I beg to move,
That this House
supports the Big Society, seeking stronger communities where power is decentralised and social action is encouraged.
I place on record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, particularly its Chair, Natascha Engel, who has been such a great advocate of Back-Bench business and so encouraging in the process of bringing forward this debate. I also thank Hazel Blears, who cannot be with us today because she is on official business, for her assistance in making the case to the Committee, and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman). It is a great thing to have secured this debate. The big society has been much discussed in the media, and yet this is practically the first proper occasion on which it has been discussed on the Floor of this Chamber.
It is traditional when discussing the big society to start talking about the invention of the telegraph, the growth of centralisation, and the invention of the internet, and then to wind up with a discussion of something called the post-bureaucratic age. That is fascinating to those of a philosophical bent and technocratic in nature, but it does not mean much to my constituents. What I want to talk about is the sense of annoyance that everyone has when an individual feels put off from simply sweeping the snow from the pavement outside their house for fear that they will be sued, or when they are scared to jump into a pond and rescue a drowning child.
How have we got to the situation where individuals do not feel that they can take responsibility, and that rules and procedures stop them doing so? It is important to encourage people to take more action and more responsibility for their own lives and for their communities. People in communities are frustrated, such as the head teacher who cannot decide which children are in his school and feels that he is being told what to do by diktat, and the hospital worker who wants to take responsibility for his area, but who has to follow detailed rules and procedures.
Communities as a whole—big communities such as mine in Dover—want a greater sense of being able to chart their own destiny and future direction, but feel hampered by central Government saying, “No, these are the rules. This is how it is going to be. It is all going to be top-down and what you say doesn’t count for much.” It is that sense of annoyance and frustration, which stalks the land up and down the country, that the big society aims to counteract.
“The idea at the heart of this—the Big Society—is about rebuilding responsibility and giving people more control over their lives. But that doesn’t just apply in areas like volunteering. It’s as relevant when it comes to public services and the decentralisation of power. Indeed, I would argue that our plans to devolve power from Whitehall, and to modernise public services, are more significant aspects of our Big Society agenda than the work we’re doing to boost social action…In the past decade, stories about bureaucracy over-ruling common sense, targets and regulations over-ruling professional discretion, and the producers of public services over-ruling the people who use (and pay for) them—became the norm, not the exception. This might have been worth it had it led to dramatic improvements, but the evidence shows otherwise. Whether it’s cancer survival rates, school results or crime, for too long we’ve been slipping against comparable countries.”
I am doing my best to follow what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If there are people who will not jump into a pond to save a drowning child, will he explain how the big society will persuade them to do so?
The central point I am making is that people who want to take charge and responsibility feel put off from doing so by the concern that they will somehow be held liable. The law on rescuers used to be very clear: if a person attempted a rescue but completely messed it up, they would not be held liable. That position has changed in recent years. There is a fear that if one clears the snow on the pavement, one will be sued by someone who slips up because one has done it ineffectively. The balance needs to change so that the individual who takes responsibility, acts and steps up to the plate for the wider social good is encouraged and given the maximum possible latitude to do their best. That is at the heart of my point about individuals.
I will move on and warm to my theme of decentralisation. Something is slightly overlooked in discussing decentralisation. It is often seen as just being, “Oh, let’s get rid of big government.” That point is important because if things are too top-down, they tend to squash the vitality of communities. The benefits from decentralisation and from enabling communities to take more responsibility are not simply social. It is not simply about making people feel that it is worth looking out for their neighbour, or about giving them a sense of belonging and a sense of enthusiasm that they can change things around them in their lives. It is not simply about giving people more of a sense of responsibility and well-being. Decentralisation is also important in the growth agenda because of its economic effects.
If we allow greater decentralisation, allow communities a greater sense of confidence and allow communities to take charge of their direction, they will develop. That has economic benefits. As all Members know, the more confidence, energy and buzz a community has, the greater the economic effects. That is not only true of the private sector. There is evidence from the European Central Bank that the countries with the most efficient public sectors are much less centralised than the UK. The United States, Australia, Japan and Switzerland enjoy an average efficiency lead over the UK of some 20%. To put that in context, if Britain could match those efficiency levels, spending would be cut by £140 billion with no diminution in the standard of public services. That is not un-equidistant with the size of our budget deficit today. We should consider carefully whether decentralisation can be captured in order to produce positive effects on the economy and the public sector.
The hon. Gentleman has talked about a lack of confidence, but in my constituency we have all the volunteering that one would expect. There are community councils, traders associations, crime prevention panels, neighbourhood watch schemes and all the very things that he wants to see. There is no lack of confidence. In Scotland that is normal—it is simply civic society. If the big society is anything other than simply cover for the cuts, why the rebranding of what already happens the length and breadth of the country?
It is in no way, shape or form cover for cuts. It is a vision that the Prime Minister set out well before the crisis that engulfed the public finances and made necessary the tough decisions that the Government are taking. I do not want to focus on the deficit and the current difficulties in reining in the size of the state, because the big society is about much more than that, and it is more important than that. It is about giving people and communities a sense of responsibility.
I shall take the example of Dover, my constituency, which I advance as a case study of the difference that can be made. Before the election, the previous Government were planning to sell off the port of Dover. That proposal was in the operational efficiency report, the so-called car boot sale. There was to be an allegedly voluntary privatisation, but it was pretty clear that there was a desire for the port to be sold. My constituents understood that it would almost certainly go to a buyer overseas, and there was a sense of frustration about that.
That sense of frustration in relation to the port has existed for many years, because the directors have always been appointed by Whitehall and have had very little to do with the local community in their direction or in community engagement. That connection with the community has not been in place. The port is not simply an economic and transportation facility, it is also a social facility, as anyone with a port in their constituency will know. The interconnection between a town and the port in it is deep, and there is a symbiosis between the two. That is very much the case in Dover. With a whole load of directors having been appointed in Whitehall, hundreds of miles away, the people of Dover have been unable to effect positive engagement.
If the port were sold off overseas, we would simply be swapping one remote interest for another, and the community would not be engaged with it. Part of the difficulty in that situation would be that the community would think that the port’s management did nothing for the town and did not engage positively with it. Sadly, the port has gone to war with the ferry companies, which are the key port users for both berthing charges and general relations. There has been a breakdown of the relationship in the heartland of Dover’s local economy. The town and the community are not happy, and the key businesses are not happy. The port is on the block, threatened with being sold off overseas.
What can the community do? Under the traditional model, the solution would be about either the big state or big business. We say that it is time to try something new and different—giving the community a chance to take charge of its future and its destiny. We have been asking why, instead of the port being sold off overseas, the community cannot buy it as a community mutual and run it in partnership with those who use the port, the ferry companies that effectively account for all the port’s money. Many people will ask, “How can you possibly do that? How can these stupid yokels know what they are doing? Either you need big Government running it or big foreign business doing it, but you cannot possibly expect a community to have the intelligence or wherewithal to run an important facility like that.”
I am following my hon. Friend’s speech with great interest, and he is making a powerful case.
Charities lead the way in the big society, and one of the parts of the charitable sector that does best is air ambulance services. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that I have had a letter from Andy Williamson, the chief executive of the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire air ambulance, who states:
“I do hope that the Government will adhere to its ‘Big Society’ agenda and not waver under the current media frenzy seeking the continued protection of a ‘Big State’…we do not seek or desire Government funding; instead we have a solid belief that people will care for and support an organisation like ours that provides real, tangible and visible benefits for all.”
Do not the air ambulances show the way forward?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Air ambulances play an important role in many communities up and down the country. Such voluntary action to take responsibility and raise money makes such a difference.
That is exactly what the community is up to in the case of the port of Dover. What is the response of the community? It is getting together with the ferry companies to make a bid to buy the port. We are asking the Government to allow us the opportunity to make that bid. The proposal is led not by people who do not know what they are doing, but by people who are extremely experienced. The president of the Dover People’s Port community trust is Sir Patrick Sheehy, who used to run British American Tobacco, the massive cigarettes and tobacco combine, and another director is Algy Cluff, who opened up the North sea to oil exploration. The chairman, Neil Wiggins, who is in the Members Gallery, has expertise in buying, selling and managing ports all around the world.
That is the key point. There is so much talent and knowledge in our communities, which have the wherewithal and ability to take on serious responsibilities. That is why we have been able to go to the City, raise £200 million to buy the port, and put together a business plan that includes investment in the national interest of £100 million over the next five years, plus £50 million for the regeneration of the port. Anyone who knows Dover will see why it needs the big society and why it can be a landmark for the big society.
Am I right in thinking that the whole point of the big society is empowering people to determine their destiny? My hon. Friend talks about the port of Dover, but the big society could come down to smaller initiatives in respect of, for example, development and planning, whereby local residents and not bureaucrats determine their destiny.
Exactly so—my hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I have said how the big society can be big, but it can also be big in many small ways. Small initiatives are an essential part of the big society. It is not simply about proposals such as the large, eye-catching port of Dover example, but about small things that are done on a day-to-day basis, whether that is the individual volunteering—dare I say it?—to help the elderly lady to cross the road in the example that is so often given, or the small tenants’ association that wants to run its estate, or public sector workers who want to set up a social co-op in the private sector. We should foster such changes by getting the state to back off a bit and by giving communities, individuals and small and big groups room to breathe, and a greater say in, and a greater sense of, their future direction.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful case for a change in the regime of the port of Dover, which seems to accord with the Government’s vision of the big society. Do the Government support his vision for the port of Dover?
I am unable to confirm that, because as my hon. Friend knows, that is subject to a quasi-judicial process. Even if the Government are supportive, they would be unable to say so, lest they attract a judicial review. Nevertheless, I hope the Government review the criteria of the bidding and privatisation process to enable a community bid to go through, and indeed that they will price in social and community enterprise value in privatisations or movements out of the public sector and into the private sector. In that way, communities will have a fair and a good chance to take over assets that are important to them and that matter to them.
I hope the Government produce revised proposals and that they give firm consideration to making that change. In doing so, they will send a strong signal that communities and decentralisation matter, that we want to give the balance of confidence to communities and that we want those economic benefits. Our proposal would give Dover a massive confidence lift and help to drive our local economy.
Regions throughout the UK need more confidence and to be more able to grow, prosper and do well, so that we can heal the divide between London, where all the prosperity seems to be, and the regions, which are left out. The regions will then have much more economic vitality and energy, which will make a massive difference in the future of the big society.
I welcome the debate because, judging from the press coverage, the big society appears all set to become a national joke. It remains the Prime Minister’s “absolute passion”, so I find it strange that the debate has to be secured through the Back-Bench business route. According to a report in T hird Sector Online in June last year, the Cabinet Office, in its structural reform plan, wanted to set up a Select Committee on civil society, but we are where we are.
I congratulate Charlie Elphicke on securing the debate and on his contribution. He has shown a commitment to the future of his port. It appears to have become his absolute passion and I wish him well in that.
I have to make an admission: I quite like the notion of the big society. It returns us to issues of duty, obligation, service and contribution that should be the hallmark of all political parties, so I do not think that a monopoly is obtained by any party. Moreover, I resist the simple notion that the big society is a sham and simply a veneer for ideologically driven cuts, not least because, as the hon. Member for Dover said, the Prime Minister’s attachment to that agenda predates the economic crisis and the onset of the cuts. I have read a number of what are supposedly the key texts in the big society debate. I refer hon. Members to the pamphlets of the hon. Member for Hereford and South Hertfordshire on compassionate conservatism and compassionate economics—his big society book.
I am deeply grateful for that wonderful accolade but may I point out that it is Hereford and South Herefordshire, not to be confused with the doubtless equally marvellous county of Hertfordshire?
I stand corrected.
There are some points of common ground in the texts that I have seen, which are interesting and add to the sum total of public knowledge. Aspects of the big society could lead to people having more control over their lives and to the creation of a more responsible society. That is a good departure point for the discussion today. Labour should welcome that and support empowerment and social responsibility.
I therefore refer Members to a pamphlet entitled “The Politics of Decency” written by my right hon. Friend Hazel Blears, who cannot be here today, a number of years ago, which set out many of the terms of the current debate; her substantive policy proposals predated many of them. However, despite all the warm words that I am offering for the agenda, my reservations start to become apparent when we talk about delivering empowerment and social responsibility on the ground.
I suggest that, for three basic reasons, the Government agenda will not succeed in delivering on its stated objectives. First, it is weak on the role of the state. Witness the amendment that was not selected, which clarifies some of the views of the Conservative party on the matter. Secondly, the agenda does not have a robust enough approach in its criticisms of the private sector. Thirdly, the agenda is essentially silent on central issues of social justice.
Fundamentally, the big society agenda is about a redistribution of power and responsibility away from Whitehall and towards local government, intermediate organisations, local communities and individuals. However, the Government will be unable to achieve that. Consider the argument that the Government are uncertain, to put it in a charitable way, on the role of the state. The Prime Minister regularly acknowledges that the state will have to play an active role in building the big society, but what is happening on the ground? The Government want to encourage giving, but despite lobbying from the charitable sector, they have said that they will drop transitional relief on gift aid, worth around £100 million a year. The Government want to encourage community ownership and management of local assets built around the right to buy in the Localism Bill, but in reality they prefer to flog public sector assets off to the private sector. Witness what happened on the forests. A similar thing is happening with the £500 million of regional development agency assets. There is clear potential for something similar to happen with the £37 billion of primary care trust assets.
Moreover, the Government say that they want more third sector delivery of public services, but the detail of their policies will not necessarily enable that to happen. For instance, where their reforms are most advanced in terms of welfare to work, the scale and cash-flow requirements of the contracts mean that the vast majority will go to very large private sector firms, which then may or may not subcontract to charities or social enterprises, and may or may not do so on a fair basis. I have heard that the welfare Minister in the other place recently said that he anticipated a “perfect car crash” among providers. That is dangerous, because of the human consequences, and because providers will go to the wall as a result. Future examples could include offender rehabilitation and health.
Another example is the way in which the Government want to encourage public sector workers to spin out and form independent mutuals. I was recently told that the Secretary of State wants one in six public sector staff to do so by the end of this Parliament. Under the Labour scheme, those public sector workers could keep their pensions, received significant transitional support, and were guaranteed a three-year contract.
I tentatively suggest that none of that would be the case under the Tory plans. Communities have a right-to-buy asset, but minimal support to do so. They have the right to challenge local public services, but minimal support to do so. Public sector staff have the right to provide or to spin out, but minimal support to do so. We must consider alongside that the inability to deliver because of the cuts. If the big society is about more than informal acts of generosity, we need the infrastructure to provide it: people to train and manage volunteers, and people to win public service contracts and ensure that the services are delivered to a consistently high standard. That infrastructure has been hit. The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations estimates that the voluntary sector will lose £1 billion as a result of cuts, the loss of gift aid transitional relief and the rise in VAT.
The cuts to the sector are beginning to stack up. Charities and voluntary groups in London have been subject to cuts of £50 million in the past 12 months. Council community grant programmes have been cut up and down the country. The list is growing by the day, and includes mental health services, autism charities, rape and crisis support centres, stroke associations, career support services, carers, housing and homelessness charities, YMCA branches, citizens advice bureaux and children’s charities. Similarly, some cuts to benefit services will leave people feeling less in control of their lives, not more. They include cuts to disability living allowance, tightened thresholds for social care, cuts to Supporting People budgets and cuts to housing benefit. That reflects a failure to deliver the big society.
The Government are silent on the private sector. If people feel disempowered vis-à-vis the state, the same applies to their relationship with the private sector. The Government essentially say nothing on redistributing power and responsibility in that regard. For example, they propose to reduce workers’ rights in the “Resolving workplace disputes” consultation, yet beyond praising best practice, they do not appear to have much appetite for doing anything practical to encourage more corporate social responsibility by giving time or money to good causes. Such contributions are significantly lower in the UK than they are in the US, which relates directly to levels of civic engagement and volunteering. For example, 82% of people who do not volunteer but would like to do so cite lack of time as a reason, and research by the Cabinet Office recently found that half of employees would like a volunteering and giving scheme to be established by their employer.
The hon. Gentleman speaks as if the past 13 years have been a rosy world in which the long arm of the state has been able to deliver all the public goods that we need without any problems. Is it not the case that we have tested to destruction the theory that the state knows best? We should harness the creativity of individuals and communities to partner the state to deliver the services that we need at local level.
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me for literally one minute, I will come on to a couple of instances that are a hallmark of the previous Government’s record, which should be compared and contrasted with the collapse in infrastructure that will result from providing the big society on the ground.
The Government say little on fairness in talking about the big society. There is a strong correlation between levels of deprivation and levels of civic engagement, with more deprived areas less likely to participate in volunteering. Third sector organisations tend to be more dependent on public money in more deprived areas, and more deprived areas have tended to get a worse deal from the spending review. The cumulative result is likely to be that the infrastructure for delivering the big society will be hit hardest in deprived areas that are less able to deliver the big society vision. To my mind, where the Government’s big society reforms genuinely empower people and lead to a more responsible society, Labour should welcome them. Conversely, where their reforms do not empower people or lead to a more responsible society, Labour should oppose them.
Finally, I want to make a couple of points about Labour’s record. Between 2000-01 and 2007-08, the voluntary sector income grant grew by just over 40%, from £25 billion to £35.5 billion, of which individual giving accounted for more than 40%, and the voluntary sector work force grew by 124,000. Labour set up the Office of the Third Sector, and the current Leader of the Opposition was the country’s first ever Minister for the Third Sector. I think that we can argue that under Labour the third sector thrived. It appears that some define the big society as a national joke, but I have to say that I fear—
I honour Jon Cruddas for giving a good defence of many of the good elements of the big society, and a good warning on some of its dangers. Much of the debate, however, reminds me of sitting in a room with a group of philosophers looking at some bird and explaining why the bird cannot fly. Again and again, I come to these debates and hear people say, “The big society cannot work, because people do not want to take responsibility”—I take the point from Paul Flynn about people not wanting to save a child from a pond—or they say, “It cannot work, because they do not have the resources or expertise”, or they say, “It ought not to work, because if these communities were trusted, they would do the wrong thing.” So there are three kinds of argument: communities do not want to do this stuff; they cannot do this stuff, because of cuts; and they ought not to do this stuff, because they will do something irresponsible. For example, in debates on planning, we hear again and again that communities left to their own devices would build a concrete jungle or act as nimbys and block all development.
There are many good points here. The Opposition are making many good points. The big society is not a replacement for everything; it is not a silver bullet or a panacea. We need a state. I will list three of the many things for which a state is very important. First, we need a state where there are issues of expertise. For example, brain surgery is best left to the state, not a community. Secondly, where massive resources and big strategic decisions are required, such as in the building of highways or high-speed rail networks, things are best left to the state, not individual communities. Finally—this is where I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham—the state is important when it comes to the protection of the vulnerable. Our democracy is based not just on majority representation, but on the protection of minority rights, and for that a state is very important.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that some communities might not want to do these things, despite the fact that some cannot do these things, and despite the fact that some might make the wrong decisions, big society is a wonderful thing. To those philosophers who say that this bird cannot fly, I say that it does fly. They should come to Cumbria or go in fact to any constituency. As was pointed out in an intervention, we can all see again and again exactly what big society is about. It is not about the state; it is not even about the voluntary sector, although it does a wonderful job; and it is not about individuals or businesses. It is about communities and community action.
Why does it work? Why, if someone comes to Cumbria, can they see in Crosby Ravensworth a better affordable housing project built by a community than would have been built by the county council on its own? Why, if someone comes to Kirkby Stephen, can they see a really smart neighbourhood plan—not one pushing for a concrete jungle or a nimby objection to any development, but one sensitive to the vulnerable and imaginative in how it does its development? And why, if someone comes to Appleby, can they see wonderful renewable energy projects? It is because those projects are different from those done by the state in exactly the three ways I mentioned—in the degree of knowledge, in scale and in their relationship to the risk to the vulnerable.
These are projects in which communities have a competitive advantage over the state because local knowledge matters in those projects. It is very important to live in a place in order to produce a really good plan for that place. The people who live there know about the place and care about it. They come up with creative solutions, street by street, on where to place a school, on how much housing to allow and on who will live in the affordable houses and where they will be located.
It also really matters that people care about these projects. Communities want their children to have a house in a way that a distant expert does not. Finally, although it is difficult to quantify, I think that all of us—as politicians, as opposed to civil servants—understand the will and the desire in communities to make things work in a way that a distant expert might not.
This debate should be familiar to the Opposition. There is a very distinguished tradition on the left of believing in people, of not being pessimistic about them, and of not being over-optimistic about technocratic, centralised expertise. There is a tradition of understanding that there is of course a place for the state, but that there is also a place for the community, and that that does not just involve mowing the lawns. A patronising idea is sometimes expressed that communities can be trusted to do only small, limited things.
In Cumbria, we bang on about what we have done with broadband because it is an example of communities, not the state, delivering a highly technical, highly challenging engineering project for a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time that the state would have taken. That has happened because the parish can ask people to do things in a way that the state cannot. The parish can ask communities to take out loans to pay for some of their own broadband, it can ask farmers to waive their way leave in order to get the fibre optic cable to the houses, and it can ask the church to put the transmitter on its roof. In that way, the price can be reduced fivefold. And this is just the beginning.
There should be a resonance between both sides of the House over our scepticism of expertise, and over our understanding that there are forms of knowledge, not theoretical knowledge, but “knowledge of how”—“capacity knowledge”, forms of caring, of will and of desire that are not a replacement for the state but that, in the right place and the right circumstances, can achieve miracles.
All the points that hon. Members will make in this debate are true. They will be worried that a project might not be sustainable, or that it has not been the subject of sufficient research or strategic planning. They might also worry about whether it would fit into a global planning framework. All those objections are important and valid. Nevertheless, to return to the bird that I mentioned earlier, some people will stare at it and try to analyse it anatomically, wondering how it will ever get off the ground. I say to them: “Come to Cumbria and see the bird fly.”
They are three examples from the big society vanguard project in the Eden district of Cumbria, initiated by this Government, and the hon. Gentleman is very welcome to come and see them.
I am glad to have heard that explanation. I was also relieved to hear from the hon. Gentleman that we are not going to have volunteers doing brain surgery.
We should all beware of Prime Ministers bearing three-word gimmick policies. I have served in this House under six Prime Ministers, and I remember “the cones hotline”, “the third way” and “back to basics”. Now, we have “the big society”. I think that the big society has most in common with the cones hotline. These were all pet subjects of various Prime Ministers who were willing to distort their own priorities to find money to plough into them over and above their general policies. There will be a degree of cynicism, when the cuts are taking place in all directions, if money is available to employ volunteers—
For some unaccountable reason, the hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten the third way, which was possibly the most bankrupt of all these ideas.
I mentioned the third way. The hon. Gentleman has only recently joined the House, but he might know that I was not the most enthusiastic supporter of the previous two Prime Ministers. The third way was a candyfloss and vacuous policy, as is the big society, and no one ever knew what the first and second ways were, let alone the third way. I am sure that my Front-Bench team will reinforce the point, but a host of initiatives have already taken place over many years.
I am grateful for the accolade of being regarded as the hon. Gentleman’s “Friend”—we sit on the same Committee together—but he provides a fascinating insight with his comment.
