Big society, small cash?

By Vaughan Jones
22 Jun 2010

I am probably not the only person who is profoundly worried about the future. Economists and politicians are locked in hot debate about the necessity and impact of the budget. While I am genuinely interested in the macro-economics, it is the micro-impact which keeps me awake at night. How will small and medium sized community based organisations survive in such a brutal environment and more importantly what is going to happen to vulnerable refugees and migrants in this new era of austerity?

Under the new government, the Office of the Third Sector has been renamed the Office of Civil Society. This is not merely a cosmetic change but indicates an ideological position. It has been poorly presented as 'the big society', a term whose vagueness inhibits comprehension. Nevertheless, it is important and one which is not necessarily bad.

Civil society is a term which has a complex set of meanings. It is fundamental to an effective democracy. Even those who are left-leaning should be wary of an over-dominant array of state institutions. Some of us have long since disliked the term 'third sector'. It is demeaning of our contribution. To call us civil society places us alongside and within the orbit of an array of actors, religious bodies, political parties, voluntary organisations, cultural bodies, charitable foundations, trade unions and so on.

Civil society plays a rich mixture of roles. It holds the state to account and challenges the excesses of [the] state. It preserves culture and heritage as the possession of people. It enables social networking, informal care and support systems. It contributes significantly to the protection of the vulnerable. In times like this we are not an essential plank of a government strategy but an important counter-weight to the potential for social brutality within its economic approach.

I wish the government well in its attempt to make the country’s economy more resilient to the assaults which come from overarching financial institutions, which, as we have seen, have the power to cause immense damage to national economies. I hope that they can adjust the UK economy to a changing world situation. However, I also hope that they are not gambling inconsiderately with our livelihoods and putting our communities at great risk. Whatever happens, faith and community organisations will be challenged to deal with the fall out and we must respond intelligently.

The community sector of refugee and migrant organisations in which I work is richly blessed with community hubs, like Praxis (www.praxis.org.uk/), with the self-help initiatives of migrant and refugee organisations and the interventions of faith communities and other people of goodwill. The response to the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers and the increasing restrictive policies of government is a fine example of 'big society'. Refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants, especially children, have been taken to heart by many in our society. When politicians talk about “public opinion” opposing migration they are failing to see how much good is being done at community level and how much genuine support refugees and migrants have.

Refugees are survivors and they know how to ensure that they survive against the odds in this country as well as elsewhere. Public expenditure cuts and ever tighter immigration controls will not: stop people being here; people wanting to help their neighbour; and people who want to create new and flourishing communities.

Despite that, it has to be said that for the government’s concept of the big society to work, there has to be a state and there has to be a state which has not totally abandoned its duties and responsibilities to the weakest. Much will be said about protecting the weakest, but let us be bold in challenging the assumption within that statement. The weakest in society need to become strong, not merely have the barest minimum on which to live. Creating the conditions for empowerment are complex and need intelligent interventions. There are a number of ways in which we need to be alert to the changes.

Firstly, we will need to focus on the area of employment. Unemployment will rise and new government approaches to benefits for the unemployed will be less well funded and more directive. We will need to find ways of ensuring that young people in particular from refugee and migrant families do not become a lost generation. This has caused immense and lasting social damage in the past. There will be a great need for people in communities to continue to have faith in the young and demonstrate this through their actions and engagement.

Secondly, there will be reductions in benefits. This will mean that communities will need to take initiatives to support each other and build self-help. It will also mean that we will need to watch policy making very carefully. There is a new tool in the recent Equality Act duty in regard to socio-economic disadvantage and we must always apply the 'Fairness Test' in our campaigning. New strength will need to be given to anti-poverty groups. This will apply mostly to the issue of housing benefits. These cuts could result in a significant increase in homelessness.

We will also need to see what happens to the social housing sector. The cuts will decrease its already seriously limited capacity to increase urgently needed housing supply and maybe even to maintain its properties to an acceptable standard. It will cause overcrowding and increase the potential of the private sector to exploit vulnerable people.

Thirdly, there will be a tightening of immigration controls and an increase in fees for visas for family reunion. There is already a reduction in availability of legal support for vulnerable migrants. This means there will be a continuation of the injustices in the migration system. Many families will struggle to bring relatives to join them, even for short visits. We will need to emphasise the sanctity of family life, not as a right wing weapon, but as a reality for those who seek to fulfill their duties as families but are hindered from doing so by immigration bureaucracy.

Fourthly, public services will be faced with structural re-organisations, public expenditure cuts and service reductions. We will need to both find allies and negotiating mechanisms to ensure that public services are sensitive to the needs of the whole community. Many of the provisions which enable ease of access to public services, for example interpreting, are not costly as a proportion of overall budgets. Whilst they, like every other service, must be efficient and effective, they should not be seen as easy targets for cuts.

The 'big society' idea talks about social enterprise as a shining example of how non-state, social initiatives, which imitate the commercial sector can both provide services without troubling the public purse. This is to some extent true, but also too simplistic in its economics. Social enterprises operate within a market. Many of the purchasers of social enterprise services are in fact public services. The market competitors of the social sector are large commercial companies and registered social landlords.

We have a battle on our hands to ensure that quality, locally run, and culturally sensitive services employing local workers are able to survive in the new context. As yet there is neither a level playing field nor sufficient culture shifts within our sector to make this happen. There is a danger that unless we are quick and sharp enough, we will be swallowed up. If that happens, the big society will be run by the big boys with an eye on profiting from the poor and not by long established community providers who have their beneficiaries’ interests at heart.

So we need to be vigilant to be sure that budget day is not also doomsday for local communities, especially the vulnerable communities for whom Praxis and similar community and faith organisations exist.

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(c) Vaughan Jones is CEO of Praxis (www.praxis.org.uk/), based in East London. He is also a minister in the United Reformed Church, and an Ekklesia associate who writes for us on migration, social justice, human rights and faith engagement in a plural society.

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