Baroness Smith questions the “Big Society”

“My Lords, I echo the comments of others who have expressed their gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for securing this debate. It is timely for two reasons. First, when we hear a lot about the Government’s flagship, the big society, it is helpful to discuss exactly what the Government mean by that. Secondly, the contributions that we have heard today have expressed the depth and breadth of experience in this House. For many of us, a thread runs through our lives that connects us with the widest possible voluntary sector.

The starting point for today’s debate is that neither the concept nor the actions of the big society are new, and I share the concern that “good society” might have been a better title. But if the definition of a big society is one that tries to engage with and contribute in some way to strengthening communities and specifically to seek greater engagement with people who may feel marginalised, this has been ongoing for some considerable time. That does not mean that there is no room for expansion and improvement, but we need to be clear that while charities, the voluntary community sector, social enterprises, co-operatives and mutuals must play their part, it is not their responsibility to create the big society.

I should like to touch on three issues. First, what is the role of the third sector? In the Labour Government, my final ministerial role was as a Cabinet Office Minister and the Minister for the Third Sector, which has now been replaced by the Office for Civil Society. I think that we on the Labour Benches can take huge pride in the support and opportunities we provided to the sector and the role that they were able to play in civil society. I am also very proud of the partnership that we had with the sector as a whole, and I am pleased to see that the present Government have not thrown all that away but are building on some of the important work that we did.

From service delivery to volunteering to co-operatives and social enterprises, I met people with such a commitment to their work that I was genuinely inspired by what they achieved. I recall going to Blackpool to meet representatives of an organisation that sought out jobs and gave support in those jobs to people with severe learning disabilities to ensure that they could play their role in society. I visited another organisation, Crossroads Care in Waveney, which supports carers who often care for those with Alzheimer’s. It was interesting to see that people who had cared for their loved ones throughout their lives came back as volunteers to contribute even more.

It seems that everyone instinctively thinks that that charities and the voluntary sector are good-they seem to be appreciated-but it not until we see the depth and breadth of what they achieve and what they can do that we fully appreciate the massive contribution that they make. These organisations and so many others make a real difference to the lives of individuals and to strengthening communities, but I fear that their initial excitement at the Government’s championing of the big society is turning somewhat to nervousness as they see the likelihood of a greater demand for their services and a decrease in funding. The Government face a real challenge in ensuring that the big society does not just become empty rhetoric or a buzzword, but something that we can all support and play a part in. We should see the contribution that is already being made at national and local levels as something on which we can build.

In the Government’s drive for what it calls a smaller state, is it expected that these kinds of organisations should have to pick up services that are no longer provided by central or local government? Are the cuts being made in public expenditure likely to put pressure on services that are already provided by the third sector? If we have a smaller state, these problems will not go away, and the need for support will not go away. The Government and the state have responsibilities to vulnerable people and to society as a whole. It is right that charities and the voluntary sector should play their role in providing services that were expanded under the last Labour Government, but it is not their responsibility; that responsibility remains with the state.

It seems that there is a tension between the Treasury view of the third sector and charities as a service delivery sector doing more for less, with payment by results, and the vision of the big society or a good society that is more about the wider engagement of all sections of society. I refer to that tension because as well as providing services and supporting people, these organisations also need to be advocates and campaigners, a point that has been referred to by others in the Chamber this evening. The Government should only ever see this as helpful and part of civil society engagement, even if it is not always welcome. It does not mean that every organisation is necessarily involved in political campaigning or politics-the noble Lord, Lord Rix, gave the example of Mencap being able to engage in the wider issues and make changes to legislation, which is extremely important-but if they have ideas and suggestions about how policies could be changed or tweaked to improve them, they have a duty and an obligation to say so. It would be ridiculous if an organisation dealing with homeless people that had suggestions for how housing benefit could be improved or arguments for why any proposed changes should not be made were prevented in any way from making them.

I was encouraged by the Minister’s comment that more engagement was required that would lead to social action, but Governments cannot define the limits of that engagement, and advocacy and campaigning are of great concern, so it would be helpful if he could offer the reassurance that no organisation will be prevented from being anything other than entirely open and will not face a threat to any funding it receives from the Government.

The second issue is that of funding. We all understand that the Government consider the deficit to be the most important issue. While no one doubts the need to reduce spending to deal with the deficit, there is considerable disagreement about the scale and the speed of the reduction, and the level of impact that is acceptable. The impact on the very sector that the Government want to do more for civil society is enormous. I was encouraged when the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, talked about the infrastructure organisations, but NAVCA, the very organisation that supports them, has seen a cut of 50 per cent in its staff at head office. They are important people who support the sector at the grassroots level.

We need to look at the scale of the cuts that some organisations are facing because they are quite alarming. We heard today about the NCVO survey, but the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services is trying to build up a picture of cuts across the country. In my own county, the Essex boys’ and girls’ clubs are losing 30 per cent of their £200,000 funding, and they work with 10,000 young people. In the south-west, the Wings organisation, which works in some of the most deprived rural areas, has lost 25 per cent of its funding, and the Northamptonshire YMCA is losing more than £1 million, the equivalent of 44 permanent staff and 13 casual workers. The work that they do is now in real danger and could lead to children and families being without the help and support that they need in order not to become homeless.

Grants are only part of the income of the sector-contracts and fund-raising make up other parts-but there are serious consequences to cuts in grants; they are not pain-free. The Government need to undertake an assessment of the impact of these cuts. ACEVO has written to George Osborne and the Treasury and, supported by 100 organisations throughout the voluntary sector, has offered to look at the situation and work with the Government on where the cuts would have the least possible impact.

I should like to say something briefly about volunteering, which partly fits into the concept of the big society, civil society and good society. Society is strengthened by the work of volunteers, whether as trustees for charities, the WRVS or conservation volunteers, in many ways. Not only does it provide direct help to those organisations but it provides skills and confidence to the volunteer, and many potential employers now look for volunteering as part of a CV. Volunteering England estimated the value of volunteering in 2005 as more than £48 billion.

However, I share the concerns expressed to me by the WRVS, Volunteering England and others that volunteering is not cost-free. Any individual may give their time freely but there are costs involved in training, expenses, management and recruitment and in matching the volunteer to the right kind of position in an organisation. The WRVS is rightly concerned that to cut the investment in volunteering runs the risk of undermining much of what it and other organisations do, for example in the field of social care. Other organisations give similar examples of the immense value of their volunteers; the volunteer is free but the organisation bears a cost in organising their work.

We need to recognise that the responsibility for the Government’s big society and civil engagement rests with all of us and not on the shoulders of charities and the voluntary sector as much as it has, although they will continue to play a major role. If we are serious about encouraging and strengthening civil engagement, the Government need to work with charities and the wider third sector and support them in the work that they do. If they do not, we will be in danger of losing momentum, and the consequence could be that we would lose the very engagement that we seek.

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