My Lords, there is much in our nation for which we can be profoundly grateful. Next week, as we mark 800 years since the sealing of Magna Carta, we give thanks for the long, yet sometimes tortuous, path that has led us to becoming a modern democracy. That moment was if not the birth then perhaps at least the conception of civil society at the beginning of a long gestation.
Last month, we celebrated 70 years of peace since the end of the Second World War, by which time civil society as we know it today was coming of age. As a nation, we have experienced extraordinary levels of economic growth over recent decades. Life expectancy has increased significantly and, importantly for this debate, in many communities in our nations, civil society is still strong and thriving. I for one am immensely grateful to be living in modern Britain and do not want to give any time to sentimental talk about a bygone era that probably never existed.
Nevertheless, some trends in society and in our political life are worrying and we cannot ignore them. Everyone here in Westminster is only too aware of the decline in the levels of voting and of increased apathy about politics. Those are not party-political issues: they are things that affect us right across the political spectrum. There are also the well-documented declines in volunteering, a decrease in the proportion of income that we give to charity and some evidence that charts a decline in our levels of well-being and happiness.
Those were just some of the issues that the House of Bishops raised in our letter, Who Is My Neighbour? As the letter stresses, we deliberately, and I believe successfully, avoided a document that was party political, although I know that some noble Lords do not agree and feel that we trespassed on to territory that they wish we had stayed away from. However, this morning I want to be absolutely clear that I tabled this debate not to attack the Government or indeed any political party. I sought this debate in an entirely non-partisan spirit, not wishing to single out any side as being particularly culpable, but rather to highlight the need for a fresh approach to politics that transcends tired polarisation. I hope that this debate will give us space and time to think about what can be done to strengthen our political life and reinvigorate civil society.
I am convinced that there is urgent work to be done to establish a new politics that seeks the common good. Indeed, I am keen that we will be able to explore the forms that such an approach to politics might take and the role that churches, charities and voluntary organisations, and indeed all intermediate institutions, can play in moving us in that direction.
I have already mentioned that we are marking the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta next Monday. As noble Lords may be aware, the first meeting about Magna Carta took place in 1213 in St Albans Abbey, which today is my cathedral, although it was another two years before King John had his arm twisted to seal it. That sealing marked a major shift in devolving power and so strengthened the role of civil society. The church was deeply involved in those events leading up to the sealing of the charter led by Archbishop Stephen Langton’s opposition to King John. Part of the charter relates to the protection of the rights and responsibility of groups other than the barons, including the church. So we perhaps might frame today’s debate in terms of how the legacy of Magna Carta can be both developed and strengthened further in our time.
I return to today. We are all aware of the widespread and well-documented disillusionment with the current state of political discourse. Politics of the common good was not much on display during the general election campaign. Rather, I suggest, identity politics prevailed, with headline policies repeatedly demonstrating the belief that voters are fundamentally driven by self-interest. That is not to say that politicians deliberately go around driving wedges between different social groups. Nevertheless, we have all seen how this retail politics generates even more entrenched polarisation, closing the door on potentially constructive collaboration. Such tribalism also ignores the diversity of participants that we urgently need in order to bring long-lasting social, economic and political change.
As the House of Bishops’ letter pointed out, disillusionment with politics has been expressed in falling turnouts at general elections since the Second World War to below two-thirds of the population. The declining number of people exercising their democratic right to vote reflects a worrying level of non-participation. Many are choosing instead to boycott the established democratic channels, as evidenced in interventions made by Russell Brand and more recently by Charlotte Church, for example, and the concomitant rise of single-issue politics through online and social media campaigns.
Alongside voter disillusionment and apathy, there is also widespread concern among politicians, social commentators and community leaders over the gradual weakening of civil society in the western world, as attested to in research such as that provided by the British Social Attitudes survey. This decline can be discerned in the decreasing number of people who are willing to be actively involved in their communities, such as by volunteering, being on a PTA, being a school governor, leading scouts and guides, or being part of a neighbourhood watch scheme. While everyone seems to agree that these are eminently sensible and good things, fewer people are prepared to personally undertake them.
As part of this declining sense of mutual responsibility and community life, we have also experienced growing levels of loneliness and isolation, especially among the elderly through the more general loss of what the House of Bishops’ letter terms “neighbourliness”. The loneliness, solitariness and isolation that we have diagnosed as a significant feature in our society are also related to aspects of our welfare system. We are all aware of and agree that we are facing profound challenges, and it is not likely to help us find a way forward if we all lapse into familiar defensive positions. We need a new rationale for state welfare that is about incentivising human connectivity. Like all rationales for welfare, it rests of course on a tension or a paradox: how do you support those who cannot fully support themselves without creating disincentives for others to be self-supporting? How do you introduce incentives for neighbourliness without generating dependency in others?
All welfare policies have to negotiate these paradoxes. We require a justification for welfare policies that encourages more community involvement, promotes local neighbourliness where possible, and turns to state provision only where there is no community to mediate care and support. In other words, where there is nothing between the individual and the state, it can be dehumanising. If we are to increase levels of neighbourliness, our welfare strategies need to be geared towards that end just as much as to other areas of policy. All of us, including the churches, need to think beyond a case-by-case opposition to welfare cuts; rather, we need to commit to rethinking what welfare ought to be for our times, and how this can promote and not erode neighbourliness.
The decline in neighbourliness is linked at least in part with our politics. As many people have experienced an increasing sense of disfranchisement and powerlessness, there has also been an increase in the centralised nature of much of the power in this country. This is utterly counter to the spirit of Magna Carta, and there is much agreement across the political spectrum that accumulations of power, whether those of the state, corporations or individuals, are fundamentally unhealthy.
We must therefore seek to reverse these accumulations of power, if we are going to enable civil society to play its proper part, by involving people at a deeper level in the decisions that affect them most. This entails the recognition of the unique contribution of each citizen, not only out of a desire to honour the dignity of each human person but as an acknowledgment that viable solutions to the social problems that we all contend with require broad participation.
In this, I advocate a return to the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity that undergirded and predated the big-society agenda of the 2010 election campaign. We must not dismiss those ideas on the basis that they did not achieve at their last airing all that we might have hoped. The big-society sense of community and common life has been described by the academic Robert Putnam as “social capital”. The call for power to be devolved must not be mistaken for simply enabling citizens to secure their own narrow interests more directly. If more and more power is given to local communities, we cannot automatically presume that they will use that power for the greater good of everyone in that community—they might use it to increase nimbyism. For example, as we are faced with a shortage of housing in this country, on what basis can we presume that devolving greater powers to local areas will break the logjam? Indeed, some people argue that devolving the planning of housing could just as easily stop building.
As we devolve power more locally, we need it to be accompanied with a higher level of what Putnam terms “bridging social capital”, which he differentiates from “bonding social capital”. Bridging social capital is about the common good. I will elucidate that distinction a little, if I may, because it is quite helpful. Bonding social capital is where a group of people have such a strong sense of identity that they look after one another. For example, in clubs and associations, members may lend each other their mowers, do each other’s shopping or babysit for one another. That is all very good, but bonding social capital can be exclusive and does not necessarily look out for people who, for example, are new to the area. Communities based on bonding social capital can quickly become cliques of like-minded people who are extremely friendly, but—this is the important point—they are friendly just to each other.
In contrast, bridging social capital is demonstrated where a club or a group of people is so confident in itself that it can reach out to people who do not belong to it. This form of social capital is inclusive, giving people the confidence to meet strangers and encountering those who are different. Bridging social capital is evident in the existence of many of the institutions that comprise our national lives, such as our schools, hospitals, hospices and so on.
The church continues to be the locus for myriad contributions to civic society. In my diocese, we run centres for the homeless in Bedford, Luton, Watford and St Albans. We are involved with key partners in a homelessness project in Stevenage. We have four debt advice centres. We are involved in a number of credit unions; indeed, just a few weeks ago a leading credit union opened a new branch in one of our churches in Bedford. Noble Lords will also be aware of the large number of food banks that have been set up all over the country.
I mention those not to blow our own trumpets, because I am profoundly aware of how little we are able to scratch the surface. Nor do I want to get into a discussion in this debate about why, for example, we have food banks. That is not what I think this debate is primarily about. The question I am asking today is: what can we do to encourage the development of more intermediate institutions, which are the places where we are most likely to build bridging social capital? The acceptance of the imperative to devolve power leaves us with questions of how we ensure the presence of strong communities that can accept this power and use it for the common good. Thus, intermediate institutions play a foundational role, as neighbourhoods are built on institutions that are strong enough to enable people to move away from the language of “I” and “me” to the language of “us” and “we”.
I very much hope that this debate will be a constructive forum in which we can explore how to go forward in facilitating the mutual flourishing of communities and how we might strengthen our political life as a nation. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for introducing the debate. It is a pleasure to take part in it. He was absolutely right in saying that the report is a genuine attempt to set out a moral vision of our country based on the Christian faith. It is a vision to which people of other faiths and no faith will, I hope, be able to subscribe. As the right reverend Prelate said, it is very clear that this is not in any way a political statement by the church and it does not support any political party. It explicitly says that it seeks to transcend the left and the right and makes it clear that it is concerned with human flourishing and the common good. It recognises the limits of economics. Whether one is in favour of greater state intervention or of strengthening the market economy, an economic view has limitations. The report argues that we need, as has been said, a vibrant civil society made up of strong families of different communities and networks underpinned by certain values.
I would like to make two comments on what has been said. First, I very much welcome the endorsement of civil society. Freedom and the rule of law are fundamental to our way of life and a market economy is, I believe, key to our prosperity, but human flourishing is about more than consumer choice, free markets or globalisation. The family, the neighbourhood, the school, the church, the synagogue, the temple and the mosque are all important to the well-being of society. Adam Smith recognised this when he argued that moral sentiments such as sympathy, beneficence and generosity were crucial to a society—qualities not guaranteed in a commercial society. Edmund Burke also recognised this when he talked about the “little platoons”. As has been said, this was at the heart of the big society—something which the bishops’ report recognises and strongly applauds. The big society is not about replacing government with laissez-faire or about a political programme. It is about the moral responsibility of individuals, and of the communities of which they are part, and of their potential to act for the common good when they are provided with the opportunity to do so. There is a distinctive Christian perspective here—that of the church taking a lead in reawakening the spiritual energy of people and our society.
The question I asked as I read the report was: does the church have anything to add to what a government welfare department or organisation might do? I think that it does. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has already shown how beneficial credit unions are when accompanied by encouraging the neighbourliness of which we have heard. The success of church schools lies in more than simply providing a technical education. Another question I found myself asking was: are there areas in our society today where the church could do more in the areas of health, care for the elderly and training, especially for excluded young people?
