UK Politics

Big Society is being hampered by lack of clarity - MPs

David Cameron giving a speech on the Big Society in 2010
Image caption David Cameron has variously described the Big Society as his "mission and passion"

The public and the voluntary sector remain confused about David Cameron's flagship Big Society idea, MPs say.

Ministers have not explained clearly enough what the Big Society means in "practical terms", the cross-party Public Administration Committee said.

It also warned there needed to be a "cultural shift" in Whitehall to engage smaller charities and new providers.

The prime minister has described the idea, to empower communities and open up public services, as his "mission".

But critics have said the government's agenda lacks focus and that new groups being encouraged to take over the running of public services have been hit badly by funding cuts to the voluntary sector.

'Big Society minister'

Assessing progress to date, the committee said the stated objectives of the Big Society - encouraging social action, diversifying supply of public services and devolving power to local communities - were welcomed by many people.

But it said key messages coming out of government were confused and there was no clear, centrally-driven plan for implementing the programme.

Among the report's recommendations is that the government appoints a Big Society minister with the task of driving the agenda forward across government. It also calls for every government policy to be assessed against the criteria of whether it help social action groups and entrepreneurs.

The report also suggests giving charities delivering public services a VAT tax break.

"The prime minister has placed the Big Society project at the centre of his political agenda at it occupies a central place in the coalition agreement," Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the committee, said.

"But this was never going to happen overnight. To make a change of this magnitude successfully will take a generation. It represents a whole new way of government. However, so far, the government has not been clear enough about what the Big Society means in practical terms."

'Risk of inertia'

While charities and voluntary groups have proved capable of providing certain public services more efficiently than the state, the report warns that not all public services can be run in such a way.

It also says smaller providers are finding it harder to overcome the bureaucracy involved in public procurement and suggests the existing decision-making culture in Whitehall favours big business and large charities over small, local groups.

Voluntary groups offering services through the government's Work Programme - which ministers say is the biggest back-to-work drive since the 1930s, had "serious reservations" about how they had been treated so far, it argues.

"In essence, this is the challenge," Mr Jenkin said. "To build the 'little society' rather than the 'Tesco charities' that are skilled at tendering."

Without "a comprehensive and coherent change programme", the whole agenda could "be defeated by inertia", he added.

The government is insisting much has been achieved already, with thousands of people involved in "doing their bit" to improve communities.

Ministers say the Localism Act, passed by Parliament last month, will give communities the concrete powers they need to make their own decisions about housing, services and commercial development through "neighbourhood plans".

A Big Society bank is being established to fund social action projects approved by ministers. It will use £100m from dormant bank accounts and £200m from the banking sector in its first year.

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