The Big Society and Children’s Services?
One of the Big Ideas at the 2010 election was the Conservative Party’s promotion of the ‘Big Society’. It was not clear exactly what it was, and many Tory MPs have subsequently felt that the vagueness about such a key concept, and the consequent inability to sell it to the electorate, was one of the reasons the Conservatives failed to achieve an overall majority in the election.Clearly the Big Society is different from ‘There is no such thing as society’ (Margaret Thatcher) and the Broken Society (Ian Duncan Smith), but waht is it, apart from a vague idea about reducing the size of the state – and thus public spending – and increasing charitable and voluntary activity?
As such, the direction of travel towards the ‘Big Society’ can be seen in the Coalition increasingly seeking to take as much of the education of children as possible away from local authority control via ‘the conversion of schools to academies and free schools.’ (P.1, Society Section, The Guardian, 29.09.10)
This is in part related to the Coalition Government’s motivation to ‘slimming down the state’ and reducing its powers (although the Lib Dem partner in the Coalition has voted against the latter at their recent party conference). The implications in practice are uncertain and the results hard to assess. The NHS (crucial for children and families) is to be reformed to hand power from the Primary Care Trust ‘managers’ to GPs, who will have greater professional control over services. However, GPs are apparently increasingly concerned that they will not be allocated sufficient resources after this handover to employ…..managers (of course they will be needed) to assist them in operationalising the changes and running the new service.
Similarly, Suffolk County Council have decided to ‘lead the way’ in becoming an ‘enabling council’ – in other words, seeking to ‘outsource’ its services to private companies, the voluntary sector, and social enterprises. As with the NHS example above, this inevitably will mean that they will have to employ some additional people to commission and manage the contracts for these services. In addition, whilst it may be relatively easy to contract out services such as waste collection, much of children’s services may prove much harder to do so – and not necessarily cheaper. For example, many social workers are now employed via agencies, the cost is higher to the local authority than social workers who are directly employed. In addition, the issues of accountability are enormous, Tony Travers, local government expert at the LSE has said that ‘outsourcing will work best where the downsides of failure are not cataclysmic for the council or the staff….the nearer you get to children’s services, and to a lesser extent adult care, the more councils are going to want to ensure that the agencies and charities to which they hand over services are those they completely trust’ (The Guardian, as above.) So, outsourcing is neither a quick nor a cheap fix, and the implications for children and the quality of services deeply uncertain.
Outsourcing and a smaller State appear to be part of the Big Society concept. The idea of the Big Society was promoted by David Cameron during the general election but appeared to have been quietly shelved subsequently, in part because voters did not understand what it meant. However, the concept appears to have been revived by Cameron, as he mentioned in frequently during the his speech at the annual Conservative Part Conference in Birmingham in October 2010.
But, what does it mean for children’s services, what for example should a Director of Children’s Services – having to cut services and jobs – to be in line with the principles of the Big Society? This uncertainty was underlined at the Confederation of Heads of Young People’s Services annual conference, where Marion Davis, ADCS president, said
“A lot of people are struggling with what we really mean by a big society,” she said. “We understand some of the intentions behind it, but how is it going to work? It certainly won’t come about spontaneously. I for one don’t yet have a clear picture about how communities will take the place of some of the arrangements we have at the moment.”
Davis also went on to point out that the Coalition Government’s plans to develop National Citizen’s Service for all 16 year old sounded more like the kind of Central government initiative that the Big Society was proposing to do abolish.
In relation to the Coalition Government’s so called Bonfire of the Quangos, (Quasi-autonomous non-government organisations) children’s services may be substantially affected. The future of the Children’s Commissioner in England was under review, (now the post has been confirmed following the review) the future of the Children’s Workforce Development Council is under review, and the Youth Justice Board has been abolished. There is a sense that some quangos are being target on the grounds of ideology not efficiency. Whilst it is not automatically the case that quangos are good things, it is hard to see how services for children and the rights of children would not be eroded if, in particular, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner had been abolished. It has also been suggested that it would cost more to get rid of some quangos than to continue them, leading to suspicions that ideology rather than efficiency and effectiveness might be the drivers.
Big Society Shrinking?
As we move through 2011 it seems that the ill – thought out notion of the Big Society appears to be falling apart. So, Lord Wei, the Tory appointed Big Society Tsar has suggested that one solution the Coalition could adopt to reduce council spending is to invite middle and senior managers to reduce their contracts from full time to part time, and do other work in the freed up time, including volunteering for the Big Society. Could most managers afford to do this – probably not – indeed Lord Wei himself has announced that he is cutting the time he works in the House of Lords on the Big Society so he can take on more paid work.
At the same time, the retiring Head of the CSV (Community Service Volunteers) appearing on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on 7.2.2011 said:
“The cuts that are being imposed on local government and the health service are taking place now.
“So there are a lot of very worthwhile programmes – for example volunteers working in child protection as promoted by the minister for children – which are now under threat of closure.”
Liverpool City Council have also announced that they are pulling out of being a one of the four Big Society Pilot Vanguard authorities as the government cuts was making the role impossible.
The Government have responded by announcing they are to provide up to £100 million nationally to support voluntary organisations in the transitional period during the ‘cuts’. £100 million is two thirds of the £141 million cuts Liverpool alone has to make over the next two years. No wonder perhaps that the prestigious Local Government Chronicle of 3.2.2011 has the headline “Big Society on the Rocks”
Further indications that the Big Society will however remain a part of Conservative/Coalition policy can be seen in David Cameron’s article – “Have no doubt, the big society is on its way’ (p39, The Observer, 13.2.2011)/ In this Cameron defends against criticism that the Big Society idea is too vague by suggesting that it has to be built from the bottom up, so a ‘grand plan’ or ‘central design’ would be inappropriate. He suggests it will be developed by 3 methods:
1. Devolving power to the lowest level to allow neighbourhoods control
2. ‘opening up public services’ and ‘putting power in the hands of professionals and the people they serve’
3. encouraging volunteering and social action.
He cites free schools and the number of hits on ‘online crime maps’ as indicators that people want the Big Society approach, and states
“The big society is about changing the way our country is run. No more of a government treating everyone like children who are incapable of making their own decisions….it’s about giving you the initiative to take control of your life and work with those around you to improve things.’
Well, the suggestion that children are incapable of making their own decisions is unfortunate, and may be clumsy wording. However, pursuing this theme a little further, the cuts in Educational Maintenance Allowances – to name just one example, are reducing the opportunities for children and young people to take control of their lives; and Free Schools, despite Tory protestations, appear to many to be elitist and serving only a tiny minority. There are many who suggest eg Polly Toynbee, 7.2.2011, The Guardian, that focussing on the Big Society is an attempt to distract from the damage caused by cuts, as Toynbee recounts – Jonathan Porritt told me: “The idea of a big society without the public purse is an outrageous lie, and impossibility. Many are being manipulated to play a part in the scam.”