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Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester on securing this debate. It could not be more timely, as the new Administration begin to put in place a new strategy for shaping and delivering social policy. I apologise for missing the first minute or two of his introduction, but the quality of the greater part which I did hear was sufficient to show what an impressive introduction it was. I also welcome the Minister to her position on the Front Bench and, like the rest of us, I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wei.
The current fiscal environment demands that social policy and public services are recast to take account of the new economic reality, but the questions and challenges that that poses are immense. Not only is the scale of these issues already very significant, but, as the full effects of the recession play out, it will continue to grow. The Government are now looking at a situation where they will have to do much more with far less. Speaking as an advocate for the voluntary sector, I believe that must ensure value for money, efficiency and effectiveness of services in order to extract the maximum utility that we can from each pound of public spend. As a result, we must ensure that the
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The Government's big society agenda may well be able to provide at least a partial answer in meeting those problems. However, doing so requires recognition of the fact that building the big society needs not just civic action but organised civic action; that is to say, civil society organisations with business nous and financial capacity and a smart, strategic state working in genuine partnership with the sector. The danger that we face is a state that simply retrenches and leaves the big society to pick up the pieces.
There are two clear planks in the Government's vision for a big society: empowered communities and more public services delivered by citizen-focused civil society organisations. Those ambitions are not without their history. The boundaries between what is done by the state and what is done by the voluntary sector have shifted backwards and forwards over the centuries. The state made a major advance in the 20th century, but it is now definitely in retreat. How headlong that retreat will prove to be is perhaps under negotiation, even as we speak. Over the past decade, there has been a growing political consensus on the strengths that civil society organisations bring to public services. Increasing levels of impact reporting are now formally demonstrating the immense value that the sector brings to shaping social policy and delivering services.
The key strength that the sector provides in shaping policy is in the role of the provider advocate. Due to the close nature of their relationship with their beneficiaries, civil society organisations are able to shape their services around individual need, and can then translate the lessons learnt from practice into policy. That exercise can be successful only when relationships of trust and mutuality exist-something which civil society is streets ahead of other sectors in creating. That knowledge must be used and applied by government in the design of effective social policy.
A major question is: how do we get from where we are today to where we want to be? How, practically, is the big society to be built, especially at a time when the state's capacity will be hampered by massive public spending cuts? One thing is clear: success will depend to a large degree on the extent to which civic action can organise itself. Informal civil action-mutual support between family members and friends, for example-is the bedrock of our society, but clearly there are limits to what can be done through such informal activity
If you want volunteers helping children to read in school, reformed ex-offenders mentoring those released from prison to prevent reoffending or volunteers providing the elderly with company and conversation, you will need civil society organisations to manage and organise those volunteers. You will need those organisations to be efficient, professional and well led. If you want civil society organisations to deliver more public services, especially at a time when spending cuts mean that you also want efficiencies of scale and to pay providers
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Furthermore, if you want civil society to shape policy, there will need to be formal conduits through which information and evidence of the impact of civic action can be collected, analysed and evaluated. Formalised organisations and networks are not necessarily a sign of inefficiency or waste. Infrastructure, both capital and organisational, is an important way of gaining efficiency, collating data and sharing best practice. It is imperative that that aspect is not ignored by the Government if they are truly keen on a big society.
How is civil society meeting those challenges? Consolidation is an obvious response to the need for greater cost-effectiveness. That is beginning to happen, still too tentatively, in a sector deeply imbued with traditions of organisational pride, but I predict that it will grow. Diversity is a good thing, but you can have too much of it. In the world of the visually impaired, which, as vice-president of the RNIB, I know a bit about, there are no fewer than 733 charities. The RNIB thus performs an invaluable service for government by bringing together the entire impairment sector-not just charities but the statutory sector as well, eye health and social care professionals and users of eye care services-around a UK vision strategy. That sets out a shared agenda which gives government and others a coherent and expert view of what the sector needs.