Secondly, we cannot address the issue of civil society, which is really about the redistribution of income, without addressing the issue of the creation of income. As has been pointed out by many, Who Is My Neighbour? was inspired by the parable of the Good Samaritan, who brought bandages, oil and wine for the victim and a donkey on which to put him. He took care of the victim and paid out two silver coins. People in our society, let alone government, cannot meet the needs they see around them without the resources to do so. The first resource is the income which comes from a job.
In looking back over the last five years, I was disappointed that the report said it was good news that,
“unemployment has not risen as high as was predicted”,
given that 2 million jobs have been created in the last few years in a very turbulent and difficult world economy. Unemployment is much lower in Britain today—it is at the level of Germany and the US—than it is in France, Italy and Spain. Jobs have been created because the Government had to take very tough decisions. Labour Governments took the same decisions in the late 1960s, 1970s and in the late 1990s. I believe that without a strong economy we cannot have a strong civil society.
In conclusion, I am convinced that the church, and more generally faith-based organisations, can play an important part in civil society. If, however, as the report claims, the Christian faith is a world view, it must be comprehensive. It must address wealth creation as well as wealth redistribution. Alongside the language of caring, community and neighbourliness —the big society—we also need to hear from the church of enterprise, aspiration and reward to make greater generosity and neighbourliness the foundation of the kind of civil society we all want to see in this country.
My Lords, what a lovely offering for Members of your Lordships’ House to have one Griffiths followed by another. It may never happen again and I hope noble Lords will make a note in their minds of the fact that they were here when it happened. In Fforestfach and in Burry Port the two Griffiths would be distinguished from each other, not by their political persuasions but because one is “Griff church” and the other is “Griff chapel”, so it is from a more angular view that I shall comment on the issues that have been raised.
I live near the Old Street roundabout, “Silicon Roundabout”, where buildings are going up at a rate of noughts and high-tech industries are being created by the hundred day by day. Just up the road is the forthcoming development that will be so good when it happens—we have been disrupted for so many years—of the Crossrail station linking Liverpool Street with all the other places. At the Old Street roundabout—now no longer ours but until recently it was—stands the Leysian Mission. It was a mission outpost for the pupils and alumni of The Leys school in Cambridge—a Methodist school. Between the two wars the mission was a terrific place for addressing poverty. People would come in voluntarily to attend to the needs of suffering people during times of depression, offering clothing, food, recreation and a fight for justice. There was a poor man’s lawyer, a crèche and all those things. Thousands of people were helped.
The Second World War damaged the buildings and they were not quite as useful afterwards, but more importantly the welfare state made many of the services being offered no longer necessary or apposite. As I look back from this vantage point to the fact that such institutions—Toynbee Hall is another—lost their focus for proper reasons, I sometimes ask myself whether there was an unintended consequence of the creation of the welfare state. Let there be no mistake about it—I am a prime beneficiary of all the provisions of the welfare state, having enjoyed national assistance, national health, education and all the rest of it through all the instrumentalities that flowed from the creation of the welfare state. However, the unintended consequence is that it sort of diminished the perceived need for voluntary activity in community action and work. We have to work hard in the economic climate that we are now living through to rediscover and reinvigorate that sense of voluntarism. The voluntary sector is picking up, whether or not it wants to, on much of the work done by public institutions which are finding their budgets severely threatened. It is important to recreate this voluntary sector, as there will be a lot more work for it to do.
I want to focus on another side of the Silicon Roundabout. Right opposite diametrically is the Central Foundation Boys’ School. I am the chair of trustees for that and the girls’ school in Tower Hamlets. I want to point to the plight of a group of volunteers who serve as governors of that school. At the beginning of the previous Parliament, two education Bills were pushed through that made the academisation of our education system more rapid. The Queen’s Speech has promised another such Bill, which will make it almost impossible to stop the tide of this one-size-fits-all approach to solving our educational problems. I do not want to go into that for the moment. That school is not yet an academy—it may have to become one—but headmasters, headmistresses and governors are being given much more responsibility for running multimillion pound businesses without necessarily any of the skills or the salaries that go with that. They are accountable only to central government—nothing local at all. I simply warn your Lordships that there are impending problems in this area, as those who have not been trained to run businesses find themselves up against obstacles that they cannot solve. One of the glories of the voluntary sector in this country is the governance of schools—how many people give hours and hours of their time for this purpose—and the present economic and political situation will threaten this wonderful tradition in British society if we are not careful.
The last time I addressed the subject of the report WhoIs My Neighbour? was, of all things, at Gray’s Inn, in the chapel there, when I preached the Mulligan sermon about a month ago. It is to remember a judgment made by Lord Atkin—another fine Welshman; I just wish his name had been Griffiths as well—as long ago as 1932. The rule he made to deal with a proliferation of precedents in the application of the common law was to prove foundational for all subsequent judgments. The Donoghue v Stevenson case had to do with someone who manufactured ginger beer, someone who sold it, someone who drank it and, to her consternation, discovered coming out of the bottle that she was pouring on to her ice cream a decomposing snail. Your Lordships can see that the opportunity to preach some pretty vivid sermons arises from these circumstances.
The point is that the dear Lord Atkin of Aberdovey concluded that there was a duty of care and a question of negligence in law not only between the manufacturer and his client, who sold it in the restaurant, and not only between the owner of the restaurant and the person who bought it, but also to the person who had received for nothing the gift from her friend, the bottle in which the snail was to be found. The dear Lord concluded that the duty of care—the laws of negligence—could not be applied in the courts other than restrictively and he longed for theologians and those into moral theology to look at the question of the unrestricted applicability of the duty of care and the question of negligence. It is the job of the church to do that. We want to point to the fact that this duty of care ought to apply generally, not just in the restricted way that the courts feel obliged to apply it.
It is the duty of politics, of course, to take those understandings and—since politics is the law of the possible—with its own restrictions address them. Who is my neighbour, the duty of care and the question of negligence are questions for British society as a whole and nobody should attack the church for raising them in a general way, even though we in politics must then see what we can do by way of response.
My Lords, one of the things which I do frequently in the course of my work is to talk to students, often from abroad, about the composition and work of your Lordships’ House. Every time that I do, I come to a point where I talk about the presence of the Bishops in the House. A look of puzzlement then comes across the faces of the students and, depending on where in the world they come from, there are some pretty strange and strong reactions and we have a debate about it. I always get to the point where I say, “Well, look at the United States. It was founded on the principle of the separation of church and state, but no politician would ever dare to go against the prevailing religious orthodoxy, and the consequences are that ethical matters are decided not by the body politic but in the courts”. I contrast that with our politics here, where the church plays and has played an active part in our discussions and politicians make those decisions. It is an interesting point, which we always go through, and I thank the right reverend Prelate for reminding us of the value in that and the history of how we got to that point.
The document Who Is My Neighbour? came through my letterbox when I was in the process of delivering thousands and thousands of leaflets through other people’s letterboxes. It was an uplifting document and it made me think profoundly about why I was out doing what I was doing. I note that there is a request in the report that we do not take the document as a bolstering of our own particular party point of view. However, I think that it is fair to say to the right reverend Prelate that all political parties are struggling with the fact that the drivers and determinants of economic development are becoming increasingly global, while the effects of economic change are disproportionately local. As people who operate at a national level but also as politicians within communities at a local level, the assistance of the church over the next few years in seeking to understand and mitigate the effects of that will be of immense importance. Populations and economics change but the church endures.
In many ways, the document echoes one called Call to Action for the Common Good, which was issued by the Carnegie UK Trust—a trust which is the product of Mammon at its most visceral but is working for the common good, albeit in a secular fashion. In the 2014 document, civil society leaders identified some principles which they thought should govern public policy. First, we should be investing in tomorrow. We should not be tempted to act for short-term profits but should take decisions which will reduce harm to future generations. The second principle was that everybody must do their bit: the state, business and civil society, including religious organisations, all have a responsibility to empower people to contribute by building their own solutions in their own communities. Principle number three was that we should get connected and move away from narrow functional or commercial transactions between individuals, with every person being an island, and become partners for good.
Those principles are a way of reenergising and reimagining democracy. It is what David Goodhart from Demos described as a,
“new kind of liberalism that is concerned not just with individual autonomy but also the nature of our institutions and the quality of our relationships with one another”.
I do not know whether there was any collusion between the Bishops and the leaders of civil society when they issued their documents, but I see a fair degree of common understanding. That bodes well because I joined a political party which stood at that time on a phrase which some Members will remember: community politics. Reflecting on that, I see that the great problem for us throughout was that we never had any worked-out community economics to go with the community politics. I rather think that in future those of us who stand for liberalism and wish to protect it, in particular against the narrow nationalism that some would wish to return to, will have to develop a new narrative of community politics to go with our community economics.
I will end with two points. The document was a helpful guide to those of us who are trusted not just with participating in democracy but enhancing it for future generations. It was particularly eloquent in the passages on being a society: not a society of strangers but a community of communities. But—and this is a point for the Bishops—I am your neighbour. I am also a very proud member of the lesbian, gay and transgender community and the studied omission of us from this document—I think it was a studied omission because I have listened to all the other things that the church has said—is, to some of us, regrettable. To lesbian, gay and transgender Christians, it is hurtful.
I am an optimist and I look forward to the point in the not-too-distant future when the church—not just the Church of England, but other churches—will recognise that we are your neighbours, your friends and your family, and that we have a contribution to make to the common good. I am confident that we are getting closer to a time when we will share that understanding, and I look forward to working with noble Lords, particularly the Bishops, to further that understanding.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for bringing us this debate. I do not believe that the matters raised in the letter should be restricted to the people and parishes of the Church of England, so I speak as a rabbi serving a large congregation in central London. Our theology may be rather different from that of the Church of England, although our relationships are very close.
I particularly commend what was said in the letter about power, identity and minorities, for we read:
“The politics of migration has, too often, been framed in crude terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ with scant regard for the Christian traditions of neighbourliness and hospitality”.
These traditions are by no means only Christian—biblical texts from the Old Testament about loving your neighbour and welcoming the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt apply to Jews, Christians, Muslims and plenty of others. The phrase:
“You shall love your neighbour as yourself”,
comes from Leviticus. We had it first.
The letter goes on to say:
“The way we talk about migration, with ethnically identifiable communities being treated as ‘the problem’ has, deliberately or inadvertently, created an ugly undercurrent of racism in every debate about immigration”.
I cannot say often enough how true that is. However, all this goes beyond the concerns just for the Church of England. Shortly before the election, the Bishop of Manchester wrote a piece in the Guardian just as we were beginning to see the waves of desperate migrants drowning as a result of leaky boats, immoral people traffickers and a forlorn hope for a better life. As he put it,
“migration got a face, a human face. It’s not usually handled like that across much of the UK media, but the tragic plight of desperate families drowning in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean into Europe forced us out of our comfortable discourse about an amorphous ‘them’”.
