Ironies of Big Society exposed

by
10 February 2011

by Ed Thornton

THE Government’s Big Society pro­gramme came under increased attack this week from churches and char­ities, amid warnings that spending cuts were harming the voluntary sector.

The Revd Iain McFarlane, Vicar of St Peter’s, Taunton, who is leading a campaign against the closure of his local library, said that he agreed with Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, the retir­ing executive director of Community Service Volunteers (CSV), who told The Times on Monday that cuts risked “destroying the volunteer army”.

Dame Elisabeth told the BBC, also on Monday, that “hundreds and thousands of volunteers, in libraries, in schools, in child-protection, are having their support cut, at the very time when the Prime Minister wants to see more citizens involved.”

Dame Elisabeth’s comments were echoed by the co-founder of the Big Society Network, Paul Twivy, who said that life had been made “ex­tremely difficult” for the voluntary sec­tor by the “speed and amount of the cuts”.

The chief executive of Daylight Christian Prison Trust, John Scott, said that the Big Society needed “to be backed by funding to help charities make the most of their volunteers”.

Mr McFarlane said that churches in the Taunton area were “being asked for volunteers to look at enhancing services and taking them over, but there just aren’t the people here”. The voluntary sector “is stretched as far as it can go”.

Mr McFarlane described Priors­wood Library, which is due to shut next January, as a “lifeline” to less mobile, less affluent people who use it to access computers, and as “a place of meeting and community”. The page he launched on Facebook to save the library now has more than 1000 members.

Clerics and parishioners in Ox­ford­shire also took part in protests against 20 proposed library closures this week. Hundreds met at St Swithun’s C of E Primary School in the village of Kennington, and marched to deliver 600 letters to the leader of Oxfordshire County Coun­cil, Keith Mitchell.

Writing in The Financial Times on Monday, Danny Kruger, a former special adviser to David Cameron, and the chief executive of Only Con­nect, a charity in King’s Cross that works with ex-offenders and has links to churches, said that the Big Society was “suffering from its defin­ing con­tra­diction: a central govern­ment ini­tiative that casts central govern­ment as the enemy; a grass­roots move­ment born in Whitehall. . . There is a problem with the way cuts are being passed on to charities by councils and quangos, which find it easier to end a grant than to fire an employee.”

The Cabinet Office Minister, Fran­cis Maude, told BBC Radio 4: “You’ve got to bear in mind that three-quarters of voluntary organis­ations get no funding from the state at all, so they are not going to be damaged by the cuts in council spending.”

In November, the Big Society was endorsed enthusiastically by General Synod, which agreed to undertake a feasibility study to encourage part­ner­ships with the Government and the voluntary sector (News, 26 Nov­ember 2010).

Also in November, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that he was “very anxious” about the Government cuts; and that politicians had “not really thought through” aspects of the Big Society programme (News, 12 Nov­ember 2010).

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