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Equality groups in the dark over Big Society plans

The government has not spoken about the equality impact of its Big Society plans, leaving organisations representing women and minorities with “no idea” of what the radical changes are likely to mean for them, a Middlesex University academic has claimed ahead of a conference at the University.

Representatives of leading UK equality charities will meet at Middlesex University next week to discuss the profound effects of David Cameron’s Big Society on their organisations.

Alessio D’Angelo, Lecturer in Social Sciences at Middlesex University, will be welcoming speakers from Stonewall, the Fawcett Society and Trust for London, among others, to The Equality Impact of ‘Big Society’ event at the University’s Hendon campus.

Alessio said the idea of equality was “largely missing” from what the government has said about the Big Society, which is expected to radically change the way the needs of ‘equality groups’ – including ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities and older people – are addressed.

“Our recent research shows national and local policy makers like voluntary sector groups for their ability to do a lot with very little, but you can’t do anything with nothing,” he said.

“The issue of equality has been notably absent from the government’s pronouncements on the Big Society.  As a result, many third sector organisations representing the interests of equality groups have no idea whether the Big Society will be a good or a bad thing.  They are all asking ‘how is this going to affect us?’.”

The ‘Big Society Agenda’ aims to put “more power in people’s hands”, according to the Cabinet Office, with a greater role for civil society and voluntary groups and a reduction of direct planning and provision from central Government. 

Other ongoing policy changes – such as the ‘personalisation’ of social care, new primary health care funding and major restructuring in the tax and benefits system – are also expected to modify radically the ways in which the needs of disadvantaged groups are addressed, raising complex issues of equality impact at a time of economic uncertainty.

The two-day event on 17 and 18 March will bring together third sector organisations, local policy makers, academics and others to discuss some of these issues and allow practitioners and communities to share experiences and identify common strategies.

One aspect of the new policy landscape is the use of voluntary groups to fill the vacuum left by the rolling back of the state.  The government has repeatedly said that the Big Society is not a smoke screen for the cuts.  But Alessio cautioned many community organisations are worried about reductions in funding and unrealistic expectations about volunteering and donations in a time of recession and increasing unemployment.


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