by Hazel Blears MP, Salford and Eccles
In December last year Civil Society Minister Nick Hurd spoke at a TimeBank event and then ‘tweeted’ to congratulate them on their 10th Anniversary, praising the organisation for “trying to counter cynicism on Big Society.”
TimeBank is an organisation that facilitates volunteering – since its launch in 2000 over 300,000 people have been encouraged and inspired into volunteering and generating change in their community.
Like most people I’m still a little vague on what exactly the ‘Big Society’ is, but in an article in the Observer last month David Cameron stated that one of its main aims is “encouraging volunteering and social action so people contribute more to their community.”
TimeBank obviously fits the Prime Minister’s criteria. Logic would therefore dictate that the Government would be providing the support to organisations such as TimeBank to enable them to encourage the volunteering and social action that David Cameron describes as his “passion.” Unfortunately logic rarely informs this Government.
Last week the Office for Civil Society informed TimeBank that they would no longer be receiving their funding as one of the Government’s strategic partners, which works out at about 25% of their budget. This is a real kick in the teeth for the TimeBank staff and the 2,000 volunteers that they help each week, but is typical of a Government that pursues short term headlines with little regard for long term commitment. TimeBank are now being forced to cut their programmes, and they are not alone.
The Government does not seem to understand that voluntary organisations and charities do not operate in a vacuum. Support structures and financial assistance are essential. The absence of any strategic vision to provide a practical and coherent policy backbone for this agenda is staggering. It has become a mish-mash of announcements, re-announcements, re-branding and political positioning by a Government desperate to demonstrate that they have a ‘big idea.’
In June last year I set the Government three tests on this agenda – whether their policies are fair to all communities, whether they create a proper framework for organisations to operate within, and whether the necessary funding is available. So far their report card reads ‘F’, ‘F’, ‘F.’
This year alone we’ve seen Liverpool Council withdraw from their role as a ‘Big Society Vanguard,’ we’ve had Dame Elisabeth Hoodless tell the Prime Minister that his spending cuts are “destroying” the UK’s volunteer army, and we’ve been told that there is a £3billion shortfall facing the voluntary sector – hardly the utopian picture that David Cameron paints.
The irony is that many of the policies on this agenda cross party boundaries and would gain popular support if they were properly structured and supported. However Cameroons such as Nick Boles are making governing by “chaos” a virtue – it’s a chaos that might make sense to the policy wonks in Westminster but one that is destroying the voluntary sector and leaving our communities to fend for themselves.
Incidentally, Nick Hurd has just deleted his TimeBank tweet – I’d argue that rewriting the past is more Big Brother than ‘Big Society’ but I’m sure he’d just call me a cynic!
Posted at 3:50pm on 16th March 2011
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