Letters: What Cameron's Big Society might mean

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The Independent Online

The argument on what constitutes the Big Society is currently polarised between the "big battalions" of the state and the "little platoons" of civil society. ("How to kill a political dream", 7 February) This is a false dichotomy.

Our research over 15 years shows that both an active state and a robust voluntary and charitable sector are required. The state needs to create the space and resources for a Big Society to flourish. And it can play a vital role in setting a framework for more community involvement in the delivery of public services.

The NHS provides a major opportunity to do something imaginative; instead we have the extension of discredited quasi-markets and privatisation through the back door.

An injection of mutualism and transfer of assets to communities is the way forward, especially in social housing and area-regeneration programmes where there is a desire and scope to build a real Big Society.

As long as this initiative remains a euphemism for volunteering and a fig-leaf for public-spending cuts it will seem remote from communities' needs.

Kevin Gulliver


HUMAN CITY institute


Further to Sean Cordell's letter (11 February), David Cameron's vision of a Big Society is surely an intention to move away from the Labour government's Big Brother Society, when we were watched over and everything was provided for us though taxation. With a Big Society we will be free to manage our own affairs although, as Phillip Blond says (Opinion, 9 February) this has nothing to do with cuts, so I do not think we can expect there to be cuts in our council tax.

Citizens are to band together if they feel they would like to have a local library, public conveniences or, perhaps, a local woodland. Presumably we can man these ourselves voluntarily or chip in some money and hire someone to run it for us. Perhaps we should name these local groups "communes" and start a radical new political system.

Vivienne Cox

London W4

It is fine to debate the Big Society, but better to test it in practice. This is not just about voluntary-sector funding but ways in which people can come together to find enterprising solutions to local problems.

We believe it should be as easy for people to start a co-operative as any other form of business. What we have experienced is piecemeal reform and snail-pace action from regulators, business advisers and government, old and new.

We think positively. When we see the Big Society in practice, then we will welcome it.

Giles Simon

Communications and Development Officer. Co-operatives UK, Manchester

There has been much derision heaped on the Big Society, but the linkage made between volunteering and cuts is misguided .

For nearly 30 years, I was a volunteer for the Samaritans at various sites around the country. The Samaritans did have a small head-office staff, predominantly involved in fundraising, but all the day-to-day 24-hour service was provided by volunteers .

We now have thousands of charities entirely reliant on local authority funding, and even more bizarrely, a plethora of "charities" whose sole purpose is providing goods and services to other charities.

The decision by local authorities to axe grants to charities, however. is both cynical and counterproductive. Local authorities funded charities because they were a much cheaper way of delivering essential services.

Gordon Martin


Between 1980 and 2000 Immingham lost approximately one third of its volunteer-run organisations. This wasn't because people didn't want to use them or because the funding wasn't available. It was because the organisations couldn't find the volunteers.

Ordinary working people now have hectic and stressed lives and don't feel as if they have the time to commit to volunteering.

Duncan Anderson

IMMINGHAM, North Lincolnshire

The incompetent way in which the Coalition Government has attempted to execute its Big Society (BS) agenda is breathtaking .

While it has to be accepted that the BS is in the main cover for hiving off public services to private companies, if the Coalition wanted to carry off this particular heist it really should have got the voluntary/charitable sector on board.

Had it offered massive amounts of funding to the sector, then most would probably have been co-opted – with a few honourable exceptions.

However, by cutting the very bodies that it also seeks to deliver the BS, the Coalition Government has now managed to unite all of these disparate groups against the BS agenda. Great work; it offers real hope for the eventual collapse of this Government and all its potty neo-liberal ideas.

Paul Donovan

London E11

We live in the DIY Society: personal pensions, personal choice, excessive personal credit; deregulation, privatisation, de-mutualisation; personal computers, websites, Twitter and Facebook; fragmented families, faith schools, ethnic ghettos, gated communities; obscene personal bonuses, even respect for personal greed. This is the amazing gift of Thatcherism and New Labour.

The Big Society is the opposite of this: the promotion of the community and civic virtue.

