The Big Society: a softer label for funding cuts?
A charity sector made vulnerable by widespread spending cuts is not the right way to grow the civic society and encourage community voluntarism.
By Gloria De Piero MP
The ‘big idea’ of the Big Society has been blamed by some for depriving the Tories of a majority. Yet, they portray it as the ideological foundation guiding their government. What do they actually mean by the term ‘Big Society’? Is it about devolving government power or is it just a new, softer label for the Thatcherite desire to slash public services? Asking this question does not mean defending big government for big government’s sake – however much the Tories want to frame the debate in that way.
Is using public money to help disabled people stay in work instead of claiming benefits big government or Big Society? Is providing day support for those with mental health issues big government or Big Society?
In my constituency, the council is currently running a consultation on closing mental health day services. This threatens the future of the Rokerfield day centre in Ashfield – a safe space that offers peer support, training and skills to people managing mental health difficulties. Service users and their families have been coming into my surgeries with real fear and worry that this support cannot be provided by the community services the Tories hope will pick up the slack.
The council is also planning to cut costs by privatising a number of services. One of the 11 services facing privatisation is County Enterprise Foods, which provides meals on wheels. Under local authority control it employs local people and is a supported workplace providing jobs to those who would otherwise find it difficult to find employment.
The council seems to view these services as part of big government and has therefore decided they must go. But this is an ideological approach, not a practical one.
I am not against the idea of growing civic society, encouraging and enabling the work of voluntary groups and charities. In former mining constituencies like the one I represent there are many examples of communities getting together to help themselves They are run by and for the people and that is what makes them so responsive to the communities they serve.
But charities are also under attack from cuts. Framework, a Nottinghamshire homeless charity, receives funding from the Council’s area based grant and provides housing, support, care and resettlement services. In the first wave of council cuts, the services provided by this prime example of the Big Society face an uncertain future.
The Big Society label is being used as a cover for cuts in national and local government provision and comes at a time when state support for the voluntary sector is under threat. My fear is that with a shrinking state and an unsupported third sector it is the most vulnerable in society who will suffer most.
This article was featured in the November/December 2010 issue of Openmind (Issue 163).