The “big society”: new doubts emerge

Cameron’s “big society bank” may begin with reserves of as little as £60m.

David Cameron's "big society" wasn't much of a hit with the voters or the Tory party (one MP memorably described it as "complete crap"), but today's the day when he finally launches the project, promising "the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power" ever seen.

Four "vanguard communities" (and what a peculiarly Leninist phrase that is) will be given the power and the money to run transport services, take over local assets such as pubs and set up broadband internet networks.

All of this will be financed through the creation of a "big society bank", using money raised from dormant bank and building society accounts. Alone among the press, the FT raises a sceptical eyebrow:

The British Banking Association has estimated there is probably £400m sitting in dormant bank accounts, which Mr Cameron wants to use for the bank's reserves. However, his advisers say a combination of foot-dragging by high street banks and the need to track down owners of dormant accounts means only a fraction of that sum will find its way into the new bank's coffers in time for its launch.

The bank is now expected to begin with reserves of as little as £60m, hardly enough to enable the voluntary sector to replace the "dead hand of the state".

On the Labour side, Ed Milband (who has just managed to raise £8,000 in 24 hours after an Obama-style appeal) has attacked the "big society" as a fig leaf for savage spending cuts. "People in the voluntary sector know that, for all the talk of a big society, what is actually on the way is cuts and the abandonment of community projects across Britain," he said. That may be the case, but the most persuasive critique remains a pragmatic one: in this ever more hectic age, who has time for the "big society"?

Cameron's hope that the "big society" will replace Big Government is reminiscent of the old Marxist belief that the state will "wither away" as a result of victorious socialism. We all know how that turned out. Cameron has a long way to go to convince us that his vision is any less utopian.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Want to beat child poverty? End the freeze on working-age benefits

Freezing working-age benefits at a time of rising prices is both economically and morally unsound. 

We serve in politics to change lives. Yet for too long, many people and parts of Britain have felt ignored. Our response to Brexit must respond to their concerns and match their aspirations. By doing so, we can unite the country and build a fairer Britain.

Our future success as a country depends on making the most of all our talents. So we should begin with a simple goal – that child poverty must not be a feature of our country’s future.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that relative child poverty will see the biggest increase in a generation in this Parliament. That is why it is so troubling that poverty has almost disappeared from the political agenda under David Cameron, and now Theresa May.

The last Labour Government’s record reminds us what can be achieved. Labour delivered the biggest improvement of any EU nation in lifting one million children out of poverty, transforming so many lives. Child poverty should scar our conscience as much as it does our children’s futures. So we have a duty to this generation to make progress once again.

In my Barnsley constituency, we have led a campaign bringing together Labour party members, community groups, and the local Labour Council to take action. My constituency party recently published its second child poverty report, which included contributions from across our community on addressing this challenge.

Ideas ranged from new requirements on developments for affordable housing, to expanding childcare, and the great example set by retired teachers lending their expertise to tutor local students. When more than 200 children in my constituency fall behind in language skills before they even start school, that local effort must be supported at the national level.

In order to build a consensus around renewed action, I will be introducing a private member’s bill in Parliament. It will set a new child poverty target, with requirements to regularly measure progress and report against the impact of policy choices.

I hope to work on a cross-party basis to share expertise and build pressure for action. In response, I hope that the Government will make this a priority in order to meet the Prime Minister’s commitment to make Britain a country that works for everyone.

The Autumn Statement in two months’ time is an opportunity to signal a new approach. Planned changes to tax and benefits over the next four years will take more than one pound in every ten pounds from the pockets of the poorest families. That is divisive and short-sighted, particularly with prices at the tills expected to rise.

Therefore the Chancellor should make a clear commitment to those who have been left behind by ending the freeze on working-age benefits. That would not only be morally right, but also sound economics.

It is estimated that one pound in every five pounds of public spending is associated with poverty. As well as redirecting public spending, poverty worsens the key economic challenges we face. It lowers productivity and limits spending power, which undermine the strong economy we need for the future.

Yet the human cost of child poverty is the greatest of all. When a Sure Start children’s centre is lost, it closes a door on opportunity. That is penny wise but pound foolish and it must end now.

The smarter approach is to recognise that a child’s earliest years are critical to their future life chances. The weight of expert opinion in favour of early intervention is overwhelming. So that must be our priority, because it is a smart investment for the future and it will change lives today.

This is the cause of our times. To end child poverty so that no-one is locked out of the opportunity for a better future. To stand in the way of a Government that seeks to pass by on the other side. Then to be in position to replace the Tories at the next election.

By doing so, we can answer that demand for change from people across our country. And we can provide security, opportunity, and hope to those who need it most.

That is how we can begin to build a fairer Britain.
 
 

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.