Let us think about what has happened to these initiatives. Charlie Elphicke described one of them in an Adjournment debate, in which he raised a constituency point, which he is entitled to do. If, however, he is looking for an example on which to build his “enterprise” in Dover, he should look at the Tower colliery. A group of people got together— notwithstanding the fact that everyone, including the previous Government, said that there was no chance of the pit becoming economic at any time—and provided a wonderful example of a co-operative enterprise that was successful, made money and provided employment for a long period. All that happened without Government intervention and without any top-down support from any Government body. Such initiatives have taken place.
I do not know what sort of nightmare world is inhabited by many Conservative Members. The idea that people will not jump into ponds to rescue children or that the last Labour Government, with all their deficiencies, did not want laws to encourage people to help old ladies to cross the road is absurd. This is to go along with the tabloid view of the last Labour Government: despite all his deficiencies, Tony Blair was certainly not a Ceausescu or a Joseph Stalin.
We have all advocated the outcomes of the big society; we have all supported them for many years. We have backed volunteerism, for example, and we had a year of the volunteer. I asked every Minister in the previous Government what they were going to do to volunteer, particularly how many days they were going to give for volunteering. I asked two Ministers who came before the Select Committee the other day the same question of how many days they were going to devote to volunteering. The responses were very weak, although I understand that the responsible Minister in the other place talked about giving three days a week, which he rapidly reduced to two. Anyone supportive of the big society and who is serious about the joys of voluntary work should tell us what they are going to do to lead by example rather than provide mere exhortation.
Volunteerism has always played an important part in, and has contributed to, our national life. The current danger is that the big society might send that process backwards because it is an attempt to nationalise volunteerism. Those who give out of the goodness of their hearts because they want to help their own society are suddenly going to be part of a Government scheme that will promote the aims of, and give credit to, the Conservative party. It might well act as a disincentive to those thinking of volunteering.
The Welsh Assembly Government developed a Communities First programme, which had more or less identical aims to much of what the big society is about—giving small groups some pump-priming money to assist their schemes, for example. As to whether this has been an unqualified success, some schemes were very successful, some less so. This idea is not new, however; it has been tried before, and it has proved to be a limited success. We have had no details from the Government about what will happen to the bank that is currently in an embryonic state. There is talk of it having about £200 million. I asked the Minister whether it was true that the Government’s take from the charitable sector could amount to £5 billion a year or £3 billion a year, or whether it would be £1 billion this year and then £3 billion. The amount of money that is going in each year is nothing compared to the amount that is being taken out. The Minister denied that the amount was £5 billion, but he could not give me a figure. If he does not know what the amount is, he will not be able to tell me what it is not, but I should be glad to be given a figure tonight so that we can make a comparison.
I hate to obtrude on the hon. Gentleman’s fascinating speech, and I accept that he has never knowingly supported a Prime Minister for as long as he has been in this place, but is he not being a little uncharitable about the cones hotline? The big society is about a bit more than just volunteering; it is largely about rebalancing the role of the state and the role of communities. Will he not give that some credit?
I think we all agree that the aim of creating a society in which people are empowered is desirable. One industry has suffered chronically from the dependency culture. It has been given handouts for many years, which has resulted in a lack of innovation and a habit of expecting everyone else to solve its problems. It has looked to the Welsh Assembly, to Europe, and to the British Government. That industry is the farming industry, and I doubt that that point will meet with much enthusiasm from Government Members. It is not people in working-class areas who feel that they are part of a dependency culture. It is those who are supported by huge subsidies which have a debilitating effect on their industries.
I return to what was said by the Select Committee. We should consider the reality. For instance, the Government are destroying a quarter of the Members of Parliament in Wales. I am sure that it will cause you some distress, Mr Deputy Speaker, to know that someone in my position, on the threshold of a promising parliamentary career, may find that his constituency has disappeared. Is that part of localism, of taking power down to the people? The truth is that power is being destroyed at that level.
Let us consider the idea that a Minister who is the son of a former Cabinet Minister, and who represents leafy suburbs somewhere in Surrey or Essex, will suddenly waltz down to my constituency—where employment in the coal mines was destroyed for the senior generation and where employment for the younger generation is now being destroyed by cuts—and tell people that he will rescue them from their misery by allowing them to work for nothing. The idea of working for nothing is very much a millionaire’s view of helping society. If millionaires do not work, they still have their sustenance and their accommodation. Life does not change for them. Do they realise how deeply insulting it is to expect people to work for a long period with no wages at the end of it? It is fine if people do it because they believe that they are helping society, but if they find that they are doing it to help a Government project or advance the career of a Prime Minister, they will turn against the idea.
I believe that we are seeing nothing very new in the big society. Its aims are desirable, and we wish it well in the context of the worthwhile developments that may come of it, but it is wrong to pretend that it represents a revolutionary development in our society. I look forward to seeing—along with many other members of the Public Administration Committee—what advantages there are in it, and I am sure that we will reach a fair and balanced decision; but we may well decide that the big society is very little other than a big cop-out.
It is a privilege to follow Paul Flynn. I agreed with what he said about the role of
Communities First in Wales. I could take Members to see deprived rural wards in west Wales, in Ceredigion, and in urban wards as well. Jon Cruddas spoke of engagement, social activism and volunteerism in deprived communities, and of the mismatch that often occurs. Communities First has given such communities the leadership, resources and facilities that will enable them to become more engaged, and I think that that is as valid in Ceredigion as in Newport West.
I welcome the debate. I suspect that by the time it ends, at 10 pm, we shall have been given 30 definitions of what the big society is. People are increasingly familiar with the phrase, but they are still somewhat baffled about what it means. We have a chance to address that this afternoon. The concept is not well defined and neither is it understood yet. Sadly, it has come to be seen as synonymous with big cuts in public spending. That is inevitable, but it is also regrettable given the many positive points that we have already heard in this debate about encouraging the third sector and volunteering, which I will discuss in my speech.
Volunteerism is alive and kicking in our communities. Stewart Hosie made that point first, when he mentioned everything that is already happening, and Rory Stewart said the same in respect of his constituency. Last week I was at the university in Aberystwyth in my constituency. It was hosting student volunteer week, an open day with 23 different organisations in attendance, encouraging students to volunteer and offering them work experience.
We cannot, however, ignore the fact that many charities face a reduction in their core funding, whether through cuts in direct funding or in local authority funding. In questions earlier today, we heard about the funding priorities that certain local authorities are setting, and I endorse what has been said, but we are still looking for a lead from Government, to ensure that many of our charities are not hit by the loss in core funding. The Government have had some positive news on that, but I would like to hear a little more from the Minister. I also hope that this debate is a discussion not of ideology, but of practicalities and the good delivery of services. [Interruption.] There is a note of dissent from the Opposition Benches, but I am concerned about the delivery on the ground of good services to my constituents.
Concern has also been expressed about the transfer of functions from quangos to voluntary organisations through the Public Bodies Bill, which is being debated in another place. In principle, if a charity can deliver a service that is being provided by a public body, it is preferable that the charity does so. That varies depending on what service we are talking about, however, and the key difficulty lies in ensuring that the resources and expertise are provided to do the job. It is all well and good talking about handing responsibilities from Consumer Focus to citizens advice bureaux, but the Minister needs to reassure us that CABs are sufficiently well equipped and financed to undertake those services.
The Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but it is my understanding that there will be sufficient resources, with 5,000 extra professional community organisers and 4,200 extra health care visitors to ensure that families get the support they need and communities can come together. There will also be £200 million for the big society bank.
I welcome those resources, of course, but let me go back to my point about the CABs. I was at a meeting last week, and there was genuine concern about the ability of volunteers to carry on doing the work they are doing if resources are cut to such an extent that the training courses they undertake are no longer available.
It is crucial that we address the concept of the big society correctly if we are to achieve its potential in helping to deliver services. As we have heard this afternoon, there is support for giving individuals and groups more power and opportunity to help their communities. I have no difficulty at all with the motion—although I would have perhaps a little more difficulty with the amendment, which was not selected.
What sets the concept of the big society apart is its recognition not simply of the contribution that charities and voluntary groups can make, but of the difference that can be made through allowing groups and individuals to make decisions and take control. St David’s day is coming up, and I want powers and responsibilities to be devolved further to the National Assembly; I want them to be devolved to the community level—to our counties and our communities and our individuals. That may be about minor things such as garden exchange schemes or bigger things such as community energy projects and community broadband.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in talking about communities we should also consider businesses? In my constituency, we have set up Teignbridge business buddies, under which businesses help each other with small individual problems for free. That is not addressing a state role, but it does show that community is bigger than just individuals; it is also about the businesses within communities.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, in whose constituency I was briefly at the start of this week. I can testify that there are some very good businesses there, and the ethos she alludes to is very important.
I want to mention one or two projects in my constituency, such as the community-led project Transition Llambed, which works to challenge the issues of peak oil and climate change and to give Lampeter transition town status. That is a perfect example of an organisation run and led by the community for the community that aims to have a positive impact on the world around it. It epitomises the phrase, “Think globally, act locally.” Formed four years ago, Transition Llambed has been extremely well received. It has 400 members—drawn from a town with a population of just 2,500 people—and has support from the town council, the university and local organisations.
Lampeter is also home to the excellent Long Wood Community Woodland group, which I had the pleasure of meeting last week, and which is in the process of securing 300 acres of woodland for local community use. I do not want to reopen the debate about forestry sales and the Government’s climb-down; however, that very good project in Lampeter involves many different groups in the community.
I am never quite sure whether the tentacles of the big society extend beyond Offa’s Dyke, but I do know there have been discussions between the Wales Office and Ministers in the National Assembly. I want to cite last November’s excellent report from the Welsh Assembly Enterprise and Learning Committee, which discussed the role of social enterprises in the Welsh economy. It recommends that
“the potential of social enterprise should not be viewed as a means of mopping up services that need to be developed more cheaply but as a way of developing new, innovative and more effective methods of delivery”.
That committee was dominated by Labour and Plaid Cymru Administration Members—there was a Liberal Member as well—and I very much endorse that view, which is not at odds with what is being suggested from this side of the House. That issue goes to the very heart of this debate.
The committee also called for an improvement in the quality and coverage of business support and advice for the social enterprise sector—a relatively new sector that has sometimes been ignored. All Government Departments must be thinking of ways of fostering volunteerism and social enterprise, and that should mean the availability of advice and support as recommended by the committee. It might mean in some instances relaxing some of the regulations that make life difficult for many of our charities; Anne Marie Morris might agree with that, given her interest in small businesses. It might mean enforcing some existing laws and regulations more stringently.
The Government have made progress on this issue. For instance, they are looking again at the provisions under the vetting and barring scheme. Although there is of course a need to ensure that children are protected from those who use voluntary groups as an opportunity to gain access to children, those rules must be sensible and proportionate and should not hinder the many volunteers who do excellent work in the youth sector.
There is also the Government’s recent pledge to put money aside to assist mountain rescue teams, who have to pay VAT on equipment. Again, that is money to allow volunteers the breathing space they need to enable them to be more effective.
Many of us will have received representations from Sue Ryder Care, which is concerned that once services are transferred from the public to the voluntary sector, there will be an increased cost for the charity because it will be unable to reclaim much of the VAT. It has been suggested that section 41 of the Value Added Tax Act 1994 should be amended to include charities providing services transferred to them by the NHS. Another charity in my constituency, the Beacon of Hope, would very much empathise with that call.
There is good news. The big society bank is coming, the funding for which is being provided from dormant bank accounts and as part of Project Merlin. I welcome that.
I end with a request. Much of what this debate is about is already happening in our communities. What I am looking for from the Minister and the proponents of the big society—I rather prefer the word “community”, however—is that add-on, that extra. The engagement is there; it needs to be built on.
I am grateful to Charlie Elphicke and the Backbench Business Committee for securing this debate. The issue that we are discussing goes to the heart of what I believe politics is about: how to secure a just and fair society, where everyone has the freedom, power and opportunity to fulfil their potential and thrive. There has and always will be a strong strand within the Labour movement that believes that self-help and community action are the foundations of a good society and the route to a good life. During the industrial revolution and earlier, ordinary working people came together to form co-operatives, mutuals and friendly societies. Those organisations were owned and run by their members for the benefit of one another, and were established to protect working people from the consequences not of an overbearing state, but of unfettered markets that treated people as mere commodities to be bought and sold for financial gain. Generations of working people learned to help and develop themselves by taking roles in those organisations. They learned how to read and write by running a trade union branch or got health insurance from friendly societies in case they had an accident at work.
The modern Labour party was born out of those organisations and we then went on to create the welfare state, so that the security, opportunities and other benefits provided by those organisations were made available to all. The values of community, self-help and mutual aid remain strong in the Labour party, as our record of the past 13 years shows. Government-funded programmes such as the new deal for communities have helped to transform the most deprived areas in my constituency, such as Braunstone, by empowering local residents and community groups. Labour councils have opened up local services to the voluntary sector. In Leicester, organisations such as Streetvibe now provide fantastic youth services, which young people themselves help to shape and run. In Rowley Fields, in my constituency, residents who campaigned to save the Manor House community centre are now running and developing community services that better meet local people’s needs.
Some of the biggest changes that Labour made were in the NHS. We created foundation trusts and backed pioneering new social enterprises, such as Central Surrey Health, so that local staff, patients and the public can now own and run their local health services. However, we did not just harness the skills of voluntary and community groups to transform public services; we empowered those groups to help change markets, too. For example, we increased support for credit unions and updated their legislation, so that more people on low incomes can now save and get access to affordable loans denied to them by the commercial market.
Those are just a few examples of Labour’s good society in action. They show, first, that the state and civil society are not mutually exclusive, but inextricably linked; an enabling state is vital to supporting civil society, and vice versa. Secondly, they show that securing the good society is as much about changing the economy and markets as it is about reforming the state. The Government’s big society fails to acknowledge either of those crucial points, which is why it will fail to empower individuals and communities to take control over their own lives.
Let us consider the Government’s proposals to encourage more volunteering, which is an important and laudable goal. The real issue is not that people cannot or do not want to volunteer because of work or family constraints; it is that securing the good society requires more than kindness and charity alone. Giving people real power and real control depends on far deeper and more powerful principles and values: solidarity and reciprocity; taking common action to achieve common goals; and knowing that your fellow man will share the burdens as well as benefits that life inevitably brings.
The Government say that the big society is about not only encouraging volunteering, but opening up public services so that the voluntary sector can play a bigger role, but some of their plans are likely to achieve the opposite. The Prime Minister says that the new Work programme will make up to £700 million available to the third sector, but organisations are to be paid only after they have got people into work and kept them there for some time, which will mean that many small and medium-sized charities cannot get involved because they simply do not have the resources necessary to put in this money up front.
I have long championed the idea of giving people more choice and a greater say over their public services. As the former director of the Maternity Alliance charity, I have always thought that different providers have an important role to play in public services, but that must be done within a properly managed system so that the benefits of choice are felt by all, with genuine accountability to users and the public. That is not this Government’s approach. They want to drive a full market and full competition approach through the whole public sector, regardless of any evidence about whether competition works in particular fields and without the vital checks, balances and accountability that Labour had in place. That is not the way to improve the quality of our public services or to give users and communities greater control.
The hon. Lady has spoken very eloquently about the barriers to volunteerism in relation to resources, and about solidarity, but what about regulation? In my experience, the main barrier that people tend to complain about is that they are prevented by regulation from doing what they want to do, so a lot of this is about clearing regulation out of the way, not about giving people resources.
I think that is an important point, but it is not the issue that people in my constituency raise with me about volunteering—it is about whether they have the time and the resources to do it because they have family, caring and work commitments. That might be the hon. Gentleman’s experience, but it is not mine.
Whatever the Government’s plans for reforming public services, the more immediate and pressing issue is the speed and severity of their public spending cuts. There is no getting away from that. Two weeks ago, in my constituency, I met a whole group of charities, which told me that the cuts threaten their very existence. I am talking about brilliant organisations such as Lighthouse Learning, which has played a huge role in reducing the large number of young people not in education, employment or training in Leicester. The Government say they have recognised this problem and provided transitional funding, but groups in my constituency tell me that the funding is available only to charities that are “undergoing change”—for example, merging with others—and not to fund existing work, salaries or rent. If the Government support the voluntary sector so much, why do they refuse to provide transitional funding to continue that work? Unless other funding is found, the very voluntary and community groups that they claim to want to support will have no choice but to close. I do not doubt for a second that Government Members support the voluntary sector and want it to play a bigger role, but their economic policy threatens the existence of many voluntary and community groups because their public spending cuts go too deep and too fast.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way again. Has she reflected on why we are in such a difficult financial predicament? I suggest that it is not just because of the badly regulated banks under the previous Administration.
Yes—because of the failings of the market, which is the point I am trying to make. If we want a good society, we have to acknowledge that while there can be problems with an overbearing state, some of the problems created by markets are far greater than those created by the state.
The hon. Lady says the situation is because of the market’s failure, but was there not a failure of policy? When this Government came in, one in five 18 to 24-year-olds were unemployed; that was a failure of policy by the previous Government, not of markets.
I return to my earlier example about why it is important to support credit unions—some banks were not giving credit, loans or bank accounts to some of the poorest and most deprived people in my constituency. My hon. Friend Stella Creasy has rightly been highlighting the need to take on some of the illegal—and legal—loan sharks who prey on such people, including my constituents. That is down to a failing of the law, yes, but also of markets, and it needs to be tackled.
In conclusion, the Government claim that their big society is about empowering local people, but in reality it is about rolling back the state and using markets alone to drive change in our public services. That will leave too many communities to fend for themselves. That is okay in areas with huge resources and people who have time to volunteer, but in my constituency where people are struggling to find work and get on the housing ladder and have real problems and issues, I do not think that will work. Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour party, believed that the role of the state should be to enable people to choose the life they want to lead, and that markets should serve the people, not the other way round. He wanted to create a society based on the inherently human values of solidarity and community and not on those of the market or an over-powerful state. Hardie’s vision is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. The Government’s big society will not achieve it, but I hope and believe that Labour’s good society will.
Let me start by looking at the origins of the Prime Minister’s conviction, which is driving the big society forward. It goes back to shortly after he was elected Leader of the Opposition six years ago. At that time, his commitment was very much informed by the work of the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and his founding of the Centre for Social Justice. In 2007, the Prime Minister stated clearly that the task of the next Government would be to reverse decades of social decline and that that crisis of social decline was every bit as great as the economic crisis that confronted the new Conservative Government in 1979. It is completely disingenuous of certain sectors of the media and of certain interests to suppose that the big society concept is some sort of cynical cover for spending cuts, and I am glad that some Opposition Members have acknowledged that that is not the case.
The difference between now and 1979 is that this Government confront both a social crisis and an economic crisis, which the Prime Minister probably did not foresee back in 2007. Those two crises are two sides of one coin, and one will not be solved without the other. This country has been living beyond its means for some considerable time—at least a decade. Throughout the boom years, we spent vast and increasing amounts of money on social problems that still persist, such as the 2 million or so people on out-of-work benefits, while new jobs were created but mostly filled by newly arrived immigrants. More and more money was spent on schools every year, but that did not reverse the relative educational decline of Britain compared with other countries.
Why do we have so many problems and what will the big society do to address them? I acknowledge the speech of Liz Kendall, which was in many ways excellent, and I agree that the state and civil society are inextricably linked. However, I argue that things have got out of kilter and that over the past 10 years there has increasingly been a dominance of the state and a “Government know best” mentality. Let me give a few examples of the adverse effect that that has had. The Criminal Records Bureau is a laudable organisation, but it has become quite extreme in its intervention, affecting people who want to volunteer to drive one another’s children around. I am on my third CRB check, and I am just a school governor and a volunteer with an FE college.
Health and safety has got out of control, and I am delighted that the Government are going to tackle the excessive approach that prevents teachers from taking schoolchildren on much-valued trips. The risk of finding oneself on the wrong side of the law for intervening in a street situation is a problem, as is the fact that families are prevented from hiring carers or agency nurses to support their elderly relatives in hospital—I have argued with my hospital in Dudley about that. We have heard the reports about the treatment of older people in our hospitals, and if people want to hire additional support, they should be allowed to do so.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case against health and safety legislation, which many of us know to be extremely onerous. Does she agree that another issue is the no win, no fee legal environment—the compensation culture—in which we operate, which puts an undue cost burden on voluntary organisations seeking to help in their local communities?
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention; I certainly agree. The compensation culture has grown up over many years—to a certain extent, we have imported it from the United States. I hope our Government will address that significant problem.
The bureaucracy of the grant and contracting process at local authority level has put off a number of smaller organisations, which, every year, have to make their case afresh for the same grant or contract for the same service. They cannot get any core funding. We are committed to changing that, and change is long overdue.
Some charities have become overly dependent on the state, particularly at a local level, so that too much of their money comes from local authorities. They almost cease to exist as voluntary bodies, which takes away a great deal from their esprit de corps and the motive that drove their passion in the first place. In many ways, the tail starts wagging the dog. Small voluntary groups are tailoring what they do to meet the criteria of the next grant body that they approach.
My hon. Friend is making some good points, including the one about the proportion of income that charities are getting from statutory governmental sources. Should the Government consider stripping the charitable status from organisations that achieve 80% of their funding from the state?
I would like to consider that suggestion more fully. It is a laudable one, which would address the problem of over-dependence, although I fear that too great a bureaucracy would be required to oversee such an idea, resulting in two steps forward and one step back.
There are many voluntary and charitable organisations that derive no income whatever from the state, such as the air ambulance, which one of my hon. Friends mentioned earlier. It raises £48 million a year through a lottery and fundraising volunteers. A dear aunt of mine aged 88 has a standing order for the air ambulance, which is how such organisations get their money. The hospice movement is another case in point. My local hospice, Mary Stevens hospice in Stourbridge, receives only 18% of its funding from the primary care trust and raises the rest of its money itself. I am very much in favour of grants from local authorities. When I was a local councillor, I served on the board of a charity that received virtually all its income from the primary care trust and the local authority, which was detrimental.
I shall make progress, if my hon. Friend does not mind, because I do not think that I will get any more credit on the clock.
Let me make a few points in conclusion. It is the Government’s and the public sector’s attitude to risk that bedevils many of their good intentions. There is an attitude that risk can be and should be eliminated, and we must get away from that mentality. We have to manage risk, of course, but no Government, private organisation or charitable organisation can eliminate risk completely, and we lose a great deal by trying to do so.
The monopolistic provision of public services will be challenged by the big society. I am delighted to see so many of the Government’s proposals coming out now in concrete form. Several hon. Members have mentioned the big society bank. Other proposals include transitional funding for charities facing hardship following a sudden drop in a grant, the training of 20,000 community organisers and the national citizenship scheme for young people, which is a fabulous idea. We have some corporate funding for that, so it does not rely on taxpayers. Leadership and a culture change are needed to encourage more philanthropy.
We must leverage the good will of business. Many large and small businesses have a sense of corporate responsibility, which should be tapped. I am pleased to see that the Secretary of State for Justice is looking at what business can do to rehabilitate and train people in our prison system. There is so much that business can do, as my hon. Friend Anne Marie Morris has pointed out, and we must not forget that individuals, communities and corporations can all contribute to the big society. I congratulate the Government on getting as far as they have done already with this initiative.
I shall focus on volunteering, which in many ways is the keystone of the big society. I started my career 25 years ago as a volunteer with the citizens advice bureau. I have to say that I never thought of myself as part of the big society. Indeed, I gained so much from my time as a volunteer and from the support from the paid staff that I wanted to remain in the voluntary sector and work to provide the same service with both volunteers and paid staff. However, in the 23 years that I did that, the demographics of volunteers and the type of support that they needed to enable them to have a positive experience and to be of value to the organisation changed dramatically.
