Kate Green: Govt. “intent on demolishing the welfare state”

The Big Society has its limits. Only the state can really redistribute wealth to lift people out of poverty, argues Labour MP Kate Green.

Shadow communities and local government minister Gordon Marsden yesterday told a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference that the ‘Big Society’ can only work if young people are involved, saying they need to “have their voice”; in this article for our conference newspaper Litmus (which can be download free from litmustest.org), Kate Green, Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston, argues that only the state can really redistribute wealth to lift people out of poverty

Who could argue with the Big Society — cooperation, mutualism, devolving power to communities, encouraging volunteering — what’s not to like? Yet the Left greets it with suspicion, seeing it as a fig leaf for public spending cuts and services on the cheap. The Right, meanwhile, points to the failure of the state to deal with the most intractable social problems, the weakening of community and family. These arguments need unpicking, for both sides proclaim their wish to end poverty and inequality, and support aspiration, and we need to know what works.

Involving the voluntary sector in the provision of frontline services is certainly nothing new. It undoubtedly brings benefits: some excellent programmes have been developed and delivered by the sector, and claims are rightly made for its innovation, identity with the client group and the trust it enjoys. Similar claims can be made too of course for the best of public provision; the New Deal adviser who helps a lone parent into work; the teacher who inspires, the popular Police Community Support Officer; dedicated NHS staff… It is not the case that the voluntary sector is always and intrinsically better, though it can be very good.

The sector does though face some special tensions, and these should not be ignored. Acting as an agent of the state, taking reward for meeting the state’s objectives may compromise a charity’s ability to advocate for the client’s interests and damage independence. Trustees must be careful to protect their charitable purposes and more should be expected of them to demonstrate that they have taken that into account.

Let’s not kid ourselves either that the voluntary sector is anywhere big enough on its own to meet the scale of need. It is a diverse and varied sector, but even the largest players struggle to find the investment needed, or to carry the risks of “payment by results”. The sector is fragmented and sometimes inefficient, it often pays poorly and offers limited staff development – are we sure it attracts the best? The smallest organisations, grassroots and community groups, struggle most with sustainability. How in such circumstances can quality and consistency for the client be guaranteed?

That question becomes all the more acute in the face of spending cuts. For all that the Coalition government proclaims its support for the third sector, the reality is that its policies are reducing funding now. The axing of the Future Jobs Fund, cuts in budgets for children’s services, youth provision, youth justice, community cohesion all mean the sector is facing cuts — and there are more to come. So there is an understandable cynicism about the Government’s intentions, even among those who welcome the opportunity to play a larger community role. And that is before we get to the broader question: if we are serious about eradicating poverty, is there in fact something necessary about a strong and supportive state?

I firmly believe that there is. In my family, it was access to good quality state education, public housing and free healthcare that enabled my parents to escape the poverty experienced in their own childhoods, and give my sister and me the best start in life. And it was the state that underpinned the reduction in poverty since 1997, with measures from the introduction of Sure Start to the pension guarantee. Only the state can redistribute: poverty fell as a result of increased investment in benefits and tax credits, and it was the minimum wage not the market that lifted the incomes of the poorest at work.

Don’t tell me all that could have come from charity. The problem with voluntarism is that it is just that, voluntary — it relies on goodwill and on patronage, carries the potential for patchy provision and for stigma, and simply cannot provide a guarantee of justice for all. Labour didn’t get everything right in the last 13 years, poverty didn’t fall as far as it should have, we halted but did not reverse the rise in inequality, and some of our most severe social problems remain only partially resolved. But nonetheless we made much progress in turning the tide of injustice and poverty that was the legacy of the last Conservative government’s small state.

Under the guise of the Big Society, what we are seeing now is a government once again intent on demolishing the welfare state. Whatever the merits of the Big Society, history tells us that without that solid protection, it is a vision built on sand.

Litmus is a special publication from leftfootforward.org, conservativehome.com and libdemvoice.org in which leading thinkers from across the political spectrum address six key questions facing Britain today.

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5 Responses to “Kate Green: Govt. “intent on demolishing the welfare state””

  1. Nick Stone

    RT @leftfootfwd: Kate Green: Govt. "intent on demolishing the welfare state": http://bit.ly/d8jQ6K – @KateGreenMP on the ‘Big Society’

  2. earwicga

    RT @leftfootfwd: Kate Green: Govt. "intent on demolishing the welfare state": http://bit.ly/d8jQ6K – @KateGreenMP on the ‘Big Society’

  3. Peter Ward

    Yes, but its awfully comforting to believe that when the State (which is of course the true “Big Society”) bottles out of ensuring decent Public Services, the volunteers will step in and kiss it all better, for free….

    What is really shocking is the banality and idological puniness of today’s “political debate”. That’s not to say that far-right ideologies aren’t at the root of Tory policies. They clearly are. The Left’s biggest weakness has been to engage with them at the surface level, not with those underlying ideologies. Play on their playing field (currently Eton’s methinks) and you lose.
    We have Blair to thank for that.

  4. John Green

    Kate,

    You have chosen a very important topic for your article but you lack credibility with your statement that “what we are seeing now is a government once again intent on demolishing the welfare state.” You imply that a previous government has demolished the welfare state. Which government was that?

    Where is your evidence that the present government has this intent? Why would any government want this?

    You are very muddled about the concept of the Big Society. No one envisages it replacing the services and programmes of government. The argument of Cameron and Duncan Smith is that government cannot do it all, especially with the current budget restraints. There is a long tradition of charitable and volunteer activities, as well as mutual and friendly societies, going back centuries, well before Beveridge. Nowadays, we have become too reliant on state handouts to the extent that for many, consumption of health and welfare benefits has become a life-style choice. Every citizen of this country could and should make a bigger contribution to society in general. That includes you and me.

    You say that Labour did not get it right and that poverty did not fall as far as it should. The truth is that poverty worsened under Labour, as it has under every previous Labour government; the gap between the haves and the have-nots widened and now more children live in households without a family member in work that in any other country in Europe. We must do better than that.

    Kate, this is a disappointing article and I give it 5 out of 10.

  5. Mr. Sensible

    There are multiple issues I have with the ‘Big Society.’

    The first of these is that it is, I’m afraid, an attempt at justifyign big cuts.

    The second is that, as is shown in this article, voluntarism is just that. In my own area, a local council proposed to close a library earlier this year and wanted to see if the local community could run it instead. This they did, but after a wile they found it was too much of a responsibility and it has subsequently closed.

    Thirdly, when you consider that local councils are cutting funding for voluntary organizations, how will this work?

    Finally, who is the ‘Big Society’ accountable to? If we look at ‘Free Schools’ as an example, who are they accountable to?

    In truth, the ‘Big Society’ is a handy slogan, but it is just that.

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