Rachel Reeves: Forget the rhetoric about the Big Society and help charities give real help to real people

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BEFORE being elected as an MP, I spent some time volunteering with a local charity, Barca Leeds, based in Bramley. Barca do outstanding work in west Leeds, helping families and individuals who need support through providing youth services, counselling, addiction rehabilitation and economic regeneration. I saw first-hand the difference local charities made to my constituents.

As an MP, I want to make sure that the work of charities in cities, towns and villages across Yorkshire, and across the country, can make the best impact on the lives of local communities, families and individuals.

With this in mind, I hosted a discussion in Westminster involving local and national charities and funding bodies. We discussed the tough economic reality facing them, and the people they serve. With budget cuts to councils biting hard and increasing demand for their services, it is important to look for innovative ways in which they can access the finance to continue doing the work they do, especially in disadvantaged communities in straitened economic times.

The message from the charities I met was clear: organisations up and down the country are facing a squeeze on their resources. They are coping with more demands from the community at the same time as public bodies providing local services and funding are being cut.

In Leeds West, the number of local families who are finding it harder to make ends meet is increasing. I see that in my advice surgeries and charities see it from day to day. That means there is more and more demand on organisations like Bramley Credit Union, who offer a sustainable alternative to high cost lenders; more families who are struggling to eat healthily and would appreciate the support offered by Leeds Healthy Living Network, and more older people choosing between heating their home or eating well, who can be given support by organisations like Hawksworth Older People’s Support. These are just a few of the very local groups in Leeds West who are trying to serve local people during these tough times.

Simultaneously, gaps in services offered by councils and the Government are growing. Last year, Bramley Baths cut their opening hours as Leeds City Council coped with unprecedented budget cuts. The consequences for school swimming lessons, health in the community and for the Edwardian baths themselves were grim. But a group of committed and talented local activists have combined their efforts to take over the pool. They’ve worked with charity partners including Bramley Elderly Action and Barca, and worked with local schools, and as a result we’re confident that Bramley’s historic baths will remain open for the community.

These charities and volunteers are the real face of the so called “Big Society”. They should be getting the support they need to continue their work, not left to pick up the pieces of the Government’s cuts.

There is a clear gap between David Cameron’s Big Society rhetoric and the reality of his Government’s actions. There was no structured support for the friends of Bramley Baths as they sought to take over the pool and save a treasured local service, and the support for other charities is increasingly limited as well – from public and private sources. It seems that whenever there is a choice between the Big Society and austerity, austerity prevails every single time.

The Prime Minister has re-launched his Big Society concept four times, but it isn’t clear that there is any real direction or substance as a result. There is a huge amount of enthusiasm and innovation in the grass-roots, but what charities need is a government which is enthusiastic about the power of the voluntary sector and committed to supporting groups in our communities to help improve the life chances and opportunities of families and individuals.

Of course there have to be cuts. If Labour were in government now, we would face tough decisions. But we would be making very different choices – recognising the importance of jobs and growth to balancing the budget deficit, and also working in partnership with charities – recognising the long-term value these groups can offer society, looking at their role in achieving fairness when there is less money available.

Local people know better than any bureaucracy the needs and aspirations of their local area, and can deliver effective services as a result. But the fact that they are the voluntary sector does not mean we should just accept that they will do things on the cheap or for free.

The activists fighting to save Bramley Baths have jobs and families as well as a good dose of civic pride.

If the Government believes in the Big Society, it needs to find ways to support charities, not just say warm words about them. It needs to recognise that they can prevent short-term challenges like unemployment, budget cuts or family breakdown becoming long-term problems, respond effectively to the needs of a local community and provide innovative solutions to replace or enhance services. But these groups want and need to know that they are getting some backing.

I will continue to support the people and organisations who do excellent work in Leeds West, and continue to look at the support that government can offer them as well.

If the Friends of Bramley Baths succeed, it will be despite the Government’s cuts rather than because of their hollow Big Society philosophy. It is an example which should make the Government recognise the values of working in partnership with the charity sector in practice.