Soapbox: Making the cut

There seems to be some confusion over who will be funding the future of the UK voluntary sector and, by extension, Big Society. While Sam Younger of the Charity Commission recently told charities that they need to: “move from a grants mentality to a contract mentality” in order to attract greater funding, Education Minister Michael Gove recently said: "If an organisation is a charity or a voluntary body, almost by definition the spirit that should defuse it is not dependency on the state but the capacity to do more by harnessing the enthusiasm of civil society and the generosity of individuals."

This gives strong ammunition to those who worry that the whole Big Society idea is government’s way of devolving any responsibility for anything and letting people just get on with it. Little Britain’s sketch of Dennis Waterman’s refrain: “write the theme tune, sing the theme tune” comes to mind: a totally DIY Big Society with voluntary and community groups being asked to provide more services with no government funding and expecting the general public to foot the bill. That is not so much an independent voluntary sector as one hung out to dry.

With the potential for up to £5 billion losses to the voluntary sector estimated by Dame Suzi Leather of the Charity Commission this is a big hole, and all we’re currently being offered is a £100 million Transition Fund.  This is “likely to be available to organisations with income of between £50,000 and £10m” as a bridge in the short-term, while voluntary service-delivery organisations find their feet in the brave new world. How many will sink in the meantime? With some predicting that even some local authorities will go bust in the wake of the CSR how will the much less resilient voluntary sector fare?

Among all the shock reactions, “I told you so’s” and recriminations with which the Blogosphere and social networking sites are currently awash I was amused to see the latest example of collective social action on Facebook: a simple message board which reads “FOR EVERY CUT ANNOUNCED THINK: COULD A TAX ON BANKS HAVE PAID FOR THAT?” promoted by a group calling for a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ (http://www.robinhoodtax.org.uk). Look behind this group and you find a coalition of NGOs, politicians, celebrities, religious leaders, world leaders including FSA Chairman Lord Turner, philanthropist George Soros, entrepreneur extraordinaire Warren Buffet and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, and over 216,000 Facebook ‘friends’.

This is clearly not a viral internet joke but a growing movement calling for progressive economic and social change in the wake of the banking crisis and the recent return to obscene banking bonuses and particularly in response to the CSR cuts which are widely held to be just more taxes on the poor. A similar idea is currently being promulgated in the States where they are experiencing a similar economic crisis, and where even Barack Obama has warned on his Facebook page about the dangers of repealing the Wall Street Reform of July 2010 which sought to bring tighter regulation to the US financial system.

All this bubbling on the surface points to the wider and deeper ill afflicting the world’s current economic situation – that of the widening gap between rich and poor – a guarantor of dissatisfaction. E.F. Schumacher, author of ‘Small is Beautiful: Economics as if people mattered’  talked about the theory of ‘enoughness’ – a state where everyone has enough to make them pretty happy. A tax on the rich and on the banks - a redistribution of wealth in our society and across the world - could achieve this. That DFID’s International Development budget was one of only 4 departments to avoid cuts, and indeed actually gained the most from the CSR, is an indication that someone has their head screwed on right, but what of the domestic economy? Social and civil unrest is not a good basis for the Big Society. Perhaps ‘Small and Beautiful Society’ would have been a better goal?

This post was originally published by DSC e-news in 2012