My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Hayter on bringing forward this debate. I begin my brief contribution by underlining the importance of her tribute to Lord Rix who, in his work as chairman of Mencap, inspired by his own daughter’s learning difficulties, is perhaps a shining example of the constructive and enduring purpose of charities. Had Mencap under his leadership not shone a bright light on the circumstances of children with learning difficulties, who were often living with abuse and neglect in long-term institutions for people who were then described as having mental handicaps, we would not have seen the accelerated rate of change that we now take for granted. Nobody now talks about the best care being provided in large institutions, either for people with long-term disability or people suffering the effects of long-term mental illness. That is one example of the extraordinary power of charity, independent of government and with a loud voice to bring about change for the better.
The importance of this debate is that the constituents of civil society, which my noble friend so clearly described, are the fabric of the society in which we live. This central question has been unsatisfactorily answered by the lobbying Act, and to some extent by the now-forgotten initiative of the big society. The balance is wrong between respect and self-confidence in government and the extraordinary contribution that charities can make. Perhaps I should have said at the beginning that I have declared interests in many charities with which I have an association. I was for many years assistant director of Mind; I will come back to that in a moment.
How do we get that balance right between civil society and the publicly accountable responsibility of government? Nobody has put it better than a Gamesmaker who I talked to four years ago during our Olympic Games. She was travelling every day for two hours to get to the Olympic park and two hours home in the small hours of the morning, only to come back again the next day. It was a truly punishing schedule and I asked her why she was doing it. She said, “Because it makes me feel I matter. I have a place here, and I have a contribution to make. To be part of this is something I will remember for the rest of my life”. She said, “I really want people like you to understand that it is important to know how much more people are willing to give if they are not doing so only because government tells them that they should”.
In a way, that was the crudeness of the big society initiative, whose failure can be explained through the clumsiness of that intervention. People, charities and local community organisations felt that somehow the Government were on their back. Suddenly, the supportive relationship between local authorities and local community organisations had been weakened because charities cannot replace the proper responsibilities of an elected Government. That is why it is right to have misgivings about voluntary organisations running custodial institutions and taking on the proper responsibilities of the state.
This takes us to the relationship between civil society and the state at a time when the state is shrinking—the critical recognition of a self-confident Government. I have been on the receiving end of disobliging lobbying as a Minister, and it is at times a nuisance. You wish they would get off your back, but you have to remember that in the end you are going to produce better results. The critical balance is to allow charities the freedom to give voice to what they learn through experience and to do things in ways that are different from the way in which fully publicly funded and provided services are delivered.
In his great book The Gift Relationship Richard Titmuss reminded us about the way we as a society are bound by reliance on blood donation. It is time to modernise the nature of the gift relationship. The new gift relationship is the gift of time, but the gift of time is properly delivered and valued where the relationship between government and voluntary and community organisations is properly worked out in a respectful way that celebrates innovation, is prepared to recognise the risks that many charities face, does not burden them with crushing bureaucracy and enables their independence and freedom.
Finally, last night I was talking to some young men from my former constituency who run the Brixton soup kitchen. It is a wonderful local organisation run essentially on their largely unpaid efforts. I asked what they would say if they were making a speech about this today. One of the young men said, “I think that people like you ought to talk more in ways that people like us understand”. There is still a yawning gap, but the pluralism in our society is the essence of what defines our shared humanity.