David Cameron cannot advance both Thatcherism and the Big Society. He woos the mutualism of the John Lewis Partnership, while his friends in the City are planning the destruction of the last of the mutuals, the remaining building societies.

Philip Morgan


What kind of "big society" closes libraries to pay for bankers?

Chris Webster

Abergavenny, Gwent

Lib Dems will woo all voters

You report "Lib Dems to target Tory votes as Clegg sees his constituency slip away" (11 February). It's really rather good news that, according to Liberal Democrat private polling, only 23 per cent of the electorate wouldn't vote for us under any circumstances. That leaves plenty to go at.

But the idea that the party's political strategy for the next election is being decided now, more than four years out, or that it will just be based on poll data, is silly.

The Liberal Democrats are a Liberal party of the centre-left and there is no sign that this is going to change. It is rooted in our constitution and our principles and it translates through what people now call "values" into our policies.

Of course in coalition there have to be compromises: some of these result in compromise policies, others in trade-offs (such as the AV referendum for tighter constituency boundaries). But it's all better than a right-wing government of the Tories on their own.

So when the election comes, we will target Tory voters as we always do. And we will target Labour voters with equal vigour.

Tony Greaves

(Lord Greaves, Liberal Democrat)

London SW1

Apprentices needed

As the chief executive of a sector skills council, I am saddened by the research compiled by City and Guilds which found that a fifth of all businesses believe the current economic climate makes it too risky to take on an apprentice (report, 7 February), rising to 31 per cent of employers in the north-west, a hub of activity for manufacturing.

We are suffering from one of the biggest skills shortages of the century in the manufacturing industry. There are 3,500 job vacancies in the process and manufacturing industry which need to be filled in order for the UK to continue to compete on a global scale. If managers defer signing up to apprenticeship courses purely because of associated costs, this can only hinder businesses' ability to move forward and rise out of the recession.

While the Government has increased its investment in apprenticeships from £605m to £1.4bn during 2011-12, there is further to go.

Apprenticeships are key to the future of our country. As university fees rise, apprenticeship schemes are key to giving opportunities to a generation of workers who are unable to gain experience elsewhere.

Terry Watts

CEO, Proskills (The Sector Skills Council for the process and manufacturing sector)

Abingdon, Oxfordshire

The City & Guilds research quoted in Richard Garner's article "Employers want apprentices, not graduates" (7 February), based on a select group of employers, seemed to indicate that many would choose to hire an experienced apprentice over a recent graduate. But is it as black and white as this?

As head of apprenticeships at Kaplan, a training provider for vocational education and apprenticeships, we talk to employers every day about the benefits apprentices bring. We also work in schools to raise awareness of the benefits apprenticeships can bring to young people who are looking for a career opportunity – securing us a high calibre of applicants as a result.

But it's often the mix of apprenticeships and graduates that is the right balance for many companies. Both sets of candidates bring different attributes and complement each other in the workplace. The debate should not be about which is preferable, but about what combination works best for a particular business.

James Hammill

Head of Apprenticeships, Kaplan, London E1

Ancient 'rights' to a homeland

Julie Burchill's claim (10 February) that Israel's expansionist policies are justified by history is probably the oldest and most spurious of all such justifications.

About the time that the Israelites were committing genocide on the previous occupants of "the promised land", the British isles were occupied by various Celtic tribes. The descendants of some of those peoples now reside in the outer fringes of these islands. The majority are part of a diaspora that forms the core of the majority population of North America, Australia and New Zealand.

Should we declare England to be the natural home for these peoples and make refugees of all subsequent inhabitants and their descendants, including Ms Burchill? Of course not; the idea is ridiculous.

The truth is that no group has an inalienable right to any piece of real estate, since all have been fought over for hundreds of years and their present inhabitants are there as a result of the extermination or assimilation of the original occupiers.

Surely it is time for people to grow up, not only in the Middle East but also in other disputed territories around the world, and accept that none of us has a God-given right to live anywhere.

