Government 'Big Society' rhetoric is toothless and may be used to wash ministerial hands of responsibility for the impact of spending cuts, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster warned at the weekend.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols, spiritual head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said he backed an expansion of voluntary and community engagement, but not at the expense of proper societal and governmental responsibility.
Nichols said the 'Big Society' idea philosophy still lacked coherence and substance at a "critical point" in the government's strategy - as ordinary people, and not least the poorest and most vulnerable, started to feel the pain of the massive squeeze on public services.
"It is all very well to deliver speeches about the need for greater voluntary activity, but there needs to be some practical solutions," he told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper and declared in a Sky television interview.
"At the moment the Big Society is lacking a cutting edge. It has no teeth," said the Archbishop - whose words are more outspoken than those of his Anglican colleague, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams.
The Catholic leader continued: "We're now at a very critical point, with the philosophy of the Big Society getting clearer, but on the other hand the effects of the cuts are becoming real and there's real pressure about what will happen on the ground."
The Government could not simply "cut expenditure, wash its hands of expenditure and expect that the slack will be taken up by greater voluntary activity", he declared.
He said: "Devolving greater power to local authorities should not be used as a cloak for masking central cuts. It is not sufficient for the Government, in its localism programme, simply to step back from social need and say this is a local issue."
In his Commemoration Oration at King's College London in March 2011, the Archbishop of Canterbury welcomed the way the concept of the Big Society had "opened up a serious debate" on political priorities, while acknowledging that "it has suffered from a lack of definition about the means by which ideals can be realised" and expressing concern about the plight of the poor.
But Archbishop Nicols' comments are being regarded as more straightforward and robust.