The majority of the 163,000 charities in England and Wales are small organisations and very local in terms of their field of operations. According to the Charity Commission website 75% of charities have an income that is less than £100,000 and whilst that may seem like a great deal of money, it would typically allow a charity to employ no more than 3-4 people. Around 70,000 of these charities receive an income of less than £10,000 which would usually mean that all those involved in their work are volunteers. To start a charity demands a great deal of hard work and is not for the faint hearted, but it can be incredibly rewarding and many charities are responsible for changing lives, far beyond the imagination and capacity of the founders of these organisations. I am very proud of the charities I have helped to establish and whilst I am not intending to write about any of these, our society would be a great deal more impoverished if many of these organisations were diminished in any way. Based on my experience, charities emerge gradually as people discuss ideas and then consider how to provide management and governance for the ideas that stand the test of time and early failure. Often the formal date on which a charity is founded, betrays months or even years of frustration and hard work by individuals who may not even get included in the formal history of the organisation. I suspect that this may be the case for Bristol Victims Support Scheme which became the template for the national charity which is now known as Victim Support.
Bristol Victims Support Scheme is reported to have begun life on 1st January 1974 as a pilot scheme and one of the things the news report fails to disclose is the back story of the people who spent hours ensuring that promptly on the Bank Holiday Tuesday 1974, the Pilot could be launched. Since then the pilot which was clearly a success was extended to other areas and by the time of the last Government, there were Victim Support Schemes in every part of the UK. The work of Victim Support is extensive and when I was a candidate for the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner in 2012 I had the privilege of meeting with many of the staff and some of the volunteers in the Sussex Victim Support service. I would firmly encourgage anyone considering working as a volunteer in the area of criminal justice, to meet with their local Victim Support group, the work is very varied and the volunteers are well trained and supported by the paid staff.
One of the stories that I heard during my visits to Sussex Victim Support, was the decision taken by the last Government to ask what had been a large number of local charities, to merge in order to receive funding from the Government that was committed to ensuring that the needs of victims would be put in the foreground of the Criminal Justice System. The Government decided that they knew best and wanted to work with one national charity, not 100’s of local ones. After the charities spent many hours and a great deal of money to accomplish this change, the Government did their part and ensured that Victim Support was funded on a sustainable basis, ensuring that a victim anywhere in the country would receive a reliable service from Victim Support, just as the expectation is that the Police, Probation (until recent changes) and Courts Service would provide a statutory and broadly consistent service wherever people are in the country. This Government however has different ideas and a different philosophy. They have introduced Police and Crime Commissioners, are making enormous changes to the Probation Service and have made it clear to Victim Support, that in most aspects their funding will be decided locally by the new PCCs and cannot be relied upon. This has the impact of yet again creating organisational challenge and cost for this charity which many of us value and support.
Governments are elected to help improve society for all residents, striking a balance between the cost of the state and the adequacy of provision for those who need the support of organisations such as Victims Support. They may well judge that their power to change the way in which statutory organisations operate is clear and can only be challenged by the Opposition and organisations such as the Local Government Association and Association of Chief Police Officers, all of which are also funded by you and I. However our voluntary sector and those of us who support such organisations are rarely consulted in an effective manner when it comes to demands for charities to merge or for central funding agreements for a national service to be dissolved and for charities that we have all come to appreciate and rely upon, to be put at risk. Charities are not public services, yet many are commissioned by public agencies to deliver support in a manner that is consistent with the public sector. The organisations that deliver these are charities, yet the funding is from statutory agencies. We are about to enter a period where probation services will be delivered by a mix of public, private and charitable sector agencies. As we reflect on the success of 40 years of Victim Support, we perhaps need to also consider if we need a new way of holding Governments to account for the changes they make, supposedly on our behalf to the organisations that up till now have been part of our communities and accountable to us, through Trustees. There should be no conflict, as we also elect the Government, but as this story makes clear, our Governments do sometimes overstep the lines in the sand, and we need to find ways to ensure that when they do, we can remind them who they are meant to be accountable to!