Event summary and policy recommendations.
This virtual seminar and discussion hosted by Policy Scotland and Scotland’s Third Sector Research Forum in August 2020 focused on new evidence from third sector and academic research during the COVID-19 lockdown period in the UK.
The aims of the seminar were to highlight the range of research and evidence gathered in lockdown about specific communities at the sharp end of changes (e.g. those shielding, those living in poverty), organisations that have been addressing their needs in this period (and the needs of the organisations themselves), and to finally capture via small group discussion what actions should be taken forward by policy actors at various levels of government. As Scotland moves from the crisis period to a longer-term period of recovery, it is critical that we reflect on the lessons from the crisis period to inform action and investment in the longer term.
Participants heard from academic teams from the Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland (CNS) programme at the University of Glasgow, Professor Karen McArdle from the University of Aberdeen and Dr Nicolas Le Bigre from the University of Aberdeen’s ‘Lockdown Lore’ collection project. Third sector organisations Voluntary Health Scotland, the Scottish Community Development Centre (SCDC), and Inclusion Scotland also shared their work. The research presented served as a jumping off point for longer periods of small group discussions among the 35 seminar participants, enabling all participants to share the work of their organisations and discuss how their experiences engage with similar issues and themes.
Regardless of whether the research was undertaken by the third sector or by academic researchers, all the presentations highlighted the ways in which lockdown has exacerbated existing inequalities and has brought new issues to the fore. Some common themes emerged:
Communities at the sharp end
Each of the presentations highlighted how vulnerable populations (variously defined) have suffered from the economic shutdown and from the interruptions to health and social care. For those already in poverty who have been furloughed or lost their jobs, lockdown has increased household running costs while participants from the CNS programme note the challenges with delayed furlough payments and the five week wait for Universal Credit payments. Professor McArdle’s work with those in poverty in rural Fife highlighted the complexity of challenges for these communities in lockdown – particularly greater social isolation and stigma related to receiving assistance from third sector organisations or the council. The immediate challenges to accessing food was present for vulnerable groups in all the research.
The negative impact from interruption to health and social care services, particularly from people with disabilities, was a common finding from multiple pieces of research. Inclusion Scotland’s survey of over 800 disabled people found that 30% of respondents said their social care support had either been stopped or reduced, and that 15% of their respondents told Inclusion Scotland that their mental health had been negatively affected. Submissions of poetry, photographs and art from disabled people to the Lockdown Lowdown project convey further challenges of social isolation and fear. Voluntary Health Scotland research also finds that decrease in NHS services has negatively impacted people’s mental health, and has increased the problems of social isolation and loneliness for those already struggling.
A concern as we move out of the crisis period and services begin to resume is that many of the existing challenges faced by these communities have worsened and that services (GPs, employment support) face a large backlog.
New challenges for those ‘usually resilient’ or ‘just about managing’
Presentations from Voluntary Health Scotland shared how many of those seeking voluntary health services in the lockdown period were ‘usually resilient’, and those who were elderly and contributing to the Lockdown Lowdown project expressed their frustrations with having to shield when they want to actively contribute to society. As a result of the economic shutdown multiple research report more families experiencing poverty and engaging with third sector organisations where they may not have previously. The challenges resulting from lockdown are indeed reaching a wider group of community members, which result in increased demand for services as reported particularly by SCDC.
The third sector has stepped up in major ways during this pandemic. SCDC has been a key vehicle for gathering evidence from community organisations. Rapid release of funds to organisations has saved lives in the immediate crisis period, and new partnerships have been able to implement creative solutions to problems in communities. The CNS programme reports that the third sector has been a key source of critical practical and emotional support to families. The success of these new partnerships has created stronger trust in this sector in communities.
The policy recommendations from each of the presenters were supplemented with discussions from participants from academia, the third sector and the public sector. Together four themes came to the fore, each with recommendations for various levels of government.
Extending furlough and social security
There must be a recognition that people in communities are continuing to experience increased hardship, and are likely to do so for an extended period of time.
- We recommend an extension of the furlough scheme beyond October.
- We also recommend an extension of social security measures put in place and revisions to other aspects of social security. This includes an increase in benefit levels for those on legacy benefits (not on Universal Credit), that the increase in Universal Credit benefit levels in March is made permanent, an end to the two child limit and the five week wait, and support for people with health issues. Most of these issues are addressed at the UK government level but the Scottish Government can build in more support where possible within devolved benefits and powers at the local level (via the Scottish Welfare Fund).
A diversity of voices for policymaking
A diversity of voices needs to be embedded in policymaking to ensure a range of research and experiences are available to policymakers. Elevating these voices involves the work of local government, third sector actors, and academic research.
- Local governments must continue to fund and expand community development approaches and participative local democracy even in the time of constrained budgets. These approaches are vital, as these build resilience from within and that give everyone a voice. The Local Governance Review and Scotland’s Citizens Assembly are due to start again: we must ensure that people who are ‘hard to reach’ and who may not have been previously connected can get involved.
- The local public sector can also reconfigure current points of contact – such as libraries –into spaces where community members can share their opinions if they are not able to participate in more formal community engagement activities.
- There is a role for third sector interface organisations and intermediaries in widening understanding of the lives of the people they work with. Consider methods such as poverty and truth commissions to build lived experience into policy, with the third sector as a key connector between communities and local policymakers. Third sector organisations that equip communities in advocacy efforts and political literacy should continue their work and be adequately funded.
- Research and evaluation projects (in all sectors) should build in a diversity of voices from the community from the start. Consider often unheard community members as such as families of all ages, the unpaid carers community, those with disabilities.
The role of the third sector
- The sector needs more streamlined and stable grant funding. The lockdown demonstrated that it is possible to streamline funding so that resources can reach community groups more quickly and easily. Stable grant funding in the period freed up third sector organisation to lead collaborative, creative and effective community responses. Qualities of a successful COVID-19 funding model include the focus on an overarching theme (supporting people through Covid-19) which organisations have been able to work towards in their own creative ways, and the reduction in red-tape and bureaucracy (simple forms, single point of contact) which has enabled organisations to act quickly.
- More funding will be needed for community groups of all types, with particularly needs for community mental health support which will see a spike in demand due to lockdown challenges and the NHS backlog.
- Grantmakers and funders should enact longer grant periods for community organisations in areas where there will continue to be challenges in the community for months to come.
- Local and national governments should recognise that the third sector is not the ‘cheapest option’ as a replacement for adequate public service provision. Rather, the third sector should be viewed as providing choice for service provision where advocates are volunteers and where the organisation and clients work supportively together.
Reimagine the role of community planning and community development workers
This crisis exposed the essential role that frontline workers in community planning and development play in communities. Social workers, youth workers, community learning and development officers, community links workers and third sector staff were key actors in reaching out to people in need during this crisis.
- Community planning should be viewed by local government as an essential service. Key workers in GP practices and community learning and development officers, for example, should be more adequately invested in by the local authority. Community planning practices should involve partnerships between the public sector and the local third sector in all neighbourhoods.
- Increase the number of community links workers in GP practices and increase the use of social prescribing (community referral) by GPs to refer patients to non-clinical services.
The seminar took place on 12 August 2020
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