Editorial: CRB checks - a test for the big society

Criminal Records Bureau checks could become a disincentive for would-be volunteers, believes Tristan Donovan

Tristan Donovan, deputy editor
Tristan Donovan, deputy editor

If anyone thought David Cameron's pre-election talk of the big society was mere window dressing, last week's Conservative Party conference was a wake-up call.

It was everywhere at the party's Birmingham get-together, from the set-piece speeches to the fringe events. But if reactions to the policy so far are anything to go by, few beyond the Conservative wing of the coalition 'get it'.

Unlike the soundbite-friendly policies of the Blair-Brown years, the big society is a complex and ultimately unpredictable idea. In part it is a bid to change people's attitudes to the roles of state and society. On a practical level it seems analogous to evolution and capitalism - two successful but aimless, anarchic and dynamic systems. Neither has a goal; the results emerge from the ebbs and flows of different pressures and actors. There is no guiding hand.

But what they both rely on is a delicate balance of incentives and disincentives. As a result, Cameron's quest for the big society will be won or lost largely on the legal and regulatory front. The outcomes of the government's vision of free schools, for example, will depend greatly on whether the pupil premium provides a strong enough incentive to encourage schools to take on the difficult to teach. If the incentive is too weak, it will be no surprise to find it entrenches an educational divide along class lines.

With checks and balances so crucial, it is mind-boggling that ministers are contemplating passing the costs of Criminal Records Bureau checks for would-be volunteers on to the third sector or the volunteers themselves. If those who contribute time, energy and skills to the big society are asked to pay to apply or told that their chosen charity can't afford to take them on, how much of a disincentive is that?

Next week, the government will reveal where its cuts will land, but if this plan is among them the first nail in the coffin of the big society will have been hammered in by the coalition itself.

- Read Third Sector's round-up of all the Conference news

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