Income and Poverty

Poverty and the big society

  • Published: Apr 03, 2012
  • Author: Ines Newman
  • Category: Income and Poverty

NPI publish a pamphlet today, “Poverty and the Big Society: Views from the community sector”. Its purpose is to stimulate debate within the voluntary and community sector about the ‘Big Society’ and its potential for delivering greater social justice and reducing poverty. It comes at a time where it appears that the “social justice” version of the Big Society is drifting away, while the ‘smaller state’ version is coming to the fore.

The Prime Minister, on 14 February 2011, described the Big Society project as his ‘mission in politics’ and pledged ‘to fight for it every day, because the Big Society is here to stay.’ Our pamphlet is a compendium of views from the voluntary and community sector about what this means in relation to tackling poverty and exclusion. It is this very definition that is lacking from the overall strategy. 

For instance, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC, The Big Society, 17th Report of Session 2010-11,) states (p153, para. 159): ‘Ministers have not set out clearly what success means for the Big Society project, nor produced metrics for success.’ The Committee noted that: ‘the Government has committed to regular Departmental reporting on progress towards the aims of the White Paper on Open Public Services, starting in April 2012’ and recommended  ‘that the Government publish a clear statement, with practical examples, of what the Big Society project is intended to achieve and then develop the capacity to collect standard data on public service provision through the Big Society project, with a view to releasing it in open, accessible and meaningful formats, to allow the public to assess and judge success.’

The White Paper on Open Public Services is at the core of the Government’s view of the Big Society. But the report published by the Cabinet Office last week fails to clarify what the Big Society project is intended to achieve beyond a smaller state and a wider range of providers of public services. In a situation where services are increasingly being rationed as a result of public expenditure cuts, the demand is for a good, accessible service, not for choice over a reduced, less accessible service. 

Although the White Paper on Open Public Services stated that: “Our society is blighted by the persistent failure to extend equal opportunity, dignity and worth to all”, the progress report does not show how this blight has been reduced or what data is going to be examined in the future so we can judge if it is being reduced at all. There is no evidence that the Government’s ‘choice and competition’ agenda will improve services for the most disadvantaged. 

Our pamphlet makes it clear that the outcomes that the voluntary and community sector are looking for are around those in poverty having a demonstrable voice in decision making. The contributors argue that local community organisations are better placed than government to increase social action and influence the delivery of public services and have a long track in delivery around community empowerment and social action. They should be listened to and supported.

But they also argue that the sector should take the initiative rather than let itself be led by the state through commissioning and resource dependency. The sector should use the term Big Society for its own purposes and define its preferred relationship between the state, the market and civil society and what it wants to achieve in terms of democracy, social justice and poverty and inequality reduction.

About this work

This pamphlet is the result of a collaboration between NPI and organisations working in different parts of the voluntary and community sectors. The contributors are Graham Fisher, Chief Executive, Toynbee Hall; Vaughan Jones, Chief Executive, Praxis Community Projects; Jacqui Roberts, Chief Executive, Shoreditch Trust; Martin Halton, Research Manager, Seedley & Langworth Trust, Salford; Neil Johnston, Chief Executive, Paddington Development Trust; Pastor Mike Houston, Director, Bethnal Green Mission Church.

The ideas in the pamphlet were generated in a roundtable discussion in November 2011. As well as the contributors to the pamphlet, other organisation attended and contributed to the discussion, including senior representatives from the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Trust for London and the City Bridge Trust.

As we say above, the purpose of this pamphlet is to stimulate a discussion. We see this as the start of a conversation. We would particularly welcome views from community and voluntary groups working with people in poverty on what the Big Society means, or could mean, to them.


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