Sunday, 14 November 2010

Against the so-called “big society” and Tory cuts: A collection of items from the Press

Caroline Lucas:

The Greens’ leader dismissed Mr Cameron’s rhetoric as “a dream of a ‘Big Society’ utopia hiding a nightmare of socially devastating cuts.”

I believe we deserve more - for equality to be put centre stage; for our public services to be strengthened; and for government to take responsibility for promoting fairness rather than bowing out under some misguided marketing concept called "big society".


1. “Extrinsic” vs. “intrinsic” motivation to do good
2. Politicization of “volunteering”
3. Suffolk’s outsourcing agenda
4. The broader picture
5. Other contradictions

1. “Extrinsic” vs. “intrinsic” motivation to do good

Ed Miliband appears to understand this need. He told the Labour conference that he “wants to change our society so that it values community and family, not just work” and “wants to change our foreign policy so that it’s always based on values, not just alliances … We must shed old thinking and stand up for those who believe there is more to life than the bottom line.” But there’s a paradox here, which means that we cannot rely on politicians to drive these changes. Those who succeed in politics are, by definition, people who prioritise extrinsic values. Their ambition must supplant peace of mind, family life, and friendship - even brotherly love.
So we must lead this shift ourselves. People with strong intrinsic values must cease to be embarrassed by them. We should argue for the policies we want not on the grounds of expediency but on the grounds that they are empathetic and kind; and against others on the grounds that they are selfish and cruel. In asserting our values we become the change we want to see.

October 11, 2010
George Monbiot:


Council plans 'big society' reward points
For critics of David Cameron's "big society" vision it has been an obvious question: what would make hordes of previously inactive citizens leap to their feet to volunteer to fish trolleys from canals or look after elderly neighbours?
Now one local authority believes it has the answer: "big society reward points" redeemable in supermarkets, high street shops and restaurants in return for good deeds.
Windsor and Maidenhead council hopes to join forces with a commercial rewards scheme such as Nectar – whose points can be redeemed in Sainsbury's, Homebase and Argos among others – or RecycleBank, whose vouchers can be spent in outlets including Marks & Spencer and McDonald's.
The council, one of four chosen by the government to lead the big society "vanguard", hopes the system could eventually be rolled out nationwide.
Officers are still working out the practicalities, but it is likely residents would get a loyalty card similar to those available in shops. Points would be added by organisers when cardholders had completed good works such as litter-picking or holding tea parties for isolated pensioners.
The council says the idea is based on "nudge theory" – the thought that people don't automatically do the right thing but will respond if the best option is highlighted. Points would be awarded according to the value given to each activity.
Users could then trade in their points for vouchers giving discounts on the internet or high street.

31 October 2010

'Big society' must be rooted in altruism

Andrew Simms:
In short, appeal to self-interested individualism and you will get self-interested individuals. Emphasise the intrinsic and mutual benefits of common endeavour and you will begin to grow a nation where people are more inclined to look out for each other.

Effectively paying people to be good citizens can also directly backfire. A classic study looked at the results of different approaches to blood donation in the UK, where people volunteer and in the United States where they got paid. In the US, research by the rightwing Institute of Economic Affairs theorised that paying donors was the way to increase supply. Subsequent analysis by Richard Titmuss found the opposite. Not only did more people give blood when it was unpaid, but that voluntarily donated blood was of a higher quality.

The financial incentive increased dishonesty among donors who lied more often about their health conditions. Titmuss concluded: "Commercialisation of blood and donor relationships represses the expression of altruism." It was a classic and common error. Think of how you feel when a good friend invites you to dinner. Now imagine how you would feel if the same friend offered to pay you to go to dinner with them? Relationships nurtured by open gift giving and reciprocity differ from commercial ones. It's the difference between a loving relationship and prostitution.

Economics, too, often boils human relationships down to a caricature of self-interest and competition. In justification, it invokes misappropriated Darwinian notions of "survival of the fittest". But, this misses the equally successful evolutionary strategies of collaboration, symbiosis and co-evolution. Co-operative companies, tellingly, weathered the recession better than others.

5 November 2010


2. Politicization of “volunteering”

There are certain services – the police, hospitals, care homes – that are too important to be left to volunteers.

Wonderful as it is to find volunteers in charities and communities offering help that would not otherwise exist, there are surely places – hospitals, social services, police stations, care homes, libraries – where you might not want to encounter, in any key worker, the noble spirit of the lifeboatman and not merely because these are basic services that should not rely on organised goodwill.

