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The Con-Dem’s big society con

THERE HAVE been a few blows to the already unconvincing concept of the ‘big society’ so far this year. While David Cameron and the rest of the government peddle the idea of providing more choice and control to people in local areas, it is all falling down around them. The media are asking questions, such as: ‘Is the big society a fig leaf for cuts?’ (BBC’s The Big Questions, 13 February). The answer seems to be a resounding ‘yes’.

The idea is that charities and community groups will run services that are currently being provided by the public sector. As the Con-Dem axe is falling on hundreds of thousands of public-sector jobs, it is hoped that the services decimated will be run by volunteers. The big problem is that the very organisations that are being relied on are going to be victims of the cuts too. It is difficult to see how they will be able to take on more work with fewer resources.

Liverpool city council, which was marked as one of the big society ’vanguard’ areas, has announced that it has had to abandon the scheme precisely for this reason. However, while Liverpool council may have snubbed Cameron in a letter stating they have not received support from the government, council leader Joe Anderson claims to support the big society and is still carrying through the cuts (The Guardian, 3 February). This is before the bulk of the cuts have been made, so begs the question of how the big society will work a couple of years down the line.

People are being expected to give up their time in order to help out in their local areas. We are being urged to spend less time watching TV after work and more time volunteering. But, ‘unpaid’ government advisor on the big society, Lord Wei, has had to cut his voluntary time from three days to two days a week. He claims he needs more time to spend with his family and earn a living. If this man, dubbed the ‘big society tsar’ is unable to give up his time, how are ordinary people going to be able to run local libraries, schools and care for the elderly? Wei complained he was struggling to make ends meet while working for free, even though in previous directorships he was earning £100,000 a year (London Evening Standard, 4 February). Yet the millions on the dole queue are being asked to sacrifice more.

The big society is being painted as a fairy-tale situation where the community looks out for each other, come together to run local facilities, and have more choice in what happens in their areas. The cruel reality is that, as Iain Duncan-Smith revealed, it will be the young unemployed who cannot be offered real jobs who will be forced into voluntary work. The Princes Trust will now be working with Job Centre Plus to provide so-called opportunities for people to ‘improve their skills’. Public-sector workers will be losing their jobs as the already unemployed will be taking them unpaid.

One of the most worrying aspects is whether the charities and volunteers will have the skills to carry out the vital work of the public services. Cameron gives examples of groups of people running their local pub if that gets shut down, which may be possible. But there are serious cuts proposed. Adult social care, for example, is being badly hit. Do volunteers, with the best will in the world, really have the same skills as a highly trained carer when it comes to looking after adults with severe disability needs?

Not only this, these groups are completely unaccountable. Public services are supposed to be there when needed and are required to be of a certain standard. If Lord Wei can cut back his hours due to financial strain then surely there is a greater risk that charities will have to do the same. There is no requirement that they are available and there is little control over what they must or must not do.

Similarly, many of the groups that are coming forward in support of the big society are faith groups. Many feel that it is in parallel with their religious views of charity as a duty to help those in need. Archbishop Vincent Nicholas has claimed that much of Tory policy was set out in the pre-election document published by Catholic bishops, ‘Choosing the Common Good’, which offered followers election advice. He has publicised his approval of the big society as a "step in the right direction", or more of a step away from what he views as people being too dependent on the state (Telegraph, 31 July 2010).

With supporters such as Nicholas, the biased view held by religious groups of who should and should not receive their help puts a dark cloud over the big society. In 2006, Nicholas came out against Labour’s Sexual Orientation Regulations which aimed at tackling discrimination against homosexuals. He argued that it was "unacceptable to suggest that the resources of faith communities, whether in schools, adoption agencies, welfare programmes, halls and shelters can work in co-operation with public authorities only if faith communities accept… the moral standards being touted by the government". (London Evening Standard, 28 November 2006). This was at the same time as the Catholic church was threatening to shut down its adoption agencies if they were asked to place children with same-sex couples.

Phillip Blond, dubbed ‘Red Tory’ and part of the think-tank ResPublica, is seen as one of the main forces behind the big society. He published a report recommending an extension of Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme to leisure centres, swimming pools, and even schools and hospitals, to aid the government in making cuts. (The Telegraph, 13 November 2010). It is clear that the drive towards the big society is inextricably linked to the cuts agenda. Cameron, in his speech launching the pilot schemes, did not try to hide this fact, describing it as a way to "open public services to new providers such as charities, social enterprises and private companies". He finished by saying that this was a historical move that would be looked back on as a time when Britain "didn’t just pay down the deficit, they didn’t just balance the books… they did something really exciting in their society".

The big society is a thin veil for cuts and is a continuation and deepening of the programme of privatisation of public services that has occurred for decades. There are echoes in what Cameron, Blond and the rest of the Tories are putting forward of Thatcher’s ‘there’s no such thing as society’. It is not a new idea. It is turning back the clock to a Britain prior to the welfare state, where healthcare and education was available to those who could afford it while the rest of the population had to rely on the charity of others.

Our public services are victories that were won by working-class people to provide welfare from the cradle to the grave and need to be protected. Polly Toynbee, writing in The Guardian (7 February), argued that councils often have no choice in carrying through the cuts to charity budgets. But they do have a choice. They can vote against cuts. She claims that, instead, it should be public-sector workers who should stand up against the big society, against their ‘own self-interest’, for the ‘common good’. She concludes "an eruption is coming", and in that at least she is correct. Hundreds of thousands of workers are expected to march on the TUC demo on 26 March against the cuts. This should be a step towards more action to expose the big society as meaning nothing more than big cuts.

Becci Heagney


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