We all saw those pictures then; it was only seven weeks ago. The truth is that we are already tired of seeing those pictures—they no longer make the front pages. Our politicians of all parties talk too much of traffickers and too little of the people who are desperate for a better life, fleeing war-torn regions, sometimes as the result of the UK’s intervention, as in Libya, or those genuinely fleeing in fear of their lives as ISIS threatens to behead Christians, or does so, with YouTube evidence there for all to see. For those few days, in late April and early May, migrants looked to us like real human beings, not the “cockroaches” that one particular columnist had described them as a few days earlier. We could see their desperation and the horrors they were fleeing.
Seventy-seven or so years ago, many members of my family were also desperate, fleeing the Nazi regime in Germany. Many failed to get out but some, with the greatest of good fortune, were able to come to this country because of a group of brave and far-sighted British diplomats—Robert Smallbones, Arthur Dowden and Frank Foley come to mind. They were all good Christians who helped terrified and desperate people—mostly Jews, but not all—escape the horrors. Because of the hospitality of many people in civil society—Christians, Jews, non-believers, ordinary working British people, and the voluntary and civil society groups working together—some 70,000 people or more were saved and welcomed. That was, I believe, a good thing. I certainly would not be here today if that had not been the case.
I do not believe that, in the end, we will be able to refuse to take any of these thousands of desperate people making the journey from Africa in dangerous and terrible circumstances, despite government rhetoric. Indeed, I shall be ashamed of my country if we do not take any. I do not believe that the British people are always so unwelcoming. We run a drop-in centre for asylum seekers at my synagogue, which is hugely popular with volunteers in civil society—Jews, Christians and
Muslims alike. They want to make the case that we should be offering a welcome and hospitality to desperate people. They recognise their neighbours.
The Bishop of Manchester rightly said that the,
“political rhetoric that characterises them as wilful criminals … is as unworthy as it is untrue”.
The House of Bishops letter to the people and parishes of the Church of England rightly took the politicians to task for giving in to the hostility to migrants shown by some sections of society and set our nation a challenge. As the Minister responds to this debate, I hope he will comment on what the Government, newly elected, will do to make new migrants welcome and to tackle the vile language that defines immigrants as a problem and allows “asylum seeker” to be a term of abuse in the playgrounds of Britain. I hope that he will also refer to what can be done to make those who come able to find friends and occupation instead of hostility and abuse.
However, it is not only about government, as the letter rightly says, although government is there to set a lead. It is also about ordinary people. I have seen people from mosques, gurdwaras, temples, churches and synagogues coming together to help desperate asylum seekers. I have seen them helping with food banks, establishing cafes for the hungry and establishing winter night shelters for the homeless. Interestingly, there is no shortage of volunteers for these programmes—in fact we have to turn them away. People are only too keen to help.
This may be the big society about which we have heard so much. But it is the big society envisaged by people motivated by their faith or their moral concerns, not as prescribed by government. We need to rethink the big society. It is, as the right reverend Prelate put it, a good thing as a concept but it needs to be reimagined. These people who help and who volunteer do not like the language they hear about immigrants or the fact that people are homeless and freezing in our wealthy democracy. As the bishops wrote to the churches, I believe we need a new vision of the kind of society we want to live in, and that government and voluntary sector leaders need to talk to the nation together. The language of hate should be termed unacceptable. This is not about a Christian message alone; it is about a human one. I very much hope that the Government might heed some of the messages in the letter, so that we might hear a different and more human voice from government and the voluntary sector together about immigrants and asylum seekers in the wake of this debate.
My Lords, this is a crucial debate about our future well-being, because our country can only thrive and be at ease with itself if citizens of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds are empowered to participate. I am therefore grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for tabling the Motion but also for spurring me on to reread the excellent pastoral letter.
The letter rightly speaks of the new direction our politics ought to take. The present system, which has served us well, is broken. Huge swathes of the population do not participate either as members of political parties or, more importantly, through exercising their democratic right to vote. Putting that cross in a box is a powerful act that can change the way in which we are governed at local, national and European levels, but too many think it is irrelevant to their lives. How many times do we hear on the doorstep, “What’s the point?”, “It won’t make any difference”, “You’re all the same, you’re only in it for yourselves” or, “I don't know enough about politics to vote”? I find it deeply depressing that only 43% of young people voted in the general election, whereas 78% of the over-65s voted. We are failing these young people. It is not that they are apathetic—far from it, they might be frustrated but they are also enthusiastic and creative; they know how to navigate the digital world in which we live—but their energies are channelled elsewhere. It is great that the older generation participated but younger people are our hope; they are our future and democracy needs their participation.
This in turn means that Governments focus more on policies for older people—with the dreadful exception of social care—so that young people find voting even more irrelevant. Our political system becomes even more remote because policies respond not to their needs, only to what decision-makers perceive as their needs. It is also clear that many people who lead the most challenging lives do not vote. For example, only one-third of people with learning disabilities vote. I pay tribute to a fantastic initiative, My Vote Counts from Gloucestershire Voices, an organisation run by and for people with learning disabilities.
We have to change the system. We should embrace community politics, working with and for communities, listening and engaging not lecturing, and focusing on the common good—on which the right reverend Prelate spoke. Enough of the adversarial politics, the shouting and hectoring, and enough of the adversarial approach to ideas in which opponents must always be wrong. It will be no surprise that I disagree with some of the Government’s policies. I simply do not understand why they will not allow 16 and 17 year-olds to vote on their future in the EU referendum, especially as we have evidence from Scotland about engagement and participation. However, I strongly support government initiatives such as the National Citizen Service and encourage my party to do likewise.
That brings me to active citizenship and volunteering, which are good for the individuals concerned and for the people and communities they seek to help: a win-win situation. I am proud to be a member of Step Up To Serve’s advisory council and I work closely with the NCS and other fantastic organisations such as City Year, London Citizens and Girlguiding UK. They do a tremendous job supporting young people to become volunteers, as well as nurturing their life and leadership skills, giving them confidence and enhancing their CVs. They help our youngsters create change, shape the world around them and build communities. Personally, I would like to explore the idea of extending the City Year model of a year of service to more organisations, as they do in the US—but that is for another day. Sadly, many of these organisations lack leaders—people prepared to give their own time. For example, I understand that more than 40,000 young boys would like to become Scouts but there are simply not enough leaders in their communities to help them. Much more needs to be done to ensure that the quality of volunteering makes the experience worth while for all concerned.
However, this is not just a matter for the voluntary organisations themselves. The state has a role. Funding is needed to train and support volunteers. Volunteering must always provide added value and never be a means of displacing paid jobs. The Government must invest in volunteering to ensure that citizens have the time and resources to engage in community life, and that they are empowered. The pastoral letter is absolutely right when it says that,
“a modern nation, where ties of kindred and neighbourliness are often very weak, requires state-sponsored action to underpin the welfare of each citizen”.
As a new report by Citizens Advice suggests, we need a new form of responsive volunteering which can address current social challenges such as an ageing population, loneliness and isolation, increased pressure on public services and labour-market insecurity. There are some fantastic examples around—for example, the superb volunteering scheme at King’s College Hospital and the charity Care Home Volunteers—but the potential is huge for volunteers and society.
This also raises the question of the devolution of power, of which the right reverend Prelate spoke. This is welcome but power should not only be devolved to local authorities, it must also flow to civil society and communities so that they can play their proper part in the decisions that affect them most. We also have to ensure that they are strong enough, have the requisite capacity to use those powers, and adhere to the principle, of which I have learnt today, of bridging social capital. Power must be shared between generations. Segregation and mistrust between the old and the young harms the communities that we need to rebuild and build.
In passing, I would like to say a word to local planners and developers. Vast new housing estates in which there are no shops, cafes, doctors’ surgeries or community facilities are simply not acceptable. This point is well understood by housing associations, which provide a socially useful good that is often much wider than the homes that they build and maintain. I met with the excellent Two Rivers Housing Association in the Forest of Dean on Monday to discuss the specific challenges that it would face in rural areas if it had to sell more homes. Even if it received an influx of capital receipts, which is unlikely, it could not spend the money in the villages of the Forest of Dean, where I live, because land is too expensive. I also learnt of the good things that it is doing to diversify, including setting up an ethical estate agency—no, that is not an oxymoron—and a facilities management service, which provides apprenticeships, training and jobs for local people, often tenants, paying the living wage. This is another means of investing in and sustaining the local community, as well as the charity itself, which would be under threat from the right to buy. Like credit unions and other intermediate institutions, housing associations have a strong unifying potential, serving poor people and others, but also wanting to benefit the wider community.
There is so much more to say about civil society and new politics and communities—not looking back with rose-tinted spectacles to the bygone era of the past, but responding to the needs of our citizens in the 21st century. I very much hope that we will have further opportunities to debate this issue.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for initiating this debate, and the opportunity to reflect on the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter, which, although issued in the context of an election, was written in the hope that it would provide an ongoing stimulus to thinking and reflecting on the shape of our society and the kind of society that we wish to be. Not least, it will provide something of a challenge to the churches, to which it is primarily addressed, but to others also, to discover afresh something that is a treasure and very much part of our story. Reference has been made to Magna Carta, and as Bishop of Rochester I would be remiss not to remind noble Lords of the existence of the Textus Roffensis, which predates the Magna Carta, although it is not quite so long, and which also merits celebration.
There is a noble and worthy story that goes right back into the deep roots of our society and which we do well to remember. Part of that story is characterised by the word that has already been used extensively in your Lordships’ debate today: neighbourliness. It is about the kind of society that we wish to be and the practical and often very local ways in which we might seek to give expression to that. It is about seeking something that may look and feel like fullness of life for all. Crucially, as we have already heard, it is about the instruments in our society, particularly those that we have described as intermediary, that have the capacity to foster local initiative and local response and give support to those who respond, often very rapidly, to things that they see on their own doorsteps.
The pastoral letter had some initial responses, and the responses may have become more measured since it was first issued, as people have actually taken the time to read and think. However, it has to be confessed that it was not a document written with ease of soundbite in mind. There is some quite nuanced argumentation in there, and I am delighted that noble Lords have clearly read it carefully and are engaging with some of the subtlety of argument within it. It seeks to move beyond the rather sterile language of right and left, private provision and public provision, and so forth, and leads us towards something that is perhaps richer and more inclusive. It asserts that,
“approaches to the well being of the nation could not succeed unless social relationships were marked by neighbourliness, strong voluntary commitment and personal responsibility”,
and bringing those together is crucial.
