One year on, the government’s Big Society is still paddling along the rocky shores. Despite well-meaning intentions the initiative is still failing to live up to expectations.
At the heart of the Big Society is the desire for greater active citizenship and a thriving voluntary and community sector through the opening up of public service delivery. No one can really object to this. Indeed, as an organisation with over 30,000 volunteers in the UK and a deliverer of some public contracts, the British Red Cross sees everyday the dedication and difference volunteers make, as well as the benefits to their communities and wider society.
But in reality, many charities are struggling to survive; the cuts are hitting them hard; they are scaling back their valuable work in local communities and in some cases ceasing to exist, all at a time when demand for such services is increasing due to the downturn. This is not surprising given the recent report that voluntary sector will lose more than £110 million in local authority funding this year alone. Is it any wonder that many believe that the Big Society is being used as a cover for cuts? And more importantly, is it fair that the most vulnerable – the isolated elderly citizen or young carer – in society bare the brunt of these decisions?
Large charities, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau and Refugee Council, as well as smaller ones, are feeling the pinch. The British Red Cross has also faced some challenges, particularly in our health and social care work, with commissioners asking us to deliver more for less or in some cases ceasing to provide funding for specific services.
In London our ‘home from hospital’ services have been cut by local authorities. In some case, this simple provision helping elderly people get settled in at home after a stay in hospital is now being provided by the private sector – but patients are having to pay for it. In other cases the service has been cut completely. For elderly people living alone, this service makes a huge difference to their wellbeing, allowing them to leave hospital in the first place and easing the transition home. Sadly it seems to be vulnerable people like this who are so far bearing the brunt.
Our work helping asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants, who are at high risk of exploitation, has also significantly increased due to other support charities having their funding cut or ended. Ironically, the evidence shows that it is preventative services – those that in the long-run save the state money – that are being disproportionately cut.
This is stifling the voluntary sector, one of the key levers to supporting some of the most disadvantaged in society and to building sustainable, responsive communities.
Let’s make no mistake: these decisions are having a detrimental impact on the community and voluntary sector and consequently the kind of Big Society to which the Prime Minister aspires. We are in danger of having a smaller, less effective, voluntary sector. We will lose forever the specialist and unique skills contained within voluntary organisations and their unique ability to engage with some of the hardest to reach.
There is an urgent need to address the impact spending cuts are having on the voluntary sector. In recognising the need to address the public finances, the voluntary sector accepts its responsibility and need to reform, belt tightening is to be expected and, as with our private sector cousins, we are no strangers to salary and recruitment freezes, spending reviews and other measures aimed at bringing down costs. But with many voluntary organisations reliant on government funding to deliver much needed public services, all the belt tightening in the world cannot make up for the profound loss of income the cuts represent. We will do our part, but for the sake of all those we help, the voluntary sector cannot become an easy target.
Government, local and central, has a role to play to ensure the voluntary sector is not disproportionately affected. Cutting funding in the short-term can result in higher costs in the future and preventing such pain in the first place seems to be the most sensible thing to do.
In addition, there needs to be a drive to reduce the barriers to meaningful and regular volunteering, as well as a wider acknowledgement of the benefits gained. It is concerning that the Third Sector Research Centre found that 31% of the population provides 87% of voluntary hours and charitable giving, most of which are likely to be middle-aged, well-educated and based in prosperous areas.
For the Big Society to succeed it should be judged on how well it engages and meets the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities. There is no shortage of commitment from the voluntary and community sector, but the more the voluntary sector is forced to cut, and the harder its job becomes, the louder the Big Society naysayers will become.
An edited version of this post was published in The Times on 3 August 2011
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