13 Feb 2011

Cameron denies Big Society is ‘cover’ for spending cuts

David Cameron tries to relaunch his “Big Society” idea again – but can he escape the accusation it’s just a figleaf for cuts? Channel 4 News asks what does it all mean to you?

In a letter to the Observer, Prime Minister David Cameron has written a strongly worded letter defending the ideals and visions of the Big Society scheme he announced last July.

At the heart of the Big Society are Mr Cameron’s plans for “people power” to take over functions at the heart of the local community, and that he wanted to awaken a new spirit of community activism.

However, the plans have been criticised as being a cover for cuts to local services which Mr Cameron has always denied.

David Cameron defends his volunteer-based Big Society vision and promises a £100m 'transition fund', as critics argue that volunteer groups and charities are facing severe cuts from local councils.

Last week, the head of the Community Service Volunteers, Dam Elisabeth Hoodless, stepped down and said the government had failed to provide opportunities for people to do more in their communities.

She said that in some cases, the spending cuts had taken those opportunities away and the Big Society plan was not living up to its promise.

Dame Elisabeth said: “Does one hand know what the other hand is doing? We know we need to save money, but there are other ways of saving money without destroying the volunteer army.”

However, today Mr Cameron wrote that the Big Society could change the way Britain was run, and that it was important to do regardless of the state of the economy:

“Building a stronger, bigger society is something we should try and do whether spending is going up or down,” he said.

“But there is a broader point to be made. As the state spends less and does less – which would be happening whichever party was in government – there would be a positive benefit if some parts of society were to step forward and do more.”

The Labour leader Ed Miliband called the Big Society and a failure and wrote in the Independent on Sunday:

“No one can volunteer at a library or a Sure Start centre if it’s being closed down”

So what does the Big Society mean to you?
Well earlier today Krishnan Guru-Murthy (@krishgm) asked people on twitter to give him their definition of the Big Society and you'll see some of their answers on screen here, along with his interview with Phillip Blond from the think-tank ResPublica, who is one of the architects of the whole idea.
Read more: So what does the Big Society mean to you?

Mr Cameron has promised billions of pounds of government contracts for charities and social enterprises that they can bid for, but did admit that those opportunities “lay in the future”:

“The scale of this opportunity dwarfs anything they’ve ever had before,” he said.

To help bridge the gap between cuts hitting local councils now and these promised opportunities, the government has previously setup a £100m transition fund for volunteer groups to access. The fund, which opened in November last year closed at the end of January. The government is expected to announce this week who the first beneficiaries of the £100m fund will be.

Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society behind the Transition Fund told Channel 4 News last week:

“The scale of the challenge means we have to find savings everywhere. What we’re determined to do is to try and help the sector manage this transition with the minimum amount of pain as possible, which is why we put £100m of taxpayers money out there as a transition fund to help the most vulnerable charities”

“We’re very conscious of the risk, we’re actively trying to manage it.”

Hurd told Channel 4 News that the money would go through their partner the Big Lottery Fund to the charities.

A Big Society Bank will also be created, that will inject £200m of working capital for projects that have been approved under the scheme.

Earlier this week, Liverpool City Council – one of the four Big Society vanguard areas the government setup last year – withdrew from the Big Society initiative.

In an letter to the Prime Minister the leader of Liverpool City Council spoke of their disappointment with the programme so far and said it had failed to deliver any change they had requested:

“When we agreed to become a Vanguard, your government promised to work with us to remove some of the problems and blockages that were preventing us from successfully delivering our Big Society programme.

“I have to say, the government has failed to deliver a single change that we have requested, which has severely hampered many parts of our programme.”

Domestic violence services face funding cuts

Exlusive:More than half of domestic violence services across the country do not know if they will be able to remain fully open after March due to funding cuts, Channel 4 News learns:

"The spending cuts will inevitably lead to more victims of domestic abuse dying at the hands of their abusers, particularly if they are forced to close, charities have warned.

"The problems are also a further hurdle for the Prime Minister's "Big Society" scheme, aimed at boosting the voluntary sector, which a leading figure in volunteering suggested today could be derailed by spending cuts."

Read more: Domestic violence services face funding cuts