Friday, March 04, 2011

Protesting the big society

I got an email from the Evangelical Alliance just as I was finishing preparing for Sunday evening. The email concerned the big society and how it was a great opportunity for churches - and asking for money to help make their version of the big society a reality. The sermon I'd just finished is about spurring one another in to love and good works and focuses on the fact that our faith is for the world and not just us. So, I should be putting two and two together and saying let's all leap on the big society bandwagon...

Well, no, I'm not doing that. I'm actually working on an email to send to Christians in the area asking if they'll support the youth charity I chair because local authority spending cuts have put its future in grave doubt. And that's the big society dilemma for me.

In good years, when government spending was available to forge real partnership between the statutory and voluntary sector, I'd have been pretty supportive of much of the thinking embodied by big society propaganda. I think local groups are better at shaping the services to be offered to their locality; I think voluntary sector organisations offer the flexibility and fleetness of foot that's needed to meet the real needs of people as they change over time. But that can only happen if there's statutory support in the form of funding, not to mention the flow of funds of grant making trusts. Sadly the savagery of the spending cuts means that not only is there no local authority grants but bids to grant making trusts - themselves seeing reduced assets because of the shenanigans of the bankers - outstripping supply of money.

A sensible government would have put the big society transition arrangements in place before local authorities took the ax to support of the voluntary sector. A sensible government would have established the big society bank on a sound financial footing - probably using the proceeds of a robin hood tax on the banks that would see £10bn+ a year flowing into its coffers - so it could fund the transformation of our communities. But it didn't. So we will see many good voluntary sector groups go to the wall as the funding dries up.

So the church has a dilemma. Government says join us in the big society and we want to say this is what we've always done, so of course we'll join you. And like the good Samaritan, we will bind up the wounds of those damaged by life, mugged by misfortune. The church has always done this. it will continue to do so. But in the coming months it might find itself expected to do vastly than its meagre resources will allow. Can we provide care for the vulnerable, training for NEETs, support for struggling families, food for the hungry, utilities to those priced out of the market, care for those struggling to live in the community with mental health problems...? In short, can we make good the effect of the most savage spending cuts ever envisaged in a single spending round? I doubt it.

Paul says that we should pay our taxes as a sign of love for our neighbours. This implies that government has a responsibility to the vulnerable. It implies that one of the ways in which we order the big society is through the election and action of good government, charged with gathering and distributing tax revenue fairly. So, yes, Mr Osbourne, close the VAT loophole on goods brought in from the Channel Islands (I will willingly pay the correct price for my Cd's and DVDs from Play or wherever), but also do something to claw back the £25bn lost each year to tax 'avoidance'.

So, I think we should help out where we can by bringing aid to the vulnerable and protest the fact that we have left in the mess we're in by a financial system that is still out of control (how can a bank that makes £1 in losses be paying out just shy of £1bn in bonuses to the incompetent?). I think a few occupations of the places that are still part of the problem would be a good way of churches showing that they are part of the solution. If the EA is raising money for such a campaign of protests, I'll donate to that.


Jude said...

Very much agree with your thoughts, Simon. A dilemma for the church, but - at my most optimistic - I think we have to see it as an opportunity. Worrying though. Talking to a friend yesterday who said the Ministry of Defence are cutting 4,000 civil servants and over 10,000 from the forces. Not sure how "society" can plug this gap. Return of Dad's Army perhaps?

simon said...

Watching Newsnight reporting on services to victims of domestic facing closure across the country.
So, I agree it's an 'opportunity' but will the church be a place where victims of domestic violence will feel welcome? Will church members be able to offerlong term support to women (mainly) and children fleeing the family home because of abuse?

Dave said...

Big society seemed such a good idea at the time... now its just about spending cuts and plugging the gaps. Maybe the church should lead more, bleat less, and be positive about our contribution to society. Can the EA change government mindsets with us behind them? I pray they can.