Government’s Big Society recipe ill-served by its cooks

Last week I think it was, David Cameron’s guest editorship of the Big Issue attracted a fair bit of coverage. The Daily Telegraph said the PM was using it as an opportunity to kick-start his Big Society initiative.

We have heard similar statements for quite some time now and I am beginning to wonder whether after so many false starts this is one policy that might not be kicked into touch before very long.

That said, I see that Stephen Bubb, CEO of ACEVO, last week took the helm of the Big Society Trust. So perhaps I am just missing something. Although I am rather more inclined to agree with Baroness Julia Neuberger who, when asked about the Big Society on BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show, said that the notion of forcing people out of their homes and into rather undermined the notion of voluntarism which is one of the strengths of our sector.

Yesterday the trade-union backed False Economy Unit published a report of a survey of local authority cuts to charity services. Cue statements from around the sector – interestingly mostly although not exclusively at a local level – about how such cuts essentially mean that the shifting sand dune that is the Big Society is in danger of being washed away by a rising tide of shortages in voluntary sector provision. I recall talking to a colleague from a charity some time ago who became quite distressed when talking about the vast gaps that were opening up in terms of services for vulnerable people around the country.

Labour’s Deputy Leader, Harriet Harman, called for an inquiry into the relationship between the state and the voluntary sector. It’s not a bad idea even if it is not original.

It does concern me that the relationship has become confused and perhaps obscured by the top-down and top-heavy view of life that politicians are inclined too. Indeed I worry that the sector is in danger at times of becoming an inadvertent tool of the state rather than – horrible phrase – a pillar of society. And perhaps it deserves enquiring minds to spend some time examining this.

In the early nineties Government viewed the voluntary sector as a rather loveable bunch of do-gooders who would be more loveable if only they stopped this campaigning lark. Tony Blair’s Government entered office hoping the sector would be kind to it and then, when it realised being critiqued by the sector was part of both’s job description, decided to smother us in a warm blanket of never ending consultation. Gordon Brown had other things on his mind and now this.

Listening to the PM’s headmasterly tones on the subject of voluntarism it is difficult to shift the sense that the Government has a ‘high tea’ view of society in which the voluntary sector is the proverbial Victoria sponge. I can live with that just about…. perhaps…on a good day. But not the injustice of seeing it served on my fellow citizens half-baked and with some of it’s vital ingredients missing.

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