The reason why I think we can have some hope about our capacity as a nation to foster this kind of life and society and foster the flourishing of the intermediate institutions of civil society is that actually we have a very good basis on which to do it. Up and down the land, day by day, week by week, things are going on that are expressive of the kind of thing that we are aspiring to strengthen and see. Reference has already been made to a number of initiatives and projects. In schools, for example, there is not just what goes on during the school day but what goes on around the school day, before and after school clubs, parenting courses and things like that. There is the care of the elderly and the bereaved. There are still 330,000 Church of England-officiated funerals every week in our nation, and pastoral care goes on around that. If we add the other churches and faith traditions to that picture, it is substantial.
I heard only yesterday of a rather inspiring initiative to have a toddler group meeting in a care home for people with dementia. I thought that was wonderful. That is the kind of thing one would love to see replicated, because it has so much potential for both the people suffering from dementia and the youngsters and their families. There are other kinds of activities. Reference has been made to the ones we are all very familiar with: food banks, shelters for the homeless and so on.
In relation to churches, I shall mention some of the initiatives for the creative use of church buildings, not least in rural communities where post offices have now been located in churches, as well as community hubs, internet cafes and the like for the enhancement of those communities. Those things are becoming established now.
There are just a couple of things I would like to draw to your Lordships’ attention as particular initiatives that may merit celebration, affirmation and extension. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury is well known for his campaigning in relation to payday loans and other such things, campaigns that have some considerable fruitfulness. What is less well known is some of the other work that is flowing out of that initiative. The task group which he established to look at matters of credit has initiated some really imaginative work with schools. I am delighted that in my own diocese in the Borough of Bromley we now have the Lewisham + Credit Union working with primary schools and some of our church schools to provide education to young children in financial management, budgeting and those sorts of things. It has established a savings club so that they can learn to save at that young age. Who knows what the effects would be for a generation and beyond if we could have the civil society structures, as it were, to make it possible to replicate that in other places?
The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, referred to housing associations. A little research report, Our Common Heritage, was published today, which examines the relationship, historic and present, between the churches, housing associations and the voluntary housing sector. While there is a noble heritage there, there is also a challenge, not least to the churches, about how, for example, we can use our continuing resources of land and buildings for the benefit of our society through the provision of affordable and social housing. There is a challenge there, and a piece of work has already begun that has yet to be completed.
In my capacity as bishop to prisons, I am astounded as I visit prisons and criminal justice projects of one sort or another by the contribution of volunteering and voluntary-sector organisations in that world in mentoring, programmes to combat offending behaviour, resettlement schemes and much else besides.
This is addressed to churches and other organisations and faith communities, because we are actually rather well placed to offer those spaces and platforms for people to come together in common concern and action for the well-being of society and the flourishing of the communities in which we are set.
In closing, if there is one plea to government it is to try to make sure that there are not too many barriers that get in our way. Yes, we need things such as safeguarding provision, but there are other things that could be quietly got out of the way in order to free us to respond to these opportunities.
The speakers list as published by the authorities of the House this morning makes engaging reading, with myself and my friend and noble friend Lord Cormack down co-jointly to be the eighth speaker. I do not want to alarm the House by suggesting that we may be entering into some sort of lordly duet; we have done a deal through the usual channels that I will stand now and he will stand later. Still, it is a thought, as procedure develops in your Lordships’ House, that we might have a bit of this.
Equally engaging has been the report from the House of Bishops, on which I congratulate them. It is an interesting read and I agree with quite a lot in it. I do not want to alarm them by saying that, but I do. I was fascinated by the fact that it is termed a “pastoral letter”. It seems to be a bit of an innovation for the Anglican Church to refer to such things as pastoral letters. Whatever next? Will we shortly be having encyclicals issued ex cathedra by the most reverend Primates from their cathedrals in Canterbury or York? I await that with great interest.
By comparison, Catholics have long been used to pastoral letters, generally shortish and pithy, to be read out by parish priests at the direction of their bishops as a substitute for Sunday sermons, on everything from the need to go to confession more regularly to the need to help the poor, the lonely or those who are imprisoned. This all goes back to the opening of these issues by that great Victorian Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Manning, who fearlessly waded into secular matters, which I welcome any bishop, or indeed any faith leader, doing at any time. He was on the commission by the then Prince of Wales—Princes of Wales do this kind of thing—on housing for the working classes, in the latter part of Victorian times, and spent four hours talking to dockers, trying to bring about peace in the dock strike in the 1880s. So this is a strong tradition, and many of these things led to the doctrine of subsidiarity. Many of them then got spun into those short, pithy pastoral letters that I was told to sit up and listen to in earlier days.
The House of Bishops, by comparison, has produced something much longer: a dense, detailed document that is almost a manifesto—I do not use that term in a political sense—about how to change, in its words,
“the trajectory of our political life”.
During the course of its 52 pages, which I have read, the bat is not swung at any political party or creed, which I think is a triumph. However, some people come in for it; people who are called “self-interested consumers” come in for a bit of battering by the Bench of Bishops, although I am not quite sure who they are. However, when you get to the end, where I was expecting the ultimate pithy description of what this new trajectory of our political life should be and how to get there, the answers are still a bit unclear. I think we need to sharpen the focus.
I would like to do that today by trying to look in particular at the charitable sector. In the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter there are certainly some passages on the charitable sector in the set of pages between page 35 and 38 on strengthening institutions, but they are rather brief. I want to look at the problems of charities in civil society under the magnifying glass—in a way that I do not think the House of Bishops quite did, but you cannot get everything into every pastoral letter, however short or indeed however long. I want to examine three big problems facing what I think of as “big charity”. There is a world of difference between the 150,000 or so smaller charities, which are very close to their communities and to grass roots, and the big players—the top 50 or 100 charities with big incomes—and how they behave.
In an age when we are all rightly concerned with ethical behaviour and with transparency, those who run big charity, compared with those who run the myriad little charities, have a few questions to answer at the moment about their behaviour. First, there are questions about how they approach ways of raising money from individuals—often the widows whose mite they seek to get their hands on—using direct-mail bombardment, direct texting campaigns and insidious forms of cold-calling in the case of some nameless charities, and using not volunteers but organisations with paid-for staff. That is wrong, so I welcome the Fundraising Standards Board taking issue with them and seeking to introduce new guidelines with regard to those poor, ethically challenging practices on behalf of the big charity world. I also welcome the fact that the Charities Minister in another place, Mr Rob Wilson, has spoken to some of them about putting their house in order.
Secondly, many find being approached in the streets by third-party marketers purporting to be fundraisers—a practice known colloquially as “chugging”—pretty disturbing. I know some people who would never dream of giving to a charity which chugs, because they think it is out of kilter with what should be the DNA of a charity, whether big or small. Therefore, in their use of direct mailing, cold-calling and chugging, some in the charity world—the top 50 or 100—are in a competitive race to the bottom of charitable behaviour, and I deplore that.
Thirdly, big charity—not all of it—undoubtedly pays some of its chief executives far too much in relation to the ideals and charitable DNA of those charities; not just people getting £100,000 a year but people being paid £200,000-plus a year. The right reverend Prelates are not paid anything remotely like that, and they give an example to us all of just making do—reusing old cassocks, that sort of thing. The Anglican
Church shows a lead on those matters which big charity could usefully follow.
All this increase in pay seems to be cheered on by the charities chief executives body, which is as much concerned about pay and rations as it is about pay and ethics. It is wrong. I far prefer the spirit of the anti-hunger charity Mary’s Meals, whose CEO, Magnus MacFarlane Barrow, recognising of course that staff have to be paid, and paid reasonably so that they can bring up their families, said:
“We have a conviction that those who are paid to work for Mary’s Meals should never be paid high salaries. This is because we work with some of the poorest people on earth, as well as tens of thousands of volunteers all over the world, and we would find it hard to do that while paying ourselves high salaries”.
I say, amen.
My Lords, I am rather disappointed that we have not had the duet. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, has put three very pertinent questions, and I am glad he has done so. As one who has led one of the largest charities, I think every one of those questions needs serious consideration.
I thank the bishops for their letter, which I have been rereading in preparation for this debate. I find it penetrating and challenging, and its analysis of what confronts us is very profound.
In introducing the debate, the right reverend Prelate spoke of connectivity. I could not agree more with the importance of understanding this need in society. I have the privilege to be the honorary president of Hospice at Home West Cumbria. We all know that all the research that has been done indicates that the overwhelming majority of people want to die at home—in the security of home, with friends around, in a familiar setting, and the rest. That is not cheap. I do not like to use these words, as they sound rather impersonal, but it is fairly labour intensive.
In my experience of Hospice at Home West Cumbria, I have been thrilled—and I do not use the word lightly—by the joint spirit between staff, volunteers, patients, families and the wider community, and that is typical of many other hospices working in the field. I do not want to overegg this but I keep being encouraged by the fact that in west Cumbria there is a very widespread feeling that this is our charity, and that is lovely. When there are fundraising events, the wider community is there participating in a lot of fun, because dying should not be a miserable business. It is therefore a real stimulus and a real joy for me to be involved in this work.
In picking up various messages in the letter, the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, emphasised immigration and asylum. I am glad that she did because I think that the report relates not only to those issues but to changing our psychology so that we celebrate diversity and see it as the essential richness of creation. We should therefore try not to manage it and react to it defensively but to embrace it as a new dynamic in our society.
However, there are one or two issues surrounding the role of the charity sector, in particular, which we need to consider. One is that, as the sector takes more and more responsibility for services which perhaps for too long we have seen as the exclusive preserve of the state, there is a danger of a subcontracting culture creeping in and of a management priority being to think about where the grants are going to be available and about what sort of work would enable the charity to continue its activity and so on, rather than saying, “On the basis of our experience and our analysis, what are the challenges we see? How can we persuade society to enable us to do that work?”. It is pioneering catalytic work which is the responsibility. The key to successful charitable work is, in my view, to be a catalyst for informing and generating a concern in society.
That brings me to the substance of yesterday’s business. I am very content to see the measures that are being taken on the regulation of charities, but let us be careful that we do not inadvertently become involved in a dumbing-down operation and that we do not throw away the baby with the bathwater. In introducing the charities Bill yesterday, the Minister said that the most trusted people in society are charity workers and that in fact it is politicians who are least trusted. There is a funny sort of contradiction there—that we are taking upon ourselves the responsibility of promoting regulation when the public trust the charities more than they trust us. We need to be very conscious of, and sensitive about, that.
My last point is that through my work in the voluntary charitable sector I have become completely convinced that one of the most important ways in which to serve the poor, the disadvantaged and the oppressed is through advocacy, but it must be advocacy based on engagement. The moment it starts to be just theoretical advocacy, it may still have great validity but it loses the key dimension of the advocacy that is available to charities—that they speak with the authority of engagement. We have to look very keenly at how we support and encourage charities and voluntary organisations to develop their advocacy and to be very full participators in the debate about public policy and the rest, because then that debate can be really informed from the grass roots upwards.
