Civil Society and Lobbying - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:18 pm on 8th September 2016.

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Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Labour 12:18 pm, 8th September 2016

Thank you. My noble friend is most generous. This is largely because, having a day job—largely in the voluntary sector, related to so many people involved in charitable work—my field of activity lies there, and I am in no doubt about that. It is, however, a joy to come here when I do, especially on an occasion such as this.

Perhaps I may take up a point that the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, made a moment ago. He correctly said that work in the charitable sector and in civil society often supplements what is done by the state. In an age of austerity and cutbacks, I fear that it is too often becoming a substitute for what ought to be done by the state. The assumption that civil society and the voluntary sector can absorb the outcomes of government policy needs to be checked and tested.

I approach the whole question of charity with very mixed feelings. I am only too aware of how it excites a response on the part of those inclined to be charitable that, if we are not careful, simply maintains people in a position of dependency. Sometimes, of course, such activity is necessary. People who are on the bread line and whose mere existence is under threat need that help, even if they risk becoming dependent on it but, on the whole, I look for activity in the field of charity that introduces the notion of capacity-building, autonomy, an ability to take charge of one’s own life and building those qualities in those on the receiving end, as it were.

Charities ought always in this respect to be free enough to be innovative. The state—even with the finest legislation passed through bodies such as this House—cannot always create the conditions that would impose the right pattern across society, which everyone can then enjoy. In the charitable sector, if there is real freedom to act, some quite startling things can happen, which then become models from which those who provide at a higher level can learn.

Many Members of this House will remember the redoubtable figure of Lord Soper. I inherited responsibility for a lot of his social work for a number of years and have enjoyed after-dinner speaking on the basis of it ever since. I remember my work in a day centre in west London—open 365 days a year and becoming increasingly professionalised in line with modern fashion, as the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, said. It provided a range of services to homeless people, usually street homeless people, who had nowhere else to go—always over 25 year-olds. Youth work is much easier to fund, I can assure noble Lords, than old lads, as these were. Incidentally, is it not a shame that the work that was done by the previous Government—by Members on this side of the House through the rough sleepers initiative—to provide for the needs of the street homeless is being unpicked? We now see more and more evidence of street homelessness occurring in our day, when we really did think that a solution had been found.

At the day centre, there was one strand missing. We deloused, we fed, we provided advice, housing and all the rest of it—I could give so many stories of incidents and people from those days—but one thing was missing: a psychiatric social worker to help us with the mental problems of so many people living at their wits’ end and on the streets. Eventually, we found the money for that role. My instruction to this long-sought member of our personnel was very clear: “However long the queue of people wanting your services, you will give only 80% of your time to the face-to-face, problem-solving, advice-giving aspect of your work. The rest of your work will be concerned with accumulating notes of the kinds of conditions that you are discovering and statistics about the nature of the problems you are encountering”. I said to her that people like me would need that evidence as the basis upon which we made representations to public bodies and to the Government —it was essential that we did that work and it was integral to her work. I believed that then and I believe that now.

It is so important to give charities the freedom to innovate, to learn and to accumulate experience on the basis of which a view can be brought to Governments—which are often more than one stage removed from the experience of these things—in order that we may form an opinion, frame legislation and take the whole thing forward in a constructive way. I have lots of other experience of institutions where, because they took government money, they found themselves constricted by government pressure to do their work the Government’s way. I regret that, and I want to make a general point at the early stage of this debate. I plead with the Minister—or with whoever is summing up—to give us an assurance that the proper freedoms for charitable bodies will always be respected so that innovation, the accumulation of experience and evidence and a valid point of view put to those responsible for shaping our national life can always be made on the basis of facts that can be proven.

My notes would allow me to speak for another three and a half hours but, at this point, I forbear.