The purpose of this essay is to critically analyse the notion of the ‘Big Society’. Through discussing influences on the operations of voluntary organisations in contemporary society and analysing the interface between the voluntary sector and policy makers the aim is to ascertain whether its implementation as a piece of social policy is realistic. On May 6th 2010 the general election took place but no party achieved the 362 seats required for an overall majority.
David Cameron, the conservative Party leader won the largest number of votes but still fell short by 20 seats, this then resulted in a hung parliament. After discussions, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats came together to form the coalition government. The term “third sector” was defined by The Cabinet Office of the British government up until 2010 as “the place between State and private sector”. The Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition government retitled the department the Office for Civil Society.
The term Civil Society may be more recognisable as the term ‘Big Society’, which was introduced as a central motive for the Conservative Party election manifesto in 2010 and again is highlighted as a central policy initiative for the coalition government. David Cameron states in his and the deputy Prime Minister’s speech at the Big Society launch that ‘it’s going to be the voluntary sector, social enterprises (no longer to be called ‘the third sector’, from now on: that phrase is to be abolished).
The office of the voluntary sector and social enterprise sector will be a bigger part of government than ever. ’ Jeremy Kendall (2003) describes the voluntary sector as ‘increasingly central to public policy debates, and is one of the fastest growing segments of the economy in the UK… The expectation is that we should turn to this sector to address a raft of pressing societal problems, from social exclusion to environmental degradation. ’ Unlike today, during the Middle Ages the main influence on society was the Catholic Church who possessed great political power.
Orders of nuns, monks and knights worked to deliver services for the poor and to people in need. One of these orders was the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. The Order’s hospital, which was founded in 1099, treated the sick and injured without distinction of race, colour or creed. In 1140 the Order was introduced into England but was disbanded by Henry V111 in the reformation. In 1888 the Order was revived as the Order of St. John, their main aim being to provide First Aid and transport for the sick and injured, more commonly known today as the St. John’s Ambulance.
Philanthropy developed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, this is when an individual donates their time or money and/or their reputation to charitable causes. Wealthy industrialists and political individuals such as the earl of Shaftsbury (1801-1885) and Charles Booth (1840-1916) strived to help the poor. Sir Titus Salt (1803-1876) Owned woollen mills in West Yorkshire, he commissioned architects to design a mill and village outside the city where the air was cleaner which was to become Saltaire. He supplied houses for his workers and each house had piped water and its own outside toilet.
It took over 20 years to build Saltaire; it had its own shops, hospital, school, library, park and church. There were alms houses for the poor and elderly, allotments public baths and wash houses. By the end of the nineteenth century philanthropy was in steep decline and it was seen that the way to solve problems was ‘statism’ not ‘voluntarism’. New Labour came into power in 1997 and wanted to review the role of the voluntary sector. They understood the voluntary sector as having an important role in community renewal and sought for an improved relationship between the voluntary sector and the government.
Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, talked about the government’s mission to support voluntary and community organisations and said this was because ‘They enable individuals to contribute to the development of their communities. By so doing they promote citizenship, help to re-establish a sense of community and make a crucial contribution to our aim of a just and inclusive society’ (Home Office, 1998, p. 1). The ‘Big Society’ is central to the Conservative Party’s vision for change. Its core themes are empowering communities, redistributing power from the state to citizens and promoting a culture of volunteering.
It is designed to build a society that is stronger by giving people more power and control to improve their lives and communities. Cameron (2010) states ‘We will promote decentralisation and democratic engagement, and we will end the era of top-down government by giving new powers to local councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals. ’ Cameron sees responsibility to be the key to building a ‘Big Society’. He strives to make it easier for individuals to come together and make changes in their communities to improve them.
He says that in the past clubbing together as a community to start up a new school or to take over the running of a local post office is extremely difficult. He recognises that it is difficult, with all the vetting and criminal records, to become a volunteer so puts forward that he will make these things easier to achieve. ‘The Big Society’ Bank is a project under the ‘Big Society’ designed to create new financial products for instance social impact bonds and it is said that “it will be easier for social enterprises to fund themselves so they have cash flow”. Patrick Wintour 2011. cited in The Guardian) . Its initial capital is to be made available from money from dormant UK bank accounts, and a further ?200M from UK banks. Some of the other agreed policies that have been put forward to achieve this ‘Big Society’ and promote positive change are, training a new generation of community organisers and support the creation of neighbourhood groups, especially in the most deprived areas. They aim to encourage volunteering and social involvement by launching a national ‘Big Society Day’.
Cameron promises to encourage charitable giving and philanthropy. He also wants to introduce a National Citizen Service; this project will provide a programme giving a chance for 16year olds to develop skills needed to be an active and responsible citizen and to mix with people from different backgrounds. Plans are to promote devolution of power and financial control to local governments as well as a full review of local government finance. Regional Spatial Strategies will be abolished and decisions on housing and planning will be made by local councils.
The creation and expansion of co-operatives, charities and social enterprises will be supported to have more involvement in the running of public services. The Government hope the ‘Big Society’ will aid in replacing the ‘big government’ and fix our broken society by cutting the size of the deficit. According to The Prime Minister the best way of address unemployment and poverty is a shift in power responsibility and control from the state to communities.
Increasing the volume of the voluntary action is seen as a way to cut public spending, leading to an enhanced role and more resources for the voluntary sector. Many aspects of the ‘Big Society’ have been challenged and criticised. The ‘Big Society’ Bank met with criticism from banks and charities. Thomas Hughes-Hallett (2011), chief executive of the Marie Curie Cancer Care gave evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee and said: “it is potentially setting up a system to encourage vulnerable charities to borrow money. Another common criticism of the ‘Big Society’ is that the whole idea is too vague, an article in The Statesman claimed ‘Many of Cameron’s cabinet felt that the idea, which has repeatedly failed to catch on with the public, should be quietly dropped… Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister who runs the project, became the latest member of government to admit that the idea has not been communicated well. ’ Others argue that the ‘Big Society’ is not a new idea Tessa Jowell cited in The ‘Big Society’ Challenge (2011) dismissed the ‘Big Society’ as ‘simply a brass-necked rebranding of programmes already put in place by a Labour government’.
She added: ‘Funding for a social investment bank and for community pubs was put in place in March, and residents have been involved in setting council budgets for a number of years. ’ (in McSmith, 2010b). A further criticism could be that people don’t have enough time to be a member of the ‘Big Society’. People in low paid jobs with big family responsibilities and lone parents will normally be low on time as well as money. Committing time to unpaid local activity may result in a loss of benefits.
Some people believe that the ‘Big Society is just a smokescreen for cuts, Cameron (2011) argues against this and states ‘It is not a cover for anything…whoever was standing here right now as Prime Minister would be having to make cuts in public spending, and isn’t it better if we are having to make cuts in public spending, to try and encourage a bigger and stronger society at the same time? ’. Various charity figures have suggested that the scale of local authority cuts could kill off the idea before it gets going, by “destroying” existing voluntary groups.
The idea of the ‘Big Society’ seems to be slightly floored. It overlooks the need for structural changes to the economy and the importance of promoting social justice. These things are crucial to develop active citizenship and happier more involved communities. Responsibility needs to be shared across income groups. Communities will not be ‘mended’ unless we build a broader economy. The ‘Big Society’ is strong on empowerment yet weak on equality.
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