Corroding the welfare state: a look inside the Big Society

Corroding the welfare state: a look inside the Big Society

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The remarkable correlation between the expansion of the Trussell Trust food bank franchise and Britain’s austerity-driven welfare reform has raised eyebrows. Just a cursory examination of the Trussell Trust, and other programmes to emerge under the Big Society banner, shows an aggressive and corrosive model of social policy development designed to enable a return to a dangerous pre-welfare state society.

This social enterprise model has dispensed with the need for evidence, research, or input from those working within or using the services it seeks to replace. Building on decades of privatisation and moving us into a new more aggressive phase, the model is being driven blindly by an echo chamber of political parties, think tanks and media in the name of an economic and social policy consensus that died with the banking crisis. These organisations are placing themselves at the heart of future policy discussion and the reconfiguration of public sector training across health, education and social care. 

Trussell Trust food banks

Lord Nat Wei of Shoreditch, who spent three years at management consultants McKinsey before pursuing his dream of ‘social reform’, established the Shaftesbury Partnership in 2006. His vision combines the managerialism of the McKinsey Institute, the rapid growth potential of franchising, the values of Victorian social reformers, and his own evangelical religious mission. This vision requires the society that existed before the advancements modern health, benefits, social care, and education brought, an antiquated worldview consistent with the economic plans our response to the financial crisis has so far demanded.

The Trussell Trust, run by Shaftesbury executive Chris Mould, realises this vision with a franchise system as efficient as McDonald’s, using the infrastructure of churches and the goodwill of volunteers to establish more than 400 Trussell Trust-branded food banks, most of these opening since 2010 to meet demand driven by the scrapping of crisis loans and rising benefit sanctions. Their referral processes are integrated with the Department for Work and Pensions and they have food donation deals with major supermarkets, presented in the media as the spontaneous actions of well-meaning volunteers.

Skilful mainstream and digital media management have helped the Trussell Trust frame the food poverty debate around the benefit changes that allowed their growth, and normalise the use of job centres as a route to emergency food aid. This vision has been sold enthusiastically by the left and right of our political press, even if Nat Wei’s tenure as the ‘tsar’ who helped David Cameron establish funding models for this brand of social policy development was short lived.

Social Enterprise

‘Concept, design, pilot, scale’. The Shaftesbury Partnership’s social enterprise model allows the rapid growth that underpins their aim of establishing themselves at the heart of future policy development and research. Service provision on this scale brings influence, especially if it has cross party political backing.

To understand the Trussell Trust and other programmes emerging from the network around the Shaftesbury Partnership, one has to examine the model of social enterprise they champion in the context of the policy frameworks built up since 1997.

The Social Enterprise Unit was set up under the last Labour government, giving small business support to social enterprises. This created a perception that social enterprise was about the little guy. It isn’t. Labour, the Conservatives and our finance sector have been united in their view of austerity as an opportunity for social enterprise to reshape the ‘post-welfare state’ public sector and fuel economic growth.

The reality of social enterprise hides behind opaque language and mysterious ‘third sector’ jargon that alludes to volunteerism and good intentions. The key word is ‘enterprise’. They are run as businesses; those that are not-for-profit still gain power and influence through mass provision of public services. Like the Trussell Trust, they can grow more rapidly than anything our public sector has faced before. Accountable to no-one.

It is telling that the most widely cited ‘research’ into social enterprise is a report authored by Guardian journalist Zoe Williams, who frames social enterprise as a solution to the ‘shadow state’ oligopoly of providers like G4S and Serco that was the product of the first wave of privatisation, tempered by concern that social enterprise could be a ‘backdoor to privatisation’.

This is no backdoor. This is privatisation in its purest form, no bidding or tendering required, no public oversight, and models of rapid growth that define corporations, not accountable public services meeting complex intersecting needs. A more aggressive phase of liquidating the welfare state, social enterprises are currently outperforming traditional businesses in an austerity boom.

