Conservative MPs give their takes on the Big Society in the first parliamentary debate on the matter
By Jonathan Isaby
Yesterday saw MPs debating the merits of the Big Society on a backbench motion moved by Dover's Tory MP, Charlie Elphicke, which stated its support for the Big Society, "seeking stronger communities where power is decentralised and social action is encouraged."
"The big society has been "much discussed in the media", yet this was, Elphicke asserted, "practically the first proper occasion on which it has been discussed on the Floor of this Chamber."
His motion had been co-signed by a number of Conservative MPs, as well as Labour's Jon Cruddas and Tristram Hunt and Lib Dem Bob Russell.
Here are some excerpts from a variety of the 24 speeches delivered by backbench Tory MPs - who, interestingly enough, were all members of the 2010 intake.
What I want to talk about is the sense of annoyance that everyone has when an individual feels put off from simply sweeping the snow from the pavement outside their house for fear that they will be sued, or when they are scared to jump into a pond and rescue a drowning child.
How have we got to the situation where individuals do not feel that they can take responsibility, and that rules and procedures stop them doing so? It is important to encourage people to take more action and more responsibility for their own lives and for their communities. People in communities are frustrated, such as the head teacher who cannot decide which children are in his school and feels that he is being told what to do by diktat, and the hospital worker who wants to take responsibility for his area, but who has to follow detailed rules and procedures.
Communities as a whole-big communities such as mine in Dover-want a greater sense of being able to chart their own destiny and future direction, but feel hampered by central Government saying, "No, these are the rules. This is how it is going to be. It is all going to be top-down and what you say doesn't count for much." It is that sense of annoyance and frustration, which stalks the land up and down the country, that the big society aims to counteract.
The big society is not a replacement for everything; it is not a silver bullet or a panacea. We need a state. I will list three of the many things for which a state is very important. First, we need a state where there are issues of expertise. For example, brain surgery is best left to the state, not a community. Secondly, where massive resources and big strategic decisions are required, such as in the building of highways or high-speed rail networks, things are best left to the state, not individual communities. Finally... the state is important when it comes to the protection of the vulnerable. Our democracy is based not just on majority representation, but on the protection of minority rights, and for that a state is very important.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that some communities might not want to do these things, despite the fact that some cannot do these things, and despite the fact that some might make the wrong decisions, big society is a wonderful thing.
It is the Government's and the public sector's attitude to risk that bedevils many of their good intentions. There is an attitude that risk can be and should be eliminated, and we must get away from that mentality. We have to manage risk, of course, but no Government, private organisation or charitable organisation can eliminate risk completely, and we lose a great deal by trying to do so.
The monopolistic provision of public services will be challenged by the big society. I am delighted to see so many of the Government's proposals coming out now in concrete form. Several hon. Members have mentioned the big society bank. Other proposals include transitional funding for charities facing hardship following a sudden drop in a grant, the training of 20,000 community organisers and the national citizenship scheme for young people, which is a fabulous idea. We have some corporate funding for that, so it does not rely on taxpayers. Leadership and a culture change are needed to encourage more philanthropy.
Much of what is great about this country stems from the social action that the individuals, groups and movements of the past provided. For too many years, however, we have come to rely too much on the state. Too often these days we hear, "The council should do x", or, "Why doesn't the Government do y?" Society has become too small. Instead, we should encourage people and communities to do x and y, where they can, and that is why I fully support the Prime Minister in his desire to make the big society a big part of our political agenda. If nothing else, he has got the whole debate going-one that has been too quiet for too long. As Kennedy famously put it: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."
I contend that the big society is out there and is operating. The trouble is that it has been increasingly stifled by big government. To me, the conclusion seems straightforward. The way in which we can encourage greater services and far wider participation is for big government to become a little smaller and to become an enabling government who create the right environment for the voluntary and community sector to flourish. If the voluntary sector and individual carers who care for elderly relatives and disabled children ceased to exist tomorrow, the state would not be able to provide those services. We all know that that is true. It is important that the state is there. I think that the state is well meaning. I do not believe that it is malicious; just that its bureaucratic nature often makes it inefficient. It therefore often stifles innovation unintentionally.
The big society is the most important idea in British politics for a generation. It is not like the so-called third way... The third way was a piece of triangulation designed to allow Mr Blair to have his political cake and eat it. This, however, is a fundamental rethinking that tries to lay the groundwork for our social and economic renewal as a nation. As such, its natural span is not over days and weeks, but years and perhaps even decades.
The Labour party helped to dig the huge hole of indebtedness that this country now finds itself in. It is a great shame that it is now trying to use the present economic crisis to take cheap political shots at the idea of the big society itself. This is an idea which it should support, not disparage-many Labour Members have already shown that, in some cases, it supports the idea.
