Saturday, November 15, 2008

'Communities in Control': Blears, Volunteers, and sawing off the branch you're sitting on.

2 posts from me later today on a recent Government paper 'Communities in Control', on local democracy, volunteering and community involvement. It all kicked off after Hazel Blears, in a speech last week, had a go at 'cynical' bloggers.

Thomas at Liberal Conspiracy challenged us to prove we were better than that by engaging with Blears' proposals. I foolishly offered to tackle a chapter of the paper, so my summary will go up there some time this weekend (possibly) and a longer version on the Wardman Wire at lunchtime today.

Chapter 2 of 'Communities in Control' deals with volunteering, charities, faith groups and local activism. There's nothing massively radical, though in times of higher unemployment, the option of doing voluntary work to gain/keep skills looks even more relevant now than it did in July when the paper was published.

There's bits on removing the barriers to volunteering, especially among the young, disabled and ethnic minorities. However the 3 biggest bugbears I'm aware of to volunteers are:
1. the Criminal Records Bureau check system, very bureaucratic, costly, and time consuming.
2. health and safety legislations, in many places law usurping the place of common sense.
3. the complex grants system, with a bewildering forest of agencies, lottery funds, local and national grant-making bodies, and an application system which almost needs a professional fundraiser to get you on the first rung.

no mention of any of these, though perhaps they'll emerge from the promised consultation with the charity sector.

The section on faith groups was interesting: there is some response to Moral But No Compass, the church report which challenged the governments engagement with Christian groups, and argued that Labour didn't understand what the church was doing, and didn't have the evidence base to really engage properly with us. There's to be a consultation, which I guess is better than nothing!

Faithworks gets a positive mention: the Faithworks charter, developed by a Christian social action charity, is going to be incorporated into government dealings with faith groups. Great example of local involvement and constructive engagement leading national policy, real salt and light stuff.

A lot of the material on faith groups was how to engage them in 'delivering local services' (which means opting in to government strings) and social cohesion stuff. There wasn't much on the other work that churches etc. do. In a sense that's fair enough, as the paper is about local democracy and involvement, and it can't cover everything.

There is to be more consultation, and involvement of local people in how services are delivered. I have no idea what that looks like in practice, but given that only 100 or so private citizens responded to the SSDC consultation on the next 20 years of South Somerset (and this after they kept the consultation window open for much longer than required), my guess is that there isn't a massive pool of us wanting to be consulted, or with the time and energy to get involved in this sort of thing.

My major concern was with the underlying philosophy of the document. It accepts that individual choice is the prime mover in people's decisions, and therefore that volunteering, voting, involvement etc. all have to have a payoff. There are other motivating factors too: faith, duty, compassion, belonging, but there wasn't much in the paper on how to bolster or develop these. Volunteering, and citizenship in general, have a moral underpinning. Those who died in war went out of a sense of duty to their country, and some of us are motivated to vote by a sense of duty to those who died.

My great regret is that there is nothing in the white paper which addresses the moral and spiritual engine room of society, which underpins any good democracy and healthy community. There was no analysis of what threatens community, or of the social trends around neighbourhood, voting, social action etc. and what they imply. By pandering to the supremacy of individual consumer choice (ok, there's some 'citizenship education' mentioned, but that's probably information rather than formation), the paper saws off the branch that a healthy society sits on.

Individual consumer choice on its own is corrosive of community, duty, responsibility, faith and belonging, it encourages people to buy in - and buy out again - rather than to belong and identify with. Communities in Control had a chance to spell out a philosophy of civic society and citizenship, to challenge the worship of choice, and it didn't take it.

Update, Weds 19th Nov: the Liberal Conspiracy post has just gone online.

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