Wally Harbert: Is the third sector part of the problem or the solution?

Unless the sector tries to empower disadvantaged people, it becomes part of the problem, writes our columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

A study of 16 European countries found that only Portugal had more extremes of income than the UK. We do not know when or how present trends will end, but the third sector should be in the front line of attempts to mitigate an impending disaster.

When, three years ago, I was researching a book about older volunteers, I compared the severity of social problems in the UK with those of other European countries. Did our health and welfare services, together with our long history of voluntary enterprise, place us ahead of others in combating social problems? I was not prepared for what I found.
We are at the top of the European league table for social failure. If the country’s financial problems were as grave the International Monetary Fund would, long ago, have laid down survival conditions to the government. Whether I looked at divorce, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, burglary, assaults, road rage or clinical depression, we were number one in Europe. The UK had the highest level of violence in the EU. Infant mortality was worse than in Slovenia and British women were in the bottom half of the European table for life expectancy. Scotland was top for murder and cirrhosis of the liver.
Apart from Portugal, Britain had the highest rate of imprisonment in western Europe – double that of Scandinavian countries. We also had the highest rate of imprisoned children in the EU. We were the fattest people in Europe – just behind the USA and Mexico in the world obesity championships. Our children watched more television and engaged in less physical activity than any other European children.  
There is incontrovertible evidence that gross inequality is a root cause of social disadvantage, yet no political party has a coherent policy on the subject. Political rhetoric focuses on whatever manifestation of inequality hits the headlines on a given day – zero-hours contracts, payday loans, working families pauperised by £40bn of means-tested benefits, electricity prices, obscene bonus payments, tax avoidance. Attention falls on each in turn, mistaking symptoms for causes.     
The most debilitating features of gross inequality are the sense of humiliation and failure it engenders among those at the bottom, who lose control of decisions about their own lives. This creates a cancer that can infest aspiration and achievement across generations. Low self-esteem is the 21st-century disease that alienates children and young people from society and creates emotional problems that can last a lifetime.
The big society promised to empower communities, but the third sector rejected it – a common reaction to attempts at redistributing power. Yet unless the sector tries to empower disadvantaged people it becomes part of the problem, papering over the cracks of a divided society. We should not underestimate the bitterness of the dispossessed. Riots in August 2011 were a timely reminder of what might happen if present trends continue. Be afraid.

Wally Harbert has held senior positions in the voluntary sector and is a former president of the Association of Directors of Social Services. His book, Baby Boomers and the Big Society, was published in March 2012 by Grosvenor House Publishing

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