The government’s big society agenda operates in a vacuum away from many Whitehall departments and will not give more power to those that use public services, according to Tessa Jowell, the shadow Cabinet Office minister.
Speaking at a debate about the big society at the House of Commons last night, hosted by the think tanks ResPublica and Progress, Jowell said: "One of the fundamental flaws in the government’s thinking is the idea that the state and civil society are antithetical when they are, in fact, deeply complementary.
"The other problem is the idea that the big society can be decided in a vacuum from the rest of Westminster," she said. "There is indifference to it from the Treasury."
Jowell said ministers had not promoted a consistent vision of the big society. "Government ministers don’t understand what they’re talking about and are acting inconsistently about the big society," she said.
"Health secretary Andrew Lansley thinks the big society means more power for doctors, and education secretary Michael Gove thinks it means parent power. The problem with these reforms is that they take power away from national and local government and don’t give it to the people who use the services, so the services become less accountable to users.
"It’s impossible to argue that the big society is being nurtured while community groups are laying off staff and reducing services."
Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, replied that there was consensus about the big society. "Whenever we say what we mean by the big society we find everyone agreeing with us," he said. "We have come to the end of the era of the big state and we need to build a stronger society.
"Yes, you need infrastructure in order for people to volunteer, and I very much regret it if councils are cutting funding for charities such as Home-Start and Citizens Advice," he said. "But the big society is not all about formal organisations. It is also about people being neighbourly with each other and about the three-quarters of charitable organisations that receive no state funding.
"It would be lovely to be able to do this in a time of plenty. There was a time of plenty and this wasn’t done and this was a missed opportunity."