Big Society debate suggests opportunities and concerns


A disabled social entrepreneur has called on service-users to see the government’s “Big Society” agenda as an opportunity to “make stuff happen”.

Mark Brown, editor of the user-led mental health magazine One in Four, told a conference that the Big Society – which aims to make it easier for civil society to “shape and deliver” public services – was a “great opportunity for people with mental health difficulties”.

And he said it could lead to new ways for them to get involved and engaged in their local communities and “make stuff happen” that “we have wanted to happen for years and years”.

Brown told One in Four’s What Do We Do Now? conference that the Big Society agenda could provide people with mental health difficulties with the opportunity to “access different forms of support and activities” and secure “greater choice” with “new and exciting ways of working together rather than the state or charities providing something”.

Sarah Yiannoullou, manager of the National Survivor User Network, said people would agree with the idea of “more power and control and cohesiveness” under the Big Society, but she added: “There is a real concern: where is the responsibility and accountability and equality and how is that monitored and… regulated?”

Louise Whittle, a mental health service-user and activist, said she believed the Big Society was “a big con”.

She said: “We need alternatives, but frankly I would prefer the state to be doing it, not the private sector or voluntary sector.”

She said the Big Society was “an ideological attack on the state”, and added: “We should be fighting against that and putting forward our own ideas and not having anything to do with it because we will be part of the attack on the state.”

Dr Samantha Callan, who is chairing a review on mental health for the Centre for Social Justice, the think-tank set up by the Conservative work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, denied that the Big Society was “an ideological attack on the state”.

She said: “The state will never be able to do it all on its own. It is about the third sector and the private sector doing what the state can never do, getting into the niches… and working in a very bespoke way often.”

But Whittle warned that the Big Society could “drag us back to a Dickensian society where people have to go cap in hand to charities for help”.

Brown is also development director of the social enterprise Social Spider, which is writing a report for the NHS Confederation on what the Big Society means for people with mental health conditions.

After the debate, he said the Big Society agenda provided an opportunity to secure “a lot of things we have always wanted to happen”, such as putting communities in charge of the services they receive, and “more support for organisations we value greatly and that support us, that inspire us, that give us some of the things we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to get”.

But he added: “The voluntary sector is suffering massive cuts. If any of this Big Society stuff is to work, the voluntary sector needs to be there.”

17 May 2011