That both points to and facilitates a second requirement: partnership from the state. As David Cameron has said, building a big society will require a smart, strategic state, not one that simply retrenches. It will require a state that is proactive in supporting civil society-for instance, by acting fast to set up a big society bank. It will require a state that works with us in the sector to define the contours of the big society. Above all, it will require a state that does not think, even at the back of its mind, that the sector can simply pick up the pieces for free when the state decides to do less. It cannot, it will not, and in every sense the Government would pay a heavy price for believing the opposite.
Civil society organisations such as the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations have campaigned vigorously for the Government to take a mature partnership approach in policy formation. I believe that this is an offer that we should seize with both hands, particularly over the coming months when it will be critical to bring out the best in both sectors. Already the Government have courted controversy by ending the future jobs fund, an effective scheme devised by the third sector for producing real, long-term jobs, and the perverse decision to replace futurebuilders loans with grants. Dangerously, backward-looking councils have already started cutting grants to voluntary organisations. The sector and government must do more to work together in creating more positive social outcomes. Both sides are realistic and know that cuts in spending are coming, but a partnership approach in policy and delivery can ensure the least damage to vital front-line services. We should not underestimate this challenge, and now is no time to be romantic. However, I believe that a meaningful partnership
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The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, I must begin with an apology to your Lordships for the fact that an inflexible diary means that I must infringe the convention of this House by not being able to guarantee that I shall be here at the end of this debate. I am truly sorry for that, but I wish to be here to support my right reverend brother and to congratulate him on securing this significant debate, and I am eager to hear the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wei.
As has already been said, this is a timely debate. We are at a point where a debate about the nature of citizenship is perhaps more important than it has been for a century or more. To engage in such a debate about the nature of citizenship is also, and inevitably, to open the door to a deeper debate, that is no less necessary, about the very nature of how we define the human person. We have begun to learn that being a citizen is not simply a matter of being an abstract or passive possessor of certain claims or rights. A citizen is not simply someone who votes. A citizen is someone who exercises active political virtue.
The state does not, of course, make people virtuous, but it would be a great mistake to deduce from that axiom that the state therefore has no interest in the business of virtue. The state protects us from acts that outrage human dignity. The state is able to conduct its business on the assumption that citizens will know their business. Rights in the law are there to safeguard dignity, but that dignity does not look after itself. The state and the law need something more than statutory enactment alone to give substance to how we regard one another and to what is owed to one another. The state requires communities in which human beings are taken seriously in certain ways. At the very simplest level, as we have already been reminded, that grows out of the mutual recognition within manageable communities and within relations and transactions that my neighbour's interests are comparable to my own. It grows out of that most basic of all social institutions: promise keeping. At its fullest, it grows out of a sense of the depth and multidimensionality of the human person, which takes me back to my opening point about how discussion of citizenship opens out into discussion of the human person.
If all that sounds very abstract, let me illustrate with a story from my experience. During my time working in the Church in Wales, I was privileged to be a witness to and, on one or two occasions, involved in the life of a community in the Rhondda valley called Penrhys. It was probably the most deprived of the many deprived council estates in the Rhondda. It was a community scarred by third-generation unemployment and by the general sense that it was the place where people who had been forgotten by every imaginable statutory authority had been left to rot.
John Morgans, Moderator of the United Reformed Church in Wales, retired from his post of ecclesiastical leadership to go and live on the Penrhys estate with his family. Over a couple of decades he built up a unique and extraordinary partnership on the Penrhys estate:
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The difference that was made in that context had everything to do with the patience that John Morgans and his associates showed, because it takes time to discover that you are a community. One of the greatest difficulties which we have faced in this area in the past couple of decades has, of course, very often been a regime of funding for projects in such contexts that has been experienced as brutally short term. I would like to leave with your Lordships, and especially with the Minister, the question of whether that should be reviewed as a matter of urgency as we move forward.