At its deepest, the big society seeks to correct some glaring flaws in our most basic political assumptions. Ever since Hobbes 350 years ago, we have been taught to think of politics in terms of just the state and the individual; to see individuals as basically self-interested and financially driven; and to ignore the independent institutions that populate our lives and give them point and purpose. Those assumptions have been the basic drivers of Government policy for the 20th century.
The big society rejects those dogmas. Its focus is precisely on what they leave out: first, the value of free institutions, from the family to the school to the village pub, the city and the nation state; and secondly, a generous conception of human beings as social animals seeking to express their capabilities and to trust and to link with others. That is why volunteering, for all its value, is just one part of a far bigger picture.
Although the big society is already very much in place in this country, it is possible to detect a shift in which people are beginning to ask less what they can do for their country and are more inclined to ask what their country can do for them. This is interesting, because the population of our great country has not changed. It is not the people who have changed, but the circumstances around, and it is important that we look at those circumstances to see what has brought about this shift-a shift that becomes very apparent if we talk to the older generation. Many people express it to me in terms of the shift from responsibilities to rights, and from a view that sees rights as the product of collective responsibility first, towards one that sees rights as a concept somehow dislocated from anything else. That is very interesting.
If the big society had another name, it might be "power to the people". This concept of empowerment hits very much on the question of why there might be a shift towards a concept of rights, and away from one of responsibility and the question of what we ourselves can do.
I might be exaggerating slightly, but it seems that what we have heard from the Opposition is the theory that we have made the big society up or that, if it already existed, it was created by 19th-century socialist thinkers. Alternatively, Opposition Members seemed to suggest that it could survive only if it were funded by huge amounts of public subsidy, and that the argument that rules, regulations and bureaucracy get in the way of the big society does not exist.
I believe that the situation is much simpler. I believe that communities sometimes come together to act to improve their lives, and that they are better at doing that, because they understand the problems more acutely, than any Government could ever be. The role of the Government should be to support those communities in taking those actions, to give them a framework in which they can take them, and sometimes to give them some financial support so that they can deliver them.
During my short time as a Member of Parliament, I have become very concerned about families who look only to one or another arm of the state for financial support and services. That has a potentially deadening effect not just on people's ability to solve problems, but on the responsibility that they take for the lives of themselves and their families. I fear that the delivery of services and activities solely by the state can reinforce the disadvantages of such families, and, in particular, can reinforce the lack of social mobility that troubles many Members.
Far from seeing the role of volunteers and community groups in delivering services as a threat, I see it as an opportunity. I represent an area that contains extremes of wealth and poverty as well as all that is between those extremes. Tonight my local council is discussing an innovative plan to run a local library serving many disadvantaged children and young people with support co-ordinated through a local private school's charitable foundation. Irrespective of the financial aspects of the plan, I welcome it. Rather than viewing their involvement with suspicion, I hope that some of those professional parents and other middle-class people who will contribute their time-supporting, for example, homework clubs and study groups-will, in due course, be inspired to offer some of the young people mentoring, work experience and internships. In this instance, involving volunteers in the delivery of services will bring together members of my community who would probably have never met otherwise. I think that that has the potential to drive social mobility.
I wonder how many Opposition Members would be in the Chamber, compared with the few who are here now, were this debate entitled, "The Big State". The Opposition do not care for the big society or what it stands for, because they prefer society to be based on the premise that the state must work its way into every nook and cranny of life. Those who prefer the big state approach do not in any way shape or form like any type of competing provision, which is perhaps why, over the past few years, the previous Government encouraged a large number of organisations, including charitable and non-governmental organisations, to take funds from the centre, so that they were that tiny bit more reliant on what the central Government hand gave them. I wonder how much money is taken by charities from central Government... Perhaps that is why Opposition Members are more focused on dependence on the centre.
There are many hindrances to the big society. We live in a society with a "Make a mistake and I'll sue mentality", which the previous Government encouraged in legislation. We therefore need massive public liability insurance. I am a soccer referee, and I must have extra public liability insurance just to put on my kit and blow a whistle every Saturday afternoon, in case a player injures himself while under my control and tries to sue me.
We need proposals to fix health and safety requirements, the massive number of Criminal Records Bureau checks, which I believe we are beginning to sort out, and the bureaucracy that many hon. Members have described. We also need to simplify gift aid to make it easier for everyone to give, and to encourage businesses to allow their staff to volunteer.
This debate is ideological. It was a Labour Cabinet Minister who said that the man in Whitehall really does know best. What we are talking about here-it is one of the reasons the Liberal Democrats are such an important part of the coalition; it is one of the biggest areas where we agree-is the philosophical split between those of us in the coalition who believe that the state is built bottom up, and our socialist friends who think that the state is created top down.
If we go back to the beginnings of society-man in a state of nature-we see that there is no government, but there is society. Man is a political animal. There is society in our earliest history and forms. Government comes later. The problem with government is that, when it comes, it binds. Let us recall the image of Gulliver when he is bound down by the Lilliputians. Thousands of little people have crawled all over him and tied his hair to the beach. They have put ropes over him so he is stuck-he is tied down. That is what we saw in 13 years of socialist Government. The view was that, if it was not done by the state, it was bad.
