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Is the Big Society big on Equality?

logo of the English Regions' Equalities NetworkConference report: Equality agenda, the Government and Big Society

Summary: Voluntary sector (VCS) organisations involved in Equality are angry about what is happening. The Government is having difficulty in finding VCS people who will get involved with any of its agendas. There are opportunities for organisations to oppose specific elements of policy while benefiting  from what is acceptable in Big Society. Most organisations agree that we have to engage partially with Government just to survive for the good of our beneficiaries. 


What was this?: Conference of the English Regions' Equalities and Human Rights Network (EREN) on 23/3/11.

Who went?: Max Zadow from MDF. Representatives from Equalities organisations from across England, including  Dan Silver – Project Officer in the BME project at Voluntary Sector North West.

Jon Rees (Director-General of the Government Equalities Office (GEO)):

  • gave assurances that Equalities would be at the heart of Government  - moving GEO into the Home Office just meant that being part of a larger department would give it more clout. He stressed the commitment of Theresa May (Home Secretary) to her secondary responsibility as Equalities Minister.
  • Government is unhappy with the idea of "Equality strands". They are "interested in individual’s needs rather than blocks of people".
  • grants from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will be back, but will be more focused at communities (as part of Big Society).
  • disability was only specifically mentioned in the context of support for disabled people seeking elected office.
  • voluntary groups should help introduce the Equalities message into Big Society  in conjunction with GEO, for example making sure Community Organisers were informed about Equalities.

Max Wind-Cowie (of think-tank DEMOS - head of Progressive Conservatism project)

  • emphasised Big Society as a way of empowering communities and individuals
  • Government needed to realise that community was about more than geography, and that the communities that EREN represent needed to be recognised if Big Society is to work.

Both speakers faced tough questioning. After they left, opposition to the Big Society and Government policies in general was expressed even more forcefully. Other presentations were made by representatives of VCS groups.

Conversation suggested that people in Government circles were "fed up with" the level of instant distrust they faced, and frustrated that no-one would look at "the good things that were happening". It was suggested that if the VCS could not accept that the Government believed in the Equality agenda, Government would be less inclined to maintain a dialogue.