When I began, the majority of volunteers were, to put it kindly, older ladies with time on their hands. They wanted to volunteer for three hours or so a week and anticipated remaining with the organisation for quite a long period. The volunteers worked extremely hard and were very dedicated but, as we all know as Members of Parliament, life has become more complicated, the public’s expectations of any service have become much greater and family life has changed, causing the pool of volunteers to change, too. People are retiring later, and many women work until retirement age and then want a break or become carers as people live longer. Younger people, particularly women, are returning to work as two incomes are a necessity, and grandparents are pressed into service.
The expectations of services have been raised and volunteers have become younger, more short term and often use volunteering as a route to work. All that increases the need for paid support to ensure that the expectations of clients, volunteers and organisations are met. There are a number of different and diverse volunteering opportunities, and it is important that prospective volunteers are matched with the right organisation that will give value to both the volunteer and organisation. That is why I was appalled to hear that my local council for voluntary services in Wigan has lost £100,000 from the involved scheme, which provides volunteering support and brokerage for 16 to 25-year-olds, and the other non-age specific project performing the same function. This has led to an overall loss of the entire volunteering infrastructure within the borough, which is more important now as the big society is introduced and people are encouraged to volunteer.
People who want to volunteer will now face the choice, as used to happen in the past, of approaching an organisation that they may have heard of, without knowing how suitable that choice is for them and the amount of time that they want to give, or not bothering. If they find a place and discover bad practice, which exists in some voluntary organisations, there will be no one to report it to, to improve the practice and to work with the organisation to ensure that the volunteers are working in a healthy, safe and supportive environment.
I want to speak about that supportive environment. Volunteers give their time freely, but they, in return, can expect adequate training and support for the roles that they take on. A paid employee would not be left to get on with the job, and neither should a volunteer. Particularly in these days, when people of working age are volunteering to improve their CVs, volunteers demand a development plan and ongoing training and support. Volunteers’ time is given freely, but the support costs and the money for infrastructure costs is ever more difficult to find. In some cases, I cannot see where they can get it, apart from state bodies.
I turn to the example of citizens advice bureaux. I ran a citizens advice bureau, and we had almost £1 million of funding. One third came from legal aid, about one tenth came from the local authority, and there was primary care trust funding, Government funding to increase face-to-face advice in communities and Government funding from the financial inclusion fund. Citizens advice bureaux do not have popular appeal, however. They are not a “fluffy bunny” charity, so people do not give large amounts to them. Furthermore, volunteer turnover is increasingly rapid, and money needs to be made available to train and replace volunteers as they leave. Any responsible employer has a budget for recruitment and training, and how much more urgent and necessary that is when working with volunteers. I have referred to larger voluntary groups, but even small community voluntary groups need money.
Stubshaw Cross residents association started a teenagers disco when young people who were hanging around the park and causing a bit of trouble said that they had nowhere to go. The association volunteered to staff the sessions for nothing, but it needed access to a small grant to buy some sound equipment, to heat and light the building, to clean it and, as they said, to buy some earplugs. Those young people now run their own disco, with some support, but they still need ongoing funding. Without the support of the local council for voluntary service and the council’s funding officer, and without the availability of the small grants pot to help them to look for that funding, the disco would never have happened. Those teenagers would not have been part of the local community, and they would not sit on the residents association as they do now.
The big society is not new, but most of all it is not free. It is a partnership between community and voluntary organisations and the state, and to unbalance one side either by removing state funding or by restricting access to state funding and to grants, is to threaten society. It will leave people disaffected and dissociated. A true big society does not replace the state and public sector jobs; it works together to support and to empower the most vulnerable. To expect volunteers to replace public sector workers is to undervalue both, and it will unravel the fabric of society. It is by working together, with adequate funding, that the two sectors will become more than the sum of their parts.
I congratulate hon. Members on securing this debate. I am delighted that we are discussing the big society, because its principles got me where I am today. I relied upon them during my 16-year career in the charity sector.
Much of what is great about this country stems from the social action that the individuals, groups and movements of the past provided. For too many years, however, we have come to rely too much on the state. Too often these days we hear, “The council should do x”, or, “Why doesn’t the Government do y?” Society has become too small. Instead, we should encourage people and communities to do x and y, where they can, and that is why I fully support the Prime Minister in his desire to make the big society a big part of our political agenda. If nothing else, he has got the whole debate going—one that has been too quiet for too long. As Kennedy famously put it:
“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Those who are cynical and critical of the big society all too often talk about money. Yes, it is important and as a fundraiser I knew that, but the trouble is, as my hon. Friend Margot James said, some charities have become too dependent on a single income stream. That was a dangerous precedent which we in my charity avoided, but I welcome the fact that the Government are providing £100 million to help those charities that might be struggling.
In my job, I realised that the most important and greatest commodity that any charity or organisation can enjoy is people: people caring for the community, being neighbourly and having civic pride. That is all incredibly expensive; indeed, we could not buy it with all the money in the world. Such people inspired me as a young boy on a poor council estate to do my bit, and two individuals spring to mind: Iorwerth Rowlands and Jackie Waddicar. Our estate had little money but bags of spirit, and those two people led it to build the facilities of which others became proud and envious. They did a fantastic job despite the low incomes in the area, and that belies the patronising idea that some communities cannot do so because they are poor.
The hospice movement is an exemplar of the big society, and it was my privilege to work in it for more than 12 years. The movement all started thanks to the inspiration of Dame Cicely Saunders, a person who saw the glaring need to care for people at the end of their lives—and did something about it. Today, we see hospices throughout the country, and remarkably the vast majority are funded thanks to the generosity not of the Government but of the public. Most draw on the considerable help of thousands of volunteers to care for patients in both hospices and our communities. Such community ownership, and the community’s relationship with its hospices, mean that people are responsive to patients’ needs.
The hospice movement has had many inspirational leaders who have helped it to evolve and develop over the years. Indeed, Sister Frances Dominica recognised the glaring need to help children through the movement. I spent the previous seven years working for Martin House children’s hospice in Yorkshire, which cares for more than 300 terminally ill children and more than 100 bereaved families every year, at a cost of more than £4 million. Almost 90% of that money comes from the public, and it is a credit to the good people and businesses of Yorkshire that it keeps coming, even in these most difficult financial times. The care that the hospice provides is second to none, and, as one family said to me, the trouble is that it is the service against which all others are measured, and they can barely catch up. The hospice would of course like more public finance, because nobody would say no to extra money, but too much state involvement would dilute the wonderful facility that is Martin House, and heaven spare it top-down targets from Westminster.
Throughout my career in the charity sector, I saw how the big society is working, but I want to see it become bigger. Many politicos who are sceptical about the big society ask, “What does it mean? What does it stand for?”. They want that all-important buzzword to describe it, but they should take it from someone who has spent their working life in it: the big society is so big that no word could possibly do it justice.
It is a great pleasure and a privilege to follow Stuart Andrew, and I congratulate Charlie Elphicke, who is no longer in his place, on securing this debate. We on the Opposition Benches are enormous fans of the big society, not least because it cost the Conservatives an overall majority at the general election. Well, we thought it did until we saw their friends on the Liberal Benches.
I was happy to put my name to the motion, because, as my hon. Friend Liz Kendall suggested, the big society is absolutely fundamental to the Labour vision and to the Labour traditions of mutualism, co-operation and associationalism. However, there is a strong case for saying that we have lost sight of many of those traditions. We lost sight of them in the early 20th century, when we allowed clause IV to be written as it was, and we lost sight of them in the later years of our period in government, when we became over-regulatory and over-zealous in our admiration of the state. Margot James cited some of the Criminal Records Bureau’s activities, and that is an example of exactly where we began to go wrong.
As I think about how the Labour party begins to renew itself and ask questions of itself as we prepare for our speedy return to government, I think about our relationship with the big society and the tradition re-emerges.
Before the hon. Gentleman processes on his speedy return to government, may I ask him something, as someone who has an interest in history and knows that he has an acute interest in history? That aspect of the state crowding out private and mutual endeavour was highlighted by William Beveridge in his report. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Beveridge would look back now and say that the state had become too big, and that Labour Governments had played their part in that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is an acute question. I do not always accept the notion of crowding out, although there are times at which one can point to that.
The Labour tradition, as it has evolved, has sought to create a critical relationship with local government and central Government, and that is the difference between ourselves and Conservative Members. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West suggested, the enabling state is part of the Labour tradition. When we look back to where we have come from, as my hon. Friend Stella Creasy will imminently explain in beautiful prose, we can go right back to the late 18th century to the traditions of Paine and of critiquing the functioning of the market while believing in market principles. This was based on a belief that the state was not always a force for good. As Adam Smith argued, the state in the late 18th century was often a force for arbitrary activities, clamping down on the rights of working people and interfering in proper market practice.
I am thrilled by the robustly Conservative —indeed, Burkean—tone of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. However, I am interested in his support for Paine. Does he really believe that a person who backed the French revolution and its support for abstract rights over and above the legal privileges of the free-born Englishman deserves his support, and that he can be invoked in the context of the big society?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The wonderful thing about Paine is that he can be invoked on almost any issue, and in this particular seminar we are talking about the associationalist Paine rather than the Jacobin Paine.
Another part of the Labour narrative is the Owenite tradition, which was about co-operation rather than competition, and about man’s character being formed through his interactions with others rather than through being born with original sin, which was the Conservative position. We can also point to the Liberal tradition of the Rochdale pioneers—this, too, is part of the Labour story of co-operation, self-help, mutualism and self-improvement. We have to ask why these institutions and forms came into being. Why did working people club together in friendly societies, trade unions, burial societies and other associations? It was because of the failings of the mid-Victorian big society—the failings of noblesse oblige, Lady Bountiful, the night watchman state, and the attacks that we still hear today, whether on health and safety or over-regulation. It was a Tory vision which failed for millions of working people, and that is why our tradition of mutualism, associationalism and the big society came into being.
I noticed the subtlety with which the hon. Gentleman moved from a critique of Victorian society to a critique of the Victorian state. Can he outline the terms in which the state was able to support the development of these priceless independent institutions which we all now celebrate?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is right in one sense: part of the brilliance of the British tradition is our ability to create all sorts of forms of associational activity, be it limited liability companies or co-operatives. However, Labour Members point to our particular tradition of mutualism and associationalism, which comes from a failure of the Tory approach.
I would happily wax lyrical about the Labour tradition for many minutes to come, but I suggest to my hon. Friends that we cannot be too romantic about the past. Many of the worst actors in the recent financial crash were mutual organisations with co-operative governance structures. There is no inherent virtue in these modes of organisation that protects them from the kind of activities that we saw. As my hon. Friend Jon Cruddas said, we need to think innovatively about how we take these forms into the 21st century. We need to think about tax advantages for employee benefit trusts, the right to request the mutualisation of public services—as well as what that means for pay and conditions—and systems of asset locks. A relevant and credible example of this was announced by Ministers today regarding the future of British Waterways. The Government seem to be heading towards the charitable model, but many Labour Members will think that a co-operative model, with all the differences that that entails, would be the best way. I am more hopeful about the hon. Member for Dover’s plans for Dover harbour.
The difference between Labour and the Conservatives as regards the big society is about the history of co-operation with forms of government—first, in the mid-19th century, with local government, again following Tory failures. In Manchester, in Birmingham and across the country, there was a coalition of the associationalist, mutualist tradition and local government. Then, in the early 20th century, when the new Liberals actually believed in progressive politics, it was a coalition with the central state based on the belief in an enabling state and a relationship between forms of civil society and forms of the state. That continues today in relation to the big society and our politics. We believe in a relationship with a progressive, activist, enabling state.
That brings me to the crux of the issue. Various Conservative Members have pooh-poohed us for suggesting that there is an ideological element to the Government’s thinking and said that because the Prime Minister wrote an article six years ago in which he might have hinted at some of these ideas, we should think that there is some noble tradition involved. The big society is being used as a vehicle for justifying some of the major cuts and assaults on the state that we are seeing today. As my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue pointed out, voluntary institutions—the building blocks of civil society and of many of our communities—will be undone by the Government’s cuts, which are going too far and too fast. Some of the communities that we represent need capacity building, capability building and investment building. I say that not because, as the hon. Member for Pudsey suggested, we believe that poor people cannot organise themselves, but because we believe in investing in those communities to achieve better outcomes rather than ripping away support for citizens advice bureaux, youth services and all the other developments that are taking place. I took a delegation of organisations from Stoke-on-Trent, including Chepstow House and the citizens advice bureau, to see the Minister, who kindly listened to us as we pointed out the serious troubles that they will face—that the big society will face—as a result of this Government’s plans.
There are confusions in the Government’s belief in the big society. We are seeing, on the one hand, their ripping away of the capacity building that is necessary, and on the other, as in the case of the NHS and what they tried to do with the Forestry Commission, a neo-liberal belief in the market that has very little to do with an organic state-civil society relationship. The mixed social economy is best, with the virtue of the state and the virtue of civil society building up communities, but also reforming the state and, crucially, reforming markets as well.
We live in acute political times. We have a coalition Government for the first time in a generation and, as has been said many times in this Chamber, we have an historically high peacetime deficit. That makes for a somewhat sceptical political environment. I do not necessarily think that that is such a bad thing, as scepticism in our political system has stood this country in very good stead. Right hon. and hon. Members will be well aware that the great British public do not let us get ahead of ourselves too much. That great tradition has served us very well. However, with policy initiatives such as the big society, my concern is that scepticism has become something more destructive—cynicism. That is a great shame.
In our privileged position as key members of our local communities, right hon. and hon. Members from across the House experience the big society in action on almost a daily or certainly a weekly basis. That is my experience in the Crawley constituency. This morning as I was preparing what I would say in the Chamber,
I happened to glance at my schedule for the past couple of weeks. Although it did not surprise me, I was struck to see that it was packed with visits to voluntary organisations and community groups, and telephone conversations with the chairs of local action groups. In addition to helping individual constituents, that is the fundamental work of hon. Members.
I will give a few random examples from my diary. Early last week, I met with Jack Doors, a local voluntary organisation in my constituency. It was started by Jackie Rose, who is disabled and has mobility issues. She realised that it was difficult for many disabled people to get out and about. Off her own back, working from her home and using her own resources, she established a group to arrange transport for disabled people so that they could get out on a fortnightly basis to visit the seaside, go to a garden centre, or to have tea or lunch somewhere. That provides a vital link for many people with mobility issues and it has made a huge difference. It is not something that the state did, but something that was done by an individual with passion.
At the other end of the spectrum, my experience of St Catherine’s hospice in my constituency echoes what my hon. Friend Stuart Andrew said so eloquently about his experience of the hospice sector. It has minimal funding from the state and a great amount of funding and voluntary effort from individuals. With their support, it creates a massive difference for people in my constituency and the surrounding counties.
There are other examples. About a year ago, residents in my local ward were saying on a web-based community discussion forum where I have an e-surgery that the neighbourhood looked a bit unkempt and untidy. Through the online discussion, they organised a community litter pick. We all turned up on a Saturday morning—fortunately it was sunny and dry—with our black bags and the health and safety regalia of high-visibility jackets. For three hours, mums, dads, kids and all members of the community picked up litter, which made a significant difference to the neighbourhood and made it just a bit more of a pleasant place to live.
There are many more examples. I have am proud to have been a governor at three schools. It is important, like other hon. Members, to pay tribute to school governors who work hard—and freely, of course—to create the ethos in our schools and to ensure that those most important of institutions for our young people are successful.
The other weekend, I spoke at the annual general meeting of a gluten free society that was set up in my constituency.
Things have moved on a lot in the food available to coeliacs, and a lot of that is due to the work of individuals in the community. That is certainly the case with the Crawley Gluten Free Group, which has come together to make a positive difference to people’s lives.
I met another disabled access group and spoke to its users, in particular those with learning difficulties. They have been meeting almost every week for more than 10 years to improve their lives by discussing ideas and common issues and problems.
I contend that the big society is out there and is operating. The trouble is that it has been increasingly stifled by big government. To me, the conclusion seems straightforward. The way in which we can encourage greater services and far wider participation is for big government to become a little smaller and to become an enabling government who create the right environment for the voluntary and community sector to flourish. If the voluntary sector and individual carers who care for elderly relatives and disabled children ceased to exist tomorrow, the state would not be able to provide those services. We all know that that is true. It is important that the state is there. I think that the state is well meaning. I do not believe that it is malicious; just that its bureaucratic nature often makes it inefficient. It therefore often stifles innovation unintentionally.
Margaret Thatcher has been infamously misquoted as saying that there is no such thing as society. I am glad that our current Prime Minister has said that there is such a thing as society, but that it is not the same thing as the state.
I think I am right that the context in which Margaret Thatcher said those words was that one could not talk about society in terms of grand blandishments, but that one could talk about families, communities and people working together—that is not the same as society as a general term.
My hon. Friend is correct and I am grateful for his intervention.
Finally, I will mention one more group in my constituency that was started by an individual. It is the embodiment of the idea that if people are given hope and opportunity, they will respond with innovation and ideas that make a huge difference to people’s lives. Donna Nevill sadly lost her child early in life due to congenital heart failure. As a result, she set up a group that supports parents who are going through bereavement. Those are obviously difficult and traumatic circumstances. I am sorry to say that it happened to me, and I was privileged to be asked to become a patron of the organisation. Donna set it up out of a desire to help other parents who go through this difficult situation. I regret to say that all the obstacles she found came from government—in this case local government. Her leaflets were not displayed in the library until I intervened. The group could not get a meeting room because its availability was made difficult until there was intervention from elected representatives.
I believe that many more such groups will flourish and make a huge difference to people’s lives if we let go of power at the centre. I am delighted that the Localism Bill has been designed to do that, and that that is the whole thrust behind this Government.
I am delighted to speak in this debate and I am pleased that Charlie Elphicke, who unfortunately is not here, secured it.
Many hon. Members have set out the historical traditions behind this debate, but I come at it from a slightly different angle—as a psychologist analysing participation, the proposals that have been put forward for the big society, and the evidence base. From that angle, it seems that we start with a puzzle. In the points put forward by Government Members about the problems that they have experienced with public services and regulation, there is nothing to suggest that the removal of the state and the propagation of the voluntary and private sector will always achieve better results. Nor have we have seen any evidence about what shape the commissioning may take at either local or national level, and who will make the decisions or participate in that process.
Above all, many Labour Members, and I believe some on the Government Benches, wonder how a concern for increasing social activism fits with a Government who want a cut in spending in and of itself. That appears to many of us to be not so much nudging as shoving people into volunteering through a cut in public services, and that is likely only to destroy the social fabric with which we are all concerned. It is not often that I find myself on the same side as Phillip Blond, but we agree that making radical change is hard at the best of times and near impossible at times of extreme austerity.
I come to the big society, then, not with stories of jobsworth local officials or quotations from Burke, or perhaps even Paine, but with a more fundamental problem facing the Government. It is impossible to ally a Conservative ideology—the prejudice that personal liberty and the role of markets are undermined by collective action—with the recognition that when people work together to fund, run or do something, it has the power to change the world.
With that in mind, I wish to set out four problems that I see with the big society, and an alternative proposal based on the principles of fellowship that I see emanating from the left. The four problems are simple. First and foremost, it is a process-focused philosophy, and as such its purpose cannot be set out. Secondly, its shows a misunderstanding of the nature of contemporary voluntary sector organisations. Thirdly, it shows a misunderstanding of the nature of modern communities and communal bonds, and fourthly, it takes no account of the lives that people lead or the willingness of the public to engage.
The question of purpose goes to the heart of political ideologies and public office. The big society, as currently articulated, seems to be very much about processes, not purposes, so it is about the process of volunteering or social action rather than the ideas behind it. Fundamentally, therefore, it cannot tell us what explains or sparks volunteering. A vague sense of shared interest and neighbourliness is not enough to hold and sustain involvement. Anybody who has had neighbours that they have not got on with, or been in voluntary organisations with people to whom they would not necessarily send a Christmas card, can explain that to us.
I think that is quite wrong. There is a large literature—I am sure that, as a psychologist, the hon. Lady is aware of it—showing that people are happier and live healthier, more contented, longer lives when they are able to link with other people and exercise compassion. The big society draws on such emotions, and it is simply nonsense to say that there is no substance behind it. Her own discipline contains a vast amount of evidence for it.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s passion for the subject, but if he lets me continue, he will hear that I am not saying that there is no substance behind it. I am saying that by not setting out the purpose of the big society, the Government leave themselves open to acknowledging a whole range of volunteering activities that they may not want to support. Taken to extremes, for example, the Ku Klux Klan and the English Defence League would be seen as wanting to bring people together for a particular purpose in their local community, but I am sure that none of us would want to promote such organisations and their values.
One marvellous thing about the set of ideas behind the big society is precisely that it is not subject to any overwhelming social purpose. A purpose for society, and a plan to put it on a purposeful basis, is a recipe for totalitarianism.
The hon. Gentleman and I therefore disagree about the value of purpose. I believe that purpose, and particularly people coming together with a common bond and for a common purpose, is how we get social change to happen. That is where there are disagreements between us about the value of the big society.
I am going to press on, because I do not have much time.
We on the left have always understood that for any organisation to work, it needs a sense of purpose and a common goal. It needs to know what it is trying to achieve, not just how it will try to achieve it. People can then be brought together around that current goal.
That leads me to my second point about why purpose is so important in the big society. It seems to me that in the points that are being made about it, a whole series of objectives are conflated, whether democratic engagement or increasing volunteering. We all understand that volunteering is not the same as voice, but the conflation of more meetings at a local level with encouraging more people to volunteer and looking to commission more within the voluntary sector seems to reflect a lack of purpose.
I am not going to give way, because the clock is ticking. I do apologise.
Either the big society is a programme about the devolution of power, with single, double or treble participation, or it is about encouraging more people to be involved in running services. A lack of purpose comes from not having a mechanism to ensure that the purpose of those processes is fair and balanced. We on these Benches are very clear that all the purposes of Government should be about achieving a more equal, fairer society.
Equally, there is no mechanism in a process-driven purpose for judging value for money. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I look forward to seeing some of the reports that will come to us. Above all, there can be no clarity about the tough choices that any Government or any public may have to make about the type of services that they want if there is no sense of what those services are intended to achieve. Why are free schools and encouraging people in the voluntary sector to work together more seen as the same thing? It seems like apples and pears.
That leads me to the second problem with the big society, which is that it does not show an understanding of the voluntary sector as it is currently constructed. The focus on processes obscures as much of the work as it illuminates and shows a misreading of the fact that civil society is intricately connected with the public sector as much as it works with the private sector. Many charities are little different from businesses, as I believe Margot James set out earlier, and many people who work in the public sector do so with an ethos of care and concern for their communities. Taking the argument for reform of the state and using it to call for its abolition like cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.
The history of the co-operative movement proves that. It was set up as a form of protection against the absence of publicly provided services—to fill a gap rather than to replace those services. The modern voluntary sector is intricately interconnected with the state, whether through the funding that it receives or the people with whom it works. The voluntary sector organisations that many Members have mentioned having in their communities will struggle without a sense of purpose to draw people together.
