David Cameron

Is the big society really dead?

The Big Society is Dead, announces the front page of the Times today. The newspaper refers to a letter, written by the head of ACEVO and backed by some of the UK’s biggest charities, accusing David Cameron of abandoning the voluntary sector which he once held at the heart of his big ideas about Big Society.

If Big Society was taken to mean more money for the voluntary sector—an increase in  contracts for government services, greater support for giving and more volunteers—then, in a way, they are right.

The slashing of public spending, so far most fully felt via local government cuts, has meant far less money to go around at local level. The outsourcing of major public services has taken the form of big nationally commissioned contracts on payment by results terms, that usually only for-profit firms can bid for. This has seen charities squeezed-out or, at best, acting as sub –contractors to large, private primes.  A clear example of this is the Work Programme. The Government’s cack-handed attempt to paint philanthropists as tax dodgers in its failed ‘charity tax’ at the 2012 Budget also dismayed many in the sector.

Added to this is the fact that many of those most in need—who so many involved in charitable action care about—are being pounded by welfare cuts, and vilified as scroungers and skivers who deserve a kick up the backside rather than our support.

No wonder charities are complaining, and in many cases folding. Their feeling of being excluded from policy discussions, whether fair or not, only adds to bad feelings over the Big Society.

Right from the start, the Big Society concept was criticised as being a cover for cuts to local services. Cameron’s decision to address the deficit by cutting deep and fast meant society had to pitch in to keep the vulnerable, communities, the ‘undeserving’ poor, and peripheral things like arts and sport going.

So in some ways this explosion of anger from a sector  that has kept remarkably quiet up until  now is  unsurprising—and we hope that the Government takes note. However, the charity sector also needs to answer questions  about whether it is in a fit state to be involved at a greater level. Is it effective enough, does it really create impact, does it operate at an appropriate scale, and so on? Simply having the right mission and a passion to do good cannot make you immune from criticism or give you the right to receive funding and contracts.

But, whatever you call it, the era of the voluntary sector is only just starting. The truth is that in many parts of the country the cuts are so severe—with many more to come—that outside statutory duties the public sector will not be providing much at all. Communities will have no choice but to run libraries and community centres, look after the isolated, elderly and infirm, and organise youth provision for themselves, because there will be nobody else to do it. Community empowerment is changing from a ‘nice to have’ to an absolute necessity.

Sorting out how we do all this is no mean feat. We need systems which are fair, work effectively and efficiently; we need some sort of regulation to avoid bad practice and disaster; and it is vital that we do not rely on having a few local wealthy donors or generous companies propping everything up. This is what we should all really be worrying about now.

Now that is an agenda for the charitable sector.