“Big Society belongs to us”
In Church this morning we heard from several volunteers involved in social action. They make a difference in our community and contribute a tiny part of the estimated 72 million hours of volunteering for social initiatives undertaken by the Church in the UK. The value put on the contribution by the Church is estimated to be between £1.5Bn to £2Bn per annum and does not take into account voluntary work by Christians in the community that is not initiated by a Church. You can read the full Church Insight report here: http://www.churchinsight.com/Groups/149033/ChurchandCommunity.aspx
It is pretty impressive stuff and is by far the best example of ‘Big Society’ in action although it must be said volunteering is by no means the sole preserve of the Church as many of our Job Clubs prove.
Last week a senior Government Minister encapsulated the meaning of the term Big Society; Baroness Sayeeda Warsi said this “The big society is defined by many in this House as being what most of them have done for most of their lives. It is a volunteering, social action, philanthropic approach to life, but it is also about the opening up of public services to local control and devolution of power.”
David Cameron and his Ministers are under vociferous attack from both opposition and the media rubbishing Big Society and claiming that cuts will render the whole concept impotent. Many third sector figures have contributed to the ‘cuts kills volunteering’ lobby notably Dame Elisabeth Hoodless whose parting shot as she retires this week was to criticise the Government for a lack of strategy in addition to claiming that cuts will undermine the initiative.
This would be fair if Big Society belonged to David Cameron’s Government but it simply does not it belongs to us and its success is determined by us. For those of us who have been doing ‘Big Society’ for years the attack is unfair, unsubstantiated and fails to recognise the amazing work already taking place. It is heartening to have a Government who are willing to support our initiatives and it is up to us to suggest creative ways for them to provide help such as using the tax system to encourage investment in social enterprise.
Our charity GB Job Clubs aims to support the network of Job and Work Clubs that are springing up around the country, there are over 80 up and running and more than 30 in development. All that is needed for a community to have a Job Club is a venue, volunteers and some jobseekers. A lot of the clubs in the network are volunteer run and judging by the constant stream of requests for start up help there is a heartwarming number of people willing to volunteer.
Now this is where I get excited by what Big Society really means. In July 2009 I set up a Job Club in Edenbridge, Kent and have just celebrated our fiftieth member landing a job. Think of this in financial terms; the Centre for Social Justice reckon that being in work saves around £8500 per annum in benefits. Well bless me little old Edenbridge Job Club has saved the tax payer £425,000 and we are one of the smaller clubs in the network. What then is the value of 100 Job Clubs £40m £50m? What do they cost to run? Edenbridge, Oxted and Richmond are the three clubs I facilitate and they cost nothing as all three venues are provided free of charge by the Churches in Edenbridge and Oxted and Harlequins Rugby Club in Richmond. I have spent a few hundred pounds on flyers and these have been delivered by volunteers so again cost to tax payer a big fat zero ‘0′.
I know of dozens of fantastic volunteers up and down the country doing the same work not for any other reason than they have some time available and are willing to help people in their communities cope with unemployment. We have been conditioned by successive Governments to rely on the state. Big Government has told small society “You don’t need to love one another just pay us taxes and we will do it for you”. It hasn’t worked Job Centre Plus is ill equipped to deal with the needs of a genuine job seeker as Andrew Bence unpacked most effectively in this recent article in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2011/jan/29/join-the-job-club
We cannot afford to pay our taxes and expect the state to deal with all of society’s ills on our behalf in fact the opposite is true the more we sit back and allow them to try the more disengaged we become, social cohesion is lost because we no longer interact with one another. We leave it to a highly and probably over trained raft of public sector employees to attempt to deliver social action through a treacle sea of box ticking and regulation. Not their fault they are just doing their job and trying to make the best of the burdensome structure imposed from above. A job club run in the community for the community and by the community is unfettered and does not have to tick any boxes. The self help ethos we engender encourages empowerment which in turn raises self esteem, a little confidence can take someone a long way and invariably does!
I see Big Society as both an acceptance by David Cameron and a positive move to devolve power to us in the knowledge that Government may at last be able to trust us to help one another rather than continuing to impose top down bureaucratic, costly solutions that result in emasculation. The more we can do for each other in our own communities the more we can save ourselves. We are building on the solid foundations of the past to revitalise Big Society but the quid pro quo has to be lower taxes and a lot less red tape.
Chris Neal – 13th February 2011
tel 0300 3300 150