Guest post by Margaret Lally, Director of UK Operations for the British Red Cross
It took centre stage at the Conservative party conference this weekend and provided the focus of the Lords debate on Tuesday. But voluntary organisations at the vanguard of what is potentially one of the biggest ideas of our time continue to ask, ‘what does the Big Society mean?’
The British Red Cross could be seen as the ultimate supporter of a ‘Big Society’. As part of the world’s largest volunteer organisation we have long recognised the power of local communities to provide support to those in need.
But the concept is ambiguous. Will it require voluntary organisations to drastically scale up their provision of services without the funding to do so? Does putting power in the hands of local communities risk an uneven distribution of service provision across the country? And is there a danger of blurring the distinction between civil society and statutory provision?
Ultimately, we cannot ignore the fact that the Big Society could be a way of using the voluntary sector as a vehicle to reduce government’s own commitments to safeguarding society’s most vulnerable.
Surprisingly there has been little reference to the Big Society in the provision of social care. However, there is no doubt that meeting the care needs of the population is one of the biggest challenges facing policy-makers today. In England, there are over 15 million people living with long-term care conditions. With an aging population alongside a very limited pot of resources, this raises some difficult questions.
However, within social care, much of the Big Society rhetoric is already alive. Family and friends already take on a huge unpaid caring responsibility. Volunteering participation is high albeit not increasing in huge numbers. A recent survey found that in the past year 23% of respondents had formally volunteered in organisations related to health, disability and social welfare. Whether or not the Big Society will unlock a willingness amongst more people to volunteer, particularly during a period of financial hardship, remains to be seen.
Providing opportunities for citizen engagement through volunteering is not a free good. It is crucial that structures are in place to support and develop volunteers and their contribution must be fully costed when services are being planned. Currently volunteer services are often excluded from this level of attention. Government must ensure that adequate resources are available to really make this idea work.
But the success of the Big Society can not be judged solely on the level of funding going to voluntary organisations or even the number of people volunteering. If it is about increased power to local people to design and contribute the services they need then it also needs to be able to respond to the needs of the most marginalised.
It will also lie in how well it responds to the needs of the most marginalised. Everyone should be able to participate in the Big Society on an equal basis. Too often, the most vulnerable individuals, young people, parents and the elderly are powerless to make the changes they want and need in their area. This could be due to their circumstances or inability to influence or act. The barriers of frustration and obstacles to change must be overcome if we are to create the Big Society.
I was reminded of this by a colleague who had spoken to a young asylum seeker. Having escaped to the UK this 17 year old was faced with living without gas or electricity, without enough English to get a job and lacking the bus fare to even travel to the job centre. What, if anything, did Britain’s ‘Big Society’ mean to him?
Perhaps the biggest danger is that the Big Society could evolve to be literally just that. A society of the biggest, strongest, wealthiest and most vocal which fails to support marginalised groups, the most vulnerable and the disadvantaged.
The debates currently taking place within the political arena are important. Politicians need to address what they mean by the Big Society and clearly lay out how it will work in practice. This must be done in consultation service users and charities.
The definition of the Big Society is not set in stone. We have a real opportunity to build on the good work already happening in communities up and down the country and to ensure it doesn’t just become another empty slogan. But policies should not lead to the withdrawal of support from the most marginalised; wherever they may be. Whether services are provided by Government or by others is a matter for politicians. The bottom line is vulnerable people must get the support they need.