Monday, 30 August 2010

The Something for Nothing Big Society

The Conservative Lib Dem coalition government has announced plans to shrink the power of the state and increase the voluntary sector to cover the shortfall in provision of public services. The rhetoric is all about removing central government control and empowering local people to shape their own communities.

In principle the idea has some merit, local people are well placed to decide what local services they need and how they should be provided. The feeling is though, that this project is more about reducing the financial resources from the state that sustains public provision, and replacing this with private, charitable and voluntary sector input and thus saving money from the public purse.

The previous Labour government ran some pilot schemes to try and increase public involvement in running local NHS trusts, but found lamentably low turn outs in elections for these posts. Things like healthcare are very complicated services to deliver, and to think that members of the public can just turn up at a meeting and suddenly transform service delivery in a positive way is somewhat fanciful.

The charitable sector in the UK is around 40% funded by government money, and all the indications are they will be amongst first in line when spending cuts are made to reduce government borrowing, at the break neck speed the coalition government demands is necessary to get the economy onto an even footing.

So, with less money going directly on public services and cuts in grants to charitable organisations, how will public services be maintained, let alone be improved? The for profit private sector will not be interested in any of this unless they can make money out providing services, so it’s not easy to see how they will fill the gap and make savings at the same time. Social enterprises or cooperatives and mutual societies have been mentioned by the government, but it has not been made entirely clear how they would be funded, though logically they will receive less money than is being spent on services now. A National Service programme has been mooted, in which sixteen year olds will be forced to do community work, presumably unpaid, but can this really replace work done by qualified professional workers? Which leaves purely voluntary action, which of course costs nothing or very little, but will this really be able to provide high quality and efficient public services?

The whole idea is reminiscent of Victorian era welfare practice, which existed out of necessity, before state welfare replaced much of this admirable, but desperately under funded action, in the twentieth century. The real purpose of the Big Society is to destroy the welfare state and reverse a hundred years of social progress. It would be amusing were it not so serious a matter, to see those right wing politicians and commentators who are the ones foaming at the mouth about people on state benefits, wanting a ‘something for nothing society’. Well, this is the something for nothing government, where if you want public services, you have to provide them yourself.

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