Can you demand professionalism from someone who is, even in an extremity of virtue, doing you a favour? Or sack them if they are rubbish? And although one would no more doubt the integrity of the average volunteer than one would criticise Nelson Mandela, there must be places where their efforts could be retrograde, if not actively pernicious. Like unpaid interns who devalue the work of their colleagues at the same time that they are ill-used, a wave of philanthropy on the scale envisaged by the coalition would inevitably make some officials wonder why they pay people for tasks a volunteer would do for nothing. Why employ park keepers for instance, when some kindly soul will pick up dog shit gratis?
It is argued by the proponents of the "big society" that an invasion of unworldly, civic-minded volunteers will, on the contrary, revive services made remote and sullen by the state. Launching this still-mysterious entity, David Cameron spoke to us in July of "things that fire you up in the morning, that drive you, that you truly believe will make a real difference to the country you love". His own passion, for which he is, of course, paid, is for creating the "big society". Other people, he thought, might feel a similar fervour for running libraries, bus services, pubs, museums or recycling schemes.
John Mohan of the Third Sector Research Centre has recently shown how a "civic core" of largely educated and middle-aged volunteers, supplies two-thirds of the country's unpaid help, participation in civic groups and charitable donations. Being more prosperous, these volunteers are unlikely to live in the places where they could do the most good. It is sadly not the case, as Phillip Blond, the Tory's pet intellectual has claimed, as evidence of "an unmet demand in our nation to do good" that volunteering rates have doubled recently.

The Observer Sunday 3 October 2010
Catherine Bennett:

Citizens Advice Head of Welfare Policy Lizzie Iron said:
“The announcements on welfare benefits made at this week’s Conservative Party conference will have far-reaching consequences for many CAB clients.
“We welcome the Prime Minister’s pledge today to help the poorest in society and always look after the sick, the vulnerable and the elderly. But we are very concerned that the Government appears to be rushing into benefits policies that have not been thought through, or tested for their impact on individuals. We are especially concerned about the proposed absolute cap of £500 a week on household benefits, and how this will be brought in. The fact that the cap applies regardless of household size means that it will inevitably fall hardest on families with children.

“Coming as it does on top of the cuts to housing benefit announced in June’s emergency budget, a cap of £500 a week on household benefits will price many low income families out of living in London and the south-east of England altogether, and if it goes ahead will inevitably lead to widespread hardship, debt and homelessness. It is difficult to see how this fits with the government's commitment to end child poverty.

“For example, a couple with four children currently receiving £350 a week in jobseekers allowance (JSA), child tax credit (CTC) and child benefit (CB), and £25 in council tax benefit would be left with a maximum of £125 per week for rent.

“A couple with three children where both parents are on Employment and Support Allowance (In the Work Related Activity Group) currently receiving £344 in benefits and tax credits a week would be left with a maximum of £156 for rent .

“The government must also consider the impact of cutting child benefit for higher rate taxpayers on parents bringing up children on their own. For a single parent earning £44,000 who already juggles competing demands to make ends meet, the loss of child benefit will make a big difference to their day to day budgeting.”

“While we welcome the principles of welfare reform set out in Iain Duncan Smith's speech yesterday, and reflected by the Prime Minister this afternoon - simplifying the benefits system, making work pay and protecting the vulnerable - only the details will show whether the most vulnerable in our society are safeguarded against the worst of the cuts to come. The Prime Minister has said that fairness is about supporting people out of poverty, but we need to be sure that those who are just able to get by at present are not suddenly plunged into poverty.”

6 October 2010


National Council for Voluntary Organisations:
Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive, stressed the danger in assuming that civil society organisations will simply 'fill the gaps' left in state services in the aftermath of spending cuts. He said: "Groups fear that state inaction will crowd them out, and that changes will push them into roles which change their purpose and ethos."

3rd November 2010


A volunteer:
However for me there is a vacuum at the heart of this policy aspiration
Empowerment is partly about giving people the means and the motivation to be involved in decision-making, and partly about having the right structures and processes in place for ensuring that decisions, when they are taken, are taken in the right way. The Tories' talk about Big Society, devolved decision-making etc. panders to everyone's appreciation of being asked to be involved, but it's devoid of any real understanding of, much less commitment to, actual empowerment.

For them, Big Society is above all an excuse to sit back and not actually have to do anything, and be completely unaccountable, because we're all empowered to do things for ourselves now, aren't we? It's pure, vacuous laissez-faire conservatism thinly disguised.

