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Greg Clark MP: Every social problem is being solved by somebody, somewhere

Just interviewed for Radio 4's World at One, David Cameron said that it was time to stop asking 'what can the voluntary sector do?' and instead ask 'what CAN'T the voluntary sector do?'.  The sector has been kept in a box for too long and deserves to be freed from red tape and enjoy more long-term funding.  Only with the freedom to make profits will voluntary sector organisations have the confidence and resources to invest in reproducing models of success across the country.

GregclarkIn this Platform Greg Clark, MP for Tunbridge Wells and Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, explains the thinking behind today's major Conservative report on the future of the voluntary sector. Click here to download a PDF of the full paper.

What do you know about the history of Britain’s welfare state? In the highly edited version that most people have lodged somewhere in their minds, it all started during the Second World War with the publication of the Beveridge Report.

What this usually refers to is the first of three major reports, Social Insurance and Allied Services, published in 1942. The second was Full Employment in a Free Society, published in 1944. Together, these made a major contribution to the post-war settlement.

The third report, however, was all but ignored. Published in 1948, Voluntary Action was a warning against monolithic statism – all the more powerful for coming from the man regarded as the father of the welfare state:

“In a totalitarian society all action outside the citizen’s home, and it may be much that goes on there, is directed or controlled by the State. By contrast, vigour and abundance of Voluntary Action outside one’s home, individually and in association with other citizens, for bettering one’s own life and that of one’s fellows, are the distinguishing marks of a free society. They have been outstanding features of British life.”

In recent years the political establishment has begun to wake up to the importance of society as distinct from the state. In particular, the main parties – long obsessed with their respective preferences for the public and private sectors – began to notice the existence of the voluntary sector. Having exhausted all other possibilities, politicians have begun to realise that voluntary organisations might just provide the solutions to the social problems facing the nation.

David Cameron has gone further than any other Party Leader in pushing this new agenda. Indeed, the voluntary sector is so central to his vision of ‘social responsibility’ that it has become a focus for leftwing reaction. A good example is Anthony Giddens, the New Labour guru and architect