I asked the Prime Minister about accountability within the ‘Big Society’

I have mixed feelings about the Big Society. I’m all for devolution and more decision making power for communities, but I worry that the coalition’s plans will see local accountability suffer as more and more public services are provided by charities,  private companies and social enterprises who are not subject to transparency legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act.

So today, at Austin Court in Birmingham I had the opportunity to put this question directly to the Prime Minister, David Cameron;

With the Big Society empowering charities, private companies and social enterprises to take on public services what are you going to do to ensure that communities themselves can effectively hold those providers to account?

You can watch the whole questioning session in the video at the bottom, with my question and the PM’s answer at 45:55.

David Cameron takes questions in Birmingham
David Cameron takes questions in Birmingham

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the answer, to be honest. I had contemplated adding a bit at the end about Freedom of Information Requests but I decided not to risk pigeon-holing the answer into one area and to see what the PM came up with.

He seemed to say that accountability would come from two places; take up of services and local authority oversight.

Firstly he said that the Government would pay on results and so public service providers would have to get the users to justify the funding suggesting that those providers not doing a good job would lose users and thus funding. The big mental barrier I have with this – and the whole big society idea (which I generally welcome) – is how it works in practice. For example, if Lichfield District Council outsource bin collections to a private company who do a rubbish (‘scuse the pun) job where do I go? Will I actually have a choice of who collects my bins without moving outside the area? What if the schools my nephews go to are taken over by a local charity who do a poorer job? My sisters won’t be able to move to another catchment area for a different school so my nephews will be stuck with a lower standard of education because of where they live and no chance to improve their prospects.

The second was more worrying. “Empowering local government” and making sure they have an overseeing role just sounds very thin to me. There was no mention of how local government would actually oversee those providers and ensure they are accountable to the community. More, that didn’t really answer the question because local government is not the local community and I asked how the community can hold providers to account.

I was hoping he’d go further, but he didn’t. I was hoping to hear that the FoI Act would be expanded to include all public service providers, regardless of sector. It wasn’t forthcoming and I’m still left with the same feeling.

That the Big Society sounds like it could really work. Devolving decision making power and making Government less controlling and more supportive. But it doesn’t feel like the implementation of the idea has been thought through, and I get the sense that too little has gone into thinking about the consequences of what the shift in power could really mean.

At least if central Government is more proselytising we know who to shout out if it goes wrong. If power is in the hands of many though, who do we turn to when we need to question that authority?

I’ll be writing to my MP about this to see if he can shed any more light. In the meantime I’d appreciate your thoughts, too.

Number 10 have taken the video down, sorry.





6 responses to “I asked the Prime Minister about accountability within the ‘Big Society’”

  1. Jonathan Avatar

    I Like Turtles

  2. Foxy Avatar

    I don’t see why you think accountability could be such a problem – after all, the Government does generally whatever it likes and has the police beat the public to death at protests – thus there is already very little accountability as things are.

  3. Richard Avatar

    I made the mistake of listening to the nonsense spouting from the mouth of the woman who asked the question after you. Sadly, I no longer read newspapers so am blissfully unaware of the floods, food shortages and drought threatening the elderly folk of the Midlands. What shall we all do when it happens?

  4. Andy Avatar

    This is a question of motivation and priority. Look at the big society from the perspective of the people who’ve conceived it.

    The motivation for the big society is to reduce the size of the state. The apparent urgency of reducing the deficit (which is questionable in itself)makes reducing the size of the state the only possible option.

    The government aren’t saying this is an emergency measure, temporary. Despite Cameron’s strange and occasionaly factually incorrect references this is not WWII. If we all pull together it won’t be over by Christmas. They’re saying this is forever that it’s a better way of doing things. The same services for less money. It’s worth remembering that the Big Society wasn’t the message pre-election. The message then was “age of austerity made innevitable by Labour excess”.

    The age of austerity is here, it’s just got a sickeningly cheerful dispostion and an ironic name. The magic bullet, the only thing the public sector can do cheaper than the government is employ. The big society means nothing more than laying off vast swathes of the public sector and contracting companies to provide the services. Those companies invariably pay less and where possible employ through agencies and so offer less security.

    The best example of social care provision being farmed out to the private sector and the likely results is private carehomes, a product of the Thatcher years. They’re not what you might call consistent. Some are very good, others have and continue to be horror stories.

    The the shrinking of the state was the motivation for Thatcher she didn’t call it the big society, she said “there is no such thing as society” the rest of the theme was there though she went on to say

    “There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations.”

    It’ll be interesting to see how the issue of the extension of the FOI to cover providers plays out. The Tories opposed the act, they’re not likely to want extend it. What are the Libdems going to say and do?

  5. Chris Wilkins Avatar

    There is a model of local government that works and works well. And is in fact running as we speak.

    Local councilmen are fully accountable, if the council goes over budget the local people have to pass the changes in a referendum, citizens can vote on literally anything they like, and it is so accountable that the local government actually sets (a part) of the amount of income tax their inhabitants shall pay.

    And this applies to the hundreds of local councils across the country.

    I refer you to the small country of Switzerland. And before you howl the country is prosperous because of black money and stolen jewish gold, this is just complete bs expounded by big centralised governments who hate the idea that citizens have so much power, and that they have so little.

    This comment comes from an Australian who has lived in Switz for seven years. Australia has a very simliar system to that of the UK, having modelled theirs on GB.

    There is lots more to this, of course, but I can tell you Switzerland is very successful these days not because it has a left or right government, but because it has a decentralised government with teeth. The people truly do control the country.

    There are some downsides to this, but that is another story.

  6. […] I’ve blogged previously over on my own site about my concerns around accountability in the ‘big society’. In fact, I asked the Prime Minister about it directly. […]

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