Wednesday, 1 December 2010

What Big Society?

This week’s best joke came from a colleague, who rang the Liberal Democrat headquarters and asked for a copy of their manifesto. “We’ve sold out” came the reply. “Yes,” he responded “I know you’ve sold out, but can I have a copy of the manifesto?”

David Cameron has been making much of his promise to make a Big Society, and it all sounds very good. He’s been raising expectations of what voluntary organisations and volunteers – now called ‘the third sector’ should deliver in contributing to a better society.

However, all that appears to be being fatally undermined by the massive cuts, both by central and local government, being made to voluntary organisations which will damage the capacity of those organisations to deliver their part. In addition, the VAT increase will cost voluntary organisations about £150m a year.

Where David Cameron and I also part company is that he has a Downton Abbey view of society, where people have to rely on charity handouts as a substitute for good quality local public services.

For me, the Big Society is one where we are all enabled to make out contributions to make our country and our local communities a better society. Public services and voluntary contributions should be working together – the latter is not a substitute for the former. Co-operatives, friendly societies, trades unions and voluntary organisations have all thrived best when they have been seen as complimentary to the state, not as alternatives.

Between 1997 and 2010, central government support to the voluntary sector more than doubled to £12 billion. Now, as part of its deficit reduction programme, that support is being cut dramatically. Most local authorities have yet to determine where their big cuts are going to be made but, last week, two local authorities – one Conservative-controlled and the other with a Liberal Democrat majority – announced that they would be cutting grants to local voluntary organisations by 40%. This doesn’t bode well for a Big Society, let alone a better society.

So, here are some tests for the coalition government’s Big Society policy over the next 4 years. Will inequality increase or decrease? Will the number of poor households rise or fall? Will the number of charities rise or fall? Will the standard of our public services get better or worse?