Written by Clementine Hill-O’Connor and Kylie Fagan
The Gathering is an annual event organised by the Scottish Council for Voluntary organisations (SCVO) and was held last week at the SECC. It was a jam packed two days that included an exhibition and market place alongside over 60 workshops discussing all things third sector. The former included a vast range of organisations providing support services for the third sector including banks, insurance companies and IT services. Also well represented were organisations from across the sector itself- housing, health and social care, social enterprise, food and land related organisations were all in attendance.
The event began with a welcome from the First Minister who made a clear statement in support of the third sector, proclaiming to the audience; ‘Your contribution to how we develop policy in Scotland is vital to us and I believe strongly that your views should be sought and listened to, not silenced in any way’. She was followed by an equally popular session in which Shami Chakrabarti sought to answer the question ‘What might human rights look like in a fairer Scotland?’ The first day continued through questions of funding, accounting, charity law, and health related sessions on the Keys to Life Development Fund and innovative work of Playlist to Life, a tool used for people living with dementia that uses music to promote wellbeing. At the end of this first day the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) held a panel session to launch their Scotland manifesto ‘A Scotland without poverty: What will it take?’ Susan Aktemel (HomeStart), Sharon Macpherson (ScotCash), Satwat Rehman (One Parent Families Scotland) and Donna Barrowcliffe from the Poverty Truth Commission sat on the panel to respond to the manifesto. Issues of jobs, respect, dignity and the poverty premium were the focus as Donna described her vision of a Scotland without poverty in which people were treated with respect, not second class citizens and judged for being poor. Satwat Rehman described the need for better quality childcare that responded to the needs of low income families without singling them out as needing ‘special support’ which, she argued, often leads to stigma. Susan and Sharon both discussed the need to hold the private sector to account in how they deal with customers living on low incomes. Susan Aktemel pointed to the private rented housing sector in which 33% are receiving housing benefit. This should not impact on the choice and quality of home available, those in receipt of housing benefit should not be considered less desirable as tenants. The session ended with a decisive comment from the panel that reflected that of Jim McCormick from JRF; ‘We know what we need to do to end poverty in Scotland – now we have to get on and do it’.
Community access to land and assets featured in two of the workshops on day two. In a workshop run by Community Ownership Support Services (COSS) and Voluntary Action Scotland (VAS) there was a discussion of the process and potential of asset transfers from the Scottish public sector to communities. Meg Gillies, from the Highland Third Sector Interface, said that this new legislation was welcomed in within the Highlands as community participation has been a way of life for remote and rural communities. The new legislation will provide further opportunities and resources for future and current activities. Following this session was discussion of alternative legislation that provides communities opportunities to purchase land, in this session the focus was on the right to buy land and assets that sit in private, rather than public, hands. This session covered key sections of the land reform act which allows communities to register interest in a piece of land as a potential buyer if/when the landowner decides to sell.
Using positive enquiry, Ian McKenzie from Animate Consulting considered the ways that individuals and organisations are overcoming welfare cuts. The idea is that we should ‘Focus on the human ideals and achievements, our very best experiences and practices and they begin to flourish. This is what motivates us’. Ian suggested that it was important to remain motivated within a context that can be difficult, and easy to focus on the negatives and the barriers. In the workshop small groups talked through some positive stories and ways that they saw impact in their work. In discussing the stories it was found that solutions were often simple – required a focus to bring people together (lots of examples of how food did this!) and allow them space to recognise they weren’t alone in their struggles.
The two day event highlighted the wide range of issues common to those working within Scotland’s vast and vibrant third sector. Topics were as varied as the sector itself and spanned old favourites such as health, housing, employability – and the ever present need for funding – alongside new areas of focus for this year’s event. In celebrating more than a decade of this annual gathering it is clear that common challenges remain with the ever pressing need for the services and support of the third sector plainly evident. From the experiences shared across both days, however, there is significant hope that, despite these issues, Scotland’s diverse third sector can remain at the forefront of those seeking to address these challenges.