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Talking tough on Hard Talk

It’s the trademark of the BBC news channel’s Hard Talk to give its interviewees a good pummelling. And the gravel-voiced Stephen Sackur didn’t hold back when questioning Sir Stuart Etherington, of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, about the big society at the weekend.

Wasn’t Sir Stuart a bit complacent about the cuts that are hitting the sector? Where was the anger, the sense of outrage? Wasn’t the sector just being asked to put a Band-Aid on the wounds the government is inflicting on society?

Etherington, in a disconcerting outfit of chalk-striped suit with no tie, stuck to a measured formula, declining to be provoked or become over-excited. And this calmness belied the strength of some of his statements.

He pointed out that the government had not grasped that voluntary action was not “a free good” and needed resources. The big society was a high-risk agenda, he said, and there was a conflict between the government’s central grip on spending and its promotion of localism.

Some communities were better placed than others for local action, he went on, and if the government was concerned with equity it had to build capacity in poorer areas: “A network of support agencies needs to be retained.”

That’s fairly forthright stuff, and ministers would do well to take note of it. But there were a couple of sideswipes at the public and voluntary sectors too.

There was a passing reference, for example, to some public services being run for the benefit of the people providing them, and he acquiesenced to the proposition that some charities were too dependent on state funding.
Like who, he was asked?

Action for Children and Citizens Advice were the two examples he gave. There’ll be a few hackles rising over the former – not least because ACH chief executive Clare Tickell is an NCVO trustee.