Frank Parker

Portlaoise, Co. Laois, Ireland

Julie Burchill is, of course, quite right about the Israelites being in the Middle East "from the start". However, while our forefathers were in the lengthy process of emerging from Africa on the only route possible, the ancestors of practically all the rest of us were probably being born in the Middle East as well.

Malcolm Addison

Woodbridge, Suffolk

Visas tangled in red tape

I echo the sentiments letter of Susan Warren (Letters, 5 February). I am associated with a link with Sierra Leone and attempted to get a visa for the Sierra Leone chairman of the link.

UK Border Agency required that I send original bank statements, plus similar sensitive information, to my visitor in Sierra Leone for him to present to UKBA in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The document would then be sent to Banjul, in another country, for processing.

Through my MP, I asked if I could present those documents anywhere in the UK at my expense and under my control, to protect their security and answer any questions. I was told this was not possible. This, despite the constant warnings to protect our bank details.

What was further galling was to discover that the relevant officers in Sierra Leone returned to the UK, so clearly there was means for them to certify to one another the veracity of information while maintaining security.

DfID gives grants for exchange visits while another government department does its best to frustrate these exchanges. "Big Society"? Shame society more like.

Brian Lintern

Olney, Buckinghamshire

Want to protest? Go to Egypt

As a number of our politicians have come out in support of the peaceful protests in Egypt, I trust that come Saturday 26 March, when up to a million people throng the streets of London to protest against cuts to the public sector, they will be allowed to protest peacefully without being kettled, harassed, beaten, filmed and photographed.

Of course it's different here as we already have "democracy", under which we have somehow agreed that we are no longer allowed to protest peacefully without being kettled, harassed, beaten, filmed and photographed.

John Moore


Bonus for failure

Having worked for three multinationals, I know that if I had played fast and loose with their assets and brought them to the brink of bankruptcy, I would have been sacked, along with my bosses. As for bonuses, I would have been lucky to receive back my pension contributions. The bankers have not still got it.

William Robert Haines


Forests for sale

Since its inception, the National Lottery has doled out hundreds of millions of pounds to secure the future of minority interests such as opera. Given the public's apparent love for forests, perhaps the Lottery could put its money to good use and take over the Forestry Commission, lock, stock and barrel.

Andrew Whyte


Perspectives on the Waterloo crucifix

Landmark in danger

Your piece on the theft of the crucifix from Hougoumont (8 February) rightly draws attention to the plight of this historic spot.

On 18 June 1815 the farm complex of Hougoumont stood like a great wave-breaker in front of Wellington's right centre. Attacked with much bravery by French infantry during that long and terrible day, it was defended by a cross-section of the Allied army. The three senior regiments of Foot Guards played a crucial role in the action, ejecting a party of French who managed to break in through the North Gate: Wellington later said that the battle of Waterloo hinged on the closing of the gates of Hougoumont.

I have spent most of my professional career tramping battlefields, and cannot think of a more iconic spot, with the long, loopholed garden wall, the chapel and the North Gate conjuring up vivid images of the fighting. But the whole complex is now in an appalling state, with the wall gapped and the Great Barn shored up with timber. The owner, the Belgian local authority, needs urgent help if it is to be able to carry out the urgent work of repair and restoration.

I chair a small charity, Project Hougoumont, which is raising money to help with this. Unless prompt action is taken Hougoumont will simply not survive the assaults of the weather, thieves and vandals, and a key part of this important battlefield will be lost for ever.

Professor Richard Holmes

Alresford, Hampshire

Whose victory?

The theft of the Hougoumont Cross is certainly cause for outrage. However, readers should be aware that the troops defending the Hougoumont complex throughout the battle consisted not only of men from the three British Guards regiments, as mentioned in the article, but also from a range of German units under Wellington's command, including Nassauers, Hanoverians, soldiers of the King's German Legion and from Brunswick.

The "battle within a battle" at Hougoumont, just like Waterloo as a whole, was truly an Allied victory. The contribution of non-British troops at the battle is frequently overlooked.

Having said this, if one visits the battlefield today, from the range of souvenirs on sale, it is difficult to realise the battle wasn't in fact a victory for Napoleon.

Michael Rayner

Brooke, Norfolk