Of course, what none of us must ever forget is that if we are to have any kind of future worth living in, solidarity must be rediscovered. The right reverend Prelate was absolutely right: we have to stop just talking to the poor and the disadvantaged, and least of all to lecture them on their responsibilities; we need to stop talking about them and start talking with them, listening to them and speaking for them.
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for this debate and indeed for asking me to speak—I probably would not have noticed it if I had not been asked.
I cannot resist saying something about the famous case of Donoghue v Stevenson. There was a rehearing and, as far as I can remember, there was actually no snail.
The debate gives me an opportunity to say something about the commission on religion and belief in modern-day Britain, which I have the honour to chair. Part of our terms of reference are to examine how ideas of Britishness and national identity may be inclusive of a range of religions and beliefs and may in turn influence people’s self-understanding, and to explore how shared understandings of the common good may contribute to greater levels of mutual trust, collective action and a more harmonious society. To gain something from the public, we have been inviting institutions and individuals from all the religions, humanists and pagans to respond to a questionnaire that we sent out some months ago. We have held meetings in various parts of the United Kingdom and received help from a large number of organisations and individuals.
The question, “Who is my neighbour?”, has a large number of answers, from the global community to the village square. I would like to say something about local communities, the response to diversity within such communities and the recognition of a broader understanding of “Who is my neighbour?”. However, this response and recognition is, unfortunately, patchy. In Leeds, we were challenged by the suggestion that when we walked out of each of our churches we should look over the wall to see the other communities that are outside that wall. This raises the very real danger that, within our own comfort zone, we prefer to ignore those who are different from us. Much of it derives from ignorance of other groups, together with fear of the unknown and a reluctance to break down perceived barriers.
For many years, we have in this country subscribed to the theory and practice of multiculturalism. This seems to have been interpreted in many places and by agencies as meaning that, so long as English laws are not broken, each religious, and usually ethnic, group can live in its own community with its own language, rather than English, side by side with other communities but not communicating with them. This failure in many areas to make the effort to understand and support the culture of other groups or to work together as a wider community has led to forms of ghettoism in certain places and even, from time to time, the practices of forced marriage and honour killings—here, in the United Kingdom, and by those who are born in the United Kingdom. On the contrary, to try to create wider communities is in no way a failure to respect the personal identity and culture of other people. Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim demonstrations are of course entirely unacceptable, but they are the open manifestation of those who are not prepared to be tolerant of others, to try to understand or to try to create dialogue. Many other people hold the same views without taking that sort of unacceptable action.
There is much that we as citizens can do to take part in local initiatives. Across the country, our commission was told of the importance of local groups in small areas listening to and working with the local community. This is very much what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester was saying a few minutes ago. Many cities are actually a collection of neighbourhoods or urban villages. The impression I got was that work done by local people in the local small area was in many cases as good, and often better, than larger organisations going in and being seen to take over. For instance, taking part in the local football or cricket matches, tea parties, coffee mornings—although perhaps not during Ramadan, which is just about to take place—and so on are barrier breakers. The suggestion was made that other faiths and beliefs should be involved in important public occasions at local level, such as Remembrance Sunday.
We all need to be educated in religious literacy, and not only our children. We need to learn the culture of other communities and to celebrate diversity, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said. We should cease to be defensive and should reach out to other groups. We should join a local group and become involved. Underlying all this is the need for tolerance of others, respect for the views and cultures of others, drawing the distinction between reasoned criticism and closed-mind opposition to the cultures of other people. It is crucial to make genuine efforts to communicate and to have dialogues, with a desire to listen, to learn and not to teach.
I am reminded of the character in Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby. This is really what I am talking about and the minimum response that we should make towards those who are not like us and whom we do not understand. We all want to be treated fairly, politely and respectfully by others and we should treat others the same way. We should identify who our neighbours are in our local communities and reach out to them.
My Lords, yes, on Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby, of course there is no commandment greater than the second one, to,
“love thy neighbour as thyself”.
This is an interesting debate and we are all grateful to the right reverend Prelate for introducing it in the manner in which he did. I think every one of us is grateful for the letter. Pithy it is not. Although it is suffused with the spirit of charity, it does not exactly rival 1 Corinthians 13, but we can forgive that because it points to some extremely important things.
I am glad that the right reverend Prelate began with a reference to Magna Carta. On Monday some of us, God willing, will be at Runnymede to mark the 800th anniversary. I have been absent from your Lordships’ House on two days this week because this has been Magna Carta week in Lincoln. On Monday, the Princess Royal came to open our purpose-built Magna Carta vault, most of it donated by Lincolnshire philanthropist, David Ross, and housing the cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta in a wonderful setting.
As chairman of the Historic Lincoln Trust, my trustees and I had the task of raising the money for that. I was determined that we should share Magna Carta throughout Lincolnshire. Yesterday, we had another Magna Carta day. In the evening, we had a marvellous lecture from the noble Lord, Lord Judge. In the afternoon, he, the dean and I gave to over 100 schools in Lincolnshire a framed facsimile of Magna Carta—together with a translation, I hasten to add—and also a disc recording of Robert Hardy, the great actor, reading Magna Carta. The trust has made available one of these sets for every single school in Lincolnshire, and I hope that Magna Carta will have an honoured place on the walls and that the pupils will have the opportunity to listen to the recording and reflect. Had they been in the cathedral last night, they would have heard the noble Lord, Lord Judge, talk about the continuing relevance of Magna Carta—what the great Lord Denning called the greatest document in our constitutional history.
In a short debate, there is not a great opportunity for expanding at length, but I want to make two particular suggestions. I have made them before, but I will continue to make them until something is done about them. In a debate instituted by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury some months ago, and in an earlier debate too, I suggested that we should make Magna Carta year one in which the established church exercised some real leadership by seeking to bring together representatives not just of other Christian denominations but of all faiths within our country. As the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, made plain in her splendid speech, all the faiths have a stake in this. If you look at all the great faiths—Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh—there are certain defining characteristics. A thread runs through them all, each one of which could be encapsulated in that great commandment that I referred to at the beginning of my remarks.
I would like to see a charter drawn up by those of all faiths to underline what we have in common. At a time when there is such threat from extreme militancy, we need this. One of the things that we need to do in this context is to make young Muslims in our midst conscious of the threats to their great heritage being destroyed and bulldozed, perhaps even as we speak, in certain parts of the Middle East. It is as much their possession as anyone else’s, and they should be made aware. I would like that leadership.
Leading on from that, I have several times in your Lordships’ House talked about the importance of citizenship. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, referred to this in her perceptive remarks—it is good to have her taking part actively from the Back Benches now. Citizenship cannot just be imposed: it is an honour to be a citizen of a great country. Citizenship brings with it rights and responsibilities, many of which are indeed encapsulated in what I call the spirit of Magna Carta. I have often argued for this—the noble Lord, Lord Christopher, has been a great supporter and a group of us have met together on a number of occasions. I would like to see every young person, when he or she leaves full-time education, go through a citizenship ceremony having before that done some compulsory community service—I do not mind whether it is looking after National Trust properties or helping old people or young people—and then receive a scroll of citizenship.
That is done now with those who become British subjects. A ceremony that was derided when it was first suggested and the idea was first mooted is now very popular. It is something that we should encourage and lead all our young people towards, so that they truly feel part of the community in which they live and will contribute to it. Many of them do that already, but let us make it a little more structured. They should be proud above all of this great country of ours, which has, through the centuries, nurtured and developed the spirit of Magna Carta.
My Lords, it is a pleasure and privilege to take part in this debate. I look at the Bishops and say, “You have done a good service to this House and to the bishoprics in general”. I read every word of the letter—I do not often do that—because there were so many little gems. The words were put together so well that they resonated with me. As I reflected on them, I made the decision that I would like to make a contribution to the debate.
The phrase in the letter that I want to address is this:
“Today, a fundamental question is about the extent of social solidarity in Britain. Are we a ‘society of strangers’, or are we a ‘community of communities’?”
The bishops and their colleagues have put together a cogent argument for dealing with these problems, some of which have their roots in the political field. I only wish that I could have read the letter before the last general election and passed it on to my friends. I would have said, “There is something good in here and we ought to be able to work out one or two new lines of communication”.
My main contribution is to refer to the fact I am a member of many families. This House itself is a family when your situation is what mine is. Sadly, in the past six years my wife and two sons have died. Before that, I would say to colleagues who lost a loved one, “I know how you feel”, but no one knows how you feel until it happens to you. Then, when you look around, or perhaps do not look around, your good friends come out of the woodwork and they demonstrate that they are members of a family of which you are a member as well.
When I was a boy, my dad had been on the dole for 10 years. I passed the 11-plus, but could not go because of circumstances. I knew that I had a degree in me, and when eventually the Open University came along, I graduated first with a BA and then an honorary MA. The Open University is a family to me because it does things that benefit so many people. When I first went to classes with the Open University, I sat next to an 85 year-old lady who was up to the job. She demonstrated completely what the university was: it was the university of the second chance. My second chance came along and I took it, and from that so many other fields have come along.
One of the families which has been talked about is that of your neighbours. I live in a cul-de-sac of four houses, and I am at No. 2. No. 3 has a lovely family with two little children. Twice a week, without asking for it, there is a knock on the window and I go to the door and there is the lady from next door saying, “Tonight we are having chicken salad”, or, “Tonight we are having macaroni”—“Would you like some?”. I have never said no because that is the way I was brought up, and I have never been badly served by that either. I know that her offer comes from the heart, and in return I have built up a situation whereby I buy books for the children. Also, one of my sons was keen on collecting coins, and so I keep up the arrangement that he had. Those children from next door are very well served and I look upon them as substitute grandchildren. That is a wonderful thing.
We have been talking about charities. Yesterday I saw my accountant for this year, and I saw that there are around 12 charities that I give to. I want to do that because of the awful lives that some people lead and try to overcome. That is something we should never forget. When I look at the situation of the world, it is a terrible place, which is becoming even more terrible. We want to build up the kind of concepts that are to be found in this letter; that is, that we need to be looked after.
On Tyneside, where Newcastle United has just escaped being relegated, football is looked upon as a religion, and for many people it is. It is the main thing that keeps them alive and drives them forward. They live and they die with the fortunes of the team. I was one of those. Football is a fantastic means whereby ordinary people can find something to work for and sometimes to die for.