We have to be clear that the voluntary sector in itself is not a panacea. Some voluntary sector organisations work well and others do not work so well, so there needs to be a sense of purpose and a series of tests to set against it. We must also consider the type of volunteering that people are prepared to do. We are seeing a rise in what people call “episodic volunteering”, and there are many questions about whether such volunteering can deliver the purported goals of the big society. There are questions about whether there will be the sustained involvement and participation that people wish to see, or whether people will be willing to turn up for a day to volunteer on a stall but not to volunteer in the long term.
That leads me to my third concern about the big society, which is that it shows a misreading of the nature of community. Basing our view of community on the “little platoons” that people are so fond of talking about makes little sense in a contemporary era when we can know and feel the consequences of riots on the streets of Libya, poverty in Asia or earthquakes in New Zealand. Connectedness happens in many different ways around the world, locally, nationally and internationally, and through many different life stages.
I appeal to Conservative Members to learn the lessons that we on these Benches did about the danger of reading too much into communitarianism and the work of Etzioni. I found it fascinating to find out over the weekend that Robert Putnam and Colonel Gaddafi had once met to talk about whether there was a connection between “The Green Book” and social capital.
If we are to secure change in contemporary society, we need a better way of understanding how and why people connect. We also need a better reading of how and why people are connecting in their current societies, given that nearly 40% of people already currently volunteer through formal organisations and a further 56% volunteer in informal ways. The idea that Britain is broken or a nation of people who are alienated from their communities is simply not true. Furthermore, there is a danger in forcing our vision of what community looks like on communities that may have many social networks but are not connected to the public sector. The big society needs a better analysis of the nature of community and community bonds than it currently offers.
That leads to my fourth concern about the big society, which is that it does not show an understanding of the resources that communities have to give to volunteering and public service. We can learn not least from the experience of the big society ambassador himself, who found that he did not have the time to be involved in the way that he wished to be.
Anyone who has worked in the voluntary sector knows that time, money and confidence are critical factors in securing the contribution that anybody can make. The big society needs a better articulation of how that time, money and confidence will be shared out more equitably among society, so that we can unlock the potential that many people have. Asking people to do so much in such a short period does not allow for the time and effort that is required to allow that potential to grow.
I urge Members to look again at a case such as Porto Alegre and see that it took 20 years for people to be involved in the delivery of public services in Brazil in the way that many now want here. Perhaps they should learn from New Harmony, a colony set up by Robert Owen in Indiana that for 20 years developed libraries, community centres and hospitals, and then fell apart because all the people involved decided that they hated each other. That is the reality of trying to get people to work together—it is complex, messy and difficult, and without a sense of purpose it is destined to fail.
That is why I urge Jesse Norman to read a little less Burke and a little more William Morris, who understood that fellowship is life and a lack of fellowship is death. We on the left understand from Morris’s work that fellowship was about not just asking people to work together but about the conditions under which they worked. He understood the tyranny of inequality and the ability to bring people together to work in co-ops.
I also encourage the hon. Gentleman to read Tawney, who talked about fellowship being expressed not only through relationships between people but through institutions. We see the national health service as the best social insurance policy that the nation can have, and we work together at many different levels to achieve such goals. We look to the purpose first, and then to the different models for delivering it, rather than starting with the process of volunteering and asking what it can do. I hope that in this short time I have set out some alternative suggestions, and I would be happy to discuss the matter further.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke and others on securing this important debate.
I disagree with a number of the conclusions of Stella Creasy, although it is with a little apprehension that one follows the speech of a psychologist—I am a little nervous of any analysis she would offer me. I should, however, pick up on one of the hon. Lady’s points. She said she was concerned that there is no clear definition of the big society. I do not need a clear definition. I want people to be aware of the big society, and I want it to work, which brings us to some of the fundamental philosophical and political differences that have been aired this evening. I do not need strict rules and regulations, or to compel people or boss them about. I want to make people aware of what is important to the Government and to me, which is how we go about making our society bigger and better.
Human rights have been much talked about recently, but another issue that arises from the debate is responsibility, which is just as important. Inspiring young people to take responsibility for their actions and to contribute in the widest possible sense to our community is rewarding for them, gives them a broader outlook and helps with their self-esteem and confidence. The big society is therefore relevant to young people and we should make them aware of what they can give back.
Many hon. Members have volunteered in various capacities for many years. I started my volunteering when I was still at school, which was an extremely rewarding experience. It does not matter whether someone helps out at the local school or visits elderly people; what matters is that people participate and contribute, because that gives them a wider perspective of their local community.
I have some varied examples from my constituency of the big society contributing to my community. In Stanton-by-Dale, sadly, the post office was closed three or four years ago, but it is now a thriving café and shop. Immediately after the closure, the local community and local volunteers rallied around. The village needed such a local resource, without which pensioners, for example, would need to take two buses to collect their pensions. We needed something local to support people, and that is a brilliant example of what the big society means to me.
A slightly different example is the local football club in Ilkeston. Sadly, it ran out of money last year and a new buyer had to be found. The local community got together to put in a bid to create a supporters co-operative club. That immediately took root and grew organically into a successful local campaign. Ultimately, it was not successful in its bid to buy the club, but it brought the community together. Since that time, the new owners of the club, who are off to a really good start, have done their best to embrace the supporters and the community to ensure that they are a central part of the new club structure. Everybody is relatively happy at the moment. The supporters co-operative may not have won in their bid, but they raised the issue and kept the community together. That is a success story.
Church and faith groups do so much valuable work in our community, including St Laurence’s church in Erewash. Arena church in Ilkeston does absolutely brilliant outreach and support work for vulnerable young people. It creates a safe environment where they can go and chat and do whatever they want, such as listen to music and so on. The beauty of that structure for helping young people is that it came almost from nowhere, and evolved organically rather than from outside pressure, which is probably why it is so successful.
Few hon. Members have mentioned the difference between the voluntary sector and volunteering, but there is a difference between the many individuals who volunteer and the voluntary sector, which is a valuable sector in its own right. A couple of years ago, I was a very small cog in a large wheel at the Centre for Social Justice, where I did some research into family breakdown and the voluntary sector. I met people from a range of fantastic organisations, from national organisations that work hand in hand with statutory organisations and social services to provide top-level professional child protection support, right down to a small, strong local group in south London that supports Muslim women victims of domestic violence. That organisation was set up by an amazing lady who, in the classic scenario, was sitting in her front room, thinking about how she could help her local community. She knew, as a Muslim woman, that she had the power and the strength to communicate most effectively, so she set up her organisation, which flourished.
One theme that united the large charity and the small local charities was their concern about the time it took to apply for funds, and the overwhelming amount of bureaucracy and paperwork. Both large and small organisations struggled with that, because the volunteer and staff time that was taken up to deal with it was disproportionate. Will the Government consider how to reduce the time scale for applications and—bluntly—produce some shorter forms?
Finally, we also need to look at the time it takes to go through Criminal Records Bureau vetting and barring checks to encourage people to get involved. If we can encourage people to volunteer, we will all benefit.
It is a great privilege to contribute to this evening’s seminar on the big society. I find myself rather under-prepared intellectually given the marvellous speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) and for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). I look at the big society and find myself wondering what is not to love. Anyone who puts themselves forward for election is saying to the people who live around them that they want to do something for them. In some part, there is—or should be—a strong altruistic motive.
There are many projects in Darlington that will now no doubt be described as big society projects on every funding application. As a local councillor, I was often asked to look at funding applications from local groups.
We would see, “This is an example of partnership” absolutely everywhere on such applications, and now I expect that people will say that their project is “big society”.
About three or four years ago, I was involved with one such initiative. A young lady called Ashleigh Trevarrow, a keen music fan, turned up at a local music venue, which incidentally is a social enterprise, but was turned away because she was only 16—people had to be over 18 because there was a licensed bar. She decided that she wanted to find somewhere to put on live music nights for young people. It would offer a safe environment. There would be an alcohol-free bar and it would all be run by young people for young people. One cannot get more big society than that. She found that what was needed was the co-operation of the local council, of a local business that would be prepared to host the evenings, and of the parents of the young people. That took some months. A lot of fundraising, co-operation and support from the local youth service were needed to enable her to achieve that. I am certain, and I think that she will agree with this, that that could not have been done without the support of the local council.
The issue with the big society is that some people see it as a national joke. I am a fan, but there is a difference between what the Government are saying and what they are actually doing. I took a delegation of people from the voluntary sector to meet the Minister, who is well regarded by them, but if one spent an hour in the company of some chief executives and chairs of voluntary community organisations from Darlington, one would be left in no doubt about some of their doubts about what the big society can achieve. In some ways, the voluntary sector in Darlington feels that it has been led a merry dance, because we have gone from a year ago, when we were told that we had a broken society, to now, when we are told that we have a big society. People in that sector are looking at their own situations, their volunteers and their budgets. They are trying to plan for the next year or two and they see not a world full of fresh opportunity but a world full of fear and threat. That is the big problem. There is a difference between telling people that we want them to take part and engage in the big society, as we all do, and showing them through our actions how they are able to do that.
Two weeks ago in Darlington, the best of Darlington awards were held. I can recommend such an event to anyone. The business community, the voluntary sector and residents come together. Nominations are taken and we have a wonderful evening of fellowship. We are able to celebrate community work in our town. This year’s winner of the Darlington citizen of the year—
I can only dream. The winner this year of the Darlington citizen of the year award was Gordon Pybus. He is one of those tremendous people of whom I am sure there are examples up and down the country, including in Surrey. He is a real community champion; he has worked for years championing the needs of disabled people in the town. He heads the Darlington Association on Disability and works with local businesses to improve access for disabled people. He does advisory work and, if he has not been before a Select Committee before, he should have been.
One of the major funders of the association is Darlington borough council. It gives Gordon long-term contracts and spends about £5 million a year in the voluntary sector. We are hearing from Gordon and other voluntary sector representatives that there is a big threat to their organisations because of the cuts to the budgets of local government by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. There is a perception out there that the Minister here today understands very well the needs of the voluntary sector, and I am sure that that is true, but that that understanding does not permeate the whole of Government. That is one of the big problems. When we have a Government who want to sell off the forests and then say that we have a big society, we can understand the cynicism that exists in some communities.
There is another example in Darlington of how success can come from a failure such as the proposal to sell off the forests. It is the community cohesion that we have built around a campaign against a local skip hire company that, in the minds of residents, and I agree with them, has been committing environmental crimes at an estate in Darlington. The group has come together, meets regularly and campaigns to prevent some of the worst abuses of the local environment by that company. That group, without any funding, which is obviously seen as a bad thing by certain Conservative Members, comes together, complains together and will be a real champion of its local area. I say to the Government that it is great to have this big society idea. We all support that, but we do not want the Government to say one thing and then do another.
I am fortunate indeed to live in Herefordshire, which is the very model of the big society in action. I congratulate colleagues on both sides of the House on sponsoring this important debate. I agree with the insight of Mrs Chapman that we are all motivated by a sense of public duty, and it is on that ethos of public duty that the big society seeks to draw.
I remind the House of something that is easy to forget. The big society is the most important idea in British politics for a generation. It is not like the so-called third way, as was acknowledged by Paul Flynn. The third way was a piece of triangulation designed to allow Mr Blair to have his political cake and eat it. This, however, is a fundamental rethinking that tries to lay the groundwork for our social and economic renewal as a nation. As such, its natural span is not over days and weeks, but years and perhaps even decades.
The Labour party helped to dig the huge hole of indebtedness that this country now finds itself in. It is a great shame that it is now trying to use the present economic crisis to take cheap political shots at the idea of the big society itself. This is an idea which it should support, not disparage—many Labour Members have already shown that, in some cases, it supports the idea.
At its deepest, the big society seeks to correct some glaring flaws in our most basic political assumptions. Ever since Hobbes 350 years ago, we have been taught to think of politics in terms of just the state and the individual; to see individuals as basically self-interested and financially driven; and to ignore the independent institutions that populate our lives and give them point and purpose. Those assumptions have been the basic drivers of Government policy for the 20th century.
The big society rejects those dogmas. Its focus is precisely on what they leave out: first, the value of free institutions, from the family to the school to the village pub, the city and the nation state; and secondly, a generous conception of human beings as social animals seeking to express their capabilities and to trust and to link with others. That is why volunteering, for all its value, is just one part of a far bigger picture.
Does the hon. Gentleman have any sense that he is slightly over-selling this particular project? He talks about Hobbes casting a shadow for 300 years, but the trade union movement, associationalism and mutualism—all those elements of human capacity—have been a part of the Labour tradition for the past 200 years.
I think that those elements have been in British society for 200 years, but they have been very far from the ethos of the Labour party, as I will shortly demonstrate.
The big society is not itself either a left or right-wing idea. For one thing, it contains a deep critique of the market fundamentalism of the past three decades, and the past decade in particular—the idea that free markets by themselves are the solution to all of life’s ills. But, crucially, it also repudiates, as William Morris himself would have repudiated, the state-first Fabianism of the modern Labour party.
I am not an enormously ideological person, as the House will know, but I will waive my scruples in this particular case. In 1900, the political left was a teeming mass of different political traditions, encompassing guild socialism, religious non-conformism, civil dissent and suffragism, many shades of Marxism and communism, and mutuals, co-operatives and unions. There was no reason why that astonishing plurality had to yield a political party which for over 60 years has emphasised centralised state provision of public services above all else. On this point, I agree with Tristram Hunt. [Hon. Members: “Fragrant?”] I use the word advisedly. That happenstance was the result of an intellectual takeover of the Labour party by Fabianism—the doctrine that intellectuals can make over society according to scientific principles using the spending and legislative powers of the state. Labour’s Fabian leadership—let us not forget that every Labour Prime Minister has been a Fabian—quickly made common cause with the unions, and that trend has worsened.
Under its present leader, Labour is even more in thrall to the unions than it was then, with £9 out of every £10 coming from union support, which effectively sets a massive dilemma for the Opposition. On the one hand, their leader can stay within the Labour comfort zone, and remain the darling of the unions and of the left of his party, trying to use the economic recession to political effect like the shadow Chancellor.
I apologise for my colleagues. During his wonderful speech, is the hon. Gentleman at some point going to tease out his pre-history in Barclays bank and the role of market fundamentalism in driving us to the crisis and hence the cuts and hence the veneer of the big society.
That point is ad hominem, but I am delighted to do so. I went to Barclays having run a charity in eastern Europe during the communist period giving away educational materials and medical textbooks to hospitals. I joined Barclays to work in eastern Europe, and I did so.
As I have said, the Labour leader can try to use the economic effect like the shadow Chancellor, who has attempted to rewrite the history of the deficit and his own role in it. The trouble, as we know, is that that is not a credible position, and the public know it. Alternatively, the Labour leader can reach out and seek to build a political coalition, as Blair did before him. He will know that a purely sectional appeal has cost the left roughly seven years in government since Labour became the official Opposition in 1922, but that more ambitious approach carries its own risks: it requires a more nuanced approach to the economy; it requires him to face down the unions, as Blair did over clause 4; and it requires Labour to rediscover its older, non-Fabian traditions—the traditions of Morris, Robert Owen and many of the people who have been mentioned today—and make them live again in its policies.
Which alternative is it to be? The truth is that the Leader of the Opposition is a little confused. In November, he said that Labour must reclaim the “big society” concept, and he made that the task of a major policy review. Just this month, however, he said that the idea is doomed, so we must ask whether he will recall his policy folk as a result. Must his squadrons of wonks return to barracks? What is his policy review to do, if the big society is, as he suggests, both doomed and a concept that Labour must reclaim.
“I believe profoundly that government must play its part in creating the good society. But our new generation also knows that government can itself become just such a vested interest. That unless reformed, unless accountable, unless responsive, government can impede the good society.”
His union backers may wish to look again at those words. Accountable, responsive government—government which is not a vested interest or an impediment to society. I congratulate the Labour leader on those remarks, which were spoken like a true Conservative.
It is a pleasure, Madam Deputy Speaker, to be called to speak. I congratulate Charlie Elphicke on securing the support of the Backbench Business Committee for this debate. It is a pleasure, too, to follow Jesse Norman, whose book I enjoyed reading in preparing for this debate. I am afraid that I would be accused of misleading the House if I said that I enjoyed his speech just a little less than I did his prose over the weekend, but he made an interesting contribution.
There is a degree of consensus across the House that increasing levels of social capital in our communities should be a Government priority. There is also a sense, I detect, of shared purpose that local communities should be involved in the design of public services, where possible. Similarly, it is recognised that social change is best fought for and achieved from the grass roots up. The campaigns led by women for the right to vote and by trades unions for better employment rights and welfare at work are powerful historical examples. In the US, from the 1950s onwards, Saul Alinsky developed community organisation projects that delivered radical social change in excluded communities.
There is vast gulf between the Government and the Opposition about the means to achieve improvements in social empowerment, and huge uncertainty as to whether the Government view that in the context of greater equality and liberty, as we do, or simply seek to share the responsibility for the Chancellor’s excessive and overly hasty cuts in public expenditure. The Opposition note the progress made by Government Members in acknowledging that there is indeed such a thing as society, but the execution of the concept of the big society risks being characterised by incoherence and confusion at its core.
Social action plays a crucial role in generating social justice in my constituency. People in Glasgow North East are not mere collections of individuals co-existing by chance in a state of mutual indifference; they live in vibrant communities with shared ambitions to improve their environment and schools and to care for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and they are prepared to work together to achieve those aims. I urge hon. Members to consider the work of these organisations: the disability community in Possilpark, one of the most deprived places in the country, provides meals, social interaction, and shared activities for disabled people in north Glasgow; Royston Youth Action works to reduce the impact of territorial gang disorder and the lack of organised social activities for young people in Royston, Germiston and Provanmill; the Alive and Kicking project in Balornock provides advice, activities and low-cost meals for the elderly; and the integration network in Petershill and Sighthill gives the many asylum seekers in Glasgow North East the opportunity to train for new skills, if they are awarded refugee status and are permitted to work in the United Kingdom. Those are examples of people coming together to organise day trips or social activities that they simply could not afford, if they had to do it alone. As Robert Putnam, a strong supporter of the theory of social capital, might have put it, it is about people choosing to bowl together, rather than bowling alone.
What all those great voluntary organisations have in common is the requirement for a willing partner in government at all levels, whether at local, devolved, or national levels. They have all received funding and support from the state over the past decade. Social action groups in Glasgow North East and across the country need a hand up, rather than a handout, but the Government’s approach on the economy and on funding for local and devolved government threatens to snatch away this helping hand just when it is most needed.
Voluntary groups are being hurt by the pressure on costs from the hike in VAT to 20% from
The previous Government had a good record in supporting the third or voluntary sector. Funding to the sector more than doubled from £5.5 billion in 1997 to £12 billion in 2009. At the end of 2010, there were approximately 62,000 social enterprises in the UK contributing at least £24 billion to the economy. Some of the initiatives pursued by the Government originate in the plans of the previous Government, including social investment bonds and the social investment bank. The Financial Times leader asked on
“But can these new forms of investment, and the Big Society Bank, possibly plug the gaping holes left by the spending cuts? In the short term, absolutely not.”
Where the Government’s vision is limited is in its refusal to challenge some of the real inequalities of power and wealth that persist in the country today.
There seems to be little appetite on the part of the Government to respond meaningfully to many of the grass-roots campaigns supported by thousands of people in the past few months. Let us take the issue of capping the total costs of credit to end the abuse of high-cost, short-term credit faced by the poorest in our society, which is an approach championed by my hon. Friend Stella Creasy, or even the fairer taxation of bonuses paid to highly paid employees in the banking sector. Both are policy areas where a genuine redistribution of power to people would see government action follow social action.
The Government’s version of the big society sees no role for communities seeking to organise to challenge concentrations of power where people believe that markets should better serve them, not the other way around. The rhetoric of the big society is indeed ambitious, but the scope of its vision in reality is disappointingly small. What the country needs is a strategy to deal with the unacceptable levels of social disengagement and inequality of wealth, opportunity and power that still scar our society. That is the essence of the good society. Failure to tackle these issues will mean that the Government will fail in their ambition to create a society with more liberty and more equality—the two concepts are inextricably linked. If the Conservative party cannot meet these challenges, Opposition Members will make it their task to do so in the months and years ahead.
It is a pleasure to follow the great contributions that have been made, particularly the one by my hon. Friend Jesse Norman, who provided a fantastic intellectual framework for the concept of the big society. If I can add anything to it, I hope to illustrate what that intellectual framework means on the ground for all our constituents outside these walls. He hit on the heart of a debate that is not new in this Chamber: the relationship between the state and the individual and society. Because “the big society” is a new phrase, people expect to see a new thing, but of course it is not new; the big society has been going on for as long as this country has been great—indeed, it is what made this country great. I cannot pass from that point without mentioning amateur sports clubs and other things that often go unmentioned in the big society debate.
A great man posed the question:
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”.
Of course, that is already happening, but it is not wrong to say that although the big society is already very much in place in this country, it is possible to detect a shift in which people are beginning to ask less what they can do for their country and are more inclined to ask what their country can do for them. This is interesting, because the population of our great country has not changed. It is not the people who have changed, but the circumstances around, and it is important that we look at those circumstances to see what has brought about this shift—a shift that becomes very apparent if we talk to the older generation. Many people express it to me in terms of the shift from responsibilities to rights, and from a view that sees rights as the product of collective responsibility first, towards one that sees rights as a concept somehow dislocated from anything else. That is very interesting.
If the big society had another name, it might be “power to the people”. This concept of empowerment hits very much on the question of why there might be a shift towards a concept of rights, and away from one of responsibility and the question of what we ourselves can do. No one can be a candidate in a marginal seat—or any seat—and not find multitudes of situations in which normal people want to do normal, neighbourly, everyday things, but find themselves unable to do them because of a piece of well-meaning legislation—often vetting and barring legislation or something like it.
When someone who wants to do something good, such as driving their elderly neighbours to the next nearest post office because their previous one was shut down or helping a child who has fallen over in the street but worrying that it might be misinterpreted and so cannot do so, there are two reactions. The first is disbelief: they say, “This is nuts. In what way is this common sense?” The second reaction, when they find that they still cannot do the intuitive thing, is despair: “If I cannot do this, because I need to go through endless paperwork and CRB checks, what is the point in even caring?” When people get to the point of asking, “What’s the point of even caring?”, we realise why the concept of taking responsibility begins to mean less. What is the point of trying to take responsibility, if at every point there are small well-meaning reasons why we cannot? I am beginning to see a fundamental shift in this country, and it is fundamental to who we are.
On that note, I would like to bust a few myths that perhaps divide the Chamber on this issue—an issue on which we are very much of the same heart in a lot of ways. The first myth is that people do not want to get involved. One Opposition Member said that we would need a stick to get people volunteering. Well, people want to volunteer, whether formally or informally, but too often, instead of saying, “We’re going to help you”, the state, however well meaning it might be, puts up barriers. The second myth is that people are not competent. I have been involved in a free school bid in my constituency, and I heard all the criticisms from people saying, “We can’t have parents running schools. They’re not going to know how to do it.” But I have news. Those parents are absolutely capable of organising the set-up of the school. Of course they are not going to run it or teach, but over the time they have been involved, they have developed and proved that, if we trust people, my goodness they are more than capable of reciprocating that trust and delivering.
