The working landscape has changed, so too must support for the most vulnerable sectors…

Here, Civil Society Involvement lead partners, The Women’s Organisation, makes its recommendations to Government for protecting social enterprises during the Coronavirus crisis. 

Over recent weeks we have seen incredible ingenuity across the working landscape as the self-employed, businesses and social enterprises alike have had to innovate and adapt their pre-existing models to survive in the current climate. 

The social distancing and lockdown measures set out by government, while vital, have considerably impacted how these groups have been able to operate and carry out their services or business.  

As these organisations continue to evolve, so too must the long-term package of support on offer from government and local authorities. 

Civil Society Involvement, led by Liverpool-based charity, The Women’s Organisation, works for all third sector organisations involved in European funding programmes to facilitate a healthy exchange of knowledge and make sure that their voice is heard at national level.

Here, The Women’s Organisation outlines the main problems faced by social enterprises and suggests some practical solutions that could make it easier for these key contributors to our local, and national, economy to survive this current crisis. 

What should be done to support Social Enterprises in this Current Climate? 

Deputy CEO of The Women’s Organisation, Helen Millne, has been acting as voice for the Third Sector in her role as a Civil Society Involvement representative on the Government’s National Growth Programme Board.  

In this capacity she has been seeking to tackle the fall out for Third Sector organisations which are delivering critical community services locally and nationally. 

What is the current picture for the Third Sector? 

A significant amount of service delivery activity concerning social enterprises has, understandably, been affected, including a reduction in employment and training support due to the closure of libraries and community hubs. Face-to-face business support is no longer an option. 

But here in Liverpool City Region a full-service portfolio of advice, training and support is being provided online, by video and telephone by partners of the Enterprise Hub.

Switching model, however, is not an option for construction work which is having an impact on third sector capital investment projects as supply chains and restrictions are hampering the sector.  Nor is research, development and innovation able to progress at the same pace with activities halted due to closure of key institutions, such as universities.

What could support for the Third Sector look like? 

Ideally, what is needed is a flexible, quick and light touch approach to redirect and re-purpose publicly funded programmes to focus on businesses and people – particularly the most vulnerable. 

The Government needs to act swiftly to give maximum flexibility for regions to use current service contracts to react to the crisis. 

However, the Government also needs to significantly simplify its administration for the sector by, for example, relaxing, or minimising, paperwork. 

Other methods to ease the burden could be to allow more time to report final results from programmes, or encourage flexible working from home through the use of technology. 

Authorities should also acknowledge there will be a fall in the number of exits into employment, education and training due to the closure of institutions and a slowing in recruitment. 

Additionally, in such testing times, assurances should be given regarding fears of potential clawback linked to under-achievement. And all programme costs should be guaranteed to provide financial stability for employees. 

Another area of concern is the requirement for local support from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to unlock national capacity issues. 

Unless timely decisions are made there is a danger that contracts could be terminated, creating gaps in essential support for existing, and newly unemployed participants, which could then have the knock-on effect of staff losing their jobs. 

Funding is critical for business support and it is imperative that the Government pre-matches funds to speed up intervention where business survival or employment is at stake. 

One solution could be to flex intervention rates on small grants, so support can be offered where it is most urgently needed. 

Technology is an increasing factor in business success and there is a need for more IT and software support to encourage remote working, including virtual business support, especially in small voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations who have limited IT capacity. 

As a direct result of the current crisis, by addressing ‘virus disaster relief’ issues the focus could shift from growth, to how to enable businesses to survive, retain staff, re-start, or continue trading on the other side of COVID-19. 

A consequence of the wide-ranging support package put in place by the Government has been suggestions that it should allow greater flexibility in the ESIF and all other public funded programme to help regions address the fallout of the pandemic. 

The Third Sector has large-scale business support grant programmes and employment programmes that can be flipped quickly to where support is most needed. The Government should extend programmes, or use the shell of existing projects to expand, or continue, activity to help social enterprises and SMEs with pre-matched funding. 

Current provisions or organisations could be used to expand eligibility criteria for employability support. Such flexibility could offer a Skills in Health and Social Care programme covering training and wellbeing needs linked to the COVID-19 emergency.

More continuing professional development (CPD), and less accredited training, would help. Funds could also be used to support non-accredited or bespoke training, such as IT skills, while skills support could specifically target those needing to be redeployed quickly to new opportunities such as supermarket supply chain work or contact centres.