All I want to say is this. The bishops have done the House a wonderful service in what they have put together. What the solutions are, I am not at all certain. If it is through charity, my main charities are of course the Labour Party and the Co-operative movement, both of which get some of my largesse. For someone who started from where I was, I know the value of money, but I respond and do what I can for the charities I support. I wish the letter a wider circulation and I wish it well.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for holding such a timely debate at the start of a new Parliament. I recognise that the Church of England’s pastoral letter,Who Is My Neighbour?, is aimed at increasing the political enlightenment and engagement of the wider electorate for the election in May. However, its contents pose ongoing questions for us all as we consider our immediate and long-term society at the heart of an uncertain world. More and more of us are asking questions about how what we do in public office is of benefit and how what we do affects the lives of others outside this bubble. Individually, we need to ask what impact each of us may have on our neighbours in the world when the global problems are so vast and devastating. What happens elsewhere cannot escape us and has a massive impact in our neighbourhoods.
We know too that many who represent the public in high office are often disconnected. We have heard loud and clear the opinions of people who feel disempowered and disengaged from their leaders and representatives—people who emanate primarily from backgrounds that are far removed from many sections of our communities. People are disadvantaged and vulnerable, and they remain disfranchised. Many have spoken of their discontent, apathy and cynicism about the machinations of political parties, widening the divide and separation between people and communities that was rightly highlighted by the right reverend Prelate.
The pastoral letter is apposite in asking for a political narrative that will enable the people of Britain to articulate a vision of equality and social justice, although it is rightly not prescriptive of how we can work together to live virtuously as well as prosperously. I am speaking so that I too can praise the House of Bishops for making this important human intervention. Although I am not someone of the Christian faith, I was able to relate without reservation to the unity of purpose and strength that the pastoral letter refers to, and the desire to reach out and define us all as neighbours.
Of course, the concept of neighbours has undergone a profound transformation over the decades, driven primarily by central government policies on housing, education and economic regeneration which pay no heed to the social impact on communities and certainly pay no attention to neighbourliness. Many eminent noble Lords have spoken about this, and in my small way I too have spoken many times in this House about the apartheid and divisiveness affecting the East End of London which manifests itself in a variety of ever-deepening divisions. An example is the mismatch of young East End graduates. Their aspirations to financial success too often fail when they reach the doors of the emerging tiger economy companies of the City on the doorstep. Many of the successful City workers commute in for work while many of the neighbouring graduates take their comfort in jobs in local supermarkets, with their graduate certificates in their pockets. There are countless other examples of social, educational and housing divides that illustrate the division that the pastoral letter clearly encompasses. In this context, it is appropriate to quote the pastoral letter, which pointedly asks, “Who counts as ‘we’?”. I believe that many of us have been working over the decades to erase the sense of isolation from that “we” to begin to develop a place to live in which we can say “us” with greater ease.
Religious faith and diversity has not necessarily been synonymous with harmony, but the pastoral letter is an acknowledgement that religious allegiances and faithfulness are extraordinarily widespread and have a long history of collaboration in many parts of our countries, including in the East End. Personally, I have been privileged to have worked as a youth worker with YWCA and have worked with Toynbee Hall and Christ Church, Spitalfields when it used to run youth work with women programmes in the good old days.
At the same time, the pastoral letter recognises that people of faith have much to offer in a good society and a peaceful world, and should contribute towards such a vision. The pastoral letter relates to all people of faith to engage with the political process. I agree with this wholeheartedly. The emphasis on individualism walking hand in hand with consumer economics make this the “I” society, where “I” put myself first in a merciless, aggressive type of social Darwinism. As humans we have an inherent need to feel we belong to our society, developing social networks, shared customs, shared interests, shared places and shared religions. I agree totally with the Lord Bishops when they remark:
“'Our society celebrates the autonomy of individuals”,
but does little to acknowledge that, as social creatures, we are interdependent on each other. The role of government and society necessitates restoring this balance between the individual and the community around them, given that we value individualism. Neighbourliness and hospitality can be a lifesaver where a sense of loneliness is on the increase, particularly among those who are carers. In the gracious Speech given by Her
Majesty the Queen we have been promised a one-nation Government, delivering social justice with all working people having security. In May 2015 Ministers and advisers may have read and absorbed some of the content of
Who is My Neighbour?
In the 2010 election and subsequent coalition, we were told of the big society—everyone pulling together for the common aim of helping the country stave off insolvency due to the banking and financial crisis. Public sector pay awards were frozen; benefits were amalgamated, trimmed or removed completely. We were all prepared to tighten our belts for the good of each other. In no uncertain terms, we were left with no alternative but to absorb the pain for the good of each other. In a more positive way, we exhibited our unity, generosity and friendship during the celebrations of the Diamond Jubilee and the 2012 Olympics. However, the squeeze has become disproportionate to the most vulnerable in our society. The personal independence payment was promised as the panacea to simplify the multitude of benefits available to the disabled and the most disadvantaged. The rollout of PIP has been devastating for many, resulting lately in a High Court ruling that PIP disability benefit delay is unlawful. This shows clear failings in the system designed for the most vulnerable as they struggle to pay for food and fuel, causing their health to decline, and live a hand-to-mouth existence where restricted travel results in bouts of severe depression and other health problems. Citizens Advice, Scope and Sense say that this is unacceptably common, while the Trussell Trust said that,
“benefit sanctions, changes and delays”,
were the biggest reasons why people were referred to its food banks in 2015. This is not social justice. The Lord Bishops notably remarked that,
“the quality of a society is to be judged not by its overall wealth or power, but by how it treats the most disadvantaged, the poor and despised”.
There is, however, some hope on the horizon. One significant example is the fact that, as we approach the month of Ramadan, British Muslims will contribute more than £100 million to our neighbours, both in the UK and elsewhere in the world. It is not about the money alone; it speaks volumes about loving our neighbours as we would wish to be loved ourselves.
My Lords, I commend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. He and his fellow bishops have made a valiant effort to set out broad principles that might guide, in their words,
“the people and parishes of the Church of England”.
It is clear from the speech of my noble friend Lady Uddin and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, that it has a much wider relevance. I am not wholly convinced, however, that the man or woman in the pew confused about voting would necessarily have emerged after reading this report with anything other than a higher level of confusion. Why? Because all the mainstream parties in this country claim to follow those Judaeo-Christian principles. Perhaps the only errant part of the election campaign was the leader of UKIP, who claimed that immigrants should have limited access to the NHS. That put him somewhat outside the pale and was immediately repudiated by his one MP.
Essentially, the aim of the letter is not to provide answers but to encourage Christians and others to think in a Christian way, as Dr John Stott did so well for all of us. The bishops give a set of principles in paragraph 120, emphasising identity and community. I come from the same city as my noble friend Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, where we define our city, Swansea, as a series of villages held together by gossip. Perhaps I romanticise a little, but it is important.
Yes, the intermediate bodies and the suspicion of power that comes from,
“Put not your trust in princes”,
puts up barriers, checks and balances, but let us remember that it is not just from voluntary effort. It is the church that has been behind much of the effort of institutionalising that welfare provision. It was Adolph Kolping in Cologne, the great Catholic priest, and, of course, Lloyd George, who relied very much on his Scotch Baptist principles, who led the proposals for a welfare state in their countries. I confess that at times the principles enunciated by the prelates come rather close to Tony Blair’s third way, although they probably repudiate that. No doubt their brave efforts will be attacked from several angles. “Politics is a dirty game”, they will say, “Be separate. Bishops, keep out of politics and minister to the spiritual needs of your flock. Cobblers, stick to your last”. John Milton gave perhaps the best answer to this:
“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue … that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat”.
Obviously, the powers that be would like a quiet life and prefer not to be challenged by the church—or they enlist the church, as Putin has done in Russia. However, as we saw in apartheid South Africa, Christians will embarrass politicians on human rights issues. I think of the work of Archbishop Tutu and Catholic Bishop Hurley, who were leaders in this field. Perhaps the civics, the small platoons that proliferated under the apartheid regime, are one of the reasons why there are barriers to the tyranny of the majority in South Africa. They must be praised. Michael Cassidy, the Christian leader from Pietermaritzburg, says that after a long discussion with Botha, the then state president, the state president loftily read to him this:
“the powers that be are ordained of God”— scant comfort for persecuted Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere. But even those of us who are in the comfort and security of the United Kingdom must avoid the politician’s temptation to agree with everyone, to take the easy way out and to avoid values by relying on focus groups.
Who, then, is my neighbour? Christ’s answer was clear. He told a story about a Samaritan—a stranger from a despised group—who helped someone in need. The problem with the bishops’ letter is, of course, that it sets out basic principles, and in so doing avoids some hot potatoes such as the population problem and its effect on God’s creation in the environment, although I concede that it cannot be wholly comprehensive.
However, it is not for bishops but for politicians to implement those principles in a world of limited resources, half-loaf compromises and competing pressures.
A current example raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, and my noble friend Lord Judd concerns the migration pressures in the Mediterranean, where there is obviously a clash of values. The moral response is easy in the short term. If we have the capacity to save drowning individuals, it would be wholly immoral to fold our arms, pass by and fail to save them, so we applaud the humanitarian work of HMS “Bulwark”. But having rescued these people in the Mediterranean, is it moral then to wash our hands of them and say that they must be the responsibility of Italy or the overcrowded island of Malta?
Yet we cannot accommodate in Europe all those who would like to come here—those who wish to escape from the awful countries of Eritrea and South Sudan, let alone Iraq and Syria, however nasty their Governments are. Politicians have obligations to their own people and way of life, and it is obviously not moral to have an open-door policy. But there lies the key moral dilemma of where to draw the line. In the medium and longer term, politicians will choose a mix of policies such as destroying ships, targeting traffickers and safe-haven deals, perhaps also opening agricultural markets.
The church and politicians must work together. When Ahab was challenged by Elijah, he called him a troublemaker. May our right reverend prelates continue to be noble troublemakers. Niebuhr had it right when he referred to the,
“relevance of an impossible ideal”.
Bishops and politicians should strive together, imperfectly, to achieve the best attainable outcomes.
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for securing this debate and for introducing it in such a constructive manner. To tell the truth, I would not have read the pastoral letter Who Is My Neighbour? if I had not seen this debate listed, but when I read it I was so inspired that I wanted to speak today. Therefore, I thank the right reverend Prelate for giving us the opportunity to start the very conversation that he wants us to have resulting from the letter.
I found the letter uplifting, refreshing and very thoughtful. For me, it articulates clearly a vision of the kind of society we should all be striving for. I was particularly struck by the reference in the letter to William Beveridge, because he understood that if the state is given too much power to shape society it will stifle the very voluntarism that prevents the state being hopelessly overburdened by human need. The right reverend Prelate talked about how we negotiate that and create a balance.
When I was the director of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in the 1980s, I always used to quote something William Beveridge said, which I still think is very important. He said that,
“an abundance of voluntary action outside the citizen’s home both individually and collectively, for bettering his own and his fellows’ lives, are the distinguishing marks of a truly free society”.
