“…part of what I call the Big Society…”

The Prime Minister has gone and brought it up again.  I confess that I’m a little slow off the mark, and this is actually from before Christmas (thank you to George Disney for pointing it out to me) but I think it’s worth noting nevertheless.

At the last PMQs before the Christmas break, in response to a question from Ed Miliband about food banks and against a backdrop of Labour jeers, David Cameron said: “First of all, let me echo what the right hon. Gentleman said about volunteers and people who work hard in our communities, part of what I call the Big Society, to help those in need. It is a good time of year to thank our volunteers and what they do, but I do share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern about people who are struggling to pay the bills and to deal with their budgets.”

I think I can see where this all started to go wrong.  Volunteering is ‘good’ – so it’s part of the Big Society.  Volunteering in food banks is also ‘good’ – hence, also part of the Big Society.  Food banks themselves, on the other hand, are less clearly on the side of the angels.  Helping poor people is good, but a first world economy with citizens who cannot feed themselves is a bit embarrassing.

I’ve written about food banks before.  Here in the UK, they are mostly run by churches (although some, like Winchester’s Basics Bank, are also supported by local councils and secular charitable groups like the Round Table).  There’s a lot to recommend them, in a “help of the helpless” way, but it’s not clear to me that this is the direction we want to take.

It’s interesting that Cameron chose to use a “Big Society” reference in response to Miliband’s question.  Maybe he didn’t think it through?  Maybe he isn’t worried about food banks? It’s hard to tell.

EDIT: The PM has now been goaded into promising to visit a food bank.  The Guardian quotes a No. 10 source as saying: “Benefit levels are set at a level where people can afford to eat. If people have short-term shortages, where they feel they need a bit of extra food, then of course food banks are the right place for that. But benefits are not set at such a low level that people can’t eat.”

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One Response to “…part of what I call the Big Society…”

  1. Kate Bolton says:

    I don’t see the Big Society as being about volunteering but more about local provision of “benefits”. A food bank is a manifestation of a local need being met by local people. Goods are “volunteered” as well as people. Instead of the benefit (the food) being provide anonymously through central taxes it is provided in kind by people from the community. This is supposed to expose the need and encourage participation in the solution by both giver and receiver.

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