The Big Society - Public Administration Committee Contents

6  Choice, contestability and equality of service provision

132. Opening up public services to new providers and increasing local determination of provision raises the prospect of local variation in services. While Shaun Bailey argued that the public understood that service provision would not be neat and tidy,[242] much of our evidence spoke of the dangers and undesirability of a 'postcode lottery'. Speaking for the TUC, Paul Nowak said:

What the British public do not want is a postcode lottery, for example, with the standard of the services they can expect to receive being dependent on the capacity of this or that local organisation.[243]

Mr Nowak's comments were backed up by evidence from IPSOS Mori which found that

whilst nearly everyone agrees that local control is a good thing in principle (85%), when given the choice between uniform services and local responsibility the majority believe that standards of public services should be the same everywhere in Britain (63%).[244]

133. It was suggested to us that if a 'postcode lottery' did develop, more affluent communities would receive better services. Kevin Curley, Chief Executive of NAVCA indicated that less affluent communities might be less likely to have the skills to fight for better services: to "level that playing field, you have to find a way of providing that sort of support in the community".[245] The trade union UNISON argued:

Although there is merit in giving communities more influence over and ownership of local services, there is a danger that social inequalities will develop. Under the Big Society, some communities will be better able to attract resources such as private sector funding, and the result will be that some people will suffer a comparative disadvantage in the public services they can access, simply because of where they live. This re-introduction of the postcode lottery is unfair, and it is a powerful demonstration of why state provision and universal standards remain crucial.[246]

134. The Minister for the Cabinet Office thoroughly rejected the fears of a 'postcode lottery':

I always dislike the phrase postcode lottery, because it suggests it is completely random. There will be differences. Where there are differences by postcode it is because somebody somewhere has made a decision; maybe the voters have voted for different priorities in the local authority, or professionals have decided to make different decisions about clinical priorities in the health service. So are you going to see more differences in the way things are provided? Yes. That is not just about level or standard; a lot of it will be about different priorities, reflecting what different communities and different people care about. The idea that everything should be absolutely uniform across the country in the name of equity is actually a recipe for stultifying mediocrity.[247]

135. In its written evidence, while still arguing that natural variation is acceptable, the Cabinet Office has also stated its belief that "where variation in quality and provision is outside the control and wishes of individuals and communities, however, this should be tackled".[248] Central Government had a role to play in "ensuring common minimum standards of service provision."[249]

136. We welcome the Government's commitment to ensuring common minimum standards of service provision. If this can be achieved, then local variation, which is inevitable in localism, can be welcomed if it will encourage innovation and improvement in public service provision.

The role of faith groups

137. The Big Society project objectives of strengthening links between individuals and increasing citizenship are closely identified with the community activities and support found in many religious groups. Indeed, the Prime Minister has been reported as "telling church leaders that they would be 'absolutely right' to claim that Jesus founded the Big Society 2,000 years ago".[250] The Prime Minister and his colleagues have been keen to stress the role of faith groups in the Big Society project. Baroness Warsi has spoken of the "intrinsic part" faith communities will play "in the vision for a Big Society."[251]

138. The Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks also stressed the link between the Big Society project and religion, stating "if we're searching for the big society, [places of worship] is where we will find it".[252] Other faith leaders have spoken less positively about the Big Society project. The Archbishop of Canterbury has described the term as "painfully stale" and questioned whether charitable organisations would be able to deliver public services. The Head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, described the Big Society project as "lacking a cutting edge. It has no teeth" in a newspaper interview, in which he continued:

Devolving greater power to local authorities should not be used as a cloak for masking central cuts. It is not sufficient for the Government, in its localism programme, simply to step back from social need and say this is a local issue

We're now at a very critical point, with the philosophy of the Big Society getting clearer, but on the other hand the effects of the cuts are becoming real and there's real pressure about what will happen on the ground.

A government cannot simply cut expenditure, wash its hands of expenditure and expect that the slack will be taken up by greater voluntary activity.[253]

139. In his evidence to us, the Bishop of Leicester was keen to stress the limits of the Church of England's capacity for delivering public services, stating that provision of services by churches:

cannot be an alternative to public service provision across the piece. They cannot deliver the professionalism, they cannot deliver the resources, they cannot deliver the standards, they cannot deliver the consistency, and they should not be expected to. But what they can do is add value, they can mobilise volunteers, they can support initiatives, and in localities they can do things that are small scale and transformational.[254]

The Bishop further warned that Ministers cannot expect "the Church to behave like a local authority or a Government department".[255] Charles Wookey, giving evidence on behalf of Archbishop Nichols, concurred:

[...] as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, we do not want to raise expectations about what religious communities can suddenly do in replacing any kind of state provision. They can help, but they are only a very small part.[256]

140. The Government's focus on the potential of faith groups in delivering services was criticised by Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, who reported that his organisation had not been invited by ministers to discuss how "non­religious people could best contribute to this new vision of the Big Society".[257] He also warned that in some areas, the work of secular charities was being disrupted and endangered by a focus on religious charities as part of the Big Society project. He cited the example of the charity Eaves Housing, which he said had lost a contract to the Salvation Army to provide services to trafficked women.[258] Instead, Mr Copson stressed the importance of working with groups based on "streets, localities and communities", warning that if volunteering and society building initiatives focused only on a certain religion, or solely on people with no faith, the pool of potential participants would be limited.[259]

141. Lord Sacks accepted that while faith groups could strengthen bonds within their communities, it was also essential that the social capital built bridges across to people of other faiths and none.[260] This view was shared by the Just Lincolnshire charity, who stressed the need for the Big Society project to "to encourage joint participation across communities and cultures".[261]

142. Mr Wookey, speaking for Archbishop Nichols, cautioned that commissioners should not insist on services being provided by strictly secular bodies, warning that:

if we say that public services have to be provided in some kind of quasi­neutrality, which often conceals a hidden ideology that says religion should not play any part of it, then you lose something.[262]

143. We recognise the benefits to society of faith groups taking part in the provision of public services. While such provision could be encouraged by the Government, this should not be to the exclusion of groups who deliver services across multi-faith and non-religious communities.

242   Q 60 Back

243   Q 441 Back

244   Ev w130 Back

245   Q 459 Back

246   Ev w5 Back

247   Q 608 Back

248   Ev w268 Back

249   Ev w198 Back

250   Sunday Mirror, 22nd May 2011, p. 20 Back

251   "Faith organisations worry about future funding", BBC News 26 March 2011,  Back

252   "If you're searching for the big society, here's where you may find it", New Statesman, 13 June 2011, p. 21 Back

253   "Catholic Church: Big Society is failing; Archbishop of Westminster warns David Cameron his vision 'lacks teeth' Exclusive" The Daily Telegraph 17 April 2011 p 1 Back

254   Q 382 Back

255   Q 382 Back

256   Q 386 Back

257   Q 346 Back

258   Q 357 Back

259   Q 377 Back

260   Q 348 Back

261   Ev w280 Back

262   Q 386 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 14 December 2011