3 April 2010
Bill Cawley


Andrew Motion attacks 'catastrophic' plan for volunteers to run libraries

“Good libraries, like good anythings, need expert people working within them. Maybe there is a role for some aspect of volunteering but all the central stuff must be done by people who are qualified to do it ... I think it would be a catastrophe.”


3. Suffolk’s outsourcing agenda

Doubt has been cast over the scale of savings Suffolk County Council could achieve by outsourcing almost all its services.
Last week, the county council announced plans to cut 30% from its £1.1bn annual budget by commissioning most of its services from private companies and social enterprises. The 27,000 strong-workforce would be considerably reduced over the next few years.
But Paul Grout, professor of political economy at the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at Bristol University, today told Public Finance that the savings target was unlikely to be met.
‘It strikes me that the 30% gains are too much. If you think by outsourcing everything you are likely to be saving a third of your budget, it seems very difficult.’
He said that areas such as waste collections were relatively simple to outsource and had generated savings in the past. But for any service involving ‘people and complex contracts’, such as social work, it would be harder to make these kinds of savings.
‘There are a heck of a lot of local authority activities where you will not be able to outsource by any means,’ he added.
Grout said that Suffolk would need to involve volunteers ‘in a big way’ in its plans, many of whom would be ‘doing something for free that was previously paid for’.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: ‘This is not the way to run council services.
‘Leaving vital services like child protection, home care and support for young people to the vagaries of the market is very dangerous. Services will be sold off to the lowest bidder, starting a race to the bottom. People using local services, and those working to provide them, will pay the price.’

29 September 2010

Suffolk branch UNISON:

The letter from UNISON warns that councillors would be risking services if they support the administration’s moves towards transferring services to outside bodies.
The union says: “This is the time to unite with your electorate and your council colleagues and say NO to the New Strategic Direction.
“The paper states that the council has ‘become risk averse’, you are encouraged to become risk takers, but there is never an acceptable time or situation to take risks with people’s health, safety, wellbeing or the care of the vulnerable in your communities.”
It urges councillors to look at what happened in Norwich and other councils when the company that took over services, Connaught,* collapsed last month leading to many job losses and uncertainty for residents.

22 September, 2010


* Connaught collapse: What went wrong?
Connaught's sudden collapse left many housing associations in the lurch

At the heart of the matter is a string of loss-making service contracts that the company entered into with local authorities and housing associations.

"There is mounting anecdotal evidence that [Connaught] were just bidding too low for contracts in order to get them," Mr Parker told BBC Radio 5 live's Wake up to Money programme.
"In the construction trade they rather unpleasantly call it 'suicide bidding', where you bid so low that it actually potentially jeopardises your company."

8 September 2010

Letters to the EADT:

Last Thursday, Suffolk County Council agreed to become a new sort of council – one with just a few core staff remaining and all of its current services outsourced to charities, businesses and you – yes, you as an active citizen and volunteer. You too can become a service provider in the brave new world of the Big Society. Get ready to roll up your sleeves!

The Green and Independent Group on the council, who are always keen to play a constructive, non-partisan role, proposed an amendment calling for pro-active and wide ranging public consultation to establish whether the New Strategic Direction objectives met with your approval. To date, there has been precious little in the way of consultation with communities and Council staff.

Our amendment was accepted by the large majority Conservative administration on the council who, along with the Chief Executive, are very enthusiastic about much less service delivery and spending 30% less. Yes one third less. Is this level of reduction what you, if a Conservative voter, voted for?

We accept that here in Suffolk the majority of people who voted in the general election, voted Conservative and wanted to see public sector cuts but did they want services to be reduced by a staggering 30%? We must consider the impact on care services for the young, the old and the vulnerable as well as other vital services.

We now have just two months where the Council has agreed to ‘engage’ with you and all the communities we represent as councillors. So what do you think? This is the only chance to have a say as the council moves forward, in haste, to implement this plan. This is all a huge experiment and is full of great risk. Do you think that charities or teams of volunteers should run the majority of council services? We believe that they can certainly do more but we do not favour a ‘takeover’ of the public sector by charitable sector. Do they have the necessary capacity and resources to take on these services? What about private businesses, volunteer teams or ‘arms length companies’ running your services? Please take some time to visit the council’s website and examine the council’s proposals.

Suffolk County Council’s New Strategic Direction is almost a fait accompli because of the huge political majority of one party on the council. We agree that the deficit must be addressed but is this the way to do it? There must be widespread meaningful public consultation because the pace of these changes and the tight timescale puts so much at risk. Please tell the Council Leader, Jeremy Pembroke what you think.

Do let us know too; this will inform our stance at the next full council meeting in December.

