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Back Community Relations The Big Society Debate at the House of Commons

The Big Society Debate at the House of Commons

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Anil Bhanot OBE, Chairing the Debate at the House of Commons Terraces hosted by CEMVO, introduced Stephen Hammond MP and other eminent speakers - see profiles below - and he set the scene for the debate by his following introductory brief:

The Big Society is about empowering the citizens to govern their own lives by devolving power from central and local Government to the people. It is being hailed as an initiative with ‘people power’ and freedom of choice at its core. The freedom, to make your own choices, and for local decisions to be made locally, many people will see it as liberating. However, we must also consider whether people have the time, the resources and the capabilities to be pro-active and get directly involved in local decisions and initiatives.

To help this process, the Government is training 5000 community organisers over the next 5 years. These individuals will hopefully be the leaders of ‘neighbourhood armies’ and they will serve to promote wider inclusion and participation. But would the scheme be training those from minority and marginalised communities also to represent their specific problems and perspectives? We understand that the Bassac organisation will be solely responsible for the training - do they have the right expertise on minority issues, if not would they subcontract that work to other minority based organisations? Each community and area has its own needs- how will the organisers be selected and how will they reflect this diversity. If these 5000 jobs are done on a part voluntary basis- will they have the time to commit to what I envisage a long and enduring role?

The National Citizen Service will teach 16 year olds about community and social responsibility, starting this summer with 10,000 youths. This is a positive step in getting young people involved in their local area. Many charities and NGOs are in a good position to help provide this service and they have a lot of experience working with young people within communities and understanding the necessary behavioural building blocks. But responsibility and a concern for our surroundings needs to be learnt in the formative years, much earlier at a primary school level. Would the Government be requiring all schools, therefore, to work together on this initiative? Would different cultural aspects be incorporated in such a training? Would the scheme be religiously sensitive or would it be one uniform scheme implemented across the country?

What support will there be for school leavers regarding employment opportunities, especially as the career services are being slashed by 50%? Yes, we need to teach young people about social responsibility but if there are no jobs or support for employment it will lower morale and cause tensions.

Apprenticeship schemes are few and far between now whereas thirty to forty years ago it was a popular and well trodden path into lifelong employment. Should the Government encourage more apprenticeship schemes by giving tax incentives to the employers?

The welfare to work programme for the unemployed is to replace the Future Jobs programme this summer. What are the specific improvements made to the previous programme?

A global education survey last year showed that over the last decade we have plummeted in achievement rankings and thousands of school leavers finish with no GCSE’s and with poor literacy. Free Schools give more control to the parents in making decisions about the education of their children and perhaps by empowering the parents, the schools will improve as the service users themselves will be more directly involved. But would the policy really affect those children whose parents will never have the time to participate in schools? Would that not leave some schools and pupils with little scope for improvement? What extra measures, therefore, are being put in place by the Big Society agenda to help schools in those poorer areas?

The Localism Bill intends to transfer some of the local councils’ power to the people. For instance, there will be some directly elected mayors for the bigger cities. Local community groups could bid to buy community assets, hopefully also empty council properties could be bought and put to good use. It seems that large council tax increases may be vetoed by the community. Voluntary groups and social enterprise companies may be able to challenge councils on delivering some services more efficiently. This all sounds good but at the moment the local authorities are losing 30% of their central government budget over the next four years with at least 10% of it this year. So the cuts are front loaded but what measurements are in place to check that the cuts are targeted at reducing waste than curtail essential services? There is a great deal of pressure on local councils to implement a Big Society agenda but how can we ensure that the vulnerable and the most disadvantaged who have no voice really are the ones who are not ignored and left behind?

Within health, several localised consortia of GP practices will replace ten strategic health authorities and over a hundred and fifty primary care trusts, in turn affecting 60,000 managers. GPs will take responsibility for the £105 billion health budget. Health protection agency and the Food Standards agency are to be abolished. More control shifting to community GP’s sounds reasonable but surely they will need managers to cope with additional pressures.  When money is passed to say a care or residential home by GP consortia will the GP consortia have sufficient resources for checks and balances in place, on the delivery of those services? Otherwise money will start wasting again by a lack of controls.

The Big Society Bank is to offer financial support to social enterprises but will it offer loans at discounted rates? At the moment commercial banks offer loans typically at 4% margin above base rate to good customers and at 6% margin to the rest. This is market led stealing; it is immoral, given that the margins are at least 2% higher than normal. When will the Government legislate to cap their margins to really look after the Big Society?

