David Cameron’s “Big Society” vision has come under further attack after a senior civil society figure said “draconian” spending cuts were “destroying volunteering” across the country.
Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, who is stepping down after leading Britain’s largest volunteering charity, Community Service Volunteers (CSV) for more than 40 years, told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the government had failed to provide tangible opportunities for people to do more in their communities. She added that in some cases “massive cuts” imposed on local authorities had actually taken such opportunities away.
She said: “The cuts that are being imposed on local government and the health service are taking place now, so a lot of very worthwhile programmes - for example, volunteers working in child protection as promoted by the minister for children - are now under threat of closure because local authorities have to make immediate cuts. It’s about one hand not appreciating what the other hand is doing, and not making the decisions in a timely fashion.”
In an earlier interview with the Times newspaper, Dame Hoodless said the government was in danger of “destroying the volunteer army.” She said: “Once you close a library, there is nowhere for a volunteer to help. Few people want to be responsible for the library. Most people want to feel there’s an expert on the premises. They are quite happy to issue and re-shelve the books, but taking the final responsibility is a bit more than most people want to do.”
Dame Hoodless’s comments pile further pressure onto the concept that Mr Cameron had hoped would take root during a time of savage spending cuts. Last week the government’s “Big Society tsar” Lord Wei admitted that he did not have the time or resource to continue giving volunteering his services to the extent he had done over the past six months.
Then Phil Redmond, Liverpool’s “Big Society champion” said the initiative was being “subsumed” by spending cuts. Later Liverpool City Council said it could no longer continue with its involvement in the city’s “Big Society vanguard” due to the impact of spending cuts on its budget
Responding to Dame Hoodless’s comments, Nick Hurd, the minister for civil society, said on the Today programme that some charities had become “too dependent on the state” and that the government wanted to help them become more independent.
But he said the government was also making money available to help them manage the transition. Mr Hurd also dismissed claims that the “Big Society” idea was too vague. He said: “For me, it’s about bringing the country together and giving everyone a chance to make a contribution. We are not inventing something here. We are pointing to something really magnificent in this country and saying we want to build on.”
But shadow cabinet office minister Tessa Jowell said the government was “on the brink of destroying this country’s great tradition of community support and solidarity”.
She said: “The consequences of their actions will be the slow death of a number of community groups, which will be irreversible in the short or medium term. David Cameron can no longer straddle two contradictory positions - sustained cuts in support to community groups and a Big Society notion which relies on the capacity and engagement of those very same organisations.”
For more on this story see chief reporterAllister Hayman’s blog.