Big society being “destroyed” by cuts, warns volunteering chief

Dame Elisabeth Hoodless warns that “massive cuts” are removing opportunities to volunteer.


David Cameron's "big society" was dealt yet another blow today as the outgoing head of Community Service Volunteers warned that government cuts were "destroying" volunteering.

Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, who has led the charity for 36 years, told the Times (£) that the coalition has failed to provide opportunities for people to do more in their communities, and that cuts to council budgets were in fact taking existing opportunities away. She also warned that ministers had failed to understand the level of responsibility volunteers were willing to take on:

Does one hand know what the other hand is doing? We know we need to save money, but there are other ways of saving money without destroying the volunteer army.

Once you close a library there is nowhere for a volunteer to help.

Few people want to be responsible for the library. Most people want to feel there's an expert on the premises. They are quite happy to issue and reshelve the books, but taking the final responsibility is a bit more than most people want to do.

Criticism of the initiative has been building rapidly. Last week, Liverpool City Council – one of four areas chosen to pilot the programme – pulled out, citing government cuts as its reason. Embarassingly, Lord Wei, the government's unpaid adviser on the policy, said that he would be reducing his hours so that he had time to earn a living.

Dame Hoodless's intervention will be particularly damaging because, as the head of the UK's biggest volunteering group for many decades, she is a figure aligned with the "big society" and all that it stands for. She says in the interview that she was at first "excited" by the policy, but has since reviewed this opinion. Such a critique – like the one from "Red Tory" Philip Blond – is all the more damaging because it comes from a previously sympathetic standpoint.

If the "big society" policy is to survive, Cameron must act fast to stand it up with solid policies, and explain just how it will manage to flourish despite deep cuts.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.