The idea of the big society matters for another reason. The very fact that cuts have been brought into this debate illustrates how dependent on public funding the idea of civil society and normal people doing good things has become. I know that we had a Prime Minister and Chancellor who perhaps honestly believed that he had abolished boom and bust. Of course, if we believe that we have abolished boom and bust, it makes no sense not to hose out public money to every good cause that in an ideal world we would like to, but the fact is that the economic cycle carries on, and there is boom and bust. We need to change dramatically the balance in our voluntary sector to ensure that it is safeguarded against what will inevitably always be a turbulent economic cycle.
Two things that I have come across in the past couple of months have given me great cause for concern. The first was when I was talking to some providers of youth services—in many areas, they do a fantastic job—about the inevitable lack of public funds. While we were discussing how they might get around this, I mentioned something that I had done in my constituency when a group had wanted to set up street dancing classes but the money was not available. Part of the youth activity of the street dancing group was raising the money themselves, and I mentioned this to the providers. They said, “Oh yes, we give our young people an identity and control over their activities by letting them decide how the grant is spent.” I said, “No, that’s not the point. That is not making the money; it’s spending someone else’s money.” It was that fundamental conceptual barrier that gave me cause for great concern.
Very much so. I thank my hon. Friend for that point. A belief has grown up that there is no money except state money. Were there limitless state money, that would not matter, but as we can see, state money is limited. A Government organisation that I will not name, but which does fantastic work, came to me and said, “We are very concerned about the cuts. We won’t be able to carry on.” I am no genius on this front, but in the half-hour meeting that we had, I suggested four ways in which it could seek alternative funds. They might not have been very good ways and they might not have worked, but I said, “Have you thought of these ways?”, and they said, “Oh no, we hadn’t thought of anything like that.” That to me was a great signal for concern.
Finally, this debate matters because we need the state to do what it has to do. The big state, small state debate sometimes misses the point. I want a competent state that is strong where we really need it, not a panicking, out-of-control, flabby state that interferes in areas that it should not be in at all because it is worried about how things are going and does not have control. Where people have been victims of crime, for instance, I want to see a strong state to ensure that they are looked after properly.
T. S. Eliot defined the difference between the views of those on either side of this House when he warned against people who talked about
“devising systems so perfect that nobody needs to be good.”
I am a Conservative because I believe in devising systems that are so perfect that they enable people to be good.
I welcome the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr Hurd, his party and his Government to the big society, which is something that we on this side of the House have been involved in since birth. It was what brought many of us into politics. Reference has been made by Members on both sides to Burke, Paine and Hobbes as the people who invented the big society, but it goes back a long way beyond them. It goes back to the time when man was a hunter-gatherer on the plains, when co-operation, camaraderie and esprit de corps mattered because people’s lives depended on them. This was reflected in all the great religions. Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs all make reference to the concept. They all declare that there is such a thing as society, that the worship of mammon works against society, that we are our brother’s keeper, and that we should do unto others as we would have done unto ourselves.
The Prime Minister had a Damascene conversion five years ago, and I welcome that if it was a true conversion. If, however, it was about countering the Tory dictum that there is no such thing society, about domesticating the rabid right of his party for the purpose of electoral gain, or about airbrushing his party’s past, it will not wash. The Conservatives’ philosophy in the 1980s was that greed was good, that unemployment was “a price worth paying”, and that people should get on their bikes when they became unemployed. Many people on this side of the House, and in the community and voluntary sector, find it hard to believe that they honestly believe in the big society.
We remember the Conservatives’ record of voting against measures to promote unity, cohesion, equality and inclusion. Many of them might have changed their position over the past 10 years. Let us take the issue of gay rights. Where did the Conservatives stand on that, 10 or 15 years ago? I do not think that there are any Conservative Members here tonight who voted against that measure; those here now are mainly new Members. Where were the Conservatives on the issue of the minimum wage? Where were they on the issue of help for the most persecuted and the poorest in society? The Conservatives coined the term “broken society”. We remember Lilley’s list, and his singing and vilifying single mothers. We remember the damage done to mining, to the steel industry and to inner city communities. We remember hooray Henrys awash with money and champagne stepping over the homeless in the west end. That is the historical perspective.
I shall turn now to the present big society. The Minister’s Department has made a number of big mistakes in introducing the concept of the big society. The first was the terminology that it used. The term “big society” does not resonate with the person on the street. People do not live in a society; they live in a community. Perhaps the Conservatives used the term “big society” because it had some resonance with the term “broken society”. Perhaps they thought that the big society could heal the broken society. It sounds so simple and easy, but it is so trite.
The Department’s second mistake involves the need to apologise for past actions and show a little contrition. It was the Conservatives who broke society in the 1980s. It was they who increased inequality and gave the green light to greed. It was they who denied the very existence of society. I shall give the House an example. The story from the holy book of the Good Samaritan was perverted when Mrs Thatcher said that it was not about being good but about being rich. She suggested that if the Good Samaritan had not had the money to pay the innkeeper, the poor man would have died. That totally misses the point.
The Government’s third mistake was to party politicise this agenda without even having the support of their own Back Benchers. Where are their big beasts? I do not want to disparage anyone sitting on the Government Benches tonight, but they are all newcomers. Where are the big beasts? Many of them do not support this agenda.
He is indeed.
The Government are presenting the big society as a simple solution to a highly complex issue. There are big issues out there around which we can build consensus. It can be built around defence, for example, or around Northern Ireland or Iraq. Those issues can be depoliticised. Another example is pensions. We all came together over pensions, except that the consensus was broken by the Conservatives just before the election when they tried to make party political points on the matter. There was also consensus on the constitution in Scotland, when we had the convention.
That is how this important issue should have been approached. It is probably the biggest issue that western society will face this century. The fact is that, across the western world, we are atomised and alienated. There are many theories to explain that. They have been put forward in cogent arguments with statistics to back them up. Oliver James, in his book “Affluenza”, traces the cause of the problem to advertising and the promotion of an ideal that we can never attain. When we get on to the treadmill of trying to attain it, we lose our sense of direction; we lose contact with our families and communities as everything becomes about ourselves.
Robert Putnam’s fantastic book, “Bowling Alone”, identifies television as one of the biggest reasons for the problem. He found that an individual today spends more time in front of his TV than he spends at work.
That has consequences for the amount of time he can allocate to his community, to his family and to society. Wilkinson and Pickett’s book traces the causes of the present situation back to inequality, which increased rapidly in the 1980s. Are we going to be able to get on top of the issues of advertising, TV and inequality without coming together? The Government think that they have come up with a great idea, but we have known about it for thousands of years. They have party politicised it.
The Government’s fourth mistake was to introduce this idea at the wrong time, when they knew that they were going to make cuts. Some of those cuts are necessary, but many of them are ideological. The budget for the voluntary sector last year was £36 billion, of which £6 billion came from local authorities alone. Labour doubled the amount going to the voluntary sector over 13 years. If the present Government are going to cut that budget and make voluntary sector workers unemployed, they are not going to win the argument with the Churches, with the trade unions, with the community and voluntary sector or with the Labour party. They need to build consensus.
So far in this debate, we have heard Government Members give a huge list of examples of people’s personal experiences of how they have seen the big society work and the difference that it makes to their communities. I might be exaggerating slightly, but it seems that what we have heard from the Opposition is the theory that we have made the big society up or that, if it already existed, it was created by 19th-century socialist thinkers. Alternatively, Opposition Members seemed to suggest that it could survive only if it were funded by huge amounts of public subsidy, and that the argument that rules, regulations and bureaucracy get in the way of the big society does not exist.
I believe that the situation is much simpler. I believe that communities sometimes come together to act to improve their lives, and that they are better at doing that, because they understand the problems more acutely, than any Government could ever be. The role of the Government should be to support those communities in taking those actions, to give them a framework in which they can take them, and sometimes to give them some financial support so that they can deliver them.
When I think of the big society, I think of a number of people and organisations. First, I think of my grandfather, Tyrell Barnes, who worked for 50 years as a toolmaker at the Pianoforte Supplies factory in Roade, Northamptonshire. In 1963, he and a group of his fellow villagers came together to form the Roade and Quinton Old Folks Fund, which raised money for the elderly and for pensioners in that community. The fund provided a free annual holiday to give the old folks a break, as well as a hamper of goods at Christmas. The fund continues to this day, and it has helped many hundreds of people. In my grandparents’ case, they went from first being involved in the fund, through selling the Tote tickets door to door to raise money for it, to benefiting from it themselves.
I can think of a project in my own village of Elham. Play for Elham is a group that was set up by three mothers who lived in the village and thought that the play facilities in it were not good enough. They could have written letters to their MP or the council; they could have lobbied, but instead they went about designing a plan for what the village needed and sought to raise the money to make it happen. They were successful and the play facilities have been transformed. I know that that project would not have taken place and would not have been successful without the action of those three mothers who came together to make it happen.
Yes, they received some public funds—from the lottery—to make it happen and some people say, “Ah, we can see that the big society is still underpinned by public money.” The big difference is that the project was designed by local people with an understanding of local need. Some of the money was raised by the community and some of it came from the lottery fund: there was a partnership. If we look at other big society projects where a community has taken over the running of a swimming pool or the running of a library service, what is the first thing that happens? The people who use the relevant facility are asked how it can be done better, how the opening hours can be made more suitable for the people who use it, how services can be provided that are more in touch with what people need. That is what makes the difference.
I thought that Mrs Chapman provided a good example of groups trying to put on live musical events to raise money for their work. Of course raising money is very important for the work of voluntary and charity groups, but within that story, there is also an example of the Government’s role to deregulate and get rid of unnecessary and complicated legislation that puts people off.
Although there were licensing rules for that project and rules specifying that there must be a dry bar, that a certain number of volunteers had to be trained and Criminal Records Bureau had to be done on them, that bags were to be searched when people come in and so forth, the project was successful because the parents had confidence in it. They knew that in its three years of operation, that project had not seen a single incidence of violence, antisocial behaviour or drinking abuse. That happened because those rules were in place.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, but she made a point in her speech about the importance of having help and support so that people can navigate their way through all the rules and regulations. There is a concern among a number of people in the music industry about the provisions of the Licensing Act 2003, passed by the last Government, which made it necessary for smaller venues to apply for licences to put on live music events. Many Conservative Members hold the view, and the Government are looking at it, that those regulations are too onerous and impose an unnecessary burden. We could free up the voluntary groups to put on more of such events and also free up the time of council officers simply by getting rid of an unnecessary piece of legislation.
Anyone involved in community groups trying to put on events to raise money for their own funds or to draw attention to their activities will have come across many stories of woe about regulations on putting up banners and notices, the requirement for different types of insurance and the costs of obtaining it. There is much we can do to deregulate this work and make it easier for the big society to step forward and for people to take charge of the events they want to put on and take charge of raising money for the community and for the projects they want to advance.
Sometimes it is a matter of impetus. In Folkestone, the main town in my constituency, a group was formed, which called itself “Go Folkestone”. It started as the Go Folkestone action project, which was launched by the Folkestone Lions club. The Lions and similar clubs do a fantastic job of raising money for their local communities. That was simply a group of people coming together with an ambition to change their town and a feeling that the usual political processes were not the best way of achieving that. A work programme was launched, which led to the formation of a town council in Folkestone for the first time and within a number of years it took action to deal with some of the dereliction caused by absentee landlords letting buildings fall into abeyance. It created a new sense of civic purpose within the town. That was not designed by politicians or the Government. It was people coming together with a shared vision to change their community.
Stella Creasy spoke of a lack of purpose and a focus on process, but I think she is completely wrong, as it is the other way round. When communities come together to change things, they know what their purpose is. The problem they face is that they are quickly pushed into a world of process in which they are told that if they want to apply for funding for their project, they can apply, but they might need to redefine what the project is for and money might be made available only if they can prove that they are advancing a gender project or one targeted at a particular part of the community. That process often serves to make them lose sight of the core purpose of the original project. There are far too many of these rules and regulations in place, which undermine the big society and people’s fundamental belief that by coming together and acting together they can really change the society in which they live.
Some of the hon. Gentleman’s points highlight the importance of the independence of voluntary and community groups. Does he share the view of the famous red Tory Phillip Blond that at a time of such large Government cuts, the big society cannot come about? It simply will not work. People who, like me, have worked in the voluntary sector for 15 years and engaged in charitable fundraising are likely to welcome comments about the independence of the voluntary and charitable sector, but we fear that much of this talk of the big society is an ideologically driven smokescreen for large-scale Government cuts.
The vision of the big society—including the understanding of Conservative Members of the importance of communities, volunteers and groups in transforming their society—has been articulated by Members of all parties for many years and by the Conservative party for a number of years, certainly predating the recession. The hon. Lady is right to say that to deliver our plans at a time when there is less public money around creates challenges, but it would also be wrong to relegate the voluntary sector to being simply an arm of the state that is totally reliant on state funding. This applies not just to the voluntary sector that she mentioned but across the arts and heritage groups as well. There is a danger of over-reliance on state funding so that people do not look beyond it and end up simply chasing the state subsidy and state money. Rather than work for a philanthropist or corporate entity that is providing all the money, they work for the agency of the state that is providing it instead. That, I think, perverts the essence of what the big society is all about.
There was much talk earlier about the role of 19th century thinkers, politicians and leaders in shaping what the big society was about. One good example was overlooked, however—the role of Tory reformers such as Lord Shaftsbury in pushing through the factory reform legislation. One consequence was the creation of leisure time for the working classes, which they had never had before. That is what led to the birth of popular sports, including football. The set-up and success of football clubs and the football league programmes throughout the country and the birth of organised sport can be traced back to those industrial reform Acts passed by this House. There was no Government pathfinder programme that dictated which sports should be set up or that football should become a national sport. That happened through volunteers and working groups made up of communities across the country with a shared vision of what they could do with their new time. That provides a good example of how Government action and legislation created the time and space for communities to come forward and create something new for themselves and was then followed up by a massive response right across the country.
I therefore think that the big society is akin to the aspirational society. It is a marriage of the aspirations people have not only for themselves and their families, but for their community. This reveals an understanding of how by working together and achieving together through common goals, there is no limit to what communities can do together. The role of the Government is to act as a facilitator and an enabler and not to stand in the way. We have seen plenty of examples today of where Government regulation and bureaucracy are hindering the big society rather than taking it forward.
Finally, I thank my Kent neighbour, my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke for securing this debate. On behalf of myself and my Folkestone constituents, I say that we are fully behind his plans for the mutualisation of the port of Dover. We wish him every success in that venture.
It is a great pleasure to follow Damian Collins, who articulated well the relationship between the Government and the voluntary sector in delivering the big society. I also congratulate Charlie Elphicke on securing this debate.
There is a danger and a fear that the big society is nothing more than the rebranding of the Conservative party by an excellent public relations manager. Across the House, there is agreement that, as Charlotte Leslie said, the big society is not new, but is something that makes this country great. Community spirit and community action have always been at the heart of British society.
In her excellent speech, my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue gave us great insights into the nature and effectiveness of volunteering but, as she said, the big society is neither new nor free. As we were told by Mr Williams, it is alive and kicking. In my constituency, in the last fortnight, I have been in contact with the scouts and guides, the women’s institute, Lindsey Lodge Hospice, the Magic Moments charity for autistic children, Voluntary Action North Lincolnshire, Church and faith groups, town and parish councils, school governors, retained firefighters and Alzheimer’s support groups. On Saturday night, I had the privilege of meeting the winners of not the Darlington but the Kirton in Lindsey civic award, Jenny Cripps and Penny Hoey, who received it for raising £1 million to restore the town hall to its old diamond jubilee glory. Last week I met a business man who had had the enterprising and imaginative idea of developing a community enterprise partnership to run the Humber bridge, removing the debt from the state. That may not be the right answer, but it is worth examining.
There certainly is a society, and there certainly are great communities. We see that in our constituencies, and their strength has been demonstrated today in contributions from Members on both sides of the House. My hon. Friends the Members for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) reminded us of the grand traditions of community self-help and mutual support, which have a long history on which we can build a great future. Over the last 20 years, government at all levels and of all political persuasions has encouraged the voluntary and community sector to grow and prosper. At national and local level it has supported capacity building, recognising that in wealthier, more prosperous areas people have more time, money and expertise, and that support is necessary if more disadvantaged communities are to realise their potential.
As was spelt out so well by my hon. Friend Jon Cruddas, we need an infrastructure to deliver the big society, and that is now at risk. Those great communities are now threatened by a Government who, I fear, speak with forked tongue: a Government who say that they believe in communities and in a big society, but who are presiding over the biggest attack on communities for 30 years. We see that in the spending cuts that are being made throughout our communities at this moment.
We can judge how big a society is, how big a people are and how big a Government are by the way in which our young people are treated. Jessica Lee reminded us of the key role played by volunteering in that context. Studies have made it clear that long spells of unemployment in youth can create permanent scars, which will imperil any realisation of the big society. Youth unemployment has returned to the level of the 1980s, the number of young people not in education, employment or training is at a record high, and the education maintenance allowance is being scrapped. I know from personal experience that EMAs have been highly beneficial in providing a ladder to aspiration. Kicking away that ladder will undoubtedly increase the number of NEETs and the level of youth unemployment.
Initial research by the Department for Work and Pensions has indicated that the future jobs fund has been a success. This week a constituent, Jan Williams, who had written to the Prime Minister kindly sent me a copy of her letter. She wrote:
“I am Managing Director of Crosby Employment Bureau a not-for-profit social enterprise based in Northern Lincolnshire. We are involved in a number of employment and training programmes that aim to help people from deprived communities back into work. We also get involved in a range of other projects that help benefit the local community. I would go as far as to say that our organisation can be taken to embody your idea of the Big Society.”
Jan Williams drew attention to the successes of the future jobs fund that her organisation had been managing. Eighty long-term unemployed people were currently serving in or had completed placements with local organisations. Twelve of the first 21 had completed their six-month placements and were in full-time, long-term employment. The young people themselves had made comments such as
“the Future Jobs Fund has changed my life”.
However, Jan Williams also pointed out that all that was in peril because of the Government’s actions.
The way in which we treat our young people is a good measure of whether we believe in the big society or whether it is little more then rhetoric. The way in which we treat the members of society who are least able to look after themselves is also important. Another letter that I received this week came from Ian Millard of Lincolnshire House, who drew attention to the problems of disabled people in his care. He wrote:
“Taking the mobility allowance away from disabled people in care will have an adverse effect on the quality of their life. How do they fund taxis, go on holiday or just go for a day out with family or friends?
Maybe the high rate of mobility needs to be addressed, but some allowance needs to be considered to replace the income…disabled people…cannot live on £22.30 per week. If this change is implemented disabled people will become prisoners in their own homes.”
That is not the big society, and we must not let it happen.
If the big society is not just rhetorical cover for cuts in public services, the Prime Minister must demonstrate through actions rather than words that he cares about the real people in our society. He can start with three big society actions: he can restore EMA, he can restore the future jobs fund, and he can restore the mobility component of disability living allowance. I hope that he listens, I hope that he cares, and I hope that he acts before it is too late.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to this excellent debate. Let me say first, as a member of the Backbench Business Committee, that it was a pleasure to make the successful bid for the debate. It was pointed out that the whole country was talking about the big society, from a number of different angles, and a compelling case was made for the House to debate the subject.
I want to focus on two aspects of the big society debate, and, if I have time, to make a request for practical support. The first of those aspects is the potential of wider community involvement in the delivery of services to drive social mobility in communities that have become excessively dependent on the state, sometimes over several generations. The second is the power of volunteers to generate much greater enthusiasm and support for projects than can be generated by national or local government.
During my short time as a Member of Parliament, I have become very concerned about families who look only to one or another arm of the state for financial support and services. That has a potentially deadening effect not just on people’s ability to solve problems, but on the responsibility that they take for the lives of themselves and their families. I fear that the delivery of services and activities solely by the state can reinforce the disadvantages of such families, and, in particular, can reinforce the lack of social mobility that troubles many Members.
Far from seeing the role of volunteers and community groups in delivering services as a threat, I see it as an opportunity. I represent an area that contains extremes of wealth and poverty as well as all that is between those extremes. Tonight my local council is discussing an innovative plan to run a local library serving many disadvantaged children and young people with support co-ordinated through a local private school’s charitable foundation. Irrespective of the financial aspects of the plan, I welcome it. Rather than viewing their involvement with suspicion, I hope that some of those professional parents and other middle-class people who will contribute their time—supporting, for example, homework clubs and study groups—will, in due course, be inspired to offer some of the young people mentoring, work experience and internships. In this instance, involving volunteers in the delivery of services will bring together members of my community who would probably have never met otherwise. I think that that has the potential to drive social mobility.
Many Members have spoken of the enthusiasm generated by their local voluntary groups—an enthusiasm that cannot easily be replicated by the state, although I agree with many Members on both sides of the House who have pointed out that it can often be enabled by the state. We have not heard much about support from business, but I think it important to see it as a potential force for good. I encountered a classic example on Christmas day last year, when I attended a traditional festive lunch for elderly people in my area run by Battersea Park rotary club. It has done that for a long time, and the idea is that no one need be alone at Christmas. There were so many volunteers there that I briefly wondered whether quite a lot of them were keen to be away from their own families at Christmas, but I quickly banished that cynical notion and instead looked on admiringly at the effort, with volunteers such as me being marshalled by experienced Rotarians, many of whom brought professional experience to bear. Publicity and transport support was co-ordinated through the council, and the venue and food was supplied by public-spirited businesses. It was a perfect example of all these good things coming together, but I doubt that we would have had the same response if the council had put out the call for volunteers on Christmas day.
As this debate has at times been very philosophical, I hesitate to introduce a practical note by turning to a matter that has long been a concern of mine. I can only echo the words of Members who have expressed frustration at the barriers put in the way of voluntary groups who are just trying to do good in their community. I shall mention one barrier in particular, in the hope that the Minister will address it: the often ridiculous requirements of public liability insurance. Some years ago I co-founded a community music festival in north London, and I still remember the moment when I was told that I needed to take out £2 million in public liability insurance to enable a junior school band to take a turn around the local park. I wondered to myself how much damage eight-year-olds with drums could really do. The only person on that occasion who came anywhere close to endangering the public was me, when I briefly unplugged a nearby bouncy castle to plug in the band’s accompanying piano, but it was a mistake quickly rectified.
The fear of vexatious claimants and of being sued, and the disproportionate cost of public liability insurance, are among the factors that drive small voluntary groups out of action and discourage those who just want to do good. I hope the Minister will give practical consideration to tackling this barrier and some of the others that Members on both sides of the House have spoken about in the debate.
Like the two previous speakers, I do not want to talk about the theory of the big society. Instead, I want to talk about the reality of what is happening now. How can anyone argue with the notion of a big society—a society of stronger communities, where decisions are devolved to the most local level possible and where social action is encouraged? The problem is that the Government fundamentally do not understand that the big society already exists and they are hell-bent on destroying it.
There are already millions of people volunteering in this country. They run youth clubs and lunch clubs for the elderly. They run community centres and mentor offenders. They run churches and work with the homeless. They support battered women and provide meals on wheels. However, there is a common theme that runs through the circumstances of almost every voluntary and community group: they receive grant aid or other support from local authorities and, somewhere along the line, they are supported by paid staff. These may be people working directly in their organisation, such as in my Horwich and Westhoughton visiting services, where part-time co-ordinators recruit and train the volunteers, seek the elderly who need visiting and do the administration such as paying expenses to volunteers, thus leaving the volunteers to do what they have signed up for: visit elderly and disabled lonely people. It may be the paid person in the council for voluntary service—CVS—or the council who helps the group get funding or set up and organise itself, or it may be the paid people working in the group’s headquarters, such as at the Scouts and Guides. All of these people are essential for the voluntary sector to survive and thrive.