It is not only about funding regimes and short-termism; it is precisely about the presence of certain people in certain small communities who allow the wider community to see themselves afresh and to feel that they are being taken seriously. John Morgans was able to do what he did in Penrhys because people trusted him, because he understood their language and because he was seen as someone who had no sectional interest to pursue in that community, but was able and free to broker the interests of all those involved. That is of course where the role of many communities of faith comes into this question, not least the role of the established church, which has that long-term, non-negotiable commitment to presence in local communities. It is one of those institutions which is not going to go away-perhaps, in many of our contexts, the only one.
Healthy citizenship grows out of a sense that your voice is worth hearing. You will discover that your voice is worth hearing when you are listened to. You are listened to most effectively-most transformingly-in those local contexts about which we have already heard so much. We have been reminded from both sides of your Lordships' House of the folly of any mythology which supposes that central government can dictate to local priorities and stifle them and rob them of their vitality. We are interested in a citizenship that is more than passive. It is about more than what is due to me, but is about what I positively want, and not simply what I want for myself but what I recognise as wanted by my neighbours; a citizenship which recognises that my happiness is involved with the happiness of my neighbour. I was very pleased indeed to hear the quotation from the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, about neighbourliness as a factor in this situation.
So the partnership which we are beginning to talk about here is to do with a shared discernment of what we want together, of the happiness which we recognise is bound up with the happiness of one another. It is not, I need hardly remind your Lordships, the state's business to define happiness. But neither is happiness simply a private issue of a set of individual satisfactions.
In supporting the coalitions of shared interest at the local level, the state discovers substance in the idea of human dignity, and it educates people to a wider
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In conclusion, I want to quote from the words of the sociologist, Richard Sennett, who is an exponent, it is perhaps worth saying, of what some would still refer to as associational socialism, which might be rather different from the centralist socialism that has been spoken of already. In his book, The Culture of the New Capitalism, he writes that,
That he distinguishes from what he refers to as the "iron cage of solidarity", a solidarity which leaves no room for intention, action, transformation and, as I referred to earlier, that depth and multidimensionality of human persons without which no society-local, national or international-can hope for any health.
Lord Wei: My Lords, I stand before you today a relative youth with much still to learn. Yet I have been humbled by the extraordinary welcome that I have been given by your Lordships: by my sponsors, the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Bates; by my mentor, the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe; and by many other noble Lords, with their kind words. I also thank the dedicated staff who serve this House so admirably, for which I am extremely grateful, and without whom I would be literally lost every day. Not once has my youth been held against me: rather, I have been treated as a peer. I have been kindly and undeservedly given the experience and wisdom that graces this noble Chamber and its surroundings.
This contrast between my relative youth and the privilege of being able to be surrounded by others of much greater wisdom and experience than I reminds me of a time in my early childhood that shaped the man you see before you today. Unlike perhaps many second-generation Chinese born in this country, I had the joy and fortune not only to grow up in the company of others who emigrated from Hong Kong where my parents originated and from other parts of Asia but to enjoy the friendship of many wonderful English men and women of much experience who served at the Christian mission at which my father worked, and even to stay frequently with an English babysitter and her family. This early and subsequent exposure to people from different walks of life, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds has helped me time and again. It has given me what I know today is called
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After spending my formative years in London, my family moved to a part of Milton Keynes which I only recently discovered was mainly inhabited by another sort of émigré, people who had left the slums of east London in search of a better life in the 1960s and 1970s. Attending the local comprehensive school, I was exposed early to the kinds of social problems that come with having a low income and witnessed behaviour and the use of narcotics that I now still come across in east London where my family and I live today. I learnt above all that while income was an important factor in poverty, escaping it required much more than just financial capital; it required social capital. I was fortunate to have access to teachers and mentors who lent me theirs, who were supportive and who knew how to help me get into a great university.
