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The Tories' Systematic Cuts Have Left the Big Society in Tatters

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Labour's historical and intellectual roots lie in the values of mutualism and reciprocity as a means of building social justice and strong communities.

It is self-evident in a complex society like ours that public services will be provided by a wide range of organisations from the central state in some instances, and in others local government, or free standing institutions which are taxpayer funded. In the non-state sector, private companies operating in the market place equally provide some services as do many charities, community groups and voluntary organisations.

Labour has long recognised the voluntary and community sector (VCS) as a vital part of our society. Indeed the sector in the form of coops, trades unions, and many other voluntary associations played an important role in the development of the Labour movement itself. There are over 160,000 charities registered in our country with hundreds of thousands of people engaged in some form of voluntary activity on a regular basis. Well over half of us give to a charity at least once a month.

This week the government brought to the Commons its proposals to introduce Charitable Institutional Organisations (CIO's). These were originally envisaged in Labour's 2006 Charities Act. This legislation would effectively protect the trustees of charities who at the moment have little or no indemnity unlike Directors of private companies.

On behalf of the party I was very happy to support the government in the Commons in this legislation.

However, this consensus is a fragile one and the gaps between the Government's 'Big Society' rhetoric and the reality of their actions are becoming increasingly clear. This week illustrated just how the Government is continuing to heap pressure on the Charity Commission while simultaneously cutting both its budget and the number of staff employed.

It was slightly bizarre that the Government took the decision to put legislation allowing for the dissolution of these new organisations ahead of the regulations that would enable a CIO's creation in the first place.

Perhaps we should not be surprised at the Government's prioritising of the dissolution of CIOs before a single one has even have even been created given their appalling record of cuts to the sector and the very real consequences- Charity Commission figures reveal that 7,394 charitable organisations shut down last year, a rise of over 1000 on the previous year.

In addition to closures, too many charities are being forced to cut back on the support they provide to individuals and communities as a result of the Tory-led Government's cuts. Charities are suffering a triple hit with cuts of over 45 per cent in central government funding, local councils being forced to cut their VCS budgets, and a significant reduction in donations from the hard-pressed public.

The National Council of Voluntary Organisations recently estimated government cuts to the sector at £3.3bn by 2015. On top of this, a recent report has revealed that giving fell by 20% between 2010/11 and 2011/12, a loss of almost £2.3 billion in real terms.

These cuts are having a devastating impact on the ability of charities and voluntary organisations to continue the level of staffing and resources needed to maintain the essential services they provide. 60% of the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action members have reduced their staffing levels from 2011 to 2012 and 40% are intending to do so again by 2013.

On top of this, the Tory-led Government's imposed austerity is having a devastating impact on the levels of charitable giving. Giving fell by 20 per cent between 2010/11 and 2011/12- the first drop since the survey began almost ten years ago. Significantly there was a drop in both the number of people giving and the amount per donation given, resulting in a fall in donations of £2.3 billion in real terms from 2010/11.

But the Government's cuts do not stop there. The Charity Commission itself- the body the Government is relying on to carry out this week's new legislation- has suffered a 33 per cent cut to its budget since 2010; a total loss of funding of over £8m by 2015 and a 50 per cent decrease in staff numbers.

Indeed the previous Chair of the Commission, Dame Suzi Leather stated in evidence to Parliament that, "If there were any further cuts to our organisation we will not be able to carry out all our statutory functions as it is." She went on to say that, "By 2015, in real terms, we will have only half the number of staff we had in 2005, and yet our statutory objectives and functions remain the same." But we now know that the Government is actually increasing the Commission's duties and functions.

The Government's lack of understanding and awareness of the vital role the Charity Commission fulfils is revealed in their cavalier short-term approach to resourcing it. More than this though, it is clear that the interests and concerns of the community and voluntary sector are being ignored and dismissed by a Government increasingly focused on big business and vested interests.

The Government has talked up the opportunities for charities to win contracts to provide government services. In reality it appears that many charities are not able to compete on a level playing field with bigger private sector businesses able to take on more risk when they bid for the same contracts.

I am in absolutely no doubt that the people who are losing out from the Government's systematic destruction of support for the community and voluntary sector are those who rely on and use the services provided by the sector, often the most vulnerable in our society. Rather than the 'Big Society' that we were promised, this Government is living up to the famous phrase there is 'no such thing as society' far more than the Thatcher Government ever did.