Social Policy — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:39 pm on 16th June 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Labour 7:39 pm, 16th June 2010

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for introducing this important debate. I want the right reverend Prelates to know that I miss sitting behind them. I had made my home sitting at their backs, hoping that if God's hand was at work, providing guidance to them as they participated in the House, it would spill over on to me and I would get a bit of spiritual intervention, too. I shall have to work harder for it now.

This debate is so important because it is about how the Government can work better with the public in the interests of our society as a whole-how we might build the good society. We are very lucky in Britain in that we are rich in social capital-those words have been used frequently in this debate. This is not a broken society. Our civil society is strong. Of course there has been a rise in materialism and narcissism, but people in Britain continue to volunteer in huge numbers to support many fine voluntary organisations, many of which have been mentioned. People run in marathons for charity. They hold car boot sales to raise funds for good causes. They take part in red nose days and wear ribbons for cancer or AIDS. They sit as school governors, do prison visiting and read in schools with children who have learning disabilities. They take part in school races and run the school disco. They find funds by all manner of means in order to support things local. They coach teams and run football leagues. They also support and run soup kitchens for the homeless and care for the elderly. It is right-I say this with recognition-that many of their contributions are channelled through churches, synagogues, mosques and Quaker institutions, as well as through secular bodies and trade union organisations.

Good things are also done by professionals, and I was very happy to hear my noble friend Lady Perry speak about that. I feel that often professionals are not given recognition for the contribution that they make well beyond their daily round in giving pro bono work in various fields-in law, for example, the area in which I work. Teachers also do it by giving tuition and so on. People come together in many ways, even if it is just by signing petitions for better street lighting and more frequent bin collection. They send their savings to victims of tsunamis and want to end world poverty.

We in Britain are great creators of bonding social capital. By and large, we do not "bowl alone" as the social scientist, Robert Putnam, has described what happens in America. British people-particularly women-contribute enormously to our common weal. It is one of our nation's really great strengths. However, as our societies change, we must endeavour to ensure that there is not just bonding social capital but also bridging social capital, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wei, our new addition, in his very fine maiden speech. Bridging social capital crosses between different communities so that the churches work with mosques, we have interfaith activities and organisations for women are about all women of every ethnicity. It also means that schools should, and must, be places where children learn with the young of other backgrounds. We have to find places and activities that bring together people from different and distinctive pools, and we have to find ways of preventing the atomisation that can break societies down. I am concerned by the idea of people going off and creating their own schools because, inevitably and invariably, those are likely to be about a narrowing down of bridging capital.

We must always remember to exercise caution when we talk about communities. Of course, we laud the good things in communities, but close communities can also harbour and nurture our worst behaviours, which were spoken of by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts. I refer to a lack of forgiveness because of long-held grievances, and the ways in which tight communities can harbour intolerance, snobbery and repression. Inside communities there can be ill treatment of the less powerful, domestic violence, child abuse, forced marriage, hostility to homosexuals and antagonism towards the "other". Opening out communities to other influences is what moves societies to become better places.

I am interested to know what the Government mean when they talk about the big society. I certainly welcome a strengthening of links between government and civil society in partnership. I like it when we can persuade people to join in. I also like the very independence of which the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, spoke. It is important that a civil society is independent and does not have too much government crawling all over it. Therefore, I ask people to bear that in mind, too, when we talk about partnership. Civil society must not be drawn into the purview of government where the differences are not clear.

I do not want this big society to be a proxy for minimising the state so that less is done by the Government and they divest themselves of responsibilities for the poor and disadvantaged in our midst, for the disabled and the elderly, and for the asylum seeker and the drug addict. It would be an extreme folly if we were to see that happen. I am all for devolving central government to the local and, as a democracy reformer, I have argued for that. However, if going local means passing yet more responsibilities downwards without the necessary supporting revenues, it will be a travesty of ideas about local empowerment. Creating new burdens is not empowering.

I come from Glasgow. It is a wonderful city, but it is blighted. As my noble friend Lord Martin knows, a third of the population is on some form of welfare and three generations of some families have gone without work. Without debating how that came about, we should recognise the consequences. Health problems are endemic in my fair city. The average life expectancy for men is 54, which is lower than in some parts of the developing world. Glasgow Caledonian University has embarked on a most inspiring project, bringing the Nobel prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, to Scotland, to work with him on his ideas about microfinancing, establishing a community bank-a Grameen bank-and offering small loans to people who are normally excluded from the banking system. In the developing world the borrowers are usually women who organise themselves into groups of about five, creating a support system. They all put pressure on each other to ensure that a loan is repaid as they have all bought in to the system.

That draws on something in the culture of Scotland, which my noble friend Lord Martin can tell the House about. In my grandparents' day, in tenement buildings there was something called "running a ménage", which came from the French word ménager; it was a way of running household finances. Women in the tenement building would all contribute a small amount of money to the pot which could be used to buy children's shoes or to pay for something that a family needed. That was the beginning of the notion of the trustee bank; we need a community banking system. In this banking crisis we need to find a way to redesign banking so that money can be lent to the poorest in our society so that they can embark on initiatives of their own invention in order to change their lives.

It is important to talk about the role of the state, as the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, did. What is seen as the great divider between the left and the right is the fact that the right argues for the small state and the left has always said that the state should be a deliverer of so much that is important in a good society. However, we would all probably agree that the state can be an enabler and a provider in the best sense, an expression of our collective desire to build a society where everyone has a responsibility for each other, by creating institutions and mechanisms to make society the best it can be, providing healthcare, education, security and well-being for everyone.

Getting the role of the state right is a challenge. The state can be oppressive and can impinge on our freedoms. It can denude us of autonomy and self-determination. Good governance lies in understanding balance and boundaries, where there should be state activism and where there should not. That is the challenge for governments of the right or left. Obviously, I have to speak to the House as a socialist. I believe that the state has considerable responsibilities in terms of the creation of the good society. I started my adult life with the socialist idealism which has been mentioned in this debate and, even now, at my great age, it still lives on in my bosom. I welcome ideas to find greater engagement for people, but I do not want us to unravel those nets which are so vital to the well-being of our poorest. Young people in this country are full of idealism and they should be tapped as a resource for this common project of making a good society.

When I first heard the words:

"From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs", they seemed to me to be a very good formula. We can advance that. It is not just about taxation and welfare, although I stick by that to this day; it is also about social solidarity and many other forms.

The next few years will be very testing for us as a nation. We are warned that there will be great austerity. Our values will be tested and I hope that those who have gained most from the past few decades shoulder a heavier burden than the poorest in our society. A just society requires that of us. I thank the right reverend Prelate for giving us this opportunity to speak about a very important method of partnering to make our world better.