Last week The Independent revealed that for the first time since the Second World War, the British Red Cross is providing emergency food aid for British families. It is part of a shocking trend of charities having to step in to provide for essential needs like food, healthcare and housing, following Save the Children’s first ever appeal to feed and cloth British children and the explosion of charity-run foodbanks across the country. For the first time JobCentre Plus is referring people directly to foodbanks – a sign that even the Government knows how bad things are.
Charities have long delivered public services and many do a brilliant job. But there is a difference between a partnership between charities and the state, and charities having to step in because the Government has failed to ensure all its citizens –young, old, unemployed and working poor - have the means to survive. Charities are brilliant at innovating, providing additional services and enthusing more people to get involved through donations, volunteering and campaigning.
But that’s different from compensating for the Government’s failure to provide for people or to tackle the broader economic and social causes of problems like poverty – something charities cannot do. Nearly two thirds of children growing up in poverty have a parent who works. This shocking fact shows that the Government isn’t just failing to provide those children with a safety net. It is failing in its basic responsibility to take action against the chief causes of poverty like low pay and growing job insecurity.
Two years ago, David Cameron hinted that this was his vision. While denying that the Big Society was merely a ‘cover for cuts’ he said “if there are facilities that the state can’t afford to keep open, shouldn’t we be trying to encourage communities who want to come forward and help them and run them?”. And while there are inspiring examples of volunteers coming forward to keep libraries open and youth clubs running, people’s ability to access basic healthcare, education, housing and subsistence cannot be left to goodwill. And the vast majority of charities agree, which is why charities also do such an excellent job campaigning against so many of the Tory-led Government’s unfair policies.
Many of our nation’s charities are small and lack reserves. When they fold, people lose more than just a service. They lose the relationship they had come to rely on. Yet, despite David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ rhetoric, charities up and down the country have suffered heavily from recent cuts.
Moreover charitable donations fall in times of recession, at the very time when we need their services most. According to the Charities Aid Foundation charitable giving has fallen by a fifth in recent years.
So while ethics demand that charities should always step in when people need them, and we should praise our charities for the amazing work they do in this regard, it is vital that this trend of government increasingly abdicating its responsibility to citizens does not go unchallenged. 100 years ago, before we founded the NHS and the welfare state, charities fed, clothed and housed people because there was no system to protect them against life’s risks and misfortunes. That was also a time when people died for lack of healthcare and in some parts of Britain, because government did not seek to tackle the root causes of poverty, including untreated illness and squalid housing conditions, a fifth of children died by the age of 5.
Charities spoke out then, and are speaking out now against what this Government is doing – despite the Government’s threat to gag them through the Lobbying Bill. In doing so charities uphold one of their most important and unique purposes – to give a voice to the voiceless at a time they most need it. In that, as well as in their other charitable roles, they have Labour’s full support.
Lisa Nandy MP is the Shadow Charities Minister