Fears government reforms could create a “big divide” not a ‘Big Society’

Two of the Big Society's key reforms, police commissioners and free schools, could tear apart our communities, writes the Runnymede Trusts’s Kamaljeet Gill.

Kamaljeet Gill is a researcher at the Runnymede Trust

As David Cameron again attempts to relaunch the big society in the Big Issue magazine this week, the Runnymede Trust has uncovered major concerns that the policy could increase racial tensions. These concerns were raised by ethnic minority communities around the country, interviewed for Runnymede’s new report, “Fair’s Fair”.

In particular, interviewees were especially worried about two of the government’s flagship big society policies, free schools and the election of police commissioners – fearing these could increase segregation.

The suspicions highlight the substantial obstacles the Big Society faces in securing legitimacy and trust in the eyes of the communities it aims to empower. And, more importantly, the concerns expressed by minority communities indicate it has the potential to divide rather than unite people.

On free schools, participants argue the policy has the potential to create religious divisions, fearing some groups will set up schools designed to cater to particular ethnic or religious groups, while excluding others.

In the words of one Blackburn resident:

“I would be worried about segregation because parents would always want to send their children to schools in the religious community.”

Others argue they don’t want their children to mix with only one faith, because living in a diverse society requires children to learn about many different cultures.

On police commissioners, there were fears that without proper safeguards, groups or individuals sympathetic to the far-right could be elected as commissioners or into other positions of influence.

In addition, others worried the election of a Black or Minority Ethnic (BME) commissioner could stir up tensions, with some participants in Blackburn expressing concern that an Asian commissioner would be considered “unacceptable” to some members of the white British population, or could even by opposed by others in the Asian community from a different religion or caste.

Overall, people feel the Big Society gives power to those with the loudest voices and most time to spare – more often than not those from the most privileged groups, one Croydon respondent saying:

“It’s great for ladies who lunch who have the time, but I would struggle.”

Furthermore, our research indicates many BME communities, especially the most vulnerable, feel they do not have the capacity and skills to fully participate in the big society, and are deeply concerned about this.

These concerns cut to the core of the Big Society ideal. The program can only succeed with the willing and enthusiastic support of the communities that will be required to bear the burden. For the Big Society to be a success, the government needs to address the concerns expressed by the participants interviewed in our report to ensure racial tensions aren’t exacerbated.

In addition, capacity building must be energetically pursued for those who currently lack the skills to fully participate, and safeguards must be put in place to protect the vulnerable. Without such measures the government’s reforms look set to engender, in the words of one Newcastle resident, not a big society but “a big divide”.

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