If we believe that society is built by individuals, their families, through communities, they are the ones who should make the decisions, raise the money and spend it according to the needs of their communities. One of the great cankers of socialism was that it took over the funding as well. Then we get into the argument about cuts, which is the great confusion in relation to the big society. It is a bad idea for charities to receive most of their funding from Her Majesty's Government because, as soon as they do, they become agents of the state and lose their independent action. They become subject to the rules, regulations and disbursement requirements that are set upon them by Governments. All that must be swept away. The Minister must cut Gulliver free. Gulliver's hair must be released. He must be unbound. He must be able to stand up and stride forth.
It is relatively easy to draw up legislation to increase taxation on the banks, but it is much harder to draft a big society Bill. Unlike my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), I am quite a simple man. I am not a philosopher, so I am going to offer a doorstep definition of the big society. First, the big society says that social capital-the glue that strengthens community and binds us together-is as important as economic capital. We cannot have one without the other, because capitalism works best with strong communities.
Secondly, the big society believes that people power is as effective, if not more so, than state power, which means devolving power to individuals to make decisions. Lower taxes, for example, give us more economic power and direct political devolution for individuals and communities means more social power. Thirdly, the big society gives as much impetus to social entrepreneurs-those who use social action to transform their communities-as it does to economic entrepreneurs. Social action is as essential as economic action, and it must be incentivised.
We have heard a great deal about the big society simply being a fig leaf for cuts, yet many Opposition Members have accepted that the Prime Minister was talking about the big society well before there was any obvious need for cuts of this size due to the profligacy of the previous Administration. The big society is about a great deal more than simply resourcing. It is about the way in which society is organised and the way in which organisations are structured. It is about getting rid of top-down command and control, and replacing it with the empowerment of individuals, families and communities. It has also been suggested that we are on some kind of ideological crusade to attack the state. We are not on any such crusade, but implicit in a belief in the big society is an acceptance that the state has, in part, failed, that it is not perfect and that it has its limitations.
Finally, Nick Hurd, the Cabinet Office MInister, spoke for the Government at the end of the debate:
I really believe that we have barely scratched the surface of what can be achieved in this country if we strike a more effective and balanced partnership between government, business and civil society, including active citizens in our communities who want to get more involved. That is what we are working towards, because we need a new approach to tackle the entrenched social challenges that we face. As many speakers have said, relying on big government and "Whitehall knows best" just has not worked well enough, and it must be time to make better use of the talents and resources of this country. Of course this will involve a big culture change and it will not happen overnight, which brings me to my second point.
The new approach requires strong leadership from government, and not a traditional top-down programme; to make this work we have to redistribute power in a bold and genuine way, to allow communities to take more control and to recast government so that it supports community action, rather than stifles it. That is now happening and it is being built on three core strands, the first of which is the transfer of real power to communities.
First, power is being transferred in the form of information. Whether we are talking about crime maps, departmental business plans or detailed breakdowns of local authority spending, our constituents already have more information than ever before on what is being done in their name. With that comes the power to act and challenge, and the Localism Bill offers people new rights and opportunities to take more control, not least in the planning process. That is being supported by a new attitude from government which asks, "How can we help?", rather than saying, "You can't do that." That is why it was right to review the health and safety regulations and the vetting and barring regime. It was encouraging to see the Department for Communities and Local Government immediately set up a new bureaucracy-busting service and challenge communities to tell it what is getting in the way, and 140 communities have already engaged in that process.
The second strand of Government action is fundamental public service reform. Yes, we do believe that we can deliver better public services by opening up the market to competition and new providers, including social enterprises, mutuals and the voluntary sector. We do believe in giving communities and front-line professionals much greater freedom to meet local need. We also want to get the public more involved in shaping the services they use, whether that be through personal budgets or greater involvement in how resources are allocated and services are commissioned. We will soon be publishing a White Paper on public service reform, which will set out our plans in more detail.
The third strand of action is about encouraging more social action in our communities. Of course we are not inventing anything new: this is about building on the fantastic work done in constituencies across the country by dedicated people who know the value of giving time and/or money to help others. We want to encourage a step change in attitudes to giving both time and money. Our recent Green Paper set out how government can help in traditional and non-traditional ways, such as by setting up new match funding schemes to encourage local endowments and private sector support for volunteering projects or by encouraging civil servants to get more involved in community service, thereby setting an example to other employers. The national citizen service has enormous potential to connect our teenagers with their power to make a contribution to the community. Our Communities First programme will give more deprived neighbourhoods access to a new grant programme that will help them to implement their own plans, supported by community organisers whose job will be to build local networks and leadership, encouraging people to come together and take action.