Councillor Mark Ereira-Guyer
Councillor Andrew Stringer
Councillor Trevor Beckwith
Green & Independent Group, Suffolk County Council

24 September

I was appalled to hear that Suffolk County Council has decided to re-invent itself as an “easy Council”, modelled on budget airline services like EasyJet.

This so-called New Strategic Direction, designed to save money, has all the hallmarks of a financial and social catastrophe waiting to happen.

Where is the evidence that outsourcing local services to private companies is going to save money in the long term? Why haven’t electors been provided with a detailed analysis of the costs and benefits of cutting and privatising key services? Where is the council’s mandate to undertake such a radical no-frills reform? What will be its effect on accountability? What is going to happen to people’s jobs?

The proposal is marked by desperation rather than inspiration, and the consequences of this new desperate strategic direction are quite unclear.

Past efforts in out-sourcing have frequently led to shambles. Remember the child support computer system and the housing benefit processing scandals.

Councillors will need to reconsider their misjudged and short-term approach to cutting costs and remember that local government functions best when operating within a public service ethos. It is time to see off the privateers!

Christopher Bornett

3 November

The EADT is to be congratulated on providing a platform for a discussion of the whys and wherefores of Suffolk’s New Strategic Direction. [“Council answers our questions”, EADT 3.11.10]

The answers provided by the ruling Conservative caucus on the council are truly enlightening because they betray the political motivation behind their rhetoric of cost cutting.

Do not be fooled when they declare: “None of this is ideological. Every proposal is based on merit.” Local Conservatives like to portray themselves as pragmatists but in fact their so-called “divestment proposals” are part of a broader attempt to diminish the public sector.

Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities and local government said two years ago, while in opposition: “We need to pass power downwards first to revive democracy, second to break up this over-bearing state and, third, to deliver diversity.” You may agree with this or not, but it is certainly not a statement of pragmatic intent.

Clever Conservative propaganda has convinced many people that there is no alternative to their harsh programme of national and local public service cuts. But this is quite wrong. There are alternatives. Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK has pointed out that any deficit reduction policy aimed at cutting spending is wholly misdirected, and he argues that what is needed is a deficit cutting policy aimed at increasing government income.

He suggests a threefold action plan: a] stimulating the economy by encouraging investment, b] raising selective new taxes on those best able to pay them, and c] tackling the tax gap created by tax avoidance, tax evasion and late payment of tax. He estimates that these measures would raise more than £120bn a year. This could go a long way in protecting our public services.

At a local level, there are other pathways that SCC could explore to improve efficiency which involves sharing rather than out-sourcing. For example, Hertfordshire is thinking in terms of “public service partnerships” whereby, local organisations share IT, finance, personnel, payroll and legal services. Unlike our own council, their aim is to combine services not to cut them.

The New Strategic Direction proposals are becoming clearer as councillors are made to explain their plans in more detail, but we should not be fooled by their attempt to disguise their spending cuts agenda as merely pragmatic and somehow divorced from party politics.

Christopher Bornett

4. The broader picture

The New Yorker's Lauren Collins has been investigating how the "big society", David Cameron's key political philosophy, is working in practice, and the results are a little discouraging for the prime minister.
Cameron's big idea envisages, in Collins's words, "a garden-fence government, in which little platoons of concerned citizens, unhindered by senseless regulations and sclerotic bureaucracies, band together to conceive and execute the governance of their own communities". As my colleague Jonathan Freedland wrote recently, this concept "[owes] as much to the traditions of the British left as the right", and Collins makes the same point:
The Labour party grew out of the working-class co-operatives and unions of the Victorian era — in 1938, some 20 million Britons were registered members of mutual-aid societies. These groups thrived until the rise of the party's Fabian wing, culminating, in 1945, with the establishment of the modern centralised welfare state, under Clement Attlee.
She adds that "the Liberals have long promoted localism and civic association", and notes that the big society also chimes with Barack Obama's "emphasis on the grassroots and crowd-sourcing", as well, less surprisingly, as with some of the ideas of his Republican predecessors.
Collins coins the phrase "Wikipedia government" to describe Cameron's ideal: a government "collectively created by the impassioned, the invested, or the bored". But her overwhelming impression can be summed up by her meeting with councillor David Burbage of Windsor and Maidenhead council, one of Cameron's "vanguard" big society local authorities: "I did not emerge from our lunch, or subsequent conversations, with a concrete idea of anything actually happening ... The government has not allotted these vanguard communities any extra funds, and it is hard to tell what they are, other than PR exercises," she adds….

