Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is a big con – my Tribune column this month

One of the unsung successes of public investment in recent years is family intervention projects or FIPs. Bringing together local services including policing, schools, health, housing and children’s services FIPs work with thousands of the most chaotic and challenging families to help end cycles of anti-social behaviour, drug and alcohol misuse, behavioural problems and poverty.

As I’ve seen on visits around the country it’s a tough love, no-nonsense approach which confronts and challenges the parents and children they work with to change their behaviour.

Before a meeting of the regional cabinet in Nottingham last year I met one dad who had been abusing drugs to the detriment not only of himself but his whole family, with his children getting into trouble at school. The FIP made him face up to his problem, giving him the help and support he needed to get off drugs and get his family back together. His kids stopped truanting and got back into school.

The average FIP costs up to £15,000 per family, but the costs to society of a family with severe problems is around £250,000-£350,000. From a social policy as well as economic point of view it’s a no-brainer.

Yet it’s just these sorts of services – which do require investment in the short term, but save the taxpayer and society as a whole a much bigger cost in the long run – which police officers fear will be the first victims of cuts to local services.

It’s no wonder they’re worried when Home Office minister Nick Herbert says policing should only be about tackling crime. But all the senior police officers I’ve met in my constituency, and over the last month doing this new job, recognise they cannot effectively deal with crime and anti-social behaviour if they view their role as being simply about ‘catching and convicting criminals’.

They know they also have a wider responsibility to work with other services to prevent crime and anti-social behaviour in the first place. The coalition doesn’t seem to understand this. And for all David Cameron’s rhetoric about a ‘big society’, the reality of the government’s policies look set to weaken not strengthen our society – because it’s not just prevention and early intervention which is facing deep and immediate cuts, but local policing too.

The spending review announced that government funding for the police will be cut by twenty per cent – way beyond what most experts believe can be achieved through things like better procurement and reorganisation. To make matters worse, the Home Secretary has also signed up to a deal that means the biggest cuts will hit in the first two years and, most worryingly, with the biggest cut of 8 per cent in the year of the Olympics. Front-loading the cuts in this way will make it impossible to protect the frontline through long-term efficiencies.

Put into such a difficult position by the government, police forces are preparing for significantly reduced budgets from next April by freezing recruitment, getting approval to use a legal loophole that allows officers with more than thirty years of service to be forcibly retired and planning to make Police Community Support Officers redundant.

That’s the context in which the policing minister last week praised the work of volunteers in one town who are helping to keep a local police station open. They deserve praise – as do thousands of special constables. But people rightly fear this is the vision for cut-price public services and policing on the cheap the coalition has in store.

It increasingly seems that David Cameron’s big idea of a ‘big society’ is little more than a cover for deep and ideological cuts to local services. While he talks about the importance of the voluntary sector, he’s cutting the funding which allows the third sector to survive. And while he says he’s devolving power – to local government and local communities – when this is done at the same time as councils are having their budgets cuts by a massive 27 per cent, it’s a one-sided deal. It’s not power he’s devolving but blame.

So this is the coalition’s big idea: shrink the state, make the security of local communities increasingly reliant on the good-will of volunteers, expect charities to fill the gap and provide public services for free, cut the very services which prevent crime and anti-social behaviour and devolve the blame just in time for when it all goes wrong.

That’s why I say David Cameron’s ‘big society’ is a big con. It’s a sure-fire route to a weaker society and it’s time we exposed it.

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Posted November 12th, 2010 by Ed

5 Responses to “Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is a big con – my Tribune column this month”

  1. Jane says:

    It is all very well to devote resources to deprived families. I just want to tell you that I worked with deprived communities for over thirty years and have witnessed so many initiatives to help them introduced by many governments. Sadly, my experience is that only the very few people benefit from intensive financial and personal input. I would say that the greatest assistance to such chaotic families is education and skills training leading to employment. Doing things oneself is a great boost for self esteem.

