Comment: The Big Society. Have the monkeys taken over the zoo? We had better all watch out


Comment by Peter Limbrick

Liverpool has pulled out of a pilot scheme for the coalition government’s Big Society. They did so, apparently, because the community organisations that were supposed to take increased control over local services were brought to their knees by government cuts before they could take on the new responsibilities. Lord Nat Wei, our brand new ‘Big Society Tsar’, who, as I understand it, gave up a job in the charitable sector in order to take on the role, discovered on the day before he started his new job that there was no salary to go with it. I hope the millionaire members of the Cabinet slip him a few quid for a sandwich from time to time as they pass his fold-up desk in the Cabinet Office on their way to lunch.

On this evidence, and there is not a lot more to go on, the Big Society is expected to run without funds. The strategy will filter down (is filtering down) to local community organisations that must try to run local services on a shoestring and disabled people and their families having to do without essential support. You do not have to have your ear very close to the ground to know that it is already happening. My perception, and I do not have a political affiliation, is that the monkeys have taken over the zoo and we had better all watch out.

Let’s assume though, for fairness, that the Coalition has a philosophy. It might go like this. They see the defects of a welfare state and have observed, as many of us have, that it is expensive and can create dependency at the same time as it provides necessary support to people in need. If you work in the field of childhood disability, as a keyworker, a therapist or a psychologist perhaps, you will know there is a professional tightrope to walk with each person or family you are helping. Falling to one side means offering too little support and failing in your job. Falling to the other side you offer too much help and create dependency. Your care for your client or pupil, your long experience and your professional skill means that you stay aloft on the rope – most of the time.

The worrying question is, going back to the bigger picture at national level, why on earth should we assume a boy from Eton and his millionaire Cabinet colleagues can make such sensitive judgements?

There is much talk in the papers about the government’s Plan A (drastic cuts) and Plan B. They say their Plan A is so good that they do not need to have a Plan B. I think they do have Plan B. Plan A is to so damage the welfare state that no one can become dependent on it. The collapse of the economy provides them with the perfect cover for this great leap forward. Plan B is to float the idea of a Big Society functioning locally to pick up the task of caring for people in need – on the cheap of course. Plan A is an ideological imperative. Plan B is out of their hands and is for us to adopt or not as we can. If it proves impossible, it will be us to blame, not the government.

Unusually, a child with cerebral palsy hit the headlines in January. (Cerebral palsy in my experience very rarely gets national media attention.) My reading of the situation is that Celyn, whose needs are increasing, faces going into care because her exhausted mother cannot cope any longer and local services cannot provide the necessary respite that would relieve the situation and make life liveable for all of them. I know that parents do not admit they cannot cope until the reach extreme desperation and I am sure that this vulnerable family is representative of thousands of others in the UK.

Some of us expected great things from the prime minister because of his family experience, but his spokeswoman explained that this family’s needs are an issue for the local council, not for the government. She added, ‘We are committed to continuing to improve respite care for carers of disabled children. We have said that we will provide £800m in funding for short breaks for carers of disabled children over the next spending review’. She might have also added that this money might have to be used instead to mend holes in the road. The Big Society – coming to a street near you.

Cartoon © Martina Jirankova-Limbrick 2011

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