Big Society – Big Con?: Accounting & Business

Lord Nat Wei was hardly the best known member of the Government. Yet his resignation as ‘Big Society’ advisor is a damaging blow to David Cameron. The Prime Minister’s difficulties in getting the Big Society initiative accepted – and even more challenging, understood – do not merely continue, but may actually be escalating.

Two days before Wei stepped down to spend more time in the charity world, Cameron had made his latest attempt to describe Big Society and canvass wider support for it. We must build a bigger, stronger society,” he said. “We must build that bigger, stronger society because we can’t keep tolerating the wasted lives and wasted potential that comes when talent is held back by circumstance.

“But above all we must build a bigger, stronger society because in the end the things that make up that kind of society, strong families, strong communities, strong relationships: these are the things that make life worth living and it’s about time we had a government and a Prime Minister that understands that…. Creating a country which feels like a community, where our relationships are better and the glue that binds people together is stronger.”

Despite the strength of Cameron’s rhetoric, there is a widespread sense that the Big Society has little definition and even less chance of success. The respected commentator Philip Stevens argued in the Financial Times: “The prime minister…. failed to anticipate that his grandiose vision of a Big Society would be effectively sunk by spending cuts.”

This analysis, though, is fundamentally challenged by some in the voluntary sector who might have been expected to welcome the larger role the Prime Minister envisages for them. Kevin Curley is chief executive of the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action – NAVCA – which represents small, local, community groups. He says: “Some people make the mistake of saying that Big Society cannot be delivered because of the depth and speed of funding cuts. But that misses the point that Big Society is about the cuts. Small society and cuts go together.

“So for organizations like NAVCA that have always seen a thriving local voluntary sector closely connected to a well funded local state as a good thing, we see that negatively. We are much more interested in how we sustain the relationship with local government and sustain it on a funded basis. In that sense, the Big Society tent is irrelevant.”

Curley is also unhappy with another major theme of the Big Society: the commissioning of public services from the voluntary sector. In practice many of the contracts are too large for any but the very biggest charities to even bid for on their own, he says. The reality, Curley predicts, is that private sector bodies will win welfare-to-work and other contracts, with voluntary organizations merely being the sub-contractors at the end of the chain.

“There are problems about getting good terms out of the private sector providers,” explains Curley, “and it is made more difficult through payment by results funding, which means a lot of costs have to be met up front. So that favours the big national charities.”

But larger charities also have their reservations about Big Society and whether its intentions read across into policies across government. Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, responded to the Cameron speech by expressing his concerns about the Government’s healthcare reforms. NCVO is concerned that the reforms will reward large providers, at the expense of charities that would like to take a bigger role in NHS provision.

“The voluntary sector is a valuable source of expertise in helping to design health services that meet the needs of local people,” says Etherington. “However, the Health Bill as it currently stands risks sidelining voluntary organisations from contributing properly to service design. We urge the government to strengthen the measures in the Bill to ensuring that GP consortia incorporate the expertise and knowledge of their local voluntary and community sector in their thinking.”

The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, ACEVO, also has its reservations about Big Society, but is positive in principle. Its chief executive, Sir Stephen Bubb, explains: “I welcome the Big Society vision and the prominent place it accords the third sector as a prime engine of positive social change, but I have always said the Government faces an uphill struggle to make its vision a reality.”

ACEVO has just published the results of a cross-party commission it sponsored, which found that only 13% of the public believes that the Big Society is backed by a clear government plan. The commission called for greater private sector funding of Big Society initiatives. ACEVO strongly criticized mainstream financial institutions for donating only £200m for the Big Society Bank – intended to provided funding to the voluntary sector and social enterprises for a wider spread of activities. The amount was “really quite scandalous” when compared to the £7bn the big banks awarded in staff bonuses, said Bubb.

Another key part of the Government’s Big Society programme is increasing charitable donations. The recent Giving White Paper is intended, said the Cabinet Office, to “renew Britain’s culture of philanthropy by working with charities and businesses to support new ways for people to contribute which fit into busy modern lives”. While ACEVO supports the white paper’s focus of making it easier to make tax-free donations, it says the proposals do not go anywhere near meeting the needs for funds that charities now face – especially as many lost money through local government grant cuts.

Without even winning over the sector that is supposed to be the main beneficiary of the policy, the Government still has a long way to go to make Big Society a big success.


What is the Big Society?

The Big Society has three strands: Public Service Reform, Social Action and Community Empowerment.

Public sector reform includes externalization of public service delivery to mutuals that are owned, or part-owned, by staff, to charities, or to the private sector. Social action is intended to encourage citizens and charities to do more and the state to do less. Community empowerment includes the public having more say in local government decisions and for community groups to have a right to buy underused local public assets.

Big Society programmes announced in the Giving white paper include:

· £40 million to support volunteering, giving and volunteering infrastructure by way of the Social Action Fund, Challenge Prizes and Local Infrastructure Fund

· £1 million to support Youthnet which runs the volunteering website

· £700,000 to support Philanthropy UK, connecting wealthy people with appropriate charities.

· £400,000 to trial ‘Spice’ in England to reward volunteers through vouchers and discounts

· Removal of gift aid paperwork for donations up to £5, 000, by April 2013

· Move to a new online filing system for gift aid claims, by 2013

· Reduction in rate of inheritance tax for estates that leave 10% or more to charity

The Government is also to introduce a National Citizen Service, with over 10,000 16 year olds recruited for the first wave this summer.

“[These] programmes are valuable, but small scale,” says NAVCA’s Kevin Curley.

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