Government has no business running civil society. And voluntary agencies have no business running public services. NCIA’s Peter Bird talks with trade unionists
Cameron’s ‘big society’ is a front for cuts, privatisation, the exploitation of labour and good will, and undermining trade unions. Peter explains….. The other morning I heard the Chief Executive of a national charity talking on the radio about an event they were having, and saying that they believed in the big society, it was something they had been promoting for some time. It put me in a right bad mood. Ok, it was my own fault! It was early in the morning, my coffee hadn’t percolated yet, I had no business listening to the radio! These are troubled times, you shouldn’t let the outside world into your home so early!
Government continues to look greedily at voluntary action as a vehicle for privatisation and cuts – a large reserve of cheap and flexible labour that can run public services more cheaply. They will now turn their attention to unfunded social action. This is their big society. We must involve these unfunded community groups in any campaign to defend public services. A good Government should ensure that there is latitude for people to act out of self volition, and should value that, but it is not their business to organise it, and certainly not their business to appropriate it for their own purposes. It was recently said that the big society idea is rather like The Big Issue, except nobody buys it.
The general public needs to ask, why, when our deficit was so much higher in 1945, was our government then able to create the welfare provision the current government finds it necessary to destroy? The Comprehensive Spending Review is a declaration of war. It is an ideologically driven assault on public services and public sector jobs. An exploitation of community good will. We have an opportunity to show a big society they may not have bargained for. Dissent Protects Democracy.
Below is the full text of the presentation made by Peter Bird on Saturday 6th November 2010 to the South East Region TUC Conference, Voluntary /community sector workshop.
It is my belief that there are three broad issues, as a result of government policy, for those of us dedicated to the voluntary and community sector.
All of these we must resolve to challenge and aim to defeat.
• Firstly there are to be government cuts of £81 billion which will affect virtually everyone.
• Secondly the VCS is intended to be a vehicle for privatisation and cuts. I will argue that privatisation in the direction of the voluntary sector has been happening for some time already.
• Thirdly the resources and freedom of our sector will be curtailed, making it more difficult to do our work, at exactly the time when our clients and communities most need our support.
I’m going to make the second issue my main theme as, to me, it is central to our dilemma.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has promised a bigger role for our sector.
The reason for that is that he, like his predecessors, sees the sector as a large reserve of cheap and flexible labour that can run public services more cheaply.
There has been a process going on for some years – if not a decade or more – to convert our sector to a market and business culture. This is not for the benefit of our communities but for the benefit of the neo liberal economy.
It wasn’t always like that.
The point of a distinct sector is that it is frequently based on the choice made by people to join together in pursuit of a shared interest or cause. A voluntary or community project is established by the motivation to meet a gap in provision where commerce or the state is unlikely to. It was never intended to compete with statutory services or to replace them. There would be no point in that. Nor was it ever the intention to pursue financial gain.
What did happen, satisfactorily until the late 1980’s, is that community groups who grew complex enough to want to employ staff to delegate work to, were able to get statutory sector funding, but to remain independent and under community control. So long as they used the money for the purpose intended and acted within their own constitution.
It is, or was, a sector born out of, and answerable to, its own community.
The replacement of grants with service level agreements and then with processes of contracting or procurement have served to make the sector into a parody of what it was intended to be.
Small neighbourhood and community agencies are now answerable to commissioners rather than their community. So are larger organisations. The Charity Commission recently estimated that 60% of charities with an income of over £500,000 are delivering public services. A third of those derive 80% of their income in this way. They may do this very well, my own landlord, for example, is a social landlord, and a very good one I’m very grateful to, but my point is that the measure of independence we have as a distinct sector is becoming marginal.
This is why I said privatisation in the direction of our sector has already been happening. We are all contractors, or sub contractors.
We compete with each other for contracts which, I believe results in the reduced diversity of provision. Large organisations haven’t done badly during the last few years, in the sense of survival, but small ones are disappearing. Ask any commissioner and they will tell you they would rather commission one large organisation than a lot of small ones.
