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Big Business Can’t wait to cash in on Big Society

February 18, 2011

If you are a public sector worker you will be familiar with at least one of the following names: Tribal, Serco, G4E, A4E and Capgemini.

They are five of the largest public sector companies in the country. Councils and central government departments across the land use these companies to provide an extraordinary range of services: recruitment, HR, catering, inspection, cleaning, IT services, marketing, security…things that used to be done in house. Mostly for cost, and sometimes for performance reasons, they are not anymore.

Companies like these, like the Big Society. The Coalition uses the words ‘community’ and ’empowerment’ but they really mean to be talking about ‘out sourcing’.

The vision of voluntary groups taking over local services is fragile. Very few operations in third sector have the experience and expertise to make up for the volume of services local authorities are being forced to cull. Waiting in the wings are companies like the aforementioned, who will be happy to snap public sector contracts with low bids and hardly any competition.

The Independent reported “growing evidence that private firms rather than voluntary groups could land many of the new contracts to run public services”.

Some facts to chew on:

Only two voluntary bodies are among 35 groups to qualify to bid for welfare-to-work contracts worth an estimated £2bn.

Private firms Serco, Sodexo and Mitie have been chosen as preferred bidders to run the Community Payback scheme for offenders, currently run by probation staff, with no voluntary groups making the shortlist.

"You understand what I'm going on about, don't you?"

Cameron’s re-launch of the Big Society this week as confusing as its first outing was. People will only be able to withdraw money from The Big Society Bank to apply for Big Society Loans. With interest. Hardly a way to foster support for innovative, creative schemes, especially ones with a narrow, local focus. Low risk ventures from established enterprises are the only organisations that would benefit from such a thing.

Cameron went on to say organisations would not even be able to contact the bank directly. Being a Conservative idea, it is going to have a Conservative twist. It will lend to intermediate parties, who then decide who gets the funding. I wonder who those intermediate parties will be.

 “We have to show that there is a way of making their police force more accountable, that there is a way of taking over failing schools, that there is a way of opening up the provision of public services that there is a way of encouraging young people to volunteer and get involved”. Cameron pleadingly said at his press conference.

Cameron is talking up the contribution of the voluntary and third sector but doing nothing practical to ensure it will be able to compete with the big players when it comes to Council contracts.

Nothing is wrong with more volunteering, helping others and controlled decentralisation. I endorse it. Something is wrong when it is thought these things can be the difference between a school being run or being closed down. Volunteering will rarelybe the solution for people in the community who need specialist care and attention, nor will it ensure your bins get collected or your youth centre stays open.

The only thing volunteers donate freely is time. They still need funding for resources that facilitate their work. Funding they will now have to compete harder than ever for because everyone will want a piece of the BS Bank now the government is giving local authorities a free hand reduce third sector funding altogether.

I really want The Big Society to curl up and wither away. It misunderstands the role of the voluntary sector in society by burdening it with responsibility to mend broken Britain and cut the grass in our parks at the same time. It is becoming ever more baffling to understand and tiresome to criticise. And the more Cameron goes on about it, the more profit making businesses will look forward to opening up a Pizza Hut in the reception of local swimming pool.

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