The Government also seem to ignore the need for professional workers to work alongside volunteers—for people to train volunteers, to mentor them, to ensure that the work undertaken is safe and appropriate, and to deliver the work alongside them. Volunteers are not, and cannot be, a substitute for them. Groups also need funding for room hire and equipment and resources, and an endless list of other things. Of course the voluntary sector fundraises, but many groups find funding hard to come by. Those rooted in poor areas, and especially those dealing with unpopular problems such as alcohol and drug misuse or offending or mental health issues, find fundraising difficult and sometimes impossible.
Volunteers and the community and voluntary sector are not free; they are not a cheap alternative to the maintained sector. They need Government support. Instead of giving support, however, the Government are destabilising the sector through cuts to direct grants and to local authority budgets. Fledgling organisations will not now get off the ground, and organisations such as Bolton Community and Voluntary Services will not be able to support them. I hope the Minister does not respond by saying that local authorities should protect the voluntary sector, because Bolton council is doing what it can to protect voluntary groups, but the Government have chosen to cut too deeply, too fast. Bolton will lose a quarter of its budget over the next four years. The Government are making the choice—the wrong choice—and leaving the local authorities to implement their cuts.
An example of Government madness is the cut to vinvolved, the national youth volunteering programme, whose funding will be cut at the end of March. This project is the big society in action, with young people being trained as volunteers to work in every sort of project we can imagine. Vinvolved provided fun, exciting and eye-opening volunteer experiences for young people. It provided one-to-one tailored, sustained support. Most of the young people engaged in the project were experiencing difficult social and economic circumstances; indeed, many were at risk of social exclusion. Volunteering enhances young people’s employability, gives them the opportunity to gain experience to put on their CVs, and allows them to get references and to develop contacts to help them find full-time work. It enables them to give back to their communities and, perhaps most importantly, gives them confidence and self-respect. What is the Government’s replacement? It is an eight-week summer programme for 16-year-olds.
I have spoken before in this House about the honour I had of presenting the volunteer of the year award for Greater Manchester to Matthew, a 21-year-old from Bolton. Matthew has multiple disabilities, had no confidence and was doing nothing. His Connexions adviser referred him to vinvolved, and he was offered a number of volunteering opportunities, which he took up. He became a dedicated and valued member of the team at StreetWise Soccer, and teaches soccer skills to a range of people several times a week. He is now taking a coaching course so that he can teach football to disabled young people. He would not be doing any of this if it were not for vinvolved.
Who is going to support young people into volunteering now? The Greater Manchester v team award was won by Bolton YMCA’s youth council. It is involved in fundraising, project planning, decorating, writing funding bids and supporting individual projects and users alike. It was said to be
“dedicated, energetic and a credit to the YMCA”.
However, without local authority funding and Government grants, the YMCA will not be able to employ the youth workers who support young people and other voluntary youth workers. They are the big society in action, but they are in jeopardy because of the Tory-led Government.
If we need further evidence, the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services has stated that three quarters of youth charities are cutting projects, and 80% of them are being cut because of the end of targeted help from the Government. The Government’s decision to front-load cuts is also creating chaos for the voluntary and community sector, leaving groups no time to find alternative funding. At present, 6% of the work force of Greater Manchester is employed in the sector. I will be very interested to see what that figure is after April.
I visited Moss Bank Park animal world last Thursday. The council is having to withdraw funding because of the £60 million in cuts it must find over two years, with £42 million to be found this year. A group of volunteers is forming who would love to take over animal world and the butterfly house, but who are in a race against time to get organised and to get funding in place. If the council had to cut only £18 million this year and £42 million next year, the group would have a better chance—but, no, the Government are going ahead, too deep and too fast.
The coalition parties want to take the state out of support for our society and want to do away with any targets. However, targets are the device that ensures that the vulnerable—such as teenage mums and homeless addicts, and young scallies hanging out on street corners who are unwelcome in the voluntary youth club—get the services they need. The state has a duty to ensure that our citizens get the support they need, and that cannot just be left to possible voluntary action.
The big society exists, but this Government are destroying it. The big society can never be a replacement for local authority services, however. The big society works best where there is a partnership between local authorities and the voluntary and community sector. Volunteers are not a replacement for paid, qualified, professional staff; they complement them. This Government must stop this destruction before it is too late.
I am very pleased to speak in this debate today, which is yet another triumph for the Backbench Business Committee and a tribute to my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke, who instigated it. I know that dozens of colleagues would happily have called for this debate and signed up to say that it should happen.
It is apt that we are having this debate at the start of Fairtrade fortnight. Fairtrade is a great organisation that is very active in my constituency. There has been much mention of the noble Baroness Thatcher and her infamous quote. One of my colleagues said that she was misquoted, but I think it was more a case of her being selectively quoted. I honestly was not a geeky teenager reading such things under my bedclothes, but I do so hate misquoting, especially where Baroness Thatcher is concerned.
Let me keep going—you’ll enjoy this.
It was Baroness Thatcher’s conference speech in 1987 in which she used that phrase. She said:
“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the Government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant’, ‘I’m homeless, the Government must house me’. They’re casting their problem on society. And you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no Government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”
If any hon. Member disagrees with that statement, they should not be on the Government side of the House; they should certainly be on the Opposition side, and I guess they probably are.
It is becoming predictable to hear colleagues say, “While others talk about the big society, in my constituency we’ve been doing it for years.” I am sure many of us have uttered those words at AGMs and meetings this past weekend, not least me. However, it is not merely “predictable” to say that in the case of my Winchester constituency; rather, it is most definitely true. Nevertheless, the use of the word “predictable” misses the point. For me, as others have said, the big society is not a revolutionary new idea, but a renewed mission for troubled times. Passing power from state to citizen and encouraging people to be empowered in their own communities and to take responsibility for their own lives is an idea as old as the hills. It is an idea that has always been at the core of what my party believes, of how it shapes policy when in government in good times and bad—and, it must be said, in surplus and in deficit.
In the infamous “sermon on the mound” in May 1988, Margaret Thatcher—I am becoming obsessed with her—said:
“Intervention by the State must never become so great that it effectively removes personal responsibility.”
I cannot disagree with that. There are others. Addressing the Labour party conference for the first time as Prime Minister, the former right hon. Member for Sedgefield said:
“I tell you: a decent society is not based on rights. It is based on duty. Our duty to each other. To all should be given opportunity, from all responsibility demanded.”
Excellent, as always! Our current Prime Minister, on the eve of the general election last year, said that the big society was his “mission” in politics. Of course, there is also the great man John F. Kennedy and his inauguration address in January 1961, which has been quoted twice today, so I will not go there again. For me, those approaches all have one common thread: they present a positive vision; they all have optimism at their core; and they all believe in people over the state. That is not a bad thing.
I believe in the big society—I always have—and I do not think that that is a political risk; nor do I think it is “cover” for clearing up the appalling mess left by the Labour party. For me, it is a principle of faith—a way we want to govern in a country we want to live in. I am happy to stand under that banner, now and at the next election, in this House and outside it.
I understand why some people want to talk down the big society idea—we have heard that plenty of times today—just as they want to talk down our economy and, ultimately, our country. It suits their argument, and I suspect that for some, that has “traction”, as the pollsters call it, outside this place. However, ultimately it will not serve them well. What a very dark place it must be for those who think that Government know best and that only the state can guarantee fairness, when all they seek to do is undermine those who believe we can be better as a society. Politicians, and especially Prime Ministers, have to lead and to believe in something bigger than simply managing Government Departments better than the last lot, passing legislation and bringing about our economic recovery, vital as the latter is right now.
This coalition Government do not want the story of this Parliament to be just one of economic recovery; we want it to be one of social recovery, too. If I look at my own constituency, in the city of Winchester and the villages and towns that surround it, I see a strong society already thriving, but I also see a big state keeping far too many people in their place.
Here is the good part. According to the Charity Commission, we already have 524 registered charities in Winchester, a thriving voluntary and community sector and a sense of community involvement in the form of public consultation, meetings and—dare I say it?—e-mails to the local MP. That hardly constitutes being uninterested. We have dozens of active residents associations, and we have busy community groups that get stuck in. There are groups such as the Alresford Society, the City of Winchester residents association and the Hiltingbury community association. Numerous rotary groups have been mentioned today, and they do great work in my constituency. There is also the Alresford Pigs Association, which will love a mention, and the Dever Society. We have big charities such as Trinity Winchester; the Churches Nightshelter, which I was volunteering with just last week during the recess as part of student volunteering week; and Naomi House, the children’s hospice. We have heard some very good things from my hon. Friend Stuart Andrew about hospices. There also the smaller charities such as Young Carers, Wells for India and the mental health charity the Olive Branch, all based within an infrastructure company called Winchester Area Community Action, or WACA, which recently came here to visit the Minister. I pay tribute to their team, who do so much to make our society in Winchester strong.
Not a week goes by when my office does not receive a request for me to sponsor or help publicise a charity bike ride or some other event to raise money for charities at home and far away. Just this weekend, I was at a dental practice in Winchester to help it launch a bike ride across Tanzania in aid of Bridge2Aid, a dental charity. There are many other such examples.
On the “work to do” side, I had an e-mail just before the recess from a constituent of mine. It said:
“I would like to tell you of my experience yesterday at Winchester Hospital. I have become a member of The League of friends and offered my services as a volunteer. I had helped out one morning on the desk on the Nightingale Wing and decided that I could help on other occasions. I was then told to register and given 4 forms to fill in asking all manner of personal questions. I am just telling you this as many…will be…as I am, put off applying.”
That is a small example, but I bet that hon. Members in all parts of the House can provide similar examples.
There are many other such examples, and one of the biggest misconceptions about the big society remains the idea that it is all about the voluntary and community sector and how much grant central or local government gives to individual charities. Perhaps it is our fault as a Government—our communication failure. Either way, I hope this debate will help in that regard. The big society is about a culture change in volunteering, yes, but it is also about a revolution in the culture of giving and public service reform. Above all, it is about responsibility. We have to reject the perverse and pitiful message we are teaching our children that nanny—the nanny state—knows best.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I congratulate Mr Brine, who was quite right when he said that the Backbench Business Committee has shown the diverse range of opportunities that it provides. Like Charlie Elphicke, who is not in his seat, I represent a coastal and port community, and I wish him well in his campaign on behalf of the port of Dover.
Jesse Norman was right to say that the big society is not about ideology—left, right or centre. I consider myself a communitarian first and foremost. I live in, was brought up in and have the privilege to serve the rich, resilient and diverse community of the Isle of Anglesey. I was pleased to hear Stuart Andrew make a contribution on the Isle of Anglesey. Like me, he was born there and brought up on a council estate there, although not the same estate. He rightly mentioned the late Iorwerth Rowlands, who died recently. He was a Conservative, and someone with whom I worked before I was elected to this House of Commons; indeed, when I became a Member of Parliament, he lobbied me.
I have roving surgeries in Anglesey, and I use the Iorwerth Rowlands community centre for that purpose. I was proud to be there on the day when that centre was opened in Iorwerth Rowlands’s name. One thing that he would have agreed with is that that would not have happened had it not been for grant aid. I helped him to get the money to build that community centre, which is in the heart of the community of Beaumaris.
I want to stick to the issues that have been discussed today and the big society. As the hon. Member for Winchester has said, it is predictable that we give examples from our own constituencies. I lived through the big society just this week. On Thursday, I attended a very special launch of the lifeboat at Trearddur bay, which attracted a crowd of 1,000, as well as the world’s media, who came from places ranging from Japan to Australia and the United States. The fact that two prospective constituents of mine, Prince William and Kate Middleton, were also in attendance made the launch a special focus of attention for the world’s media. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is an example of the big society, although I declare an interest because I am a member of its general council.
The following day, I had the privilege of being the guest speaker at the Llangefni rotary club on its 50th charter. I am an honorary member of the rotary club and the Lions, and I acknowledge the work that they do for communities across the United Kingdom. Again, that is an example of the big society in action. On Sunday, I attended a St David’s day celebration. We are not being given the opportunity to have a Welsh day in this House this year, but I was able to participate in an excellent celebration of St David’s day with voluntary groups, the RAF, the private sector and everybody else who came together to put the event on.
I also believe in devolution, which has also been mentioned in the debate, and in localism. I want to talk not about the devolution of power from Westminster to Cardiff bay or to Edinburgh, but about real devolution that helps empower people to run their own activities. In the 1980s, prior to coming into this House, I worked as a manager of a centre for the unemployed. Society was very fractured in the 1980s, and it needed help and attention. As manager of that centre, I worked with the public sector, the private sector, the third sector and community groups to help people in society. We worked together and we built up many achievements, not the least of which was educating and training people for the world of work. That was the big society and the community coming together. We have heard some quotes from Mrs Thatcher and some defence of what she said. I can tell hon. Members that no matter whether or not she believed in society, we had hard experiences in my constituency and my community at that time, and the big society coming together helped alleviate much of that hardship.
In order to create a better society we need to work together. Hon. Members have talked about partnerships, but I am still struggling to understand what the big society is and nobody sitting on the Benches opposite has really explained it to me. We can all give examples of what we think it is and what we think it should do, but we have never heard a definition.
Before I take an intervention from my hon. Friend, may I say that he was right when he said that the Government probably picked the wrong term with the “big society”? I was surprised that the Prime Minister chose the term “big society” and was unable to market it or explain it to the public, given his public relations skills. The “big community” would have been a better idea and concept to sell, had he chosen it.
The Minister is a very decent man, and I am sure that he will find 300 answers somewhere up his sleeve to say what the “big society” is, but we have not been given clarification in this debate. As I have explained, I am a communitarian. I live and work the big society, yet I am struggling to explain to people exactly what it is.
I wish to cite another example of the big society with a link to my constituency. The women’s institute was formed in Ynys Môn, the Isle of Anglesey, in 1915, and a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of going to the annual general meeting. The membership in my area is 500, and the institute mustered almost 200 of them to attend a meeting to listen to their Member of Parliament speaking. Again, that is the big society in action. The agenda that the women’s institute had in 1915 is the agenda that we are still running today; it talked about food security in 1915. So, fantastic examples can be given of the big society, but it is difficult to explain this concept and we need to make progress.
Some hon. Members have asked why cuts should be brought into a debate about the big society. I have worked in the private sector, the public sector and the voluntary sector. I still visit these groups and they raise the problems that funding cuts cause them in creating the community ethics that they wish to promote and in running groups and activities in the community—it is they who are talking about cuts. It would be a big mistake for anybody who has contributed to this debate to say that the cuts will not have an impact on those services in the community, which is what concerns me.
I wonder whether this is the wrong time to talk about a big society in many ways. We need to work to help communities, but we also need to get the right balance between state funding, community spirit and looking for finance from the private sector. I did that and still do it, and I help groups to do it. By working together, we will create not only a big society, but a better society—a society that people really want. As a communitarian, I believe that the Prime Minister rightly talks about “bottom up”, but then tries to lecture from the top about what the big society is, which is where the confusion arises. Do not just take my word for it; take the word of members of the RNLI, the women’s institute and rotarians, who tell me that they do not understand this situation. The Government talk about localism, but we see many measures that are centralised. So a confused message is being sent out, and it is difficult to understand. I hope that the Minister will answer my one question, not the 300 that have been posed. I hope he will tell me what the big society is and whether we live in a broken society.
Just before I call the next speaker, may I say that 15 Members still wish to catch my eye and that their speeches are going to have to finish just before 9.35 pm?
As many Government Members have said, empowering citizens and local communities to take more control over their lives is at the heart of the big society idea. I am delighted that this key philosophy of returning power to the people is a core feature across the Government’s policy agenda, be it in education, local government or health. Under the previous Government, we developed a culture of government knows best, where individuals and communities often felt helpless to bring about local changes. Thankfully, that is changing and the big society agenda is playing its role in encouraging more local community engagement.
My hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke, who is not in his place, made an excellent opening speech, in which he gave the example of individuals being concerned about the possibility of being sued if they cleared snow from pavements. It is a sad state of affairs that after 13 years of Labour that is where we had come to. It was clear that the pendulum had swung too far in the wrong direction in terms of the role of the state versus the role of community. Fostering a spirit of community engagement and social responsibility starts at home and school. I suspect that many hon. Members have been struck, as I have, when schoolchildren come to visit Westminster or when speaking at local schools, by how engaged our young people—seven and eight-year-olds—are when talking about things in their neighbourhoods that they want to change. We need to capture that enthusiasm and engagement and nurture it into adulthood, so I welcome the Government’s national citizen service, which is aimed at 16-year-olds and will help to deliver that.
Our charity and voluntary groups are the face of the big society in our towns and cities and form the backbone of civil society in our communities. Reading is no different and has a vibrant and diverse voluntary sector. Church communities play a big role in our town, providing services that are open to all, such as support for the homeless, debt counselling advice and schooling for children who have been excluded from mainstream education because of behavioural difficulties. Earlier this month, I spoke at a local voluntary and community sector networking event in Reading, at which there were well over 100 participants representing just about all the key community and voluntary sector groups in the town. The event was billed as a
“cross section conference involving all agencies interested in growing a genuine Big Society in Reading”.
It is absolutely clear that the voluntary and community sector in Reading is keen to grow the big society. It wants to do more and believes in community empowerment. Many in the sector welcome the Government’s agenda of seeking to increase the role of charities and voluntary groups in delivering public services. Locally, I am very pleased that we are supporting such groups. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that now runs Reading borough council has increased funding for voluntary groups and there is much more flexibility in getting funding throughout the year. There is now clear recognition, which was not there before, that voluntary groups should not be treated as a branch of Government that is there to deliver on Government targets, but that they are there to deliver for local communities. The Conservative-run West Berkshire district council, which also covers part of my constituency, recently wrote to the Department for Communities and Local Government to apply to become a big society vanguard area following Liverpool’s withdrawal. In my part of Berkshire, we certainly know what the big society is all about and we are supporting it.
More widely, the beneficial effects of the Government’s policy agenda of empowering local people and communities to take control over their lives can be seen across our constituencies. I hope that my constituency will have one of the first free schools in the country in September—the Reading free school. That initiative, which is led by a local parent group called the All Saints Action Group, came about because there is huge pressure on school places in Reading. Local parents saw an opportunity to set up a new school, which is fantastic news for children across the town. Most importantly, it represents real collaboration between the local community, local parents and the local authority. This could never have happened under the previous Government.
The Localism Bill is another great example of how the big society concept is being furthered, whether through the community right to buy, the community right to challenge or communities being allowed to decide how their neighbourhoods should look. As a result of the Bill, I have been approached by members of the community who want to do more to save local pubs and who want to work out how their neighbourhoods should look. All that should be welcomed. Above all, the Localism Bill is about trusting local communities and letting them take the lead in creating neighbourhoods of which they can be proud. We should welcome that.
I know that many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall draw my remarks to a close. I fully support the motion and I welcome all that the Government are doing to advance the big society and return more control to local people and local communities over their own lives.
I believe that all hon. Members in the Chamber recognise that these are difficult economic times that require us to make tough choices and to change our way of life. It is tempting to focus on the negative, but we should also focus on the positive. We are presented with an opportunity to show the very best in our national character and to call upon the values of responsibility, public spiritedness and compassion, which are intrinsic to a strong and vibrant society. Those ideals are not new, but have been woven into our politics for as long as any of us can remember. We are ultimately seeking to address the most fundamental question in politics: what does it mean to be a citizen? For me, the big society is an attempt to answer that question and to create a new, more balanced and more positive concept of the citizen. For that reason, I support the motion.
The big society is novel because it recognises the importance not only of people but of institutions. There is a clear role for the state in the facilitation of a stronger society. In some ways, that will be rhetorical—pushing people forward, persuading them that it is good to do more and giving them a reason to feel part of a wider social project. That is why it is so important that senior members of the Government keep talking about the need for people to get involved and continue to spur people forward. The idea of a civic service which the Prime Minister outlined is an important part of achieving that.
I welcome efforts by Ministers to change perceptions of volunteering. Our education system should do more to develop a new generation of citizens. The national citizen service represents a fantastic opportunity to bind young people together and encourage them to participate as much as possible in the wider community.
As Members of Parliament, we need to get into our local communities. We should be advocates for social action, galvanising people to do more and championing local causes. In my constituency, we have a fantastic array of organisations which I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with, both as a candidate and now as an MP. They work tirelessly to help the wider community and the most vulnerable within it.
In some ways, the state’s role is institutional. We need to change the way in which our public services are delivered and how our priorities are set in order to engage our communities and ask local people to do more, whether that is by helping to set priorities through referendums or giving local people the right to challenge. We need more diversity in public services to break open monopolies and to give the best organisations, whether they are voluntary, public or private, a chance to take on our social challenges. We should say, “If you have a good idea to solve these problems, and if you have a clear financial plan to achieve it, we will help you.”
We must use the power of the voluntary sector, social enterprise and socially responsible business to drive forward better quality in our public services. I am trying to play my part with my private Member’s Bill which, I am sure colleagues will be pleased to know, will shortly reach its Committee stage.
The role also has a financial aspect. The state has at its disposal hundreds of billions of pounds, which it collects in taxation with the aim of supporting our society through welfare, investment, infrastructure, law and order and public services. Although some of my colleagues on both sides of the House might like to debate how little or how much we should raise in taxation, that debate is for another day. We need to use the public resources to achieve the maximum public benefit. That means taking a long-term view of social issues, not being afraid of investing in social projects because they cannot generate results within one financial year, and not cutting small-scale local projects in order to save large-scale prestige ones.
There are examples across the country and in every constituency. I am reminded of organisations such as the Warwickshire community and voluntary action group, which helps individuals to find out about the voluntary and community organisations in their area and how they can help, which is vital. Our community centres are hubs of local activity. They help to give local people the space to host events and support local causes. Communities need assets and locations if they are to do their good work, and we need to ensure that they are maintained. In my constituency, assets such as the Bath Place community venture could become the catalyst for a range of social action projects. We need to recognise their importance and use local community spaces as effectively as possible, empowering local people, not hindering them with unnecessary red tape or through lack of assistance.
Voluntary and community groups also need funding. I agree with the Government and with my colleagues on the Government Benches that we must do more to encourage charitable giving and create innovative methods of funding and investment. The big society will be an important development in this respect. The grants from local and central Government are important. We spend as little as 2% of public money on the voluntary sector, yet it can have a huge impact.
My hon. Friend is right. In Gloucestershire we are benefiting from a sensible and forward-thinking county council paving the way for local people to take over libraries. That is excellent. Does he agree that we should encourage more such initiatives across the piste?
Indeed. Such ideas should be promoted. We should look at the models that work and make sure that other constituencies adopt them.
Although reducing funding today might seem like a quick saving for local authorities, ultimately they should remember that the small amount that those groups and organisations cost could save them far more costly interventions in the future.
The big society needs all the tools of the state at all levels. Ultimately, however, we keep coming back to the citizen and their role in the community. No idea, no vision, will take root in our society unless people decide to keep up the challenge themselves and own their own change. It cannot be imposed from the top down; it has to come from the bottom up. We have to nurture, incentivise and fund it, but above all we have to recognise that all the resources of the nation—economic, political, social and environmental—need to be directed to achieving it.
