The MP tasked with reviewing the sector’s role in the UK’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic has said future sector models must be “more ambitious” than the Big Society, and warned against the government implementing major reforms at the same time as cutting spending.
Danny Kruger, the MP for Devizes and former charity leader, participated in a panel discussion hosted by the think tank New Philanthropy Capital, entitled how to get charities up the policy agenda, alongside chief executive of the NPC Dan Corry, and director at Reform, Charlotte Pickles.
Speaking at the event, Kruger said that the coronavirus pandemic had highlighted the value of social infrastructure in supporting communities.
“A lot has changed this year: we have learned the locality of our connections, there is an opportunity for a better model [of social infrastructure] and I hope the public will help drive that agenda [...] and a system of decision making to be pushed lower down,” Kruger said, adding that there was a pressing need to “put communities in charge”, and “direct their own destinies”.
By contrast, Pickles, a former expert adviser to then-Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, did not think the current political climate was ready for more devolution.
“I think what we have seen is greater centralisation of public services, where really we would like to see greater third sector engagement. There are always a lot of warm words on devolution but we don’t know what the government strategy is,” she said.
“Everyone wants it when they’re out of power but goes cold on it when in power.”
Kruger’s sector review hopes to develop proposals that will maximise the role of volunteers, community groups, faith groups, charities and social enterprises in the fight against coronavirus.
However, the Small Charities Coalition has warned the review risks becoming an attempt to reintroduce “big society through the back door”.
While Kruger said he had learned a lot from the Big Society, he acknowledged that some people may be skeptical of the review.
“People thought the coalition government was simply trying to find a way to cut services and public funding, and get the sector to do its job for it. It felt as though it was palliating the problems by getting volunteers to pick up the pieces of a broken social and economic system, rather than changing the system,” he said.
However, he added: “I think we could be more ambitious than the Big Society, and not try to make these major reforms while cutting spending.”
Pickles added that there was also a need to recognise that the communities that voted in the current government looked very different to the government that founded the Big Society.
“There is a much greater need for reform: not just about prosperity but tackling representation and addressing the democratic deficit to help people in left-behind communities feel as though they have a voice,” she said.
Both Kruger and Pickles agreed that there was an opportunity for the sector to drive policy changes that may have not been politically feasible before the pandemic, such as harnessing the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement, or recent discussions of a wealth tax among politicians.
Pickles added: “There is a huge opportunity to make the government understand what value looks like for [charities].”
When asked whether the government was scared of big charities, Kruger said: “I think there should be suspicion of ‘big anything’ – the real question [for charities] is their effectiveness.”