The Big Society Debate

The Big Society Debate

A New Agenda for Social Welfare?

Edited by Armine Ishkanian and Simon Szreter

The book is divided into two sections, history and policy, which together provide readers with a historically grounded, internationally informed, and multidisciplinary analysis of the Big Society policies. The introduction and conclusion tie the strands together, providing a coherent analysis of the key issues in both sections. Various chapters in this study examine the limitations and consider the challenges involved in translating the ideas of the Big Society agenda into practice.

Chapter 3: Big Society, Legal Structures, Poor Law and the Myth of a Voluntary Society

Lorie Charlesworth

Subjects: social policy and sociology, comparative social policy


Lorie Charlesworth The Coalition government’s ‘Big Society’ of mutuality and volunteering is being presented as a solution to tackling social problems. Its purposes are set out in a Cabinet Office document published in May 2010 within a week of the formation of the Coalition government (Cabinet Office, 2010). These aims are: decentralise power from central government via local government to communities, neighbourhoods and individuals. In the policy documents aimed at charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations, the three core components of the Big Society policy agenda are empowering communities, opening up public services, and promoting social action (Office for Civil Society, 2010a, b). Proposals include: giving communities the right to bid to take over local facilities and services threatened with closure; training a new generation of community organisers; and supporting the creation of neighbourhood groups across the UK, especially in the most deprived areas. Schemes to train these ‘community organisers’ are already in place and yet definitions of ‘society’ or even ‘community’ remain imprecise. Essentially, Prime Minister David Cameron and his advisors seem to share an idealised view of English historical development based upon philanthropy and localism, both of which indeed played their part in the developments of our complex modern society. However, England’s social developments, the virtues of our past, were not dependent primarily upon ‘volunteers’. Rather they operated within a legal framework setting out rights, duties and obligations, which bound all classes and members of society together, much as they do today. What is increasingly evident in government...

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