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Syed Kamall MEP: Overcoming barriers to volunteering for the Big Society

Syed Kamall headshot Syed Kamall is a Conservative MEP for London and Chairman of Progressive Conservatives.

With the grating repetitiveness of scratched records, the Left in this country are hard at work attempting to smear the Big Society project as merely a smokescreen for 'devastating cuts' to services.

Let's get the so-called 'cuts' into perspective. The spending plans that the Coalition has published are aimed at bringing the budget back into balance.  We have to stop the appalling culture of profligacy left by Labour, which has landed us in the awful fiscal state we are in. Just recently we found out how the Audit Commission, the very quango which was supposedly there to ensure prudent and responsible spending, was itself recklessly wasting tens of thousands of pounds on items such as excessively expensive office furniture.

Continuing to spend like Labour is simply not an option.  There are myriad benevolent consequences of controlling and curtailing the national debt, which far outweigh what is lost when a budget is trimmed. It is a useful exercise to regularly seek savings in government budgets. Letting the front line have more control over the delivery of services and liberating local services from the dead hand of centralised control do have a part to play in getting Britain's fiscal ship back on course. But this is a potential bonus of the Big Society, not its raison d'etre. The initiative is a means of empowering citizens to organise direct, specific local initiatives to provide local services and address local needs.

Even if reality were reversed and Labour had bequeathed the Coalition times of plenty as the Conservatives did for Labour in 1997, the imperative to build the Big Society would still be just as great. The Big Society is about more than economics. It is about encouraging people to take responsibility for their surroundings, and, by doing so, look after their neighbours and environments and strengthen the social fabric of their communities.

The Home Office efforts to map crime online, although they are suffering some teething problems, are a useful way of showing which parts of the country are plagued by crime and anti-social behaviour. This will encourage citizens to demand better police accountability and allocation of resources. But the responsive deployment of police addresses the symptoms not the cause of these communities' ills.

The Big Society can be preventative medicine. It offers an antidote to the atomisation and entitlement culture which plagues some sink estates and fosters cultures of delinquency and criminality. But it can also help strengthen happier communities. Whatever the socio-economic starting point, by fostering a sense of citizen investment and responsibility the real value of the Big Society will be realised across Britain's communities.

Since I wrote my last article on the Big Society, I have been contacted by a number of people explaining how they want to help, but detailing the barriers to volunteering which they face. The stories I heard about red tape and legal obstacles getting in the way of their good intentions chimed with my own experience from talking with friends in the past.

I remember a lady I knew some years ago who ran a Sunday School for children in Barking, East London. She had run the popular programme for thirty years but was reluctantly forced to close it down when she became suddenly overwhelmed by the mountain of paperwork she had to complete for government. A policy wonk at a leading think tank - a man who should be as adept with paperwork as anyone- once told me that though he wanted to take up an invitation to help a rehabilitation programme by coaching a football team of young offenders, had declined after he was sent around 150 pages of forms to complete. The cost of liability insurance was prohibitive to volunteers in my friends' village who had wanted to start up an amateur dramatic club which would have provided an alternative for local youths who spend their time loitering around the main street.

When I discussed these issues surrounding barriers to entry at an event which brought together a lot of voluntary organisations, I heard the repeated refrain that we should simply attempt to abolish the health and safety and child protection infrastructure, as it has gone too far, and is enforced out of a mistaken assumption that is possible to regulate away risk.    However, such an attempt to tear up the rulebook and start again on these matters would likely fall foul of EU laws.  As a government, we should be investigating whether there is any flexibility in the UK's interpretation of the relevant directives. Exemptions for small voluntary organisations where the cost of compliance would be crippling or where contact with children is not intensive, for example, are ideas worth pursuing.

The laws on child protection have come about from perfectly legitimate concerns about the dangers of sex offenders slipping through the net. We will always face a challenge to weigh security risks in a sensible way so that understandable caution is not a slippery slope to stifling bureaucracy.

While many voluntary organisations are concerned that the spectre of health and safety regulation has taken on a life of its own,  I am equally concerned that the perception, which may be much worse than the reality, could also stop people being a part of the Big Society.

Consider the heavy snow fall which caused chaos over the last two winters.  We have all heard the warning that we should not clear snow in front of our house, in case someone slipping over sues the public-spirited homeowner.  Even though I heard a lawyer on the radio explain that the last example is an urban myth, this has undoubtedly stopped some home owners from clearing the pavements.  There have been a number of cases of councils being sued over the alleged incompetence of their gritting.  Fortunately, this has not prevented citizens of England's highest market town, Alston in the Pennines, from constructing their own snow plough as a community enterprise.

The good news is that we now have a government committed to reducing red tape and cutting through bureaucracy to allow people to make their Big Society visions reality. So our message to citizens should be not to be deterred from volunteering but rather to get stuck in and keep your representatives informed when you feel unreasonably hindered. 

There are thousands of Big Society projects in action all across the country, but the voluntary organisations I speak to feel that there could be many more.  The local citizens with the time, commitment and good faith to get involved must not let themselves be held back by the perception of an unhelpful bureaucratic environment, for these are barriers which we must overcome if we are truly to deliver the Big Society.


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