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It’s no surprise that charity workers say the Big Society is dead

It’s no surprise that charity workers say the Big Society is dead

Just five years ago and the voluntary sector was at the heart of the general election campaign with Cameron’s flagship policy the Big Society. But four short years later and the Big Society lies in tatters. The government's harsh, deep spending cuts have hit the sector hard with many charities across the country hit by a double whammy of increasing demands at a time when income is falling.

The Big Society’s failure has been catastrophic for many frontline charity workers. Last year Unison found 74% of charity workers were stressed because of their work, 18% had over £10,000 in debts and a quarter had more than one job. Most shockingly a small minority – 5% - were working four or more jobs.

One charity worker explained, “We don’t expect to be rich or even comfortable in terms of pay. But year-on-year with no cost of living pay increase impacts more. We’re in work to make a difference in people’s lives but there’s so much less support available for the people we serve. It’s difficult on an emotional level, which is draining on all levels.”

No wonder then that 88% of Unite members who work for charities say the Big Society is dead.

Behind these statistics there is a very real human cost, to charity staff and their families. Jobs lost, relationships broken. Too many charity workers are bearing the brunt of the catastrophic failure of Cameron’s Big Society. A Labour government is committed to righting this wrong because we recognise while it’s right to expect the sector to live its values, and be good employers, we also know that government has responsibility for this too.

Yesterday I outlined our offer to those who work and volunteer in the voluntary sector. A Labour government will raise the minimum wage and we will encourage organisations to pay the living wage building on the work of great Labour councils around the country, who have brought in the living wage as part of their contract arrangements. We’ll tackle the use of exploitative zero hour contracts to give workers back their job security and steady incomes. We’ll extend free childcare to prevent parents taking an unfair financial hit when they return to work. We’ll work with the sector to develop standard guidance stopping unfairness and exploitation in internships, work placements and volunteering and act to tighten the law if necessary. While many charities offer great training opportunities we've been shocked to hear stories of exploitation, and we will tackle this kind of exploitation wherever we find it.

As Chi Onwurah MP has said we'll also allow government departments to reserve specific contracts for social enterprise and not for profits in pursuit of a public service mission to avoid the situation where charities and social enterprises are caught up in a bidding war with private sector companies with desperate consequences for the people who have to deliver those services. Finally I’ve heard often how pensions are a real worry to people working in the sector. So we’ll commission a study of pension provision across the sector to inform the work needed to ensure that choosing a career in the voluntary sector doesn’t have to mean choosing a retirement in poverty too.

In the last few weeks there have been many references to winding the clock back, to 1930s level of spending, 1950s levels of inequality, and 1980s levels of division. We are in the middle of hugely challenging times. Every time we’ve faced these challenges in our history, we’ve pulled through because of a partnership, between the state and civil society. We’ve failed, when we’ve forgotten this.

This partnership is a change from the old command and control way of doing politics, and as Jon Cruddas said recently, as such it's a break from the Party’s recent past. But in another sense there’s nothing bold and radical about this at all. The Labour Party was formed from these traditions: of voluntary action, co-operatives, trade unionism, friendly societies and mutual aid. We are only as strong as the sum of our parts.

We’re reaching back to rediscover the strengths that Labour and this country has always drawn upon, arguably at the time we need them most.