The government’s big society agenda has confused charities and the public, and risks being "defeated by inertia" unless there are major reforms in Whitehall, according to a new report by a group of MPs.
The report by the Public Administration Select Committee, published today, is the conclusion of its seven-month inquiry into the big society agenda. It says the government must "produce a comprehensive and coherent change programme" to redistribute power to communities. "Without this, attempts to bring about change will be defeated by inertia," it says.
The report recommends appointing a big society minister, who would help other ministers to put in place measures to support the big society agenda. It also says every government policy should include an impact assessment that asks what the policy will do to "build social capital, people power and social entrepreneurs". It says that "unless this is done, the big society project will not succeed".
The report also warns that there is public confusion about the big society, and says the committee disagrees with a statement by civil society minister Nick Hurd during a PASC hearing that "people fundamentally understand it".
It says the committee believes charities and community groups can provide better-value services than the state. "We have yet to see how the government will encourage this, since contracting out continues to favour the larger, more commercial providers," it says. "In essence, this is the challenge: to build the ‘little society’, rather than the ‘Tesco’ charities that are skilled at tendering."
It recommends that government departments "keep public sector contracts as small as possible to ensure contracting with as wide a range of providers as possible" and says departments should regularly review the level of involvement that large private sector firms have in delivering public services.
It also says the government should make charities that deliver public services eligible for the VAT refund scheme that applies to public sector bodies.
The report warns that charities have "serious reservations" about the Work Programme, the government’s flagship welfare-to-work scheme. "We find little reason to have faith that large contractors will subcontract to smaller, charitable or voluntary providers," it says.
The committee’s report also says ministers have caused confusion by speaking "both of promoting charities as the favoured provider for public services and in favour of a more mixed economy with private sector providers also involved." It says civil servants and local authority commissioners need clear guidance about whether ministers wish them to prefer the voluntary sector over other service providers.
It says public spending cuts have put the existence of some charities at risk. However, it says "the overall funding position for civil society may be backpedalling slightly, but it follows years of enormous increase."
The Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the committee, said: "So far, the government has not been clear enough about what the big society means in practical terms. There is a lot of confusion among the public and the new providers how the big society policies are expected work in practice.
"Some charities and community groups have shown that they can provide some public services at better value for money than those delivered by the state. The problem is they are likely to experience significant barriers to progress unless the culture and skills in the departments commissioning such services change."