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Big Society or big let-down?

Can David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ deliver results for the sector or has his ambitious vision lost its way? Lindsay Sharman talks to Sir Stephen Bubb for the lowdown.

 

Sir Stephen Bubb hit the headlines in January when his letter to the Prime Minister described the Big Society as ‘effectively dead’. The letter went on to say that although the Government could take credit for some of its achievements on behalf of the third sector, progress has been slow.

Fast forward a month and Sir Bubb remains confident in his convictions. He is believes the Government has much to do to get relations with the sector ‘back on track’, but recognises that it would be ‘wrong not to recognise what the Government has already achieved on behalf of the third sector.’

“When the Coalition Agreement was announced in 2010, charities and voluntary organisations all knew that tough times were ahead of them,” he says, “but despite that, many third sector leaders welcomed the promise of wide-ranging reform of public services.”

He uses reforms to Gift Aid and Inheritance Tax that promote charitable giving, and the creation, via the Localism Act, of new community rights that allow people to take control over local services and assets, as examples of what has been achieved to date.

However, he believes the Coalition’s rhetoric on many topics has not been matched by action, and the idea of a Big Society is losing momentum fast.

“Since last year, momentum for reforms in too many areas has been lost, in the reform of social care funding or offender rehabilitation for example,” he says.

“And with the reality divorced from the rhetoric, like with the Work Programme, where too many charities are now struggling or withdrawing from what was first described as a ‘massive boost for the Big Society’, the initial excitement for the concept has petered out and the coalition’s mid-term review has done little to revive it.”

It’s a harsh reality for many organisations in the sector. Charities face crippling cuts with 50 per cent of local authorities admitting to making disproportionate cuts to charity funding in their area. And far from being offered ‘an invitation to join the government of Britain’- the title of the 2010 Conservative manifesto- charities are being threatened with the loss of mechanisms, such as consultations and judicial reviews, that enable them to hold government to account.

 

Back on track

“The big society concept is strong but now the phrase has effectively been dropped,” says Sir Bubb, “Despite the size and strength of the charity sector, our role in creating jobs, economic growth and transforming public services is generally ignored. It is hard for charity leaders to escape the feeling that when it comes to promoting the potential of charities in this country, a Government once sincerely full of ambition, vision and urgency has lost its way, and now lacks a clear narrative on the role of charities in the economy and society.”

So is there anything that can be done to get the Prime Minister’s vision back on track? Sir Bubb says improved relations between the sector and the Government is the place to start, and his letter implored David Cameron to take steps to do so.

“If the concept is to succeed, a genuine rapport between Government and the voluntary sector is required,” he says.

“I wrote to the Prime Minister to ask him to take a few steps to help restore the relationship between the Coalition and the voluntary sector and I would like to see the Government re-affirm its commitment to charitable activity - for example, by supporting payroll giving.”

He would also like to see a push on reforming public services, like social care funding along the lines of the Dilnot report, independent scrutiny of major spending decisions to ensure that they do not disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, and clear incentives for charities to create jobs and economic growth as part of the broader initiatives to promote the growth of SMEs.

“This would send a clear signal, and lay down the foundations for a genuine partnership between Government and the voluntary sector over the second half of the parliament,” he says.

Mr Cameron, it’s over to you…

 

Sir Stephen Bubb is head of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations

This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 26, February 2013

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