    I also have worked closely with the police and continue to do so through local policing forums. I would refer you to the Home Affairs Select Committe report regarding the huge public investment, the decriminalisation of many offences by fixed penalty ticket, the reduction in crime and the poor detection rates. I would also refer you to the HMIC Reports on the appropriate savings that can be made without cutting front line services. Sir Ronnie Flanaghan’s report indicated that local forces create the same requirement for statistics as Central Government do and of course the army of personnel required to analyse this data. As to PCSO cuts. I am bitterly disappointed in how the role has developed and how the group are used by different forces. In my area they have cars – so much for the physical presence we were promised. They also spend an awful lot of time in schools etc. Further, the last government funded the posts for a fixed period so I am now paying through central taxation with the County, District and Town Councils making huge contributions to the cost. We do need to look at how our police resources are used. It is rather nice to have family liaison officers and police attending so many local group meetings. It is all very good to have small County Forces who ape their Metropolitan counterparts by having specialised officers leaving the front line very thin. Also, central procurement and better regional collaboration will save billions. A look at the various management levels in the service is also warranted. There is much savings to be made and all of us know that. I only have to read my local press to read resident’s views of how much public money is wasted by the police. All offer great support to the local police officer but are very critical of police management. I am also not sure that you should put fear into the public regarding spending cuts as I see this for political purpose and not for the good of the citizen. the Police are no different from any other interest group who want to have a bigger share of the pot.

    Twenty years ago all communities had public spirited members who looked after the environment and cared for those around us. This continues in many communities despite the ethos developed over many years that the State would provide all. Cuts to local services can also be made without too much impact. My District Council are sharing CEO with a Council in another County. Several District Councils in my county are pooling backroom staffing too. It is astonishing that we are now getting CEO’s to manage appropriately and it has taken cutbacks to do so. We do pay all these people an awful lot of money….

    So life is not as dire as you make out. We pay taxes and live in a society that will always look after those in greatest need and should be proud to do so. Nevertheless, we have encouraged people to believe that the State will always provide – or the taxpayer will. This is wrong and patronising too. You are out of touch with the views of many and I say this as a lifelong labour party supporter.

  2. I note with interest that Westminster Council are slashing the contract for litter and rubbish collection from £35m to £7m. That has to equate redundancies. How long will it be before the long-term unemployed – assuming any can afford to live there after housing benefit reform – are out picking up the litter in order to keep their benefits?

  3. Stuart Litobarski says:

    Tory Thatcher should never have sold off the government utilities, then we might not be so dependent now on the French for our nuclear capability!

  4. Terry says:

    This is absolute nonsense and is the sort of political attitude that has disempowered our communities over the last 10 years. Sitting back and relying on public services is no way of building a strong and cohesive society.

    If you want to see Community Empowerment and the Big Society in action, then visit Street Watch at of which I am a proud volunteer community member, working in partnership with the police to make my community safer.

  5. Mary nash says:

    Ed Balls intelligently and analytically exposes the real purpose of David Cameron’s Big Society as a ” Big Con” , a useful cover for the Coalition Govt to pass the blame on local govt, when the devastating effects of dismantling our improved public services begin to be felt in a few yrs time. The Labour Govt invested wisely on public services the past 13 yrs having inherited a devastated Public Services from the Conservatives in 1997. Our NHS is the second overall ranking in the 2010 Ranking of Countries Healthcare(on quality care,access, efficiency, equity, long healthy productive lives), Crime Rate down 45%, more schools built, unemployment down etc etc. It is illogical, foolish and wasteful to begin to run down Public Services once again, using the hysteria on deficits as a convenient excuse… Wake up, wake up all… Labour, compassionate Conservatives, Lib Dems, Greens etc etc we need to be vigilant and speak up for our cherished institutions before it is too late. Pray,we need a strong Opposition Party, a credible Alternative Govt, hopefully we can replace this Coalition Govt of Losers sooner rather than later. It will be sad and frightening if this govt without a mandate carry out “Coalition” policies based on broken promises…. no rise in VAT, Tuition fees, universal Child benefits , AV referendum , etc

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