My Lords, I stand before you today a relative youth with much still to learn. Yet I have been humbled by the extraordinary welcome that I have been given by your Lordships: by my sponsors, the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Bates; by my mentor, the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe; and by many other noble Lords, with their kind words. I also thank the dedicated staff who serve this House so admirably, for which I am extremely grateful, and without whom I would be literally lost every day. Not once has my youth been held against me: rather, I have been treated as a peer. I have been kindly and undeservedly given the experience and wisdom that graces this noble Chamber and its surroundings.
This contrast between my relative youth and the privilege of being able to be surrounded by others of much greater wisdom and experience than I reminds me of a time in my early childhood that shaped the man you see before you today. Unlike perhaps many second-generation Chinese born in this country, I had the joy and fortune not only to grow up in the company of others who emigrated from Hong Kong where my parents originated and from other parts of Asia but to enjoy the friendship of many wonderful English men and women of much experience who served at the Christian mission at which my father worked, and even to stay frequently with an English babysitter and her family. This early and subsequent exposure to people from different walks of life, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds has helped me time and again. It has given me what I know today is called social capital, particularly the bridging kind, and has allowed me to explore different worlds. It gave me an early understanding of civil society and its ability to transform your outlook and even your life.
After spending my formative years in London, my family moved to a part of Milton Keynes which I only recently discovered was mainly inhabited by another sort of émigré, people who had left the slums of east London in search of a better life in the 1960s and 1970s. Attending the local comprehensive school, I was exposed early to the kinds of social problems that come with having a low income and witnessed behaviour and the use of narcotics that I now still come across in east London where my family and I live today. I learnt above all that while income was an important factor in poverty, escaping it required much more than just financial capital; it required social capital. I was fortunate to have access to teachers and mentors who lent me theirs, who were supportive and who knew how to help me get into a great university.
At that university I learnt many things, but one experience stood out; I took part in a business competition run by a computer simulation in which different teams competed to make rounds of decisions in the hope of successfully producing virtually the best products and the greatest profit. My team won against the odds, which was most shocking because none of us had any business or higher mathematical training and many other teams were better qualified than ours. All we did was organise ourselves so that we could make any kind of useful decision faster and reasonably well. It taught me that ordinary people can, against the odds, out-perform expectations when they work together in groups. Over the years since that victory, I have been able to observe the same phenomenon in business, in education, in social enterprise, and now in civil society. To quote Margaret Mead's timeless phrase:
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has".
This brings me on to the topic of today's debate, which I am thankful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for having initiated and which is very much close to my heart. I have enjoyed the speeches so far and I look forward to those to follow. The debate is indeed incredibly well timed. The role of partnerships between government and civil society in shaping social policy is at the forefront of many minds in this country. There is much discussion in the nation at large about the associated phrase "the big society" and what it really means. As a regular citizen who has the privilege to speak today on this topic, I would like briefly not only to hazard an informed guess but to acknowledge a number of challenges that will need to be overcome to make such a vision-such effective partnerships-work, and then to close by highlighting the powerful role this House can and does play in facilitating such partnerships.
The big society, it would appear, operates at three levels. On one, it is a questionthat civil society is now, more than ever, being asked about what role it wants to play in shaping our collective social future, in driving long-term change and solving entrenched problems. The answer to the question can vary depending on one's political inclinations, geography and past experiences, but the first step is to ask the question. There will be many different answers, many big societies, but the exciting development is that the topic of the debate in this House is also a topic of debate in many houses across this land, often for the first time in generations.
On another level, the big society describes a set of policies to give more powers to people closer to where they live, to help increase the capacity and resources of civil society to take up such powers, and to encourage a sense of collective progress and momentum since it can be hard to "bowl alone". I shall defer to noble Lords speaking after me to further elaborate on these policies, but it would seem to me that this Government clearly wish to affirm that partnerships between government and civil society in shaping social policy are to be welcomed.
The third level at which the big society seems to operate beyond asking the question and setting out policies is that of nurturing an ecosystem. I describe this as the big society coral reef, because at the heart of this debate, in my humble opinion, is not just what civil society thinks social policy should be or even what government pronounces, but a collective and very British constitutional negotiation of a partnership for the 21st century that values and combines not just the seabed, the bedrock of our public services-to protect the vulnerable-but the coral represented by the many current and future providers of those services that add variety and innovation and humanity to their delivery. Last but not least it is the very fish that feed in these waters, the local citizen groups that can extend, vivify and shape this landscape in ambitious as well as humble ways. No single part of this ecosystem can or should dominate, but by working well together each comes to form a whole that is often more than the sum of its parts.
There will be challenges in realising such a partnership, as many attempts to forge it before have shown both here and abroad. I list a few of the possible risks: unclear goals leading to a dissipation of effort; a lack of even a moderate amount of resource to empower scalable citizen responses; institutional resistance to the change this approach entails; the capture of new powers by vested interests that are so off-putting to the apolitical citizen; and apathy or a lack of critical mass. Neither civil society or government, nor we in this House, should be under any illusion that the journey to achieving this 21st century partnership will not be long, arduous and filled with setbacks. But the state of our politics, the resourcefulness now required of our economy, and the multi-faceted and complex nature of the social policy challenges we face appear to me to invite us to travel down this path as far as it can take us over the coming years until a new, healthier, more vibrant balance can be found for the benefit of this nation: one that is built upon ancient values and traditions as well as the latest technology and ways of working.
This House can and does play a pivotal role in the success or failure of this journey, this partnership, this big society. It does so in three ways: in the tireless and passionate championing of charitable, social enterprise and other socially beneficial causes, whether with or without government support, which so many of your Lordships undertake; in the holding to account of government through debate and questioning; and in the recognition of whether particular laws government seeks to pass will strengthen or weaken civil society and the ability of local groups to thrive and flourish.
This House role models, defends and forges the very partnerships we are debating today. My hope is that as long as I am privileged to be a Member of it, and indeed at least until I can one day speak with the same experience and wisdom that your Lordships possess-which no doubt will not be for a very long time-this House will continue to be a source of inspiration for partnerships between government and civil society in houses up and down the land-houses which, like ours, are motivated by Gandhi's timeless entreaty to,
"be the change you wish to see in the world".