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Looking upstream

29 April 2016

“STICK two poems up in a bus shelter and call it a university.” Tony Blair was the subject of this one-liner, written by the late Victoria Wood for one of her plain-speaking dinnerladies. But her dig at delivering public services was recalled when David Cameron announced the Big Society in 2010. Rowan Williams, then at Canterbury, had early anxieties that politicians had “not really thought through” the vision, but he was reluctant to dismiss it altogether. “Cynicism is too easy a response, and the opportunity is too important to let pass,” he wrote in his book Faith in the Public Square. Others in the Church welcomed the Prime Minister’s initiative more wholeheartedly. They were tired of being regarded with suspicion by local authorities, and saw a chance to play an enhanced part in public life. For his part, Mr Cameron courted the Church, telling Bishops that “Jesus invented the Big Society 2000 years ago.”

The new report from the Oasis Foundation is critical of the Government for the “grossly inadequate” investment in charities’ capabilities which has relegated the Big Society to little more than a slogan. What the report doesn’t do is question the ideology underpinning the Big Society. Despite observing a few of the negative impacts of cuts to local-authority funding, including the number of children now living in poverty in privately rented homes, the report concludes none the less that “the concept of a bigger and broader civil society remains a good one.” Its message is clear: this is an opportunity for the Church, one that it has failed to grasp.

Why, then, does this feel like crawling over the rubble after a political earthquake, attempting to succour the hungry and homeless victims, without once questioning the fragility of their former houses and the forces that brought them down? Take foodbanks. No one who distributes food sees this as a welcome opportunity. They would rather the social-welfare system worked as it should, and cared for the almost one million people last year who went without meals out of poverty (Joseph Rowntree Foundation). A more mixed economy exists in the field of education, where church and state schools rub along together. But this is the result of decades of a successful partnership between the dioceses and local authorities, and has yet to prove whether it can survive the academies programme.

It would be wrong to disparage the admirable work done by the Oasis Foundation. It is right to argue that the Church must play its part in building civic society, as must all individuals and stakeholders. There will always be fish that fall through the state’s net that can be caught by smaller agencies. The Church cannot be silent, however, when it sees the conditions for such a partnership being undermined by government indifference and an ideology that subcontracts care to commercial interests such as Serco and G4S. Before the Church too readily resumes responsibility for widows and orphans, it ought to question why those orphans are once more being placed on its doorstep.

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