Volunteers’ Week 2019 – how the third sector and volunteers contribute to the work of the Scottish Parliament

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As this is Volunteers’ Week, this blog looks at the ways that the third sector, which includes voluntary organisations, has been involved in the work of the Scottish Parliament.

The third sector and volunteering in Scotland

The ‘third sector’ is a term used to describe a group of organisations that include charities, social enterprises and voluntary groups. While they cover a wide range of interests, what they have in common is that they are non-profit-making and non-governmental. Not every third sector organisation uses volunteers as part of their work, but a significant number do, and they play an important role in helping such organisations reach their aims.

‘Volunteering’ is defined by the Scottish Government as “the giving of time and energy through a third party, which can bring measurable benefits…It is a choice undertaken of one’s own free will, and is not motivated primarily for financial gain”

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) says that 28% of adults in Scotland volunteer each year, which equates to approximately 1.3 million volunteers.

Rates of volunteering are higher in the 16-24 age group and in rural areas, where rates are around one third.

There are 106,700 paid staff at third sector organisations (3.4% of the Scottish workforce). However, 72.3% of Scottish charities rely entirely on volunteers, and pay no staff to support their work.

Volunteers have an important and far-reaching role in Scotland, participating in a large range of activities from small grassroots community groups, sports clubs, pre-school day care and village halls, to culture and arts venues, youth organisations and major housing, health and social care providers.

Parliamentary contribution

The work of the third sector may be familiar to many in Scotland, but you may not be aware of the many ways that these organisations interact with the Scottish Parliament.


Committees at the Scottish Parliament generally issue a call for evidence when they start work on a new piece of legislation or an inquiry into a topic of interest. Anyone with relevant information can respond to these calls with written evidence, including third sector organisations. They may also be invited to attend meetings, and in parliamentary year 2017-18, 49 individuals from third sector organisations attended the Equalities and Human Rights Committee to give evidence on a range of topics, including bullying in schools, asylum and the age of criminal responsibility.

Committees may also arrange visits to local communities to meet with groups or organisations to learn more about their work. As the third sector often works with some of the most vulnerable and under-represented groups in society, these contributions to parliamentary work also ensure that the voices and experiences of the individuals that they represent are heard in the Scottish Parliament. The third sector acts as an important conduit between the Parliament and a wide range of people and groups in Scotland.

In these ways, the experience of third sector organisations, their volunteers and their service users, can influence the findings of committee inquiries, as well as contribute to the scrutiny of draft legislation. Some examples of key legislation that has been influenced in this way can be read in the new SCVO publication “Charities, Scotland & Holyrood: Twenty Years Delivering Change.

Cross-Party Groups

Within the Scottish Parliament there are also around 100 Cross-Party Groups, which provide an opportunity for Members of all parties, outside organisations and members of the public to meet and discuss a shared interest in a particular cause or subject.

These groups range in scope from ‘Accident Prevention and Safety Awareness’ to ‘Women’s Justice,’ and nearly all of the groups have third sector organisations involved in their work.

The groups meet on a regular basis, allowing Members access to the knowledge and experience that organisations working in a specific area can bring to their understanding of a topic. They also allow third sector organisations to discuss their work and expertise with elected decision makers with an interest in their area.


Petitions to the Scottish Parliament need to be submitted by individuals, but people can do this on behalf of a third sector organisation. All petitions that are lodged with the Scottish Parliament are discussed by the Petitions Committee, and organisations can use them to raise issues of interest. Current petitions lodged on behalf of third sector organisations include those on issues as diverse as tourism, salmon farms and first aid training for primary school children.

Events and exhibitions

Within the Scottish Parliament many third sector organisations also engage with policy makers through the huge variety of events and exhibitions held within the building. Each week during sitting time MSPs sponsor organisations to showcase their work, either by setting up stalls or running events designed to engage with Members. This leads to a great diversity of work within the third sector being showcased at various points over a session of parliament.

Recognition of the Third Sector by the Scottish Parliament

Given the contribution by the third sector to Scotland’s communities, as well as their work in parliament, it is unsurprising that Members regularly submit motions recognising the contribution of local and national third sector organisations. Where motions receive cross party support, they can be raised in the chamber. Recent debates mentioning the work of the third sector have included museums, foster carers and Parkinson’s in Scotland.

Laura Gilman, Enquiries Officer