At that university I learnt many things, but one experience stood out; I took part in a business competition run by a computer simulation in which different teams competed to make rounds of decisions in the hope of successfully producing virtually the best products and the greatest profit. My team won against the odds, which was most shocking because none of us had any business or higher mathematical training and many other teams were better qualified than ours. All we did was organise ourselves so that we could make any kind of useful decision faster and reasonably well. It taught me that ordinary people can, against the odds, out-perform expectations when they work together in groups. Over the years since that victory, I have been able to observe the same phenomenon in business, in education, in social enterprise, and now in civil society. To quote Margaret Mead's timeless phrase:
This brings me on to the topic of today's debate, which I am thankful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for having initiated and which is very much close to my heart. I have enjoyed the speeches so far and I look forward to those to follow. The debate is indeed incredibly well timed. The role of partnerships between government and civil society in shaping social policy is at the forefront of many minds in this country. There is much discussion in the nation at large about the associated phrase "the big society" and what it really means. As a regular citizen who has the privilege to speak today on this topic, I would like briefly not only to hazard an informed guess but to acknowledge a number of challenges that will need to be overcome to make such a vision-such effective partnerships-work, and then to close by highlighting the powerful role this House can and does play in facilitating such partnerships.
The big society, it would appear, operates at three levels. On one, it is a questionthat civil society is now, more than ever, being asked about what role it wants to play in shaping our collective social future, in driving long-term change and solving entrenched problems. The answer to the question can vary depending on one's political inclinations, geography and past
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On another level, the big society describes a set of policies to give more powers to people closer to where they live, to help increase the capacity and resources of civil society to take up such powers, and to encourage a sense of collective progress and momentum since it can be hard to "bowl alone". I shall defer to noble Lords speaking after me to further elaborate on these policies, but it would seem to me that this Government clearly wish to affirm that partnerships between government and civil society in shaping social policy are to be welcomed.
The third level at which the big society seems to operate beyond asking the question and setting out policies is that of nurturing an ecosystem. I describe this as the big society coral reef, because at the heart of this debate, in my humble opinion, is not just what civil society thinks social policy should be or even what government pronounces, but a collective and very British constitutional negotiation of a partnership for the 21st century that values and combines not just the seabed, the bedrock of our public services-to protect the vulnerable-but the coral represented by the many current and future providers of those services that add variety and innovation and humanity to their delivery. Last but not least it is the very fish that feed in these waters, the local citizen groups that can extend, vivify and shape this landscape in ambitious as well as humble ways. No single part of this ecosystem can or should dominate, but by working well together each comes to form a whole that is often more than the sum of its parts.
There will be challenges in realising such a partnership, as many attempts to forge it before have shown both here and abroad. I list a few of the possible risks: unclear goals leading to a dissipation of effort; a lack of even a moderate amount of resource to empower scalable citizen responses; institutional resistance to the change this approach entails; the capture of new powers by vested interests that are so off-putting to the apolitical citizen; and apathy or a lack of critical mass. Neither civil society or government, nor we in this House, should be under any illusion that the journey to achieving this 21st century partnership will not be long, arduous and filled with setbacks. But the state of our politics, the resourcefulness now required of our economy, and the multi-faceted and complex nature of the social policy challenges we face appear to me to invite us to travel down this path as far as it can take us over the coming years until a new, healthier, more vibrant balance can be found for the benefit of this nation: one that is built upon ancient values and traditions as well as the latest technology and ways of working.
This House can and does play a pivotal role in the success or failure of this journey, this partnership, this big society. It does so in three ways: in the tireless and passionate championing of charitable, social enterprise and other socially beneficial causes, whether with or
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This House role models, defends and forges the very partnerships we are debating today. My hope is that as long as I am privileged to be a Member of it, and indeed at least until I can one day speak with the same experience and wisdom that your Lordships possess-which no doubt will not be for a very long time-this House will continue to be a source of inspiration for partnerships between government and civil society in houses up and down the land-houses which, like ours, are motivated by Gandhi's timeless entreaty to,
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