This letter argues for informal and independent structures that are small enough not to need every activity to be codified, through which we can learn to work together in trust, and it gives examples of intermediary bodies such as housing associations, credit unions and, of course, the churches.
I unashamedly draw the House’s attention to another intermediary movement with which I am associated as its president: the community foundations. Community foundations were started in the 1980s. Since then they have flourished. There are now 48. They are a best-kept secret and in my view need to be better known. I am passionate about community foundations, because they are about local engagement and inclusiveness—the very thinking that underpins the sentiments expressed in the letter Who Is My Neighbour?. They are about social bonding, which the right reverend Prelate talked about.
The figures showing what this movement has achieved over the last few years are impressive. Community foundations have invested £65 million in grants to community-led organisations, have made 21,000 grants, and have half a billion pounds in endowment funds. They also engage a number of volunteers. As I say, the figures are impressive, but what I like about community foundations is the thinking that underpins them. It is about local engagement, local giving and bringing together donors and doers to support local communities to meet local needs. It is about building local social capital, inclusiveness, investing in local communities, empowering local communities and valuing community-led solutions to local issues.
At the end of last year, when talking about community foundations, Mark Carney said:
“Community foundations are helping to deliver a more inclusive capitalism, one in which individual virtue and collective prosperity can flourish”.
I am very pleased to draw the House’s attention to a very positive example of the partnership work between government and community foundations. In 2011, community foundations launched the Community First endowment match challenge. This initiative, supported by government, allowed community foundations to offer donors a 50% uplift on endowment donations through government match funding and thus provided a catalyst for the work which community foundations undertake. This programme finished in 2015 and was assessed to be a great success. The flexibility gained through the introduction of a national pot or central reserve of funds to lever local giving was invaluable.
In the light of the success of the Community First endowment match challenge, will the Minister please tell the House whether the Government are minded to do something similar in association with community foundations? If not, will the Government please consider looking at such schemes that lever local funds and engage local communities and that may contribute to our vision of one nation?
My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for putting this Motion down for debate today.
It is regrettable that we did not get the opportunity to debate this issue at the end of the last Parliament, before the general election, but the issues raised in the report are still very relevant and are there for us all to see. I have been a Member of your Lordships’ House for five years and in that time I have always been impressed by the work of the 26 Lords spiritual, the contribution they make to this House and the work they do outside in the community. This report is another excellent example of the work that the House of Bishops in the General Synod have undertaken. I am pleased that the church has moved into this territory. It is a challenge to us all, particularly those of us engaged in party politics.
In November this year, I will have been actively engaged in both the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party—in good times and in bad—for 38 years. It is always a pleasure to speak in a debate in which my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton is participating. Like him, I enjoy watching football. However, as a supporter of Millwall Football Club, there has not been much to cheer about in recent years.
The obituaries for all parties have been written many times and always prematurely, although we have very serious problems in our political parties in Britain today. We are in a period of great change in our country and in the world for a whole variety of reasons, as the scale and speed of change gets faster and faster and seems more out of reach of people. That raises some fundamental challenges for political parties and the wider civil society in 2015.
Calling for a new politics is in itself nothing new. There have been many calls over many years, but the pastoral letter from the House of Bishops is something different and we should all welcome it. I do not for a minute believe that change is going to happen overnight, and unfortunately during the recent general election there were numerous examples of business as usual in the political process, as mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans.
However, as we start a new Parliament, I am going to be optimistic about what can be achieved. We, of course, should be grateful that we live in a mature, stable democracy where the result of an election is accepted and respected and that, win or lose, you have the ability to make your point and have your say. I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans that I like living in Britain today and have never hankered for a bygone age that never really existed.
I agreed very much with the report when it disagreed that religion and politics cannot mix. The problems we face as a nation are often the subject of heated debate and I like it when the church feels strongly on an issue and enters that debate. It can offer a different perspective and leadership and can provide pressure, setting out what needs to be done. I can think of examples where I have agreed with the position that the church has taken and also where I have disagreed with its position. I very much associate my remarks with those of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, who was disappointed that the lesbian, gay and transgender community was not mentioned in the report.
In the section of the letter on,
“Apathy, cynicism and politics today”,
I very much agree that the vast majority of politicians and candidates enter politics with a passion to improve the lives of their fellow men and women. We might disagree on what needs to be done or on how to do it, but that in itself is not a problem. People also engage in wider civil society for similar reasons. It can be to improve the local community, something on a very small and local scale or something on a much larger scale with a national charity or organisation. I am a trustee of the United St Saviour’s Trust, which works in north Southwark and Bermondsey and has been there for 500 years—it does a lot of good work. I am also involved in the council of Diabetes UK on a national level.
It surprised me to read that, according to the polls, the vast majority of people believe that it will make no difference who is in power. I suspect quite a lot of us here would disagree with that, but it tells me that we are collectively, as politicians and parties, failing to communicate in an effective manner, so can we be surprised about the cynicism and apathy about politics? I very much agree with my noble friend Lady Royall of Blaisdon on her comments about the engagement of voters. I also read with amazement, and some disappointment, that apparently 900 votes made the difference between the Tory Party having a majority in the House of Commons and being only the largest party in the general election.
As the letter points out, parties increasingly target smaller groups of voters in a select number of constituencies, and in other constituencies voters get less attention from the parties. The adversarial nature of politics here has produced an adversarial approach to ideas that may not always produce the right or best outcomes, to which my noble friend Lady Royall also referred. It does, though, present civil society in general with an opportunity and challenge to present ideas and solutions to the problems we have, here and abroad, in a way that can be embraced across the political spectrum or at least parts of it that are not confined to one particular political party.
I very much want to be a part of a “community of communities” but can see how much we have become a “society of strangers”. The speed and sophistication of the communications world has people glued to iPads and other devices and not talking to people face to face. On the other hand, we have the Royal Voluntary Service and other charities doing great work to try and combat loneliness in the elderly community and stem all the problems to mental and physical health that loneliness brings. I think that the church is right when it calls for a sensible approach to social policy and that we are a “community of communities”.
We have seen significant devolution of power in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but in England that has generally not been the case, although there are proposals before your Lordships’ House in the form of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. Where we are able to devolve power to the most appropriate level, this can have the effect of re-engaging people, re-engaging civil society in the decision-making process, and better decisions can be made. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said, bridging social capital is an important part of this process.
As the report highlights, there is a deep contradiction in the attitudes of a society which celebrates equality in principle yet treats some people, especially the poor and vulnerable, as unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed. Some of the terms used to describe those who rely on social security payments can imply that they are undeserving and not worthy recipients of welfare. This is not only on the front pages of some national newspapers but also on blogs and social media sites, such as Twitter. These sorts of attitudes and activities can be counterproductive and deter others from offering the informal, neighbourly support which could ease some of the burden of welfare on the state and be for the common good.
Moving on to talk about a “community of nations”, I think that we in the United Kingdom can be very proud of the role we have played in bringing nations together and taking a leading role in drafting conventions such as the European Convention on Human Rights. I hope we are never in the position where we would remove our name as a signatory country to that convention. Other European institutions may have their problems but trust and co-operation among the European nations, as the letter highlights, has been a good thing and should be celebrated and welcomed. We are interdependent on our closest neighbours in Europe and the threats to our security come from other more volatile parts of the world.
The commitment from civil society to push to get the 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid into law is something we can again be very proud of. For me, equality and the pursuit of a fairer and more equal society and the role civil society plays in achieving that is of paramount importance. By becoming more unequal we all lose. The widening gaps between the poorest and richest in our society should be of concern to us all.
I am a director of London Mutual Credit Union and every week we hear heart-breaking stories of people in all sorts of difficulties when they come through our doors and we try to see whether we have a package of financial products that can help them. The Credit Union Expansion Project, put forward by the Government, is a very welcome initiative but we have to do more to enable credit unions to offer a selection of financial products that are right for their members. I have called on the Government before, and do so again, to do more to divert some of the fines that are levied on financial institutions that do wrong and put that into programmes to ensure a de minimis level of provision no matter where someone lives.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester mentioned the excellent work being done by the Lewisham Plus Credit Union, which is really doing a very good job. London Mutual Credit Union has also been working with Southwark Council. Every young person attending secondary school has a saver’s account opened for them at the credit union and the council deposits £10 into the account.
The rise of food banks in one of the richest countries in the world is obviously very worrying. A whole group of people are described as the working poor; they are working but are unable to earn the wages to support themselves and their families and have to rely on welfare payments. That is truly dreadful. The living wage for employees has been something that we can champion, but champion not only by saying that it is a good thing but by actually taking positive action. I very much like the idea that no company or voluntary sector organisation, when bidding for public sector contracts, should be disadvantaged by paying the living wage to their employees.
In conclusion, this has been an excellent debate on the excellent document that gives the Government and the rest of us much to think about and reflect upon, such as healthy political parties, strong civil society and healthy debate. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester, said, so much goes on that we are very proud of, each and every day, by volunteers in a whole variety of initiatives and organisations. Again, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for putting down the Motion for the debate today.
My Lords, I am delighted that my first debate is on the civil society. I would like to echo all those who thanked the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for tabling the Motion, and to thank him and so many others in the House for their extremely thoughtful speeches.
Churches across the right reverend Prelate’s diocese are involved in projects to make our society stronger, so I know how passionately he feels about this subject. I also pay tribute to others who have spoken in this debate, all of whom have contributed so much to communities across the country, be it to hospices, educational charities, health organisations or credit unions—the list is very long and varied. I hope that I can do justice to the many interesting points that have been made.
I would like to start with a quote about neighbourliness, which runs as follows:
“In our own life the intimacy of the neighborhood has been broken up by the growth of an intricate mesh of wider contacts which leaves us strangers to people who live in the same house … diminishing our economic and spiritual community with our neighbors”.
These words were written not in today’s Daily Mail nor in the Telegraph, but 100 years ago by the sociologist Charles Horton Cooley—a name I have to say I am not that familiar with—an American who was writing at a time of profound social change in America.
I quote this to echo a simple point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester: throughout history, what some people have hailed as progress, others have seen as unwanted, corrosive and unsettling change, and for each generation the pace of change seems to accelerate and, with it, the sense of dislocation. Today the pace is indeed dizzying, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, just said: the digital revolution, globalisation and the changing nature of our society are just three of the forces shaping our world. It is little surprise that once again many of us feel a sense of bewilderment and disorientation, especially at a local level, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, pointed out.
That is the backdrop to our debate today, and while I heed strongly what many have said about the problems facing our society, I cannot help but wonder sometimes whether we are succumbing to that very British disease of seeing the glass half-empty. I do not for a moment want to belittle the concerns that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans expressed in his perceptive speech, which others have echoed in different ways—especially the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, in her very eloquent speech. We in this House are not here to sweep problems under the carpet but to debate how they might be solved, yet I would like to slightly redress the balance and bring a little bit of sunshine into the debate.