The future will be an intensification of this process. There will be less money, more competition for contracts, small agencies will do badly, and they’ll either go under or merge. Local services will not be under local control.
Over the last couple of years I worked for a local agency in Hammersmith & Fulham where the local authority spent most of that time devising a process of commissioning to replace grant aid. I spent my time asking people to question why so much effort was being made if, as they were lead to believe, it wouldn’t result in a completely different relationship between the local authority and the community sector and the community. Now it has been implemented, the voluntary sector will have to look towards the requirements of the commissioners and not their local communities. They will have to meet targets rather than respond to the changing circumstances of their public. They will have to submit bids in competition with each other instead of working in solidarity as a sector. They will have to prioritise making their budgets competitive over offering their staff increments and decent standards of employment.
The previous government rechristened us the 3rd sector. It always sticks in my throat. Who else allows someone else to rechristen them? This is invariably considered to include social enterprises. These seem to be very diverse in size and nature. It could be a local corner shop or pub or a multi million pound enterprise taking large government contracts, and paying their directors large bonuses. It is interesting that we are often seen in a category along side social enterprises. They are termed the acceptable face of business. They can solve problems in financially stressed communities, and sometimes have a place that it is hard to object too. They are, however, an aspect of privatisation more akin to business. We must be aware that market place methods can not solve all social needs, and we must differentiate ourselves from this.
This is the history we must understand when we connect, as we must, with our original purpose, and with our communities, to fight the pernicious reforms we are faced with. It is the distinction between our role and that of statutory services that we must understand so that we can fight together and not be divided.
Many community groups are unfunded. They don’t seek public funds and sometimes escape our notice while being vital to those people involved with them and benefiting from them. They are groups that people will turn to in increasing numbers when social need outstrips our ability to respond. Frequently the transaction Governments best understand is that between a supplier and purchaser. They will now turn their attention to unfunded social action. This is their big society. We must involve the unfunded groups in any campaign if their position – their labour – is not be appropriated by Government as other parts of the sector have.
I am not aware of the Government consulting them over the proposed strategy. I haven’t noticed them going to these groups and saying we’ve never been that interested in you before, we know that last time we were in power we said there was no such thing as society, but we’re closing a load of other things down and thought you might pick up the slack.
If they had they may have been told that Government has no business running civil society. If you can’t value us for what we are leave us alone.
The word voluntary has a meaning which is nothing to do with getting paid or not. It comes from the Latin ‘volo’, meaning, ‘I wish’. It is to be able to act of one’s own free will, not constrained or compelled by someone else. This is perhaps at the heart of the matter. A good Government should ensure that there is latitude for people to act out of self volition, and should value that, but it is not their business to organise it, and certainly not their business to appropriate it for their own purposes.
Therefore, going back to something I was saying earlier, it is reasonable for statutory authorities to give grant aid which local groups can manage for themselves, free of the managerialism that now so much controls them.
All the ideas that are coming from Government like volunteering to help elderly people and being awarded credits that you can use when you are old yourself, should be looked upon with deep suspicion.
The comprehensive spending review has allocated £470 million to support ‘capacity building’ in our sector.
Doesn’t that sound familiar? The capacity to bid for contracts, adhere to service specifications, meet targets that frequently miss the point, enter into partnerships and mergers, distance ourselves from our communities and deskill our boards of management.
Cameron’s ‘big society’ is a front for cuts, privatisation, the exploitation of labour and good will, and the undermining of trade unions.I say the latter because if you abolish unionised posts you are undermining the union. Trade Union membership has declined since the 1980s because of past attacks on unionised industries. Not because people have lost interest in wider society.
The £470 million I mention will be completely outstripped by cuts elsewhere. Most notably to the statutory agencies that the voluntary sector has worked with:
• PCT’s abolished
• Local government cut by 27% over a four year period
• Budget for social housing halved
• The Office of Civil Society cut by £11 million
• The Charity Commission cut by 50%
I won’t go on. In a way it is difficult for me to provide a lot of figures because localism, on the part of this Government, is rather like the subsidiarity of administering cuts. Every local authority will distribute their 27% saving. We all have the picture.