Cameron may find it increasingly difficult to stop his idea being characterised (or caricatured) as merely a way to persuade volunteers to provide services that were once carried out by the government and local authorities.
Collins quotes a pithy response from one sceptic on the BBC website: "I pay money to have people do these jobs for me so I can get on with my life. I call the money 'taxes' and the people a 'government.'"

In May, Cameron told a group of community leaders that, committed as he is to vaporizing the debt, and to withdrawing the country’s soldiers from Afghanistan, “personally what I would most like to be a legacy is actually helping build the Big Society.” The program comprises public-service reform (cutting red tape), community empowerment (transferring authority to the local level), and social action (encouraging voluntarism and philanthropy—or, to a cynical ear, getting people to do things for nothing that they used to get paid for). The Big Society intends, in effect, to mend Broken Britain by way of piecework. A Tory leader invoking communitarian rhetoric has seemed to some observers oxymoronic.

Read more
[An oxymoron (plural oxymorons, or sometimes the Greek plural oxymora) (from Greek ὀξύμωρον, "sharply dull") is a figure of speech that combines normally contradictory terms. ...]


“Big Society” as American import:
In any case, for all the precursors it is possible to dig up in the domestic tradition, and indeed in European-style Christian Democracy, the big society is really an American import. It originated in the need of Cameron's three immediate predecessors (William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard) to point – even if it was across the Atlantic – to living proof that the small-state conservatism dictated by their low-tax logic need not rule out compassion for those at the bottom of the heap.

Of course, for the Americans (and for IDS), the root of that compassion was Christianity. Little wonder, then, that the chief cheerleaders for the big society are among the minority of Tories who, in contrast to Cameron, wear their religion, as well as their politics, on their sleeves.
But the big society's biggest fans, one suspects, are those Tories who couldn't really give a damn about religion or about reconnecting with their own traditions, but simply want to make the UK as much like the US as possible – free of binding international agreements, operating an easy-come-easy-go labour market and with a welfare system that is little more than a safety net supplemented by the charitable (and, for the state, cheap) volunteer work of suitably self-reliant citizens.

Monday 19 July 2010

Big Society aka Small Government
By now it is quite clear that the Coalition Government, while it promotes - in words - a 'Big Society', what it really wants is a Small Government. The credit crunch is being used to impose the Conservative ideology of "Market Knows Best" privatization and scaling back of public services.

The latest, and possibly largest victim of this ideology now seems to be the NHS. While far from perfect, the NHS is presently a public service, designed to provide healthcare for who needs it, when they need it. The new Government's White Paper means to turn the NHS into a market-based, American style health industry. It will become a consortium of companies bent on maximizing profits, and accountable to its shareholders, rather than to its patients.

30 August 2010


Big Society Scam
The Big Society policy from the Conservative / Lib Dem coalition is a scam to get volunteers to take up services previously paid for by local and national government. The Big Society scam is all about hiding the fact that the government and Northants County Council is going to rip out the heart of our communities by cutting services. Successive Tory governments have tried to get unpaid workers to do jobs that they should be paid for so that they can spend our taxes on roads, weapons and cutting taxes for the well off.


5. Other contradictions

Promoting charities while cutting their funding:

Charity watchdog fears rise in fraud

The Charity Commission, statutory regulator of charities in England and Wales, has had its funding cut by 33% in real terms over the next four years in the recent comprehensive spending review, even though its resources have been cut by 16% in real terms in the past five years (Interview, Society, 27 October).
This latest cut comes at a time when the government envisages charities and voluntary organisations taking an increasing role in delivering the "big society" and encouraging localism.
On BBC Radio's File on 4 programme, Charities – giving and taking (9 November), Sam Younger, the commission's chief executive, acknowledged that the 450 reports of fraud and financial mismanagement that the commission examined last year were a significant underestimate of the problem of fraud in the charity sector. But he said the cuts meant the commission may not be able to "investigate absolutely every allegation [of fraud] that comes our way … we may have to put the bar quite high and say we will only investigate if a certain minimum amount of charitable funds is at risk".
Professor Gareth Morgan, a specialist in charity law and regulation, and director of the centre for voluntary sector research at Sheffield Hallam University, was quoted as comparing the prospect of lighter regulation of the charity sector with that of the financial sector, which led to the current credit crisis – a point dismissed as alarmist by the minister for civil society, Nick Hurd. The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents the majority of commission staff, shares these fears and will raise them with MPs at a briefing in parliament on 23 November.

Mike Levitt
Chair, Charity Commission PCS co-ordinating committee

Saturday 13 November 2010

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