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Taking a broader perspective…

Is ‘Big Society’ a fix for a false prognosis?

By Andrew Harding

Andrew is known under another pseudonym which he blogs under – 2me2you. Andrew has been a member of the Labour Party since shortly after May 6th 2010, after voting Lib Dem to keep the Tory out. He currently does analysis, research and support based work for Bournemouth University, whilst about to embark on an MSc in Citizenship & Democracy from the University of Southampton.

Firstly, we were told that Britain was ‘broken’, but that was dropped as it was largely false and actually quite offensive. Social cohesion has benefitted under Labour since 1997.

But is Britain or its society broken? I believe we are more tolerant than we were – the introduction of civil partnerships illustrates that. Labour introduced a minimum wage, the NHS in the mid 90s lagged behind the rest of the western world – we are now in a situation where we have a comparatively good quality health service at a relatively cheap cost. Pound for pound we get exceptional value from the NHS, do not let Andrew Lansley tell you otherwise. Education has made real strides since 1997. We are also told that crime is at historically low levels bearing in mind we have just come out of a recession. I’ll let you make your own mind up.

For one moment let us believe the Tories and assume Britain is ‘broken’. Why? Because you can see the (albeit skewed) logic behind the ‘Big Society’. Is the ‘Big Society’ supposed to be the cure to ‘Broken Britain’? It is hard to see otherwise, even when we are still not exactly sure what the ‘Big Society’ is. So will the prescription fit the ailment, will the bitter pill solve a problem that doesn’t exist, and finally can you really expect to get something for nothing?

The short answer to the last question at least is yes. Currently volunteers across the land put a shift in at the local hospice shop, run the after school club or are involved in countless activities usually in their own free time.

At the other end of the spectrum there is the relatively new phenomena called work experience, designed to empower people to gain a cutting edge in entering a career or profession. Excluding the work experience brigade, we already have a sizeable volunteer army.

Whilst it is not a new idea, it is quite naïve to suggest we can significantly add to their numbers. More often than not people will want to benefit for a particular action – work experience is the best example of that. Internships and work experience have become a necessity to progress in specific careers, they can be exploitative and act as a barrier to certain groups but with growing competition it is also very necessary.

‘Exploitative’ is a key word here, as is ‘empower’. Is ‘Big Society’ just a dressed down version of work experience, or rather a way of getting something done for nothing that previously you would have had to pay someone to do. I think so. ‘Empowering’ in both contexts is just ‘exploiting’ but in a different guise.

You undertake work experience to gain a valuable insight into a career and hopefully a cutting edge over other prospective candidates in the employment market. You could say it empowers you. Interestingly David Cameron chose the word ‘empowerment’ in his recent attempt to explain exactly what the ‘Big Society’ is. Valid comparisons can be made between the two.

Will people want to run our public services under the guise and rhetoric of being ‘empowered’?

The vast majority of volunteers tend to be people of retirement age, disposable time is a major factor. I suspect a large proportion of the retired population have had ample opportunities to volunteer, and why would the ones that do not already suddenly be empowered by empty rhetoric?

It is fair to suggest adults who have a family do not possess enough free time to volunteer either, and will teenagers drag themselves away from their Playstation to pick up litter for a day? Where will this nationalised parish council come from without taking away from the number of good causes they are already affiliated to?

Charities are set to take a hefty hit in George Osborne’s recent emergency budget. Cash flow among charities and not for profit groups may also be a stumbling block.

In 2005 the Conservatives correctly attacked the then Chancellor (Gordon Brown) for proposing to raid dormant bank accounts in order to set up a ‘Community bank’ to fund local projects. It is then ironic that David Cameron has proposed the very same method to channel funds to the ‘Big Society’. Is it moral, or even legal?

So what is the ‘Big Society’ apart from a simple cost cutting measure and a prescription for a sickness that was falsely diagnosed? It is a lot of hot air. It is very hard to distance the ‘Big Society’ from its cost cutting criticisms. The government has not turned into a pound shop just yet, but they are certainly parking the Jag at Lidl.

In trying to dissect the ‘Big Society’ I am aware that it has led to more questions being asked than answered, which is symptomatic of the ambiguity in this policy.

Taken in the right light it is an admirable concept, but appears to be one that has not been thought out properly. It is as much naive as it is ambiguous. The Prime Minister says it is designed to provide “communities with oomph” – the Prime Minister’s own words conclude the critique of a loose concept very well indeed.

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One Response

  1. Robert says:

    Well you say that people can or will volunteer, do you know how hard it is to get into this type of work, I’ve had my name down for years. To work for age concern in my area you need to have five references one must be from a police officer and one from a doctor, I do not know any police officers. Then I went to another group who stated my god your disabled oh no sorry we cannot get the insurance to cover you sorry bye and close the door on my face.

    Lots of charities will now ask you to pay for your own CRB check since it can cost up wards of 120.00 for the big check, and you need a check for every single job or task you do, I work as a coach for disabled children, CRB 120.00, I work in a Special education school, another CRB check this one cost 120.00 and I work in a local charity that one cost me 70.00. I cannot afford to do anymore so called charity work, why does the CRB check not follow you, it not likely I will become a rapist within days of a CRB check is it.

    The whole idea that all these charities and council will want a lot of cripples and retard like me working for them, well I already know they do not.

    To day the Police are to reduce Ms May wants more non paid Police, they want civilians to go out and help the police, avengers or what ever you want to call them, the specials are to be pushed unpaid police, officers retiring will be used as reserves.

    The problem is of course if the police become a part time, how long before redundancies make the police a part time service, like fire ambulance crews.

    We do seem to be heading for a lot of people on the dole who will do some charity work, who will not be seen as unemployed.

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