7 Feb 2011

Cuts ‘destroying’ Big Society volunteer army

Government spending cuts are undermining the Big Society strategy and risk “destroying the volunteer army” needed to make it work, the head of Britain’s largest volunteering charity warns.

Spending cuts risk 'destroying the volunteer army' (Reuters)

The outgoing Chief Executive of charity Community Service Volunteers (CSV), Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, said the Government had failed to provide opportunities for people to do more in their communities and in some cases, spending cuts imposed on councils had taken them away.

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.”

In an interview with The Times newspaper, she said that Prime Minister David Cameron had overestimated how much responsibility volunteers could, or would, take on.

We know we need to save money, but there are other ways of saving money without destroying the volunteer army. Dame Elisabeth Hoodless

She cited the example of library closures as an example of where the strategy was problematic.

“Once you close a library there is nowhere for a volunteer to help,” she said.

“Few people want to be responsible for the library. Most people want to feel there’s an expert on the premises. They are quite happy to issue and re-shelve the books, but taking the final responsibility is a bit more than more people want to do.”

Dame Elisabeth, who is stepping down after 40 years at CSV, said she had been excited by the Big Society plan, but it was not living up to its promise. She said the Government should introduce volunteering into the school curriculum, adopt US ideas to tie funding to volunteering, and use its power to recruit volunteers for classrooms, hospitals and the police.

Interviewed on Channel 4 News, Sir Stephen Bubb – head of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations – said that the sector faced a loss of around £1billion.

But the Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, said that a £100million transition fund had been set up to meet urgent shortfalls and his department had a £470million budget to help “support and strengthen” the sector.

Big Society

Today’s comments are the latest in a line of criticisms of the Big Society initiative, a policy close to the Prime Minister’s heart.

Last week, the leader of Liverpool City Council, Joe Anderson, wrote to Mr Cameron to say the city – which was one of the Big Society pilot areas – was pulling out of the plans.

He also said that spending cuts had damaged the ability of community organisations to improve residents’ quality of life.

In December, a leading charity figure who had previously backed the Big Society – Community Links co-founder David Robinson – warned that the cuts could “kill off” the charity groups central to the plan. Citizens Advice Bureau Chief Executive Gillian Guy later echoed his comments.