The economy has rightly been the main focus of attention for much of the debate in this House and throughout the country, but it is no good having an economic recovery if there is no social recovery. It is important that all sides engage constructively in that, because ultimately it is in all our interests to see it succeed.
I shall, indeed.
It has been interesting to hear people’s different perspectives on what the big society means, so at least we know that the big society is something. We might not agree on our perceptions of it, but I am with my hon. Friend Jessica Lee in being quite comfortable with that difference of approach. For me, however, the point of the big society at this moment is about building institutions—other than state bureaucracies—that can deliver effectively the social goods and services that we all desire.
The bureaucracy was, as we have heard, always only one model, not the only model, for the provision of social goods and services, but over the years it has come to dominate the space in social goods provision. In so dominating that space, it has created other organisations that are less sustainable and resilient because of their dependence for their continuation on state funding.
Under the previous Government, new forms of charitable organisations evolved, and in fairness institutional forms will evolve over time. It takes time to create institutions; we have only to look at the construction of different forms within the private sector and other aspects of organisational theory.
It is also important to recognise the imbalance between bureaucracies on the one hand and charities, social enterprises and so on, on the other. Over the past 10 years, charities have in many ways been co-opted by the Government. If we look at the earned income of charities in 2000, we see that 40% came from statutory Government sources. Within just seven years, that percentage had risen to 52%. How does that help the independence of those institutions? How does it help to create resilience within them?
Not all charities are the same, however. Albert Owen heralded the women’s institute as the paragon of a big society organisation, but as Government Members know, women’s institutes do not claim Government money at all. Smaller charities have a far greater reliance than larger charities on individual donations: 64% of the income of very small charities comes from voluntary donations and private sources, and only 5% comes from statutory sources. For the large charities, those that are pretty good at cosying up to the Government, 34% comes from individual sources, and 38% comes from Government sources.
That mirroring of the state can also be seen in senior executive pay. On many occasions in the House, we have heard people talk about the growth in senior executive pay in local and national Government, and, as we look to the big society, people will have questions about whether the chief executive officer of Barnardo’s should be paid £166,000 a year, whether the chief executive of Action for Children should be paid £130,000 and whether we should really allow the chief executive of World Vision to sneak in at £99,994 a year without pointing to it. These are areas where we have to say that we need change. Do we see these social organisations as institutions in their own right or just as agents of the Government? If it is the former, we need to enhance their institutional strength.
I have some suggestions, many of which are already emanating from our Government. It is sometimes argued that giving people a tax deduction for their charitable donation will have the same result as gift aid, but I think we should change the system. People will respond more positively if they know they are going to get a tax deduction for their charitable donation. We do it for venture capital trust contributions and for the enterprise investment scheme, so why cannot we change the system to do it for charitable donations too? We need to look at ways of simplifying the rules and regulations. In particular, can we ease the rules on mergers and acquisitions between charities so that they can be done more effectively? Looking at the big society bank, can we ensure that we limit its scope to focus on those who are most important for society as a whole?
Most importantly, can we use this opportunity to create centres of excellence for non-profit bidding expertise? ConsortiCo in my constituency has brought together 35 charities to help them to bid for local government contracts. That is important, because many charities find it hard to access Government contracts. These organisations will become the platforms for outcome-based financing in future, and we need local centres of excellence to appear with their local government authorities in order to gain the experience of writing contracts that can be used for outcome-based financing. Fundamentally, the fight between charities and bureaucracies is not fair because bureaucracies hold all the cards. If we do not give charities the strengths to compete effectively with bureaucracies, we will not achieve the big society at this time.
It is a challenge for Conservative Members to implement the changes of the big society in this period of office, and it will govern and colour the context of our time. For Labour Members, however, the challenges are even more significant. As my hon. Friend Jesse Norman said, they have to decide whether they want to continue to move forward with the reform agents in social enterprises and charities or to remain as guardians of the status quo.
I am grateful to have been brought into this seminar, as it has been called, on the big society and what it means. I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend Richard Fuller, who was keen to get involved earlier when there were endless discussions about what Baroness Thatcher said and did not say; I know that he has quite positive views about that. I am going to have to disappoint my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke, who so brilliantly introduced the debate and got it off the stocks. He said that we would be talking about the post-bureaucratic age—well, I, for one, do not understand the post-bureaucratic age. I have learned from Stella Creasy about episodic volunteering, which I think must be a psychological disease.
I will deal with one or two facts about my constituency and what we are trying to achieve in making the big society play out a bit further, particularly in terms of regeneration. I also have a suggestion to top some of the practical suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford about what may help in increasing volunteerism.
We are all agreed, across the patch, that there is nothing new about the basis of the big society. As Members of Parliament, whether new or old, we all have a great deal of admiration for the voluntary groups that we meet, the numerous people we see volunteering, and their involvement in the committees that they sit on. I have often thought that one of the great defences of this country is that if Parliament fails and we get a dictator, no dictator would ever be able to cope with the quantity of committees and voluntary groups and control them across the country. Even getting on to the agenda of some voluntary groups would be difficult for any dictator. They stand there as a bulwark against future takeovers of this country, and they do a brilliant job.
I want to mention a couple of examples from my constituency. On Friday, I went to St John’s church, which is a redundant 18th-century church in the middle of Lancaster—a beautiful building that I knew nothing about, and to which I had been invited. Mary Halton, a neighbour of the church, singlehandedly created the Friends of St John’s and singlehandedly checks to ensure that the clock is working every day. She is not religious, but she lives near the church and values it. She opens it to other groups and is working actively with what was the Redundant Churches Fund to get things moving. She has not been compelled by the Government or asked by the council; she did it herself. We can all recognise such people in our constituencies and what they have done.
The Opposition have rightly asked what is new about the big society. I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Stourbridge (Margot James) and for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) that all that is new is the recognition that there needs to be a rebalancing between the state, community and the individual. I am not talking just about the past 13 years and I am not going into the history of the Labour party, although I have learned from this debate or seminar that the left is still alive and kicking in the Labour party. That a Labour Member can stand up and say, “We on the left,” has taught me something valuable: we now have a real ideology to play with. Congratulations should probably go to the new leader of the Labour party for allowing that to function; it has not been allowed in the past 13 years.
My party agrees that the Government clearly play a valuable role and we do not underestimate that. However, individuals and communities feel that over the past 40 or 50 years, whichever party has been in power, the state has got bigger and bigger and has squeezed them out. I think that there is some truth in that.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting, even for a moment, that ideology plays any part in the modern Labour party? I ask him to weigh his words with great care before making such assumptions or—dare I say it—accusations.
I thought that I was being positive. I take the hon. Gentleman’s strictures and accept that ideology does not play a part in the whole Labour party. I was saying that I am pleased that it now seems to play a part in part of the Labour party, and I regard that as novel.
I will give an example of what I was saying about the state. All that we have heard about from the Opposition is cuts, cuts and cuts. I hope that Opposition Members who criticise the Government will put the same criticisms to the Labour council leaders who are responsible for the balance of the present budgets. I remember from London politics in the 1990s, when apparently we had all the money, the massive amount of regeneration money that was poured into the east end. As a councillor in Hackney and as a member of the Greater London authority, I saw endless attempts to deal with problem estates when there was real money. Usually, that meant that outsiders came to the estates and that consultants were appointed. The Government passed the money to the development agency, which passed it to the council, which appointed administrators, who went in and sorted out what had to be done. I am not saying that no good was done, and there was certainly a lot of good capital work. I am talking in particular about the social regeneration schemes.
In particular, I remember one social regeneration scheme on a problem estate because it was examined by academics at East London university. It had the laudable aim of training the youth of the estate to use computers so that they could get better jobs. It took three to four years, the outsiders came in, the hardware was brought—it is probably still at the back of the estate community offices somewhere under lock and key—and the money was spent. The council ticked off the scheme as having done a good job. The development agency ticked it off as a good job with everything done. The Government who had spent the money—I think it was Department for Communities and Local Government money—ticked it off. Academics then chose it at random as a scheme to look at. When they went through the statistics of what had been done, the only conclusion they could come to was that either there were twice as many young people on the estate as the census said, or every young person on the estate had been trained twice on the same computers. They could never reconcile the figures.
To me, the big society is about the message that we missed in the ’50s and ’60s with the great slum clearances and again in the ’80s and ’90s with regeneration. That is the fact that however bad an area seems from the outside, it still possesses something of the big society and there is some community there, however bare it is. We have to work with that community, not introduce something from outside on top of it. We as a Government have to learn that lesson.
Labour Members say, “You can’t do this now, because times are bad”. I would put it the other way around. We want to be in such a position that when times are good, we have the structure on the ground to avoid the same mistakes. That is the purpose of the big society, and it is why it more important now than ever before that community organisers train volunteers.
The big society can be described as plain common sense—shall I say Lancashire common sense?—or localism, or whatever. I have tried to think of an alternative term to “big society”, but I cannot, so I will go with it, because it means the restoration of the balance between communities and individuals.
As many Members have said, it is a pleasure to contribute to this terrific debate. It happens at a time when several million Libyans are trying to find their way to a future without their great dictator. We are debating a motion on something that they, and many others around the world under the barrel of state power would dearly love—the pursuit of stronger communities and decentralised power and the encouragement of social action.
Stella Creasy, who gets out more words per minute than anybody else in the Chamber, said that the trouble with the big society was that it had no purpose, but what other purpose is there than creating stronger communities? That is surely at the heart of all political activity by all parties. Is there really anyone in the Chamber who would vote for weaker communities, state monopoly of power and the discouragement of social action?
There was a time, of course, as Tristram Hunt said, when his party arguably led on those beliefs, with the co-operative movement, the formation of credit unions and the role of the trade unions in training. What has happened since? What happened to self-help and mutualism? Today there is more enthusiasm for, and I suspect there are more members of, credit unions on the Government side of the House. I do not just talk about co-ops, I worked for a mutual insurance group. We are the party that leads on apprenticeships and is changing British Waterways from a state-owned entity to a charity and the Post Office from a state-owned company to a mutual.
Somewhere along the line, Labour Members have, first, mistaken new Conservative Members—that is what those of us here today are—for 1980s Tories and, secondly, have lost confidence in their own roots and in anything except the state or state-funded voluntary organisations. In fact, the hon. Members for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) even asked how their charities could survive without Government funding. Surely everyone in the House is aware of, for example, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, a charity that fulfils its statutory duties without a penny of Government funding. My hon. Friend Stuart Andrew, who spoke so eloquently, is here and available to help explain how to raise funds for charities. If need be, the Minister can help, with his transition fund.
For Opposition Members, the word “cuts” invariably means “worse service”. It does not need to if the community is involved. I shall illustrate that briefly with two examples from wards in my constituency that are among the most deprived in the south-west of England. The Podsmead Community Association has a building at a peppercorn rent from the city council, and it has 400 members, 20 volunteers and masses of activities. It has funding from both its bar and local businesses, and not a penny from the state. Nor can the 20 volunteers be remotely classified as millionaires, which was a particularly outrageous suggestion made by an Opposition Member.
Not far away, in Matson, we have an isolated library building, with two parking places, two staff—for health and safety purposes—and an inefficient, larger-than-necessary building that costs £54,000 a year. That is an important service in the wrong place and the wrong building, and it could be provided much better for rather less money. By contrast, the community offer could give the ward a library service and nearby community centre with lots of parking, plus sports, dancing and arts next door, and possibly a café, to be run by a charity formed by three religions, at a cost to the county council of £20,000, or slightly more than a third of cost of the current facility. In that way, there would be a better library service at slightly more than a third of the cost.
Many Opposition Members have called the big society a fig leaf for cuts, candyfloss, a big cop-out and a national joke, but for me, it is no laughing matter. Those are my most vulnerable wards, and I want to ensure that our communities are stronger and that we can continue the services that matter most to the people who live in them.
My hon. Friend Damian Collins was right to list the bureaucratic obstacles that I hope the Minister will commit himself to hack away at, so that more people will join the big society, volunteer and help to make our communities stronger. Of course the big society already exists—look at what the Civic Trust did in Gloucester and many cities around the country. I am committed, as all Government Members are—I hope Members of all parties are so committed—to working with anyone who wants to improve and strengthen their community. I have no idea how my community leaders vote. That is the least important thing. As Deng Xiaoping said, it matters not whether a cat is black or white, but whether it catches mice.
The motion defines the big society, which we were elected to do, and I encourage all hon. Members to support it.
Order. I have eight speakers to get in and there are 34 minutes.
I will try to abide by your advice, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Richard Graham and the great dose of common sense that was injected into the debate by my hon. Friend Eric Ollerenshaw.
I wonder how many Opposition Members would be in the Chamber, compared with the few who are here now, were this debate entitled, “The Big State”. The Opposition do not care for the big society or what it stands for, because they prefer society to be based on the premise that the state must work its way into every nook and cranny of life. Those who prefer the big state approach do not in any way shape or form like any type of competing provision, which is perhaps why, over the past few years, the previous Government encouraged a large number of organisations, including charitable and non-governmental organisations, to take funds from the centre, so that they were that tiny bit more reliant on what the central Government hand gave them. I wonder how much money is taken by charities from central Government, as my hon. Friend Richard Fuller described. Perhaps that is why Opposition Members are more focused on dependence on the centre.
There are many hindrances to the big society. We live in a society with a “Make a mistake and I’ll sue mentality”, which the previous Government encouraged in legislation. We therefore need massive public liability insurance. I am a soccer referee, and I must have extra public liability insurance just to put on my kit and blow a whistle every Saturday afternoon, in case a player injures himself while under my control and tries to sue me.
We need proposals to fix health and safety requirements, the massive number of Criminal Records Bureau checks, which I believe we are beginning to sort out, and the bureaucracy that many hon. Members have described. We also need to simplify gift aid to make it easier for everyone to give, and to encourage businesses to allow their staff to volunteer—DHL has a fantastic policy on that.
In my time in the House, I have been constantly surprised by the fact that those who work the hardest in society, and who have the least net disposable income—the “squeezed middle”, as I have heard someone call them—are the ones who go out of their way to give time to and help their communities. Those people are the big society. A number of Opposition Members asked who they are, and what the big society is, and then managed to define it in individual cases.
In my constituency, it is dead simple. The big society is a lady called Fiona Tompkinson, who is spending 10 days walking the great wall of China for Springboard, which is a charity, or it is Eydon village community soup kitchen, which raised money last week for the upkeep of a local church, or it is Nigel Smilie and Trevor Rowden, who are climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for the Daniel Worrall Memorial Trust, which was set up after a young lad aged just 20 was killed in a road accident. He was a keen sportsman, and he would love the fact that the trust in his name raises money for better sporting facilities for young people in his village.
The Phoenix Centre, hospices, rotary clubs, Home-Start, Take Time to Make Time, which is a time bank, Diversity Fitness 4 Life, Brushes and Spades, which will make an old lady's garden look a lot better in springtime, are all wonderful organisations. If one scratches the skin of the society of Daventry, one comes to the wonderful rich fabric that is the big society, which does exist. There are national organisations such as the Special Olympics that are sponsored by big business, including Coca-Cola and the National Grid, but contribute massively to the betterment of life for those with a learning disability.
Therefore, there is a big society out there and I welcome the motion and congratulate my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke on securing it.
This debate is ideological. It was a Labour Cabinet Minister who said that the man in Whitehall really does know best. What we are talking about here—it is one of the reasons the Liberal Democrats are such an important part of the coalition; it is one of the biggest areas where we agree—is the philosophical split between those of us in the coalition who believe that the state is built bottom up, and our socialist friends who think that the state is created top down.
If we go back to the beginnings of society—man in a state of nature—we see that there is no government, but there is society. Man is a political animal. There is society in our earliest history and forms. Government comes later. The problem with government is that, when it comes, it binds. Let us recall the image of Gulliver when he is bound down by the Lilliputians. Thousands of little people have crawled all over him and tied his hair to the beach. They have put ropes over him so he is stuck—he is tied down. That is what we saw in 13 years of socialist Government. The view was that, if it was not done by the state, it was bad.
We have heard a great array of examples from my right hon. and hon. Friends of what that means: the insurance policies for referees; and my hon. Friend Jane Ellison needing £2 million of insurance. We have heard about the CRB checks. Bell ringers in my constituency are worried about having any children come to ring bells. Although large numbers of them ring together, they are frightened that the big state may not approve and may not say yes. We have data protection. I know that fellow rotarians are here in the House this evening. My own rotary club, Midsomer Norton and Radstock, takes old people shopping—a good thing to do, one would have thought. Members of the rotary club go around to local churches and ask, “Are there any elderly people who might need a hand?” What is the response? It is, “We are not allowed to give you the names of the old and the lonely because of data protection, because the man in Whitehall, who knows best, is fearful that you have evil intent and he will not allow that to happen.” That is why the big society is so important.
If we believe that society is built by individuals, their families, through communities, they are the ones who should make the decisions, raise the money and spend it according to the needs of their communities. One of the great cankers of socialism was that it took over the funding as well. Then we get into the argument about cuts, which is the great confusion in relation to the big society. It is a bad idea for charities to receive most of their funding from Her Majesty's Government because, as soon as they do, they become agents of the state and lose their independent action. They become subject to the rules, regulations and disbursement requirements that are set upon them by Governments. All that must be swept away. The Minister must cut Gulliver free. Gulliver’s hair must be released. He must be unbound. He must be able to stand up and stride forth.
As ever, the House is so much in the hon. Gentleman's debt as we move from the noble savage to “Prometheus Unbound”, spanning as we do Somerset rotary clubs. The logic of his comments would appear to be, and I speak as a proud member of Greenford rotary club, that we should, for example, get rid of the Charity Commission, because surely the dead hand of the state would apply just as much to that commission. Is he suggesting that it be cast into the dustbin of history?
It is relatively easy to draw up legislation to increase taxation on the banks, but it is much harder to draft a big society Bill. Unlike my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), I am quite a simple man. I am not a philosopher, so I am going to offer a doorstep definition of the big society. First, the big society says that social capital—the glue that strengthens community and binds us together—is as important as economic capital. We cannot have one without the other, because capitalism works best with strong communities.
Secondly, the big society believes that people power is as effective, if not more so, than state power, which means devolving power to individuals to make decisions. Lower taxes, for example, give us more economic power and direct political devolution for individuals and communities means more social power. Thirdly, the big society gives as much impetus to social entrepreneurs—those who use social action to transform their communities—as it does to economic entrepreneurs. Social action is as essential as economic action, and it must be incentivised. I want to deal with those three factors in turn.
First, if economic capital is about the level of wealth, social capital is about the level of community. Robert Putnam has been mentioned this afternoon, and he defines social capital as the
“collective value of all social networks, and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other.”
That means strong families, strong ties between neighbours, vibrant voluntary associations, and schools as the focal point for community endeavour. We cannot find a better example than the market. When we think about old-fashioned street markets, of course they were about buying and selling, but they were an essential part of social capital too, as they brought people together. The internet is a modern market and online community.
Secondly, the big society believes that people power is as important, if not more so, than state power, which means devolving power, not just to local versions of Whitehall but directly to individuals to make decisions. Just as lower taxes give individuals more economic power, direct political devolution to individuals and communities means more social power. Something that will make that a reality is the mutualisation of the state, as touched on by my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke, which could lead to a fundamental shift of power, because people power is Robin Hood politics. A new wave of co-operatives will shift ownership from the Whitehall bosses to the workers; from the inherited monopoly of the establishment to the striving classes.
Thirdly, on social entrepreneurs, if the state cannot legislate the big society into existence, it can create the conditions to make it flourish. My own local council in Harlow has launched a big society team and is working with the umbrella Rainbow Services charity to nurture civic action in our town with over 160 smaller charities and community organisations. We must break the state monopoly on the provision of services. Instead of “Tesco charities” with £1 million budgets that have become indistinguishable from Government Departments, funds must cascade down to the grass roots. In the UK, just 6% of charities receive almost 90% of the total annual income, and much of that comes from the state, so I urge the Minister, as we open up billions of pounds of Government contracts, to give the fairest chance to the smallest charities.
We must also do more in partnership with the trade unions. Setting aside the Bob Crows and the militants for a moment, what are trade unionists, if not members of friendly societies and social entrepreneurs? I am a member of Prospect, and I believe that, as Conservatives, we should embrace sensible unions because, at their best, they are examples of the big society in action, as voluntary associations that work for their membership.
In conclusion, it was the architect of the welfare state, William Beveridge, who said:
“Vigour and abundance of voluntary action…, individually and in association with other citizens…, are the distinguishing marks of a free society.”
Social capital, people power and social entrepreneurs—this is the big society in action. As has been said, the big society is not new, but has been thriving for years. However, we need a Cabinet-level enforcer to drive implementation through Government, and we need an impact assessment for all new legislation on how it will help to build the big society. There are many other possibilities, however, such as turning the big society bank into a big credit union that could work with local credit unions at a grass-roots level, asking websites such as eBay and JustGiving to offer matching services for big society donations, or even helping communities to set up labour exchanges.
Last week, I attended a public meeting with a group called Harlow Council Watch. The people there were worried that the big society would be all about the great and the good, and large charities operating on a regional scale. The big society is not just a part of the national conversation. It will work only if it builds the little society as well. I hope that the Government’s policies are designed to reinvigorate the small charities and community groups—the little society that is the bedrock of social capital in the United Kingdom.
I want to start by addressing the criticism of the big society that it breaches the principle of additionality—that it treads on the state’s turf and requires the public to perform do-it-yourself public services. The debate on additionality is not a new one. We started this debate by hearing about air ambulances, and if we go into any hospital around the country we will probably find that the curtains around the beds have been purchased by the League of Friends. Furthermore, many health charities are providing services, including patient and health care education, care and support. Mention those services to the general public, and we will get a very mixed reaction. Some people will think that the state is providing those services, some will think that it should be providing them, and others that the state is claiming that it is doing those services.
When charities breach that principle of additionality and step in to provide those services, it is they who get criticised. They are being criticised sometimes by their own organisations. The head office phones up a local branch that has just bought something for the local hospital and says, “You are letting the Government off the hook. This should be provided under a national service framework.” A focus is not put on what the state has, or has not, been doing, and there is very little focus on why the state has failed to deliver those services. I hope that a side effect of a debate about the big society will be that we get more focused on what the state should be doing.
We have a reality gap. We have an NHS constitution that is supposed to enshrine and guarantee treatments approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, and in certain circumstances access to non-NICE-approved treatment. However, we know from our mailbags that that sometimes does not happen. We pay our taxes to support an education system that is supposed to provide education to every child according to their need, but the parent of a special needs child will know how hard it can be to get the right provision for their child. The list of what we want our local authorities to fund—whether flowerbeds or community centres—is year on year becoming less fulfilled. That is the case no matter what the colour of the Government of the time or, very often, the colour of local authority government.
I think that local and national Government need to do fewer things better. At a time when we are cutting services for people with dementia, we could probably do without the local street-naming team in my local authority. In areas where the Government take responsibility, they should be working to meet all the needs out there. In my local authority’s budget this year, under budget pressures, much was made of the ageing population and the prediction that, over the next five years, there would be 200 additional adult social care clients for whom the authority would have to provide services. However, there was not a squeak about the existing 1,500 people with dementia, but no access to services. If we are going to focus on and address that need, and close that gap, we have to enable charities to be on both the demand and the supply side of those services.