The model has been driven by key Labour figures such as Lord Adonis and Liam Byrne, think tanks like the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and sold by the left wing political media with the shallowest of debate. Local authorities crumbling under the disproportionate burden of cuts agreed by all parties are the main feeding ground at present. The erosion of local authority responsibilities by social enterprise is too systematic to be considered accidental. 


The Shaftesbury Partnership’s goals were originally expressed through the ‘Absolute Return for Kids’ (ARK) chain, pioneers of the academy ‘revolution’ that is rapidly privatising our education system. Academy status turns democratically accountable state schools into privately funded entities, pulling them away from local authority oversight. Before the election there were 200 academies. There are now 3,000. This has consolidated power within the Department of Education, away from local communities and authorities.

Failing academies have had to be bailed out by the taxpayer, and concerns over covert pupil selection, marginalisation of vulnerable pupils to maintain the appearance of success, manipulation of curriculums, and a lack of ‘middle tier’ supervision that guarantees consistent education provision are muffled, with more than half a century of education expertise being squashed under the simplistic language of managerialism. The much discussed ‘free school’ model is but a minor addition to this ‘revolution’.

Projects coming out of the Shaftesbury Partnership network attempt to redefine teacher training and nurse training under the banners of Teach First and Nurse First – fast-track training selling elite graduates that requires the replacement of academic knowledge bases these professions have built up over decades with the language of managerialism.

Social Work

The most concerning of these of these attempts to ‘rebrand’ professional education is the Frontline project, which attempts to ‘save’ social work education.

Social work is unique among these professions. Formed around the cracks of social policy failure, the social work knowledge base comes from an understanding of how inequality in our political economy manifests itself. Not just understanding child protection or the needs of vulnerable individuals, but how to pull together different agencies and ever scarcer resources to work together in the lives of those individuals. For this reason, this is a knowledge base that politicians do not like to discuss – the antithesis of managerialism.

The ways in which social work has been reconfigured by the relentless march of managerialism and marketisation, and the strain of accommodating the failures created by decades of ideological public sector reform, rarely make the news, but they are the elephant in the room of more than one tragedy. 

Of all the names on the roll call of tragedies that are burned into the psyches of social workers, Victoria Climbie is the one that most vividly demonstrated the corrosive effect of managerialism and marketisation on social workers’ ability to practice safely. The administrative burden created as social workers became purchasers of services from an increasingly fractured web of private, voluntary and statutory agencies, culminated in a mess examined by the 2011 Munro Review.

The speed at which Frontline was conceived and put into action is part of the Shaftesbury Partnership’s preferred model. A short article by Josh McAllister, Frontline’s creator, quickly became a project with the patronage of Lord Adonis, driven by the IPPR think tank, and sold by the same press who have sold this model of social policy development unquestioningly.

The founders of the Frontline programme claim to want to ‘save’ social work education, promising to train social workers with just five weeks’ teaching alongside practice placements. Russell Group graduates will be placed in local authorities, with the theory base that underpins the profession jettisoned in favour of psychometric testing, managerialism, and talk of ‘leadership’. This is justified on the basis of flaws in the degree structure, introduced for social work training, by the Labour government after the death of Victoria Climbie. In the context of austerity creating food poverty, homelessness, and the family breakdown that creates the need for social workers, reports of mothers afraid to ask for help, should it mean their children are removed, this is a model which rebrands social work training as something blind to that. The model appears less concerned with training future practising social workers, more with training a layer of ‘social leaders’ and policy makers who can shape future policy development.

The ambition of social enterprises like the Shaftesbury Partnership, and the efficiency with which they have placed themselves at the heart of future policy development, is not quite the volunteerism the Big Society vision alluded to. As the oligopoly of providers like G4S and Serco reach the limits of their business models, with public concern and political oversight threatening future profit margins, we appear to be sleepwalking past the opportunity to examine what went wrong with this system, into a new, more aggressive phase of privatisation which will remove all avenues of public accountability and throw away the advancements which health, education and social care gave us. Social reform driven by market needs, with social policy development using corporate models. Social enterprises using service provision for the most vulnerable to fuel economic growth, using the consequences of the first wave of privatisation and the financial crisis, to propel them along.

Image by NewFrontiers


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