Problems for voluntary groups
The government believes that, when the state steps back from running services, civil society will step in to take its place – the Big Society. But the evidence is mounting that state provision is the enabler of voluntary action, not a barrier.
At the end of last year, I reported that David Robinson – a co-founder of Community Links – was worried that the cuts were a “double whammy” for voluntary groups. They increase the need for the services they provide, but cuts in funding are reducing the ability of groups to provide even their current level of service. I have a lot of respect for Community Links, so I took his views very seriously.
This week, two more straws in the wind suggested the weakness of the Big Society. First, the latest Citizenship Survey from the Department for Communities and Local Government was published, covering April–September 2010. This showed that now is not a particularly good time to be relying on volunteering, as the proportion of people who volunteer had fallen for the fifth successive year; 44 per cent had volunteered unpaid help for an organisation in 2005 but by 2010 this had fallen to 38 per cent. The proportion volunteering at least once a month had fallen from 29 per cent to 24 per cent.
Second, a survey by the Directory of Social Change found that ninety per cent of charities are opposed to the Charity Commission charging for its services for charities. This doesn’t seem to be on the cards at the moment, but it is a move that has been considered in response to the £8 million cuts (27 per cent) the Commission faces. As cuts bite deeper charities and other third sector organisations are likely to find that they use up more and more of their scarce funds to pay for services that were previously free – effectively “subsidising public spending cuts with charitable funds” as the Directory of Social Change put it.
One thing we are learning from these cuts is that the relationship of public authorities to civil society is not parasitic, as neo-liberals would have us believe, but symbiotic and supportive.