Bearing the brunt of austerity

On Friday, I had the pleasure of speaking at UNISON’s community seminar and conference in Bradford.

Bringing together people who work in the community and voluntary sector and housing, this is UNISON’s third biggest service group and we have a positive vision for the sector.

It should be close to our communities, innovating, high quality, and speaking out for those who are marginalised.

But that is not the view of those who run the country. They profess to want to see the sector grow, but for them it is merely a cut-price outsourcing option.

As grants have been replaced by public service contracts, large parts of the sector have become increasingly reliant on running mainstream public services.

And outsourced services have been a prime target for spending cuts. Official statistics show how the sector has been disproportionately hit by austerity.

And we know the results of that: cuts to pay and pensions, erosion of TUPE protection, increased workloads, understaffing and cuts to sick pay.

If there has ever been a time when our union is needed most, it is now.

The vitality of the community sector does not stand on its own – it is inextricably linked to support it gets from the public sector. That is the reason the Tory-led government doesn’t talk too much about the big society these days.

Which is a pity, because volunteers are a critical part of our society. And volunteering is also a route back into society for people who have been marginalised or excluded.

But volunteering must be properly supported. It must support the work of experienced paid staff. It must not be seen as the latest fad to cut the cost and quality of vital public services.

Because that’s what the community sector should be about: well-treated staff, properly supported volunteers, community involvement, and speaking out for those without a voice.