Britain needs more than charity

BAD weather meant that the ‘Big Help Out’ event planned for Swanage after the Coronation had to be postponed.

On a bright Friday in May, however, volunteers from local charities and organisations were able to highlight the good work they do at a ‘Volunteers’ Fayre’ held in the town’s main beach car park.

The town market was taking place, which added to the atmosphere, and meant that a wide audience could talk to volunteers and visit their stalls.

The event was organised by the Swanage Volunteer Bureau and Swanage and Purbeck Rotary.

A wide range of local need was met by the groups represented in the fair – from supporting those who were lonely, to those who were disabled. Volunteer Centre Dorset, which supports and facilitates volunteering across Dorset, was there to offer guidance to all would be volunteers.

It was a good morning, with plenty of good energy and good will.

But a thought struck me, as I spoke to passers-by and volunteers alike – that Britain needs more than charity.

Volunteering is a wonderful thing – with charities and local groups being more creative and innovative than ever before, with food banks, warm spaces, community pantries, swap shops – and now fuel banks, clothing and bedding banks, toiletries banks and baby banks.

Just as we applauded our key workers – especially our health workers – during the pandemic, so we should the thousands of local heroes who are stepping forward to help those in need.

But volunteering, no matter how praiseworthy, is not enough.

Last year, the Trussell Trust donated a million food parcels to children, and the number of British children in food poverty almost doubled. A fifth of the country is going hungry.

The Government’s own figures show that the number of food banks in the UK has soared since 2010. Between 2008/9 and 2020/21, the number of food bank users has risen every year, from just under 26,000 to more than 2.56 million.

Food banks, though, are not meant as a permanent solution – and by their very nature charities cannot be comprehensive in their coverage of need, nor can they guarantee that their donations will always be there.

FareShare, the national organisation which supports Food for Thought Purbeck, has already found it increasingly difficult to source quality surplus food for its mobile larders in Dorset.

Local councils are underfunded and have no choice but to cut local services. Dorset Council in 2010/11 received £80m from the Government in Rate Support Grant. By 2019/20 it received nothing by way of this grant.

Cuts followed – for example, the Youth Service virtually vanished – with centres only kept going through the work of local trusts and loyal volunteers.

Austerity has left us a bitter legacy. We are all aware of the severe challenges faced each day by our underfunded NHS and schools.

Government ministers have spoken fine words about the work of volunteers. But what is needed is a re-commitment to the Welfare State – the provision of well-funded decent services for all.

Chair, Swanage & Rural Purbeck Labour Party

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