You have to admire Theresa May’s bravery for daring to use the ‘s’ word. After Margaret Thatcher’s famous declaration "that there is no such thing as society" and David Cameron’s ill-fated big society project, Conservative Prime Ministers could be forgiven for steering well clear of any talk about "society".
But yesterday May declared in an opinion piece for The Sunday Telegraph that she was determined to build a "shared society", one that "doesn’t just value our individual rights", but focuses more on the "responsibilities we have to one another".
Today, May delivered a speech at the Charity Commission’s annual public meeting during which she talked about tackling the everyday injustices that are overlooked. Under May’s vision, the government will step in and help those in need of support.
Tellingly, in her opinion piece of yesterday there was no direct reference to charities. Instead, she favoured talking about the role that "institutions" have to play in helping to bring society together. The word charity, with its connotations of stepping in when all else has failed, is perhaps not something this government will use freely.
But if May is to have any realistic chance of delivering on her vision, then charities will need to be at the heart her agenda. Too often the sector has been ignored and criticised for standing up for the very people that May now says that she wants her government to support. The lobbying act and the proposal to include anti-lobbying clauses in grant contracts have been clear attempts by the Conservatives to stymie the voluntary sector and prevent it from speaking out. Any further attempts to silence its charity critics must be resisted.
May’s government will need to start listening intently to organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation if it is serious about reducing poverty and tackling inequality, and be willing to implement the voluntary sector’s recommendations and not dismiss them as shrill. It will need to talk directly to the community organisations that operate in the parts of the country that consistently top the indices of multiple deprivation and jointly come up with policies to help create local economies that provide sustainable, meaningful work and not just minimum-wage jobs with zero prospects.
In addition, May’s government must look to provide specialist help within our less well-off communities and rely less on the cheaper, one-size-fits all, national helpline solution.
Careful consideration needs to be given to how the government spends the precious funding it has at its disposal in these straitened times. Since 2010, the only voluntary sector schemes in which the government has invested heavily have been social investment and the National Citizen Service. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been diverted from dormant banks into social investment and a staggering £1.2bn has been set aside during this parliament to pay for the government’s flagship NCS youth programme.
The money spent on social investment has helped to create interesting new social enterprises and approaches to social problems, but there is no evidence that social investment alone can help narrow the gap between rich and poor and tackle other inequalities. As for the NCS, the government’s continued investment in David Cameron’s pet project remains highly questionable, given the scheme’s vague aims and the limited evidence that it truly improves the life chances of young people.
The government might therefore need to rethink the schemes it now funds and be open to looking at the past for inspiration. For example, there is a growing cry in the voluntary sector that grants are a far better way to fund high-quality and sustainable services, yet they remain firmly out of favour with statutory funders.
We should celebrate the fact that May has put society firmly back on the political agenda and that she acknowledges the great divisions that now exist. But if she wants to create the "stronger, fairer Britain" she says she so craves, her government will need to build far better relationships with the voluntary sector: one in which it is treated as partner rather than pest.