As my hon. Friend Richard Fuller mentioned, we need to create a level playing field. We need to ensure that charities hear about the opportunities for them to tender, and that when they submit bids according to best practice, having costed for full cost recovery, they are not the only bidder doing so. We need greater scrutiny of tenders to ensure that we are comparing like with like, and that organisations are not undercutting charities, only to pile on the costs once they have won a bid. There should be penalties for organisations that do that.
We should also allow organisations that are on approved provider rosters not to bid, without penalty, if they do not think that they are the best outfit for the job. Penalising people for not bidding is completely wrong. As we build capacity in the charities sector, I urge the Minister to look at organisations such as Community First that are already doing a tremendous amount of work in this area, and to give them some resources so that they can speed up their work.
We also need to build capacity in our communities. I want briefly to mention Wymering in my constituency, which has already been short-changed to the tune of £400,000 of section 106 money. Its community centre has been burned to the ground, but the resulting insurance money was not spent on those services. The historic buildings in the vicinity are continuously under threat, the most imminent case being that of the Wymering Arms, which will go before the local planning committee this Wednesday. We have a plan to take over some of those community buildings and refurbish those that are derelict. Some of them are listed buildings. There is great support for the plan from the community, but to date it has not really felt that it can step up and do those things. The people do not feel that they have the resources to do them, but if we were to introduce them to high-value donors, business leaders and charity fundraisers, that work could become possible. In addition to the big society enabling us to meet the wish-lists of our communities, which has never been achieved by any Government before, it should also be a catalyst to enable the Government to do their job better.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke on securing it and on shamelessly promoting the port of Dover throughout his opening address. Before I became a Member of this House, I knew that the port of Dover was important. After two months here, I knew that it was very important. After tonight, I know that it is perhaps the most important entity in the entire country, if not the entire world. I thank him for educating me on that.
There are some on the Opposition Benches who I believe also need educating, particularly having heard their rather thin arguments against the big society, including, first and foremost, that it lacks any clear definition. That charge was levelled by the hon. Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). We have heard many Members today speaking eloquently about community empowerment, about opening up public services and about social action. Those are very clear definitions of what the big society is about. I accept, however, that the Government need to get better at communicating this message succinctly, particularly when we are in front of left-wing journalists from the BBC or the newspapers. We have to roll it out in a snappy two or three-sentence version in order to get it right.
We have heard a great deal about the big society simply being a fig leaf for cuts, yet many Opposition Members have accepted that the Prime Minister was talking about the big society well before there was any obvious need for cuts of this size due to the profligacy of the previous Administration. The big society is about a great deal more than simply resourcing. It is about the way in which society is organised and the way in which organisations are structured. It is about getting rid of top-down command and control, and replacing it with the empowerment of individuals, families and communities. It has also been suggested that we are on some kind of ideological crusade to attack the state. We are not on any such crusade, but implicit in a belief in the big society is an acceptance that the state has, in part, failed, that it is not perfect and that it has its limitations.
I want to dwell briefly on some of the work that was carried out after the second world war by a gentleman called Michael Young, who might be familiar to some Opposition Members. He was one of the authors of the 1945 Labour party manifesto. He went into Bethnal Green in the east end of London and sought out the deprivation that was to be the subject of his study. He interviewed members of every 36th household in the area. He certainly found deprivation there, but he also found something even more important—something he had not expressly sought to find out. What he found was best exemplified by an interview with a young boy who lived outside the area, who came home from the local school and said that his teacher had asked him and all the other children to draw their families. He said, “I drew myself; I drew my mother; and I drew my father”, but all the other children had drawn their mothers and fathers, nannies and aunties, grannies and so forth. Of course, what he was led to enunciate at that point was the big society—the extended family, the communities living in the east end at that time.
The socialist top-down approach to that problem was to destroy it all, bulldoze it and build the high-rise buildings that the socialist planners wanted to build, yet many of them were subsequently destroyed—exploded in the ’70s and ’80s. It seems to me that one of the most important things to grasp about the big society is the need to get away from that command-and-control, “we know best for you” mentality and to empower individuals, families and communities to take those decisions for themselves. That is why I particularly welcome the Localism Bill as part of the big society idea. I will conclude there to allow other Members to speak.
I welcome this debate, highlighting as it has the excellent community work done across constituencies that are represented on both sides of the House. I congratulate my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke, who has recently returned to his place, on securing the debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister who has remained steadfastly in his place throughout the almost six hours of this debate.
I hope that the debate will serve to deter critics of the big society from making political points by wilfully misunderstanding what the big society is all about. Such attitudes denigrate and disrespect those who, day by day, help to make our society worth living in by giving communities a quality of life that would be otherwise unattainable. I use the phrase “quality of life” advisedly. For some years in the recent past, we have increasingly associated quality of life or success or someone’s individual value in our society too closely with material accumulation, social status, fashionable glitz and glamour, brash business attitudes, career ladder climbing and so forth.
Some of those measurements of success are not necessarily bad in and of themselves. If, however, they are used as disproportionate yardsticks of what it means for an individual to be successful and to have value in our society and for us to be a strong, healthy and successful society together, then I suggest that it is time for a robust re-evaluation of what quality of life means. The current debate about the big society across the country offers, if we grasp it, a real opportunity to do so. For that reason, I welcome today’s debate.
Striving to attain today’s so-called aspirational lifestyles, which are held up as exemplars particularly to our young people, sadly all-too-often involves not only disposable material possessions, but also disposable relationships. That poses the often raised question of whether, as a result, we are any happier or more fulfilled as a society today.
High levels of alcohol and drug abuse, self-harm, a lack of self-esteem, relationship breakdown and profound loneliness across every generation provide at least part of the answer to that question.
I believe that somewhere along the way, we have lost something of the essence of the values which really make a society work: values like care, commitment, sharing and a place where every individual is given the opportunity and the capacity to play their part, whatever it may be—a part for which they are uniquely skilled and that only they can play.
Somewhere along the way, too, we may have forgotten that our most basic human need is to be loved and to feel that we matter to someone or, ideally, to a group of people. Linked to that is the need for us to feel that within that group of people, we have a purpose and a role. Is a premier league footballer worth any more or less as a person than, Dave Mairs, who several times a week coaches in the Cheshire boys league and has for years supported, encouraged and cajoled—and sometimes had to discipline—a football team of young boys? I do not think so.
Why do I say all this now? I say it because I believe that the big society holds the key to many of our contemporary challenges. Our understanding of what success means in a strong, healthy and positive society, and the positive contribution that each individual can uniquely bring to it, is, I suggest, largely what the big society is all about.
Every voluntary organisation and charity that I know relies on people of all political persuasions and none. I therefore regret the attempt by some Members on both sides of the House to make party-political claims for the voluntary sector. In my experience, some volunteers are members of political parties, but some—in fact, most—are not. However, the political parties of which we are members could be described as voluntary organisations. None of us would be Members of Parliament if it were not for volunteers, so let us give a hurrah for all the volunteers in our respective political parties.
Because we are short of time, I suggest that my colleagues read the report of the excellent Adjournment debate on the voluntary sector that I initiated about 10 years ago.
Finally, let me mention St Helena hospice in my constituency, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in April and which relies on 800 volunteers. Let me also mention the Colchester Gazette, which, along with Colchester Trinity rotary club, is inviting people to nominate community champions. I suggest that other local newspapers throughout the country do the same.
Let me say in the short time available to me that I welcome the emphasis that the Government are rightly placing on the promotion of even more community action and volunteering, and their focus on enhancing such participation. We have had an incredible debate, which has raised the need to give recognition where it is due and to celebrate the long-standing culture of community engagement and participation throughout our country.
Regardless of who is in charge—at Government level, or even in our local town halls—and regardless of the financial climate, many organisations are clearly improving the quality of life of our constituents. I pay tribute to them for their sterling work, and the praiseworthy way in which they participate as individuals and give their time selflessly to making a tremendous difference to our communities and local lives. Shortage of time prevents me from naming them all, but I invite the Minister to visit my constituency and meet many of the people who work for them, as well as representatives of some of the businesses at the heart of my constituency which contribute through charitable giving and allowing their employees to work for those organisations as volunteers.
My constituency contains many vibrant organisations, including citizens advice bureaux covering the borough of Colchester and the district of Braintree and Maldon, and charities such as Brainwave, Home-Start, Crossroads Care, St John Ambulance, my local rotary club—Witham Lions club—Tiptree youth club and an organisation called Mid Essex Talking News. As I have said, businesses give money to and support such organisations, but Government could clearly do more to assist them.
I echo Bob Russell in referring to the tremendous role played by local newspapers in publicising the importance of community engagement and local groups such as charities and voluntary organisations. They are part of the glue that binds many community groups together and an outlet for reports of engagement and participation.
Last week, the recess gave me a fantastic opportunity to meet groups in my constituency, which have been local champions when it comes to issues that matter to them for many years. We have heard much about the role of the state, and the essential rebalancing of the relationship between the state and community groups, but these organisations know their communities best. They do not need a state-run agency or a bureaucracy to determine the right outcomes for them, which is why I welcome the Government’s steps to empower communities further.
I congratulate Charlie Elphicke and the Backbench Business Committee on securing today’s debate on what is clearly an important issue. There has been a degree of cross-party consensus, but there are also a number of points on which we have diverged, and I shall deal with them shortly.
Although the Government coined the term the big society, they did not invent the concept. Many hon. Members have pointed to the fact that this is not a new idea. The truth is that for volunteers and for charitable and voluntary organisations across the country, the big society already exists and has done for a long time. They know that, because every day throughout the country they are delivering the big society in our communities. Indeed, much of the language of the big society simply builds on a rich tradition in this country of community, localism, co-operation and building a better society for all.
Many hon. Friends have highlighted that in their contributions. My hon. Friends the Members for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), for Newport West (Paul Flynn), for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), for Darlington (Mrs Chapman), for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain), for Bolton West (Julie Hilling), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) highlighted the need for the state and civil society to work together to tackle social problems, improve services and empower our communities. They demonstrated an outstanding grasp of the need for voluntary sector organisations and communities to have a framework of support, and not to be just left on their own. We also heard a number of erudite speeches demonstrating our strong philosophical basis for encouraging active citizenship.
Many Government Members, including the hon. Members for Dover, for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), for Stourbridge (Margot James), for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), for Erewash (Jessica Lee), for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) and for Battersea (Jane Ellison), rightly paid tribute to the excellent work undertaken by volunteers in their constituencies. However, they failed to grasp the notion that the state can facilitate voluntary activity and community enterprise. We heard only about the repressive nature of the state, not that it could support communities in being more vibrant.
The previous Labour Government understood the voluntary sector, particularly its expertise and ability to be flexible and innovative, and we worked hard to support it. How much we valued the sector is highlighted by the fact that in our 13 years in office we more than doubled funding to it and created the Office of the Third Sector—now the Office for Civil Society—in the Cabinet Office. Labour was not content to rest on its laurels, however. Before we left office, we set out radical plans for boosting funding, volunteers and asset transfers to the third sector. We also designed the social investment bank and launched the first social impact bonds. We used the asset register to begin identifying assets to transfer to the third sector, and we announced that we would mutualise British Waterways. We pioneered community service for young people, which was established as “v”, and began a census on volunteering so that areas would know about the nature and extent of volunteering locally.
The current Government are to some extent continuing what we started in office through their broad direction of travel, such as by encouraging volunteering, supporting and seeking to expand the number of social enterprises and third sector organisations, and looking at ways to enhance the role of mutuals and employee-owned companies. That is why we support the motion—encouraging a greater sense of community and more partnership with the voluntary sector is something we should all support.
Even before this Government took office, they trumpeted the big society, and in office they point to it as a central tenet of their policy agenda. Yet earlier this month, the Prime Minister had again to defend the notion against persistent criticism, even though he has declared the big society his central “mission”. Given the six years that he has apparently been thinking about this idea, one can only wonder why, in office, he is not clearer about how to execute it. There is a gaping chasm between the well-meaning intentions of the hon. Member for Dover and his motion, and the reality of his party’s economic policy.
When the Minister, whom we will hear from shortly, was asked two weeks ago on the radio if the big society was in trouble, he flatly denied it, saying:
“I don’t think there’s a problem”.
However, the truth is that the Government are in danger of undermining the big society if they do not pay more attention to three things, the first of which is developing an infrastructure of support for the voluntary and community sector. The Government have not given enough time for the voluntary sector and communities to develop new models of operation or to plan effectively for their futures in the new world. They should be working together in partnership with the voluntary sector and constructing frameworks of support, rather than adopting the “sink or swim” mindset we have seen so far.
The Opposition see a key role for social enterprises and mutuals in improving service delivery. This means supporting social enterprises and mutuals and helping them to improve service delivery, and seeing a key role for community organisers in helping communities to articulate their needs and shape services. The Opposition also recognise that new jobs can be grown, including in disadvantaged areas, in order to promote employment, and that this can be done through the social enterprise model. We see this as a partnership approach, with the state acting as a key player in helping voluntary activity to flourish. That contrasts with an approach, much seen of late from the Conservative party and demonstrated in a number of speeches today, that advocates a withdrawal of the state and a characterisation of it as overburdening and a barrier to voluntary activity. The state can sometimes act in a way that is not helpful, but that is not always the case, and it can be encouraged to behave differently.
On that point, are there any areas of deregulation that the hon. Lady can identify where she thinks we should move back from the agenda established by the previous Government?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, and we can always look at ways in which the state or central Government can better facilitate voluntary activity.
Our approach is based on the view that involving the voluntary and community sector more in public service delivery helps to create more responsive public services that are better geared to meet the needs of the communities they serve. This is not simply an ideological rejection of the state, as we often hear from the Conservatives and as exemplified in the amendment tabled by Mr Chope and others, which was not selected for discussion today. Our partnership model, therefore, does not require an abandonment of the belief that the state should be the ultimate safety net in delivering vital public services.
We, too, recognise the need to make commissioning more community-oriented, and we therefore welcome the debate that has already begun in government about how to commission services with greater involvement from local communities. This is an important step forward, although much of what has been written and said so far does not seem to reflect the complexities existing in our neighbourhoods and the diversity of voices they contain. It is essential that commissioning involves more than listening to those with the loudest voices.
We also recognise the need to expand philanthropy and individual generosity, but that should not be the whole story. We need a sensible alliance between Government and the voluntary sector to encourage entrepreneurial activity in a way that promotes social values and empowers our communities. Labour recognises that the Government are starting to do this with the big society bank—taking over our idea of a social investment bank—but we also know that it is not going to be operational until much later this year and that the money it will dispense will not make up for the huge amount being lost to the sector through cuts to central and local government funding. So the Government need to address how the big society is being undermined through the cuts
The Government also need to look at how the big society agenda is not really engaging with the equalities agenda. That is important, because communities do not start from a level playing field, and the Government need to do more to recognise that some of the cuts have fallen disproportionately on the poorest communities, which therefore need additional support.
In conclusion, we should all recognise that where we have unresponsive or poor public services, they should be changed and other providers brought in, but we also all need to recognise that the state has a role to play in mediating the vagaries of the market and tackling social injustice and inequality. We need the state and civil society to work together. Simply withdrawing state services and funding before leaving voluntary and community organisations to pick up the pieces will not make our society bigger or better.
We have heard 39 speeches—I did count them—which were often lofty, sometimes earthy and always interesting; I thank the Backbench Business Committee and congratulate my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke. In the short time available, I wish to make three quick points in response to an excellent debate.
First, I wish to express a personal conviction. I really believe that we have barely scratched the surface of what can be achieved in this country if we strike a more effective and balanced partnership between government, business and civil society, including active citizens in our communities who want to get more involved. That is what we are working towards, because we need a new approach to tackle the entrenched social challenges that we face. As many speakers have said, relying on big government and “Whitehall knows best” just has not worked well enough, and it must be time to make better use of the talents and resources of this country. Of course this will involve a big culture change and it will not happen overnight, which brings me to my second point.
The new approach requires strong leadership from government, and not a traditional top-down programme; to make this work we have to redistribute power in a bold and genuine way, to allow communities to take more control and to recast government so that it supports community action, rather than stifles it. That is now happening and it is being built on three core strands, the first of which is the transfer of real power to communities.
First, power is being transferred in the form of information. Whether we are talking about crime maps, departmental business plans or detailed breakdowns of local authority spending, our constituents already have more information than ever before on what is being done in their name. With that comes the power to act and challenge, and the Localism Bill offers people new rights and opportunities to take more control, not least in the planning process. That is being supported by a new attitude from government which asks, “How can we help?”, rather than saying, “You can’t do that.” That is why it was right to review the health and safety regulations and the vetting and barring regime. It was encouraging to see the Department for Communities and Local Government immediately set up a new bureaucracy-busting service and challenge communities to tell it what is getting in the way, and 140 communities have already engaged in that process.
The second strand of Government action is fundamental public service reform. Yes, we do believe that we can deliver better public services by opening up the market to competition and new providers, including social enterprises, mutuals and the voluntary sector. We do believe in giving communities and front-line professionals much greater freedom to meet local need. We also want to get the public more involved in shaping the services they use, whether that be through personal budgets or greater involvement in how resources are allocated and services are commissioned. We will soon be publishing a White Paper on public service reform, which will set out our plans in more detail. All I will say for now is that when one visits social enterprises such as Zest in Sheffield, which is delivering public services in a fantastically fresh way, the two senior nurses who have set up their own social enterprise in Leicester or a group of public agencies in Calderdale working together to shape a new service on debt advice, one has a strong sense of how much better things could be if we gave people at the sharp end much greater freedom and responsibility.
The third strand of action is about encouraging more social action in our communities. Of course we are not inventing anything new: this is about building on the fantastic work done in constituencies across the country by dedicated people who know the value of giving time and/or money to help others. We want to encourage a step change in attitudes to giving both time and money. Our recent Green Paper set out how government can help in traditional and non-traditional ways, such as by setting up new match funding schemes to encourage local endowments and private sector support for volunteering projects or by encouraging civil servants to get more involved in community service, thereby setting an example to other employers. The national citizen service has enormous potential to connect our teenagers with their power to make a contribution to the community. Our Communities First programme will give more deprived neighbourhoods access to a new grant programme that will help them to implement their own plans, supported by community organisers whose job will be to build local networks and leadership, encouraging people to come together and take action.
I am afraid that I have no time for interventions if I am to give the last Back Bencher the chance to wind up the debate.
We are going further than the three strands I have discussed. Jon Cruddas talked about business having a bigger role. On
That brings me to the role of the voluntary and community sector and the need to support it through what is, as many hon. Members have pointed out, an extremely difficult and challenging time. We should not forget that the majority of the voluntary sector does its valuable work with no help from the taxpayer at all, but many of our constituents will be surprised to learn that the sector receives almost £13 billion in public money, before the benefits of gift aid are counted. Faced with the monstrous legacy of a deficit that costs us £120 million a day in interest alone, we have always been clear that the sector cannot be immune from the need to find savings on that scale.
I know from my everyday contact and conversations with the sector that it is most anxious about cuts at the local level. We cannot control local authorities, but we have given a very strong steer that we do not expect them to cut the sector disproportionately. Many local authorities, such as Reading and Wiltshire, have confirmed that they will be maintaining or even increasing their investment. However, many have taken a different course. With our new transparency requirements, local communities will be able to see how their council has responded to the tough choices before it and to make their own judgments.
We are not laissez-faire about this issue. We see the voluntary and community sector as a key partner in this new partnership and we are actively trying to help it manage a very difficult transition by making it easier to run a social enterprise or voluntary sector organisation. Lord Hodgson will soon report to me with ideas on how to cut red tape for small charities, and we will continue to invest in the infrastructure that exists to support front-line organisation, trying to make it more effective. We have set aside £100 million as a transition fund to give a lifeline to the organisations that are most vulnerable to cuts. We are actively considering what we can do to encourage giving and a White Paper will be published after the Budget.
We are in the process of setting up the big society bank with £200 million of capital from the private sector and an expected £400 million from dormant bank accounts. Our recently published social investment strategy document sets out the role we see for it in growing the social investment market, thereby making it easier for social entrepreneurs to access capital. We want to make it easier for charities and social enterprises to work with government and we will soon publish our response to a consultation on the changes to the commissioning process needed to level the playing field and reduce the ridiculous amount of bureaucracy in the system.
There is no getting away from the short-term pain that a number of charities and social enterprises are feeling, but we want to work with them and help them to take advantage of the serious long-term opportunities that the big society agenda offers. They include the chance to deliver more public services, the chance to mobilise people and win arguments at the local level about what priorities should be and the chance to benefit from the time and money that we hope people will give more of in future. The Government are doing a huge amount to create the right conditions for this rebalancing of power and responsibility.
My final point is that this is not a Government programme, however important our lead is. It depends on a grass-roots local response from organisations and individuals who see a chance to do things in a better way. It is too early to say how high or far the bird that my hon. Friend Rory Stewart described will fly. It will take time, but we believe that we are going with the grain of what people want—more open, efficient government, better connected communities with people looking out for each other, more respect for the voice of the citizen, giving people real power to make a difference to the things that they care about, and a greater sense of togetherness at a tremendously challenging time for the country.
Whether we call it big society or stronger society, there ought to be more common ground on the need for a new approach, one based on a wholly positive vision of a better partnership between all elements of society, and a genuine belief in what people can achieve if they are trusted and given the power to make a difference to the things that they care about.
It is rare to have three mentions of John F. Kennedy, or for the philosophers Hobbes, Paine and Burke to feature so heavily in such a debate, for T. S. Eliot to be quoted at will, and for Deng Xiao Ping and Gulliver to slide in at the end, as though important to that part of the debate. It is meant to be about free schools and the Localism Bill. The internet creates an environment that makes it possible for this option to be the way ahead, and for a national citizens service, as well as all the other matters that we are concerned with.
My hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and for Crawley (Henry Smith) spoke at length about their background in help for hospice care. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey talked about his seven years working at a hospice which had 90% of its support from the public. My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley said that big government must be an enabling Government. Four Members took us on an intellectual high road. The hon. Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), and my hon. Friends the Members for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) traded frameworks, criticism, 300 years of history and the extent to which Paine did or did not belong to them. It was an education, to say the least.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central accepted that the Labour Government were over-regulatory and over-zealous in their last few years. It was noticeable that Mrs Chapman made clear her love of the organisation but posed constructive alternatives, as did the hon. Members for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain), for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and for Leicester West (Liz Kendall). They all spoke at length and with great bravery and concern of their views on the matter. My hon. Friend Charlotte Leslie came up with a couple of prize comments, such as that we should trust people, as they are more than capable. She wanted a competent state, not a flabby state.
This was a cross-party debate. Mr Williams described how some of the regulations had been relaxed. The Government have made progress. Only two weeks ago I held a debate in Hexham, where 150 people came to talk about the big society. Ten organisations fronted up and several deserve particular citing. I name just one—Humshaugh village shop, which won the Countryside Alliance award for the whole of the north-east for the way it went forward.
We are grateful to the Backbench Business Committee. My hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke deserves great credit for bringing the matter before the House. Interestingly, he was supported by Members from all parts of the House. Everybody should support the motion.
Question put and agreed to .
That this House supports the Big Society, seeking stronger communities where power is decentralised and social action is encouraged.
We come now to the Adjournment. There may be a pregnant pause at this point, but I do not want to keep the hon. Member for Walsall South
(Valerie Vaz) waiting for very long. I should be grateful if Members who are leaving the Chamber would do so quickly and quietly, extending the same courtesy to the hon. Lady as they would want to be extended to them in similar circumstances.