Posted by: iangilbert | June 9, 2010

Big Societies Cost Money

One thing you do a lot of as a councillor is listen to presentations, and many could be marketed as cures for insomnia. At a committee meeting on Monday, there was something that grabbed my attention – it was to do with using volunteers to help deliver children’s services. It struck me that it might be illustrative of what lies behind the fashionable jargon at Westminster.

Southend has a thriving voluntary sector, and officers wanted to tell us about a pioneering scheme to use that to help families in difficulty. Many volunteers work to help to provide services in children’s centres across the borough, helping to pass on advice and skills to new parents, helping children learn to read, running clubs etc. What is more unusual is that in Southend we have volunteers trained to work alongside social workers to provide help and support in more difficult cases. It’s a sad fact that not all children have a happy home life, and sometimes the authorities will need to intervene to protect children and those around them.

What Southend is doing is using trained volunteers, not to take over from the professionals but to provide extra help, so that problems can be resolved more quickly or so that families can be helped before they get to the stage of needing formal intervention. We are lucky enough to have 98 volunteeers registered with children’s centres in Southend, 15 of who work on these difficult cases, and they are making a difference. Some families will be reluctant to co-operate with the ‘official’ agencies, but will respond well to working with volunteers. Councillors from all parties were very impressed with the work that’s being done.

Some might say that this is all very much in the spirit of David Cameron’s ‘big society’ message, volunteers helping to make a difference in their own community. But here’s the thing – it costs money.

Volunteers might be by definition unpaid, but they do need training and skills, and indeed proper vetting if working with children or vulnerable people. For the highly specialist volunteers working with difficult cases, they will need an extensive training programme. And yes, you might even need to pay a manager to make it all happen. (and also this also wouldn’t have happened without a network of childrens’ centres – the finest achievement of the Labour government)

What I saw at the meeting was visible uncertainty about whether these schemes could continue into next year, even though the council’s officers say they will save the council money over the long term. Part of the funding comes through grants dispersed from central government, the very things which look right at the top of the Conservative/Lib Dem hit list of cuts.

You can’t have a big society on the cheap Mr Cameron.

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