By Leon A Smith
March 8, 2012
I don’t know if anybody remembers something called the Big Society? I seem to recall that about a year ago the Big Society was going to take over the world – well at least England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Is it me or has everything gone very quiet on the Big Society side of things at the moment? Somehow it seems that these words are being uttered with somewhat less frequency than was hitherto the case by government ministers. Could it be that they have forgotten or are they losing interest and enthusiasm? Or could there be some other reason? Could it be (heaven forbid) that there was never really any substance to this idea in the first place?
In previous blogs dating back to the Birth of the Big Society it may be that I expressed a small degee of cynicism about what this is really all about. Could it be that basically this is just political salesmanship which really didn’t mean anything at all? I’m sure that Steve Hilton, the government’s chief Ideas Man who walks around Downing Street with no shoes on is going to be greatly missed. After all, wasn’t the Big Society one of his ideas? Yet for reasons unknown somehow he’s not going to be staying around to see full implementation. I would very much like to download from the Internet, perhaps to my Kindle, the full Rule Book & Constitution of the Big Society. Clearly there would be a lot of detail there as to exactly how everything works and the definition of the Big Society would be clear for all to see. Yet my Kindle remains empty of Big Society reference books!!
Would it be a treasonable offence to suggest that the whole Big Society concept is a nonsense? The Third Sector (aka Charities) have been around since the dawn of time – or at least for a very long time. Charities such as my own, Nightingale (providing care to older members of the Jewish community) have been doing this for 170 years. Indeed, it may well be that those people working in the predecessors of Nightingale – the Hand in Hand Asylum and the Widows Home Asylum dating back to 1840 didn’t even realise that they were part of the Big Society! But they were! Completely oblivious to this they carried on their work with great hardship caring for older people in need when such needs were are more than they are today. Hand in hand or at least simultaneously to the launch of the Big Society (I should say one of the many launches of the Big Society) was the spending review and the consequent cuts in local authority spending, which in turn made savage cuts to grants to many charities, particularly smaller charities and in some cases has meant their closure. Where exactly the synergy lay between cuts and promotion of the Big Society is hard to see. The truth of the matter is that charities continue to do the amazing work which they do, despite government and not because of it.
There are many incentives and breaks which government could give to charities but which they choose not do so. One such example would be a total exemption of VAT, which is currently a huge burden on charities such as my own. Yet there is no hope at all in that happening because the Treasury simply cannot afford it.
We as charities do not complaint about what we are doing. We do it in the most cases because we want to, albeit in some cases it could be considered that some of the work being done by charities is effectively work which should be the responsibility of the State. Nevertheless let’s not argue about that. Let’s just make sure that the government does everything in its power to promote and maintain a healthy and dynamic Third Sector – just let us get on with the job!