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Public Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:54 pm on 24th October 2001.

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Photo of The Bishop of Portsmouth The Bishop of Portsmouth Bishop 5:54 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, like many others, I am pleased to take part in this debate moved by my friend, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. It is a subject which sits between many of the problems and opportunities which face us today.

I make three observations. First, I begin by focusing on the implicit models of public sector service which operate both in the United Kingdom as well as in Europe and the United States. It is clear that the public service sector has had a long and noble tradition in this country but it is not necessarily the only way to arrange our affairs. As someone with close family ties with Scandinavia, I am consistently struck by the level of resourcing which goes into the public sector in countries such as Denmark. However, I also draw attention to the fact that in much of northern Europe healthcare provision is the responsibility of private insurance.

Looking in the opposite direction, public service in the United States was seen until recently as the poor relation to the world of commerce. As with much in our economic life, the United Kingdom seems to sit somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, providing an alternative model and one which I believe we should value highly. We should have confidence in our public institutions despite those very necessary times when we look for the checks and balances. It is a very British trait to knock and undermine the very sources of stability and democracy which are so widely admired around the globe.

Secondly, like many of my fellow bishops, I have close working relationships with local government and have been impressed by the response of local authorities, for example in Gosport and Havant, to the Local Government Act 2000 which calls upon such authorities to produce a community strategy that acknowledges the place not only of the public sector but also of those working in private, business, community and voluntary spheres. Through the local strategic partnership there is both the opportunity and the duty to create strategic alliances which acknowledge the value and mutual interdependence of those areas. Gone are the days when in some Stalinist centralised view the state is able to legislate for the minutiae of social interaction. Equally, gone are the days when it was believed that business was the answer to all our problems. We are now, thankfully, in a position where we acknowledge and value service in all its various guises, whether public, commercial community or voluntary; and, of course, in this the public sector has a vital if self-limiting role.

Thirdly, conventional economic measures such as GDP take no account of the notion of service, whether in the public or voluntary sectors. Most of our key public services whether in health, social services, prison or the law courts are increasingly dependent upon voluntary support, whether through charitable funding or the provision of vital support services. Where would we be if government had to pay for school governors? How many hospitals benefit from the league of friends not only financially but through awareness and the generation of good will? How many environmental projects rely on key alliances with community groups who give freely of their time?

Fundamental to both public and voluntary service is the belief that individuals make a significant contribution and that is a strong motivator to society. Oddly enough, the very attempt by government--welcome in itself--to provide funding for voluntary services and the concomitant apparatus of financial management and funding application can have the opposite effect of what is intended. It can create a professionalised bureaucracy which is focused on the next funding round and dissipate the energy which provided its original vision. The role of government must be to provide resources for public services but acknowledge that motivation differs between the sectors. This is particularly poignant for the faith communities of our country. As well as supporting their own community lives, they carry the burden of responsibility for historic buildings for which they receive little or no funding from government. That can skew, for example, a parish's focus towards bricks and mortar and away from other wider purposes equally inherent in the working of that faith vision.

In conclusion, I should like to make a more general comment on the Question which may complement the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Moser, and the other maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Chan, and the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor. As we deliberate the role of public service, it is crucial that we at least try to view it from everyone else's perspective. It is very easy to create a culture in which those on the fringe are judged by those at its heart. That is a somewhat forceful way of saying that we really all have to be in this together.