Saturday 12 February 2011

Big Society ambassadors must stop "disgusting slurs" on charities, says ACEVO boss

David Cameron will fight, fight and fight again on Monday to save the big society that he loves.

Since his latest major speech to seek to explain to the public what his enigmatic big idea is all about has all of the hallmarks of a relaunch, Downing Street is very keen that it should not be called that as The Independent's preview today helpfully reminds us all.

In not relaunching his big idea, I feel confident that Cameron will be taking up Next Left's helpful Big Society rescue advice to explain that the Big Society is gradualist and more modest than it sounded last time out, does see a positive facilitatory role for the state, and isn't just cover for funding cuts. (So, obviously, don't mention that the idea is really Maggie T's). Cameron will be speaking to the Big Society Network, which aims to 'convene, curate and narrate' the Big Society message, which sounds useful (though it currently has a slightly Potemkin feel for now, with less going on than you might expect).

But another challenge may now be to decommission the increasing war of words between the government and the voluntary sector.

Judging by Bubb's blog from ACEVO Chief Executive Stephen Bubb today, David Cameron's big society ambassador Shaun Bailey is not off to a totally positive start in that respect.

This is what Shaun Bailey tells The Times (£) interviewed alongside Bristol NorthWest MP Charlotte Leslie, described by the paper as "the duo picked by Cameron to sell the big society.

I’m going to the policy briefings to make sure somebody from the real world speaks to people who are embedded in Westminster,” Mr Bailey says. “I’m going to argue the little man’s case. I am happy to be troublesome"... He lays some of the blame on councils — “that’s where the power is trapped” — and also on the quangos....

He is just as tough on big charities. This week they have warned that they will not be able to deliver the Big Society if their state funding is cut. “That’s a few people with their vested interest who thought they were going to make a lot of money,” Mr Bailey says. He understands their panic. “I run a tiny charity, if one of my funders was being removed I would freak out.” But he thinks needy charities shouldn’t be allowed to derail the project. “They’re almost a civic union. Actually the volunteering end is the smallest end of the Big Society. The big end is the rule changes, what it will do to our public services. I make no bones about it, the Big Society is going to be hard to do, but nobody has the money to do anything else. Our public services are huge, unwieldy and massively inefficient, but we want and need them so there has to be change.”

Bubb isn't impressed. (Hat tip @samcoatestimes).

Let me tell you what the new Ambassador Shaun Bailey thinks about " big charities", as reported in The Times. Talking about big charities who have been protesting about cuts he says it just about , " a few people with their vested interests who think they were going to make a lot of money ".

This is a disgusting slur on the work of some of our countries most loved and most effective institutions. Our " vested interests" are the most vulnerable ,the most needy and the most damaged parts of our communities. Blind people supported by the incredible work of RNIB. Children at risk of abuse and victims of mindless cruelty supported by Action for Children and Barnadoes. People at the end of their life given care and compassion by the great Hospices and people at he end of their tether advised and helped by the Samaritans. So when we argue against cuts and demand that they are halted It is because the big charities are at the forefront of saving lives and making Britain a better society.

Bubb also takes offence at Nat Wei talking about a funding "bubble" of those charities who will lose income from public spending cuts.

“The previous government left expectations there would be increasing grant funding. That is not the way to run a voluntary body, which needs to have sustained earned income. We’ve had a huge bubble which has distracted the voluntary sector and the challenge for it is to return to some balance.”

Bubb retorts:

A funding bubble eh. Is that the bubble of contracts to deliver vital services. Meals on wheels. Transport for the disbar
Ed. Care for the mentally I'll? Is this suggesting that councils stop funding this. End their contracts and we all go out with our begging bowls?

And he warns that politicians will lose a public row with big charities.

This has to stop. A warning for all those promoting the project. Attacking big charities or the sector as a whole will not just be counterproductive but dangerous. We are trusted. Politicians are not. Attack us at your peril.

So will the war of words now escalate? David Cameron will be frustrated by the further attack. He will come under pressure from his right to challenge charities as to why they are affected by public spending cuts at all, increasingly voicing the thought 'why were charities taking public funding anyway?'. Iain Duncan Smith is particularly keen to promote smaller charities, and does use the language of vested interests, which may seem to send the message small charities (good) and big societies (bad).

But it seems unlikely that the Big Society could survive an escalation of hostilities between the government and the voluntary sector. However tempted he might be to retaliate in kind, rebuilding support for the big society must surely involve the Prime Minister trying to bring about some kind of truce.


One can only admire David Cameron's tenacity and determination to keep getting back on the horse. His several previous efforts to get it all across include the strongly anti-state September 2009 conference keynote, the (rather different and more nuanced though still rather muddled) Hugo Young lecture of November 2009, the election campaign launch of the big society in March 2010, (also explained by speechwriter Ian Birrell) and the unusual decision to dedicate his first party conference speech as Prime Minister to repeating himself because of the concern that nobody had got it.

The Prime Minister will also receive a helpful update on the scale of the perceptions challenge in an interesting poll to be published in The Independent on Sunday, which will find out how many people have never heard of the Big Society, and how many have heard of it but don't know what it is, and various other things.

(Disappointingly, "I have heard of the Big Society but prefer the Good Society" was not one of the options put. Still, with Ed Miliband's Labour party clear that the cuts agenda now leaves the concept up for grabs, and keen to grab it, it must surely only be a matter of time before YouGov bring us a daily Big Society versus Good Society tracker poll).

Perhaps the pollsters should also have been asked to recruit those who do say that they know what it is as Big Society advisers to explain it to everybody else.

If they can find the time.


The difficulties that small start-up charities face were exemplified by Shaun Bailey's own My Generation charity.

The blog PoliticalScrapbook questioned some discrepancies in the official accounts, including £16000 of unreceipted expenditure (Times report) and the strikingly high amount of £60,000 spent on travel and subsistence by the locally-based charity.

The Charity Commission had said it would look into this last Spring. I can not identify any update on this. One assumes that number 10's due diligence should have included looking into the issue, and satisfying themselves that there is a good explanation. Bailey cited his inexperience with accountants and lawyers with regard to the unreceipted expenditure.

These appear to have been legitimate questions to ask about the charity's operation and financing. To be absolutely clear, there is no evidence that anything improper has taken place.

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