Paul Vallely: Are there no workhouses in the Big Society?

While Cameron and Clegg play Scrooge and Marley, there is no shortage of Tiny Tims this Christmas Present

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Christmas Eve

Clegg was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the political pundits, the opinion pollsters and a good number of his own backbenchers. Cameron signed it. And David Cameron's name was good for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Clegg was as dead as a doornail.

Cameron knew he was dead? Of course he did. Cameron and he were partners for I don't know how many years. Cameron was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Cameron was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event.

Cameron never painted out Old Clegg's name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Cameron and Clegg. Sometimes people new to the business called Cameron "Cameron", and sometimes "Clegg", but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him.

What happens next in Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol is that a group of public-spirited philanthropists call on Ebenezer Scrooge and ask if he will make a contribution to their fund to make "some slight provision" for the poor and destitute. Scrooge is peremptory in his dismissal of them.

Are there no prisons, he asks, or workhouses, or treadmills or Poor Law? Scrooge helps to support those establishments, he says, and they cost enough. "I can't afford to make idle people merry," he concludes.

What is interesting about this list is that Scrooge has no use for voluntary or charitable responses. His solutions to poverty are all part of the apparatus of the state. Not much room for the Big Society here.

David Cameron's rhetoric, of course, is quite to the contrary. But in the context of cuts in public spending of 27 per cent over the next four years – with the heftiest totalling 10 per cent in the first year alone – it is instructive to wonder whether that rhetoric can have any meaning. Can the voluntary sector survive, let alone take up the slack, in an era of draconian cuts in public spending?

Body Positive North West is a small charity in Manchester. It was started in a city centre loft in the Eighties as a buddying group for gay men looking after each other while they died from Aids. But more recently it has been transformed into a small but dynamic organisation helping anyone locally who is HIV positive – from gay men and haemophiliacs to asylum seekers and women from the African diaspora. Some 1,300 HIV positive people use the centre which struggles by on a hand-to-mouth budget of less than £500,000 a year. It is fragile but strong – the Tiny Tim of the voluntary sector.

At its centre is a woman named Phil Greenham, a veritable force of nature who makes things happen wherever she finds herself. A former nurse, she became involved after a friend named Liz – a straight, white woman – died from Aids after keeping her diagnosis a secret for seven years out of the shame she felt it would cause her Roman Catholic parents. Phil has driven Body Positive NW forward on sheer willpower, picking up some Lottery funding here, a Children in Need grant there. She bought the organisation a building with a legacy, and then shrewdly sold it at the top of the market and bought cheaper premises in Whalley Range, near Moss Side.

Above all, she is a great enabler, bringing out the best in others. "Body Positive is run by the people who use it," she says. "There is huge expertise among the clients if you look for it – like Rosemary from Kenya, a quiet woman who turned out to be deputy head of nurse training for the whole country before she came to the UK."

There are 103 active volunteers like Rosemary. But even volunteers need premises, support services and the co-ordination and skills of the charity's 11 paid staff. Even a Big Society costs money.

Cuts in public spending actually started 18 months ago. In the past three months they have begun to hit the voluntary sector, and in a variety of ways. Body Positive NW, for example, has been taking up the work of specialist HIV social workers whose posts have been axed by local authorities over the past year. It has done so with no funding.

But there is a double whammy. It thought it was well-placed to bid for the extra work generated as the specialists have been re-absorbed into mainstream social work. Instead, it finds that council social services departments are themselves preparing to bid for the work from health authorities to make up for lost income they are sustaining through the cuts.

There could be a triple whammy. Body Positive NW currently receives small grants from local councils – £15,000 from Lancashire and £18,000 from Salford, 300 of whose residents use its services. The fear is that this could be trimmed.

If Body Positive NW were to go under, the cost to the public purse might be significant. Its clients routinely become such expert self-managers of their condition that they make 40 per cent fewer calls on local doctors and hospitals. At present, according to research by John Moore's University, an extraordinary 94 per cent of their clients do not access any statutory services (compared with 33 per cent of other community organisations). It conducts three times the HIV testing of the local authority, at no cost to the public purse.

Third-sector organisations such as Body Positive NW are also light on their feet. They make connections that local councils are too cumbersome and hidebound to imagine or execute. HIV training to staff at the Youth Offender Service shifted into sex advice to the offenders themselves, and then spawned a plan to get the kids involved in community action. The youngsters are invited into the Body Positive building to do up bikes, provided by the police from unclaimed lost property, which are then donated to local asylum seekers.

The young people work and eat in the charity's building, meeting and engaging with a far wider range of people than they had chance to before. They'll just nick everything, Phil Greenham was warned beforehand. But they haven't. They have developed a real sense of ownership for the place and relationships with the people. It's been a transformative experience for some young criminals.

This is the Big Society already in action. But volunteers need infrastructure. And infrastructure costs money. The voluntary sector is more at risk from public spending cuts than political rhetoric suggests.

Christmas morning

Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, Cameron saw an alteration in the Phantom's hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.

"I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!" Cameron repeated as he scrambled out of bed. "The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh, Nick Clegg! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Nick; on my knees!"

To be continued....

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