First, on political tribalism, obviously there are divergent views about how we might run our economy, for example. But there are good cases where parties come together, such as the scrutiny given to the charities Bill, which I presented to your Lordships yesterday, or the National Citizen Service, which the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, mentioned. Yes, we need to get more people engaged in politics and involved in their communities. But let us not overlook the progress that has been made: 3 million more adults volunteered last year compared to 2009-10. I could cite many examples of this but will consider just a few.
The National Citizen Service has seen 130,000 participants. There is the hugely successful Community Organisers programme, training over 6,000 organisers to work in hundreds of communities up and down the country: or Code Club, a network of volunteers who teach coding in primary schools. On top of all that, obviously, is the kaleidoscope of charities that continue to enjoy the unstinting support of the British public, which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester spoke eloquently about. Just last night, for example, as I returned home to Battersea, I came across hordes of runners who had taken part in the Race for Life—a sight which made me feel exhausted—in just another example of the big-hearted, generous spirit one finds in communities across the country.
Giving is up since 2009-10, with 75% of individuals giving to causes important to them. This is worth about £11 billion a year, making Britain one of the most generous nations on earth. So we should pay great tribute to the civil society sector, which over the past few years has remained resilient through difficult times. Supported by nearly £200 million of investment from government, huge numbers of organisations have had to transform themselves to be able to continue to deliver effectively in very different and fast-changing economic and social environments.
We should also acknowledge the transformation that the Government have made to improve regulation and simplify, where possible, the environment for charities. Here I pay tribute to the excellent work undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, through his drive to unshackle good neighbours and deliver a valuable review of charities legislation. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester made a point about the simplification of regulations. While we can and must consider how we address the challenges we face, we should not forget the good things that are already being done and we should always think about how we can do better still. The question is how.
Here I turn to the term “civil society”. Much ink has been spilled defining this term and theorising about it. The right reverend Prelate and my noble friend Lord Cormack both referred to Magna Carta. Here I dredge my brain and my history lessons, but I think that I am right in saying that the Magna Carta of 1225 as opposed to that of 1215 was granted by the King because he needed to raise extra cash and tax. This highlights in one’s mind the critical link between civil society and liberties on the one hand and economies on the other. As my noble friend Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach eloquently pointed out, strong civil societies are built on strong, enterprising economies in which low taxes encourage investment and reward hard work, in which the state does not crowd out nor overregulate private enterprise, and in which the fruits of labour are shared fairly and wealth creation is not despised but championed. These are economies in which jobs are created, giving people that all-important independence, a sense of worth and, above all, the freedom to follow their ambitions and realise their dreams. More than that, they are economies in which the state can truly afford to invest in schools and hospitals and help those in greatest need—economies in which people can afford to help others, not just look after themselves. I am not saying that without money individuals are devoid of a sense of charity, altruism and a wish to help others, but simply pointing out that in a prosperous economy, people have greater ability to help others and to strengthen the bonds on which a civilised society is built. Conversely, in an economy that goes bankrupt, it is the poorest who suffer most.
A strong economy is the bedrock of a civil society, but what are the bricks? I turn to the House of Bishops’ letter. I thought that it was a very good letter, and rather than dwell on the differences of policy—for there are some—I would rather focus on where we agree. There are many points on which I agree with the House of Bishops—indeed, my copy of the letter is well thumbed—but I will cite just three. The first is a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, focused on: Beveridge. The letter says:
“Beveridge understood that if the state is given too much power to shape society it will stifle the very voluntarism that prevents the state from being hopelessly overburdened by human need”.
How very true this is, and it is unfortunate that we did not heed those words more when they were written.
My second quote is:
“When law and regulation intrude too far into everyday life, they create a ‘chill factor’ where anxiety about the rules prevents people acting freely, sensibly or with wisdom, even in areas which are not, in fact, governed by official regulations”.
I say, “Hear, hear” to that as well, and it raises the very interesting points about the duty of negligence that the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, made.
My third quote is:
“The Church of England strongly supported the Big Society”,
and its ideals,
“could still be the foundation for the new approach to politics, economics and community which we seek”.
I am delighted to read those words and will set out a few characteristics of such a society.
I will start with a slight caveat. I adhere to the principle that:
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”.
As John Stuart Mill warned us, large, grandiose plans to shape society may dwarf, maim, cramp and wither human faculties. Instead, we need to give people and the communities in which they live more freedom, more choice and more independence. Indeed, we need to buttress the tolerance and open-mindedness that the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, eloquently referred to, echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, while avoiding the pitfalls of multiculturalism that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, spoke of.
What does this mean in practice? There are a number of aspects, but I will cite just a few. First, such a society is one where people, wherever they come from, have opportunities to get up and get on in life. What does that mean? A million more pupils are now being taught in good or outstanding schools. But this Government will go further, tackling those schools that are coasting or failing so that all our children get the best possible start. This includes being taught about our democratic system and citizenship at key stages 3 and 4, as I am sure my noble friend Lord Cormack knows, although I will peruse with interest his points about citizenship.
Secondly, such a society is one where more people have the chance to fulfil their talents. Some 2.3 million jobs and more than 2 million apprenticeships were created during the last Parliament. More women, lone parents and older workers are in work than ever before. Our aim now is to achieve full employment and create 3 million more apprenticeships.
Thirdly, a civil society is one where the less well-off are supported, while those who fall on hard times are helped back on their feet. In the last Parliament the number of households where no one works fell by more than 600,000, its lowest level in a decade. Now, with a tax-free minimum wage and a welfare system that rewards effort, we will create more opportunity for those who can work, while continuing to protect those who cannot. I was delighted to hear the views of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester on this as well.
Fourthly, it is a society in which the Government are close to the people they serve. A number of your Lordships raised devolution. I say that free schools, local enterprise partnerships, elected police commissioners and local communities being given new powers over key community assets are all policies to strengthen ties and relationships between neighbours—bridging social capital, as the right reverend Prelate said and as the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, mentioned.
Next, while controlling immigration, we need to welcome and support those who come here to settle and who do their best to contribute to society. The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, made a number of eloquent points on this and I would be delighted to talk to her further. If I may stress one point to her, it is that the DCLG has an £8 million community fund to teach the English language, from which 33,500 adults have benefited.
Finally in my list, a civil society is one in which volunteering is encouraged and charities supported. Let me turn to a couple of specific points on that. My noble friend Lord Patten made a forceful intervention referring to big charities, and especially to their fundraising techniques. As he said, my honourable friend the Minister for Civil Society met with the self-regulatory bodies and made it clear that action must be taken, and quickly, to protect the long-term reputation of charities and address concerns expressed in recent days. As regards pay, that is a matter for charities’ trustees. They need to publish details in their accounts if senior executives are paid more than £60,000; that transparency will give the public the ability to decide whether to support those charities. Charitable trustees need always to bear in mind that it is upon the trust and generosity of the public that their future depends.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, was absolutely right to point to the need not to overwhelm the charitable sector with new regulations. We need to get the balance right and I am confident that the new powers contained in the charities Bill are focused, targeted and proportionate. The third specific point, relating to community funds, was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. I can make no commitments as regards funding from this Dispatch Box but I intend to write to her about the very interesting points that she raised.
While rebuilding our battered economy, much has been done over the last five years to help strengthen our civil society. Let me give just a few examples. The Centre for Social Action is investing £40 million in high-impact social action projects driven by communities, seeking to work better with public services, including for people who need full-time care, the elderly and those who need support to live the final stages of their life in dignity. The Government have also created the world’s first ever social investment bank, Big Society Capital, unlocking more than £100 million of funding for communities at local level through Community First. As I mentioned, the National Citizen Service has seen more than 130,000 young people experience a programme of activity that has at its heart a message of individual responsibility, with more than 2 million hours of social action and 7,000 community projects stemming from this programme alone. As I also mentioned, one of the key aims of the charities Bill, which was debated yesterday, is to encourage charities to make more social investments that will deliver both a financial and a charitable return. Charities currently have more than £60 billion of assets, yet just £100 million of that is invested in such projects. This is a great opportunity for our little platoons to do more in their chosen fields.
So over the next five years, this Government would like to see more social action and volunteering, with community participation embedded in our lives from young people’s schooldays onwards. We would like: increased levels of giving and philanthropy; more businesses with greater sustainability at their heart; more social investment, enabling investors who want to use their money to have a profound social impact and deliver positive social change; and stronger, more resilient, more capable and more empowered communities, with a rebalancing of power away from government, enabling those communities to make more of their own decisions, shape their future and respond to the challenges that they face. But, where people need them, we would like better, more responsive public services, utilising the expertise of voluntary, community and social enterprise sector volunteers.
I end by thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for tabling this Motion. It has been a debate rich in insight and full of ideas as to how we can strengthen the bonds which underpin our communities. While we may disagree on some of the means, I think that we can all agree on the ends: a bigger, stronger, tolerant society, where communities seek fulfilment and well-being by each doing their bit; a society where communities are more resilient, capable and empowered; a society where people are encouraged to help others; and a society which has an active and diverse voluntary, community and social enterprise sector. This is civil society, built on the solid foundations of a strong economy, and I look forward to debating and discussing with your Lordships what more can be done to help foster this society in the weeks and months ahead.
My Lords, as a bishop of the Church of England and as a Member of this House, I am used to having some pretty strange titles, so I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, for creating a new one for me—“noble troublemaker”. I cannot respond to all the points made but I am grateful to noble Lords for their wide range of contributions—significantly, from all Benches in this House. People really have sought to rise above simply reiterating party-political points and have tried to think about some of the more long-term and deeper questions underlying our political and civic life.
I would be the first to acknowledge that Who Is My Neighbour? does not deal with many issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, raised issues which we were not able to address. However, I need to mention in passing that there was a section on environmental sustainability in the report. I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, on his concerns about one or two of the statements on unemployment, that I would be delighted to send him the background statistics if he wants. I simply reiterate that I am of course delighted by the decline in levels of unemployment and the creation of new jobs. I have said that on a number of occasions, including in this House, especially where those jobs are permanent posts. We need to acknowledge that and be grateful for it.
Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Patten, was just a little disappointed when he turned to the conclusion. The pastoral letter was one to members of the Church of England, and we invited others to eavesdrop on our conversation, but we were clear that we wanted it to be part of a larger debate. That is what we have been doing today. We hope that this will not be the end of it and that others will engage. I hope that it signals the intention from the Bishops on this Bench that, during the coming years, we want to play a full part in those debates as we think about how we can strengthen our political institutions, and reboot and restrengthen our civic life to the benefit of all those who live in this nation. I thank noble Lords very much for their contributions.