One step forward, two steps back

I noticed this story on the local Observer website this week: High demand for debt help about a Rugby-based Christian charity that are reporting a large increase in people coming to them for help on debt. The recession has hit people hard, and the programme of spending cuts (which means job cuts) and the recent increase in VAT are combining to squeeze people who are already struggling.

So it is great that there are organisations out there to help.

However, since I saw that story, two more things have come to light that will make it much harder for people in debt to get help. Firstly, the Tory-led government has axed funding for debt advice. The Financial Inclusion Fund cost £130million. But in the last 5 years it has helped:

• 379,000 people manage more than £6bn of debt.

• 3,000 families stay in their homes, resulting in a £150m saving to the courts and mortgage lenders in court and repossession costs.

• create an estimated £700m in annual cost savings for the NHS because of avoided mental health problems and stress.

• creditors recover an estimated £300m more of their debt than they would have recovered without the service.

Secondly, reports are coming in from across the country that local Citizens Advice Bureaux are facing possible closure, such as in Birmingham, due to local councils hacking away at grants to local voluntary groups as they try to deal with the effects of Eric Pickles’ 28% reduction in funding. CABs spend much of their time dealing with people who have debt problems. As much as they have been trying to diversify their funding so they are not wholly dependent on council grants, now is really not the time to pull the rug.

As much as the Tories in Westminster talk about the ‘Big Society’, they are undermining the voluntary sector with their deep and early cuts and trying to pass the blame down to local councils. When it comes to dealing with debt, it’s important to ensure that people have access to advice and support, because very often a little help can go a long way to avoiding bankruptcy and homelessness.

No wonder that Phil Redmond has become disillusioned with the ‘Big Society’ project. Projects like Rugby’s CAP are going to have to pick up all the of slack when the cuts hit other agencies. I just hope that they can cope. Because the real losers will be those who are already suffering from debt problems.

Please provide own truncheon…

On one of my posts about the closure of Brinklow fire station, Mrs Wormwood joked that under the ‘Big Society’ we would all be asked to carry around buckets of water.

Seems that the Government – well at least the Tories – have a similar idea for policing. The cuts will see numbers of police reduced by 20-30,000, but don’t worry about crime or public order, because they’ve got a cunning plan – bring in more volunteers, otherwise known as ‘DIY policing’. Ironically, the idea is to model the retained fire fighters, which is the same system being slashed by the Tories at Warwickshire County Council to save money.

I’m sure that this will be properly thought through, though. I mean, it’s not like the Tories rushed the Academies Bill through the Commons as fast as possible to avoid it being scrutinised properly, is it?

Eh? Eh? Oh.

The Big Society – All old bollocks?

About 15 years ago the Fast Show was in its heyday, and they had a little skit that was based on two old country guys sitting by a wall. One would ask the other “So, what do you make of that yoghurt then”, or “So, what do you make of that Michael Flatley then” or whatever, and the other would always reply “All old bollocks”.

When listening to Dave launching the ‘Big Society’ today, that sketch was the first thing that popped into my head.

It’s not that there isn’t a kernel of a good idea here – a more co-operative society, with mutualist organisation, charity-based volunteerism, and everyone helping each other out without needing to rely on central authority. It’s right up my alley, that kind of thing.

Problem is, I don’t see how the Government expects to bring it about at the same time as they cut loads of budgets and as we are just inching out of a recession.

Firstly, money is a problem. Local councils are getting hit hard by the cuts and one of the easiest areas for them to pull back on is their discretionary grants to local voluntary groups. Croydon just reduced it’s grants by two-thirds for the next year.Also, during a recession and recovery, popular charitable giving dips. So voluntary charity groups are really not in a position to be expanding their services without some extra assistance

Secondly, the approach seems to be for the government to pull back first, and then for the voluntary sector to arrive to fill the gap. This is also how the Tories (and their Lib Dem puppy-dogs) expect jobs to appear over the next year or so – as if by magic, the sacking of loads of public sector workers will create private sector demand. It’s voodoo economics and now they are trying to apply it to society

Thirdly, the government appear to be confused about what it means. As well as letting councils slash support for the very people who would be needed for the Big Society to work, central government are having a bonfire of the ‘quangos’. Some of those ‘quangos’ are also doing the sort of thing that the Big Society is supposed to be about, such as representing tenants.

I know that it’s only been a couple of months, but so far the Tories have already shown their hand when it comes to Health and Education. So as much as commentators and coalition groupies are asking us to be less cynical, I just can’t do it. I think that this idea is just a nice name and a good concept being used to cover the fact that the Tories are going to slash public services.

It is just a nice name. It’s like the “People’s Charter” of the Major “Back to Basics” years. Or the “Big Conversation” of 2005 (which was basically New Labour saying “after eight years of asking the Party what policies they want to see and ignoring them, we decided to open the process up to the whole country”).