Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Reality of 'Big Society'

Most of us are probably familiar with the idea of ‘Big Society’. David Cameron and his campaign team did their best to make sure we didn’t forget it in the lead up to the 2010 election. It was a great way for the Conservatives to frame their economic plans – huge spending cuts would be offset by a ‘Big Society’ picking up the slack. While the idea wasn’t exactly a massive vote winner, the Tories endured with it until a short time after the election when the term became politically useless and began to be omitted from the vocabulary of senior Conservatives. However, with each passing month under this government, the reality of ‘Big Society’ is becoming much clearer. It is not exactly surprising that it has been a failure, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to watch as the most deprived in our society are made to suffer. For those of us involved in the voluntary sector, the view is all too clear.

One of the reasons that the ‘Big Society’ idea was so defunct from the start was that, as well as big cuts to education, transport, policing and welfare, the government also decided to slash funding for the voluntary sector. In a time of economic hardship, when charitable donations go down by default, it seems fairly ludicrous to expect this sector to pick up the government’s slack, particularly on the back of huge cuts to it. It owes partly to this fact that ‘Big Society’ was dropped from the discourse of politicians. Instead, cuts have repeatedly been referred to as “tough but necessary” choices being made by politicians who claim “we’re all in this together”. I think it is safe to say we are not.

Refugees and asylum seekers are among the worst affected by these cuts. The recent inquiry into asylum support for children and young people, summarised here, showed that the government is leaving children, in particular, woefully unsupported. The voluntary sector is being left not just to support them a little, but to support them entirely. The report showed that many children rely on charities for food, and the government can no longer claim to be ignorant of this now it has been published. This is the reality of ‘Big Society’. The neediest people in our society are being knowingly neglected by the government and, as each new cut takes effect, the situation worsens. It is clear to see that, while the charitable sector may be more sensitive to the needs of the deprived, the gulf in resources between this sector and the government is far too great to expect equivalent capabilities.

Furthermore, there is a gap between the reality and the politics when it comes to certain cuts. In times of hardship, the need for welfare increases. But recipients of welfare, particularly those not originally from the UK, are by far the easiest to scapegoat. The government gleefully obliges. What is so often forgotten is the level of poverty involved here, as well as the number of children whose development is being blighted by abject poverty. Tough but necessary choices? Is it really “necessary” to give those earning over £150,000 per year a tax cut while asylum seekers are sometimes left with less than 70% of JSA to support their families? The government is happy to pay for tax cuts for the rich but it is ‘Big Society’ who pays for food for hungry children. The closer we get to the next election, the more important it is that those in the voluntary sector use their voice to demonstrate just what a failure ‘Big Society’ has been and campaign for a change in priority in the spending habits of our government. And I suggest they could start with reform of the asylum support system.

Please take one minute (literally) out of your day to get the Children's Society to contact your local MP on your behalf and encourage them to take action on this issue!

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