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.