Rowan Williams dismisses Big Society idea as 'waffle'

Dr Rowan Williams
Image caption Dr Rowan Williams made his comments in a book marking the end of his 10 years as Archbishop of Canterbury

The Archbishop of Canterbury has dismissed David Cameron's Big Society initiative as "aspirational waffle".

Rowan Williams said the idea was "designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable".

He made his comments in a book marking the end of his 10-year leadership of the Church of England.

But the international development secretary has defended the concept.

The Big Society was announced by Mr Cameron before the last general election.

It is a general phrase describing the shift of power from central government to communities and to volunteers, and is also said to include charities or non-profit groups taking over running of some public services.

But in one passage from his book Faith in the Public Square, obtained by the Observer, Dr Williams wrote: "Introduced in the run-up to the last election as a major political idea for the coming generation, [the Big Society] has suffered from a lack of definition about the means by which such ideals can be realised.

"Big Society rhetoric is all too often heard by many therefore as aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable."

He went on to say that if the Big Society is "anything better than a slogan looking increasingly threadbare as we look at our society reeling under the impact of public spending cuts, then discussion on this subject has got to take on board some of those issues about what it is to be a citizen and where it is that we most deeply and helpfully acquire the resources of civic identity and dignity".

Dr Williams is stepping down as head of the Anglican Communion in December.

'Deep disagreements'

BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott says Dr Williams has criticised the Big Society before, speaking of the suspicion that voluntary groups were being expected to pick up responsibilities shed by the government.

The inclusion of criticism of a policy closely associated with the prime minister in the archbishop's book highlights the deep disagreements between Church and state on a fundamental issue, our correspondent added.

During an interview on the Andrew Marr show, International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell was asked, following Dr Williams's comments, if he thought the Big Society was a "cover for the withdrawal of the state under a Conservative-led government".

He replied: "It is absolutely not that, it is the reverse of that and we don't always explain it perhaps as well as we should."

He added: "The archbishop and I will be announcing this week a joint effort between the government and all faiths on tackling poverty in the poorest parts of the world, we've been working on this for the last year.

"I think the headline belies the extraordinary amount of agreement on tackling poverty here and abroad which exists between this coalition government and the Church of England."

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