many charities report increased demands on their advice on issues such as employment, benefits, bills, debt and technology.

4. The most vulnerable

While most Londoners are finding the crisis difficult to manage, some Londoners are extremely vulnerable. This includes homeless people, especially those rough sleeping and sofa surfing – around half of England’s homeless people are in London asylum seekers and children caught up in gangs. It tends to be charities, rather than public services, that provide help for these most socially excluded groups.

London’s charities and community groups hit by a triple whammy 

But at a time when London’s third sector faces an almost unprecedented demand on its services, it is also seeing almost unprecedented constraints on its abilities to deliver those services. The capital’s charities were already under real pressure. Centre for London research showed that while the overall number of charities in London has grown in recent years – and at a faster rate than elsewhere in the country – the number of charities focused on local issues had declinedespecially in outer London. There is no doubt London’s voluntary and community sector has been hit hard by the financial crisis and 10 years of public funding cuts. But these problems are being compounded by coronavirus. London’s charities find themselves hit by a triple whammy.

First, funding is falling, as the public at large, and corporates cut back on charitable giving. Charity sector bodies have made initial estimates that charities will miss out on a minimum of £4.3 billion of income over the coming 12 weeks, and on average, charities expect a decrease in total income of 31 per cent against their total income from the previous year.

Second, they are having to adapt to new ways of working – includinremote working and providing on-line rather than face to face support.

Thirdly, many charity workers and volunteers are especially likely to catch the virus themselves, as a result of working with the public, and/or are having to deal with additional caring responsibilities, as schools close and older family members need looking after.

Two surveys of London’s charities, one in the early days of the crisis and one published more recently, give some sense of the scale of the challenge it poses. In the first survey only 29 per cent of respondents identified coronavirus is having a significant impact on their organisation’s capacity to deliver its services. Two weeks later it had grown to 80 per cent.

Support for London charities 

London is lucky in that it has relatively welldeveloped network of London-wide infrastructure bodies’ – organisations like London Funders, City Bridge Trust, Trust for London, London Plus, London Councils and the Mayor of London’s communities’ team(These also have their counterparts at the borough level, including numerous councils of voluntary services and placebased schemes like Islington Giving) 

These organisations don’t just provide individual grants and services. They advocate, coordinate and support the charitable sector as a whole across the city or locality. These strategic funders have moved with what looks like impressive speed in the last few weeks to respond to the crisis, with a new joint fund. But the money is modest – £8 million so far, compared, for example, to the £75 million the government is proposing to spend bringing stranded nationals home from abroad.

But what charities really need is public sector support 

In short, London’s voluntary sector needs public sector support. The Mayor’s powers are limited here. Mayoral budgets are under huge pressure – and he has little scope to borrow even in an emergencyNational government really needs to step in.

The government has moveboldly and quickly to support employment through the furlough scheme. And the scheme has a logic to it, when it comes to the private sector and even much of the cultural sector it makes sense to encourage the furloughing of workers in non-essential sectors, so slowing down physical contact and the spread of the disease. But this does not work for much of the voluntary sector. The last thing government should be doing is encouraging it to furlough charity and community group staff when their services are needed so urgently.

The beauty of providing more government funding for voluntary activity now is that much of it will be recouped through savings involved in not paying furlough. Instead of funding charity workers to sit idle at a time when demands on their services have never been greatergovernment can pay them to work.

How should it do this?  

Some have suggested there should be blanket support for the third sector, with government subsidising the wages of all employees of registered charities. Given the rather variable quality of work done by charities, this might not be wise. Funding should be going to a mixture of national, regional and local funding organisations, who understand the needs of their area or sector and know who can best help to address them. In the case of the capital, that means passing the money through the Mayor, councils and infrastructure bodies like London Funders

Given the demands facing London’s community and voluntary sector – and the rather limited powers and resources at its disposal  national government needs to come up with a suitable package for the capital.

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Ben Rogers is Director of Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter. Read more from him here