Except to say that it has been estimated that charities could lose as much as £4.5 billion from spending cuts and the decline in donations during the period of austerity.
All this is the Governments way of promising a bigger role of charities and voluntary organisations in reforming public services as it:
“rolls back the state by increasing diversity of provision”.
We live in exciting times don’t we!
It is totally explicit that our government want a smaller state.
So when our public come to us for help because:
• Their household benefits have been capped;
• Their Employment and Support Allowance has been time limited;
• Their social rent has been increased from 50% to 80% of market rates;
• Their JSA has lost it’s value because it is linked to the consumer price index not the retail price index;
• Or they are one of the million or more people who will lose their jobs,
how will we respond when our services are cut; when the contracts and performance specifications we are tied to no longer offer us the flexibility of response that used to be the strength of our sector?
We are here today because our response must start now. Our Government know that a market place creates winners and losers. We have an opportunity to show them the big society they may not have bargained for.
It was recently said that the big society idea is rather like The Big Issue except nobody buys it.
While I don’t think it will be quite the moral crusade Cameron may have liked, I believe we must be wary of it.
The other morning I heard the Chief Executive of a national charity talking on the radio about an event they were having, and saying that they believed in the big society, it was something they had been promoting for some time. There was no caveat to say that he disapproved of replacing statutory services. It was more along the lines of see how virtuous we are, we’re doing it already.
I was thinking to myself: if you suck up to right wing scum, what does that make you? Ok, it was my own fault! It was early in the morning, my coffee hadn’t percolated yet, I had no business listening to the radio! These are troubled times, you shouldn’t let the outside world into your home so early! It put me in a right bad mood.
But all changes are sold by creating a moral framework. The big society is taking our own language and using it for pernicious purposes. We shouldn’t be confused by this. We have to use the big society to hit them back.
I don’t know specifically what will happen, but they talk of area organisers being trained to organise the big society. I was imagining a scenario where I am working for the kind of neighbourhood centre where I worked in Hammersmith & Fulham:
finance is drying up, there is less money from the local authority, the PCT has gone, charitable trusts are oversubscribed, and services are running down.
There is, however, the opportunity to bid for money to train area organisers. The agency and the trustees like the idea of something to sustain them.
But those area organisers may end up organising volunteers to work in libraries, museums, parks, in various roles that are in fact job replacement. I don’t want that to happen.
I’ve made it clear that I didn’t go into the VCS 30 years ago to replace statutory services.
I may succeed in instilling in the trainees a disinclination to recruit volunteers into statutory sector work but, even if I did, the fact of cooperating with this project will give it credibility. It will be seen in other areas and it will spread without the caveats I may have made.
Part of the moral framework the Government want to create includes the public acceptance that cuts are inevitable. I don’t want to dwell on this for too long because there are economists better able to do so, but we can’t challenge received wisdom too often.
I read recently that Niall Ferguson has declared the deficit an issue of, ‘National Security’. He was talking in the United States, but it conjured up images, for me, of being incarnated in Belmash for deficit denial.
It seems to be a cardinal sin to question the cuts.However, the International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook Database does say that our deficit, as a proportion of GDP, is lower than other G7 countries.
The general public should be questioning why, when our deficit was so much higher in 1945, our government then was able to create the welfare provision the current government finds it necessary to destroy.
They should question why so many things are being done that our Government have no democratic mandate to do. I, as a small example, don’t remember voting to pay 20% VAT.
And why are we paying to bail out bankers anyway?
The voluntary and community sector have been very good at fighting and often winning battles. But we are not alone equipped to fight, let alone win, a war. Many people have referred to the Comprehensive Spending Review as a declaration of war. It is an ideologically driven assault on public services and public sector jobs. I have termed it an exploitation of community good will.
The NCIA has a saying that dissent strengthens democracy.
To win this one we are, ‘all in it together’. I hope that there will be – there already are in many areas – plenty of local campaigns where the best traditions of the voluntary and community sector apply. Where anti cuts committees work collaboratively and democratically, with residents, workers, unions, service users, and the general public. They should fight these measures by any means they see fit.