Charities and voluntary organisations in every area do a great job supporting local communities. Yet I know, from talking to both volunteers and charity staff, that things are getting harder, not easier, under this government.
At the last general election, David Cameron put the voluntary sector at the heart of his offer to the British public in his flagship policy, the ‘Big Society’. But, when was the last time you heard any government minister talk about it? In truth, here we are four years later and the ‘Big Society’ is dead.
Austerity has hit the sector with many charities closing across the country unable to cope with the increase in demand for their services with falling donations and reduced budgets. A poll revealed that a quarter have already been forced to cut frontline services and that one in six feared that they might have to close altogether because of public spending cuts and reduced donations.
At the same time, we’ve seen an unprecedented attack on charities and voluntary organisations. Ministers have attacked Oxfam for being ‘overtly political’ and made threats to food bank charity, the Trussell Trust, for speaking out. Then, they introduced the Lobbying Act and changes to judicial review to try to gag charities standing up for the people they represent.
The ‘Big Society’ has been rocked by stories of cronyism, wasting public money and breaking funding guidelines. Several investigations, including by the independent National Audit Office, into the Big Society Network, David Cameron’s pet charity, have revealed the dodgy dealings in the Prime Minister’s office which forced the Cabinet Office to fund failing projects that were run by Conservative Party donors.
Charities play a vital role, not only in providing vital services which support local people and communities, but also in offering opportunities for people to volunteer, learn new skills or gain confidence, feel supported and valued.
David Cameron came to office hailing the Big Society. But we’ve now learnt his vision was a sham. We urgently need a new partnership with the voluntary sector which will see it flourish.