The Big Society is a vision that appears to embody empowerment and freedom. People want to have a say about their local school, hospital or community centre. There is wide spread support for the idea that Whitehall initiatives should not dictate and rule every local decision with no respect for the specific needs of that community. However, community based work is often challenging and needs time, resources and trained staff to be effective. Targeting money to its most efficient use and cutting waste poses the biggest challenge and we need to see how the Government departments and local councils priorities the allocation of money in much more detail on their websites. We need to see more accountability. Otherwise we risk this noble agenda getting lost in just some sort of political one-upmanship, as perhaps we got a glimpse of recently at Liverpool Council.

Democracy means that Governments are mandated to spend the Budget, albeit with a proportionate overdraft and loan for expansion, but they are never mandated to go on a huge overspend spree. Even so we accept that world circumstances may warrant that from time to time but should there not be referendum mechanisms to seek people’s fresh approvals then. Big Society to my mind means everyone taking responsibility, moral responsibility, the people, the banks, and the Governments.

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Seated Pictures: (L to R) Steve Moore, Stephen Hammond MP, Anil Bhanot OBE, Shaun Bailey, John Tatam, Vanessa
(Pictures courtesy of Lopa Patel MBE www.redhotcurry.com)

Profiles of the Speakers

Mr Anil Bhanot OBE, Chair of the Board of Trustees, CEMVO

Anil Bhanot is the Chair of CEMVO and has been involved in community relations work for twenty years in a voluntary capacity. He has been consulted on several Government legislations and EU Directives in the recent past, voicing community input when necessary. He has lectured extensively on faith matters with an inter faith outlook. In his day job he is a Chartered Accountant and runs his own practice in West London.

Mr Stephen Hammond, MP

Stephen Hammond has been the Conservative MP for Wimbledon since May 2005. In the 2010 election he was re-elected with an increased majority and also made Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Rt Hon Eric Pickles, MP. He works closely with Boris Johnson, as the Prime Minister selected Stephen to act as the Parliamentary Spokesman for London. He has a background in finance and business and a strong commitment to community affairs.

Mr Shaun Bailey, CEO of My Generation

Shaun Bailey co-founded and is the Managing Director of My Generation: a charity that aims to break the cycle of poverty, crime and ill-health in struggling communities through people-centered sustainable change. It has a positive message of taking responsibility and finding solutions. He stood as the Conservative candidate for Hammersmith in 2010. Shaun is one of the Prime Minister’s Big Society Ambassadors

Mr Steve Moore, Director of the Big Society Network

Steve Moore is the Director of the Big Society Network, a group that aims to help organisations deliver the practical benefits of civic engagement. He believes an untapped social energy exists in our villages, towns and cities that if unleashed could help us build a bigger, better and happier country. He has a background in connecting people and generating creative collaboration in his previous senior roles in private companies, public bodies and Channel 4.  His particular areas of interest are education, innovation, media, technology, entrepreneurship and increasing the study of well being and happiness.

Mr John Tatam, Interim Executive Director at the Institute of Community Cohesion

John Tatam is the Director at iCoCo which was established in 2005 to provide a new approach to race, diversity and multiculturalism. Its work is based on building positive community relations and aims to build capacity at all levels. John is involved in radically reshaping the Institute at a time of reduced public spending, increasing competition and changing Government policy. He has over twenty five years experience of developing corporate strategy, improving performance and managing change in London local authorities. He has been widely involved in equalities and cohesion issues within local government.

Stephen Hammond MP, the key note speaker representing the Government, gave his presentation as did all the other speakers and then Q&A session followed.

The debate was lively and thought provoking. Steve Moore said that the Big Society was about creativity at the community level not about big politics. Stephen Hammond MP refuted the charge that it is to disguise the cuts, which he said would have happened anyway. Shaun Bailey spoke about inspiring everyone to do their bit for community and he said it is quite a natural thing to do once you are motivated. John Tatam and Vanessa said that through community cohesion work they help build a platform for the big Society to work from.

Responding to a question on the Prime Minister's recent remarks against muticulture, Anil Bhanot said that David Camron was probably referring to extermism and segregation that other cultures can develop in the name of multiculture but so long as multiculture is integrative into what develops naturally into the mainstream then it makes us all richer. Equally a monoculture cannot survive, maybe we should use the phrase inter-culture.

Full debate can be seen on Video at the CEMVO website www.cemvo.org.uk