John Osmond reports on the Westminster government’s efforts to sell David Cameron’s ‘big idea’ in hostile territory
Say what you like, the Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner in the leafy suburbs of north-West London, has a substantial helping of chutzpah. He was down in Wales yesterday lecturing us that we should be taking a dose of David Cameron’s medicine to promote the Big Society.
Eton educated and a graduate of Oxford, where he was a member of the Bullingdon Club alongside the Prime Minister, he was speaking at a seminar organised by the Wales Office. The venue was the unlikley setting of Newport’s YMCA. And the full rigours of Westminster’s austerity mode was on full display. Despite the hour, 12.45pm to 3.20pm there was no lunch, only a glass of orange or a cup of tea, and a biscuit if you were lucky.
Nonetheless, Hurd had an impressive audience of nearly 50 luminaries from civil society across Wales, ranging from Wynn Thomas, Bangor University’s Pro Vice Chancellor for Welsh Medium and Civic Engagement, and Tina Donnelly, Director of the Royal College of Nursing in Wales, to Professor Laura McAllister, Chair of the Sports Council for Wales, to Nick Bennett, Chief Executive of Community Housing Cymru, Margaret Lloyd Jones, Chair of the WI, Lowri Morgan, Manager of the Law Society in Wales, and many others.
But Hurd, the fourth generation in the male line of his family to sit in the House of Commons (his father is former Foreign Secretary Lord Douglas Hurd) was on a sticky wicket. This is simply because in Wales most of the projects he is trying to pursue under his Big Society rubric, are the responsibility of the Welsh Government. And it is hard to imagine First Minister Carwyn Jones, using language such as this from yesterday’s briefing notes:
“As we’ve said many times, our society is broken and we need to fix it – and the Big Society will help us do that. Our broken society all comes back to one word: responsibility. Put simply, there’s not enough of it. Too many people have stopped taking responsibility for their lives and for the people around them.”
I can’t speak for him of course, but I can’t imagine Carwyn Jones declaring that Welsh society is broken and has to be “fixed”. As for responsibility, he would be more than likely to point to the “irresponsibility” of the present Westminster government and its programme of spending cuts being too fast and too deep. Certainly, these were sentiments expressed by many at yesterday’s seminar.
There was a feeling that the project was self-defeating in that the language used to describe it suggests that the Big Society is really about solving the problem of feral youths roaming the streets of urban England. But aren’t we all in this together? And anyway, is top down government best placed to promote what should be bottom up initiatives?
However, there was one concrete proposal discussed yesterday which was for a new Bank, to be known as Big Society Capital. This is to be mainly funded from bank accounts which have been dormant for more than 15 years. Estimated to be around £400 million these will provide two-thirds of the new bank’s capital, with the balance being negotiated with the High Street Banks. The aim will be for the money to be invested in third sector undertakings such as social enterprises. Nick O’Donohoe the Bank’s Chief Executive, told yesterday’s seminar that there had been less than £200 million invested in social undertakings across the UK in the last year. He hoped that the influence of Big Society Capital would result in this figure being at least tripled within ten years.
However, there was one problem so far as Wales was concerned. Most of Big Society Capital’s spend will be in England since all of £400 million dormant account start-up capital was coming from English accounts. It seems that the Welsh Government will be responsible for spending the capital originating from dormant accounts in Wales. There was no information on how much that might be or, indeed, whether the Welsh Government will operate through Big Society Capital or some other institution of its own devising.
As Wales Office Minister David Jones conceded in his opening remarks, the Big Society would operate diferently in Wales. As he said, for a start there was the Welsh language to be taken into acount. And as he added, “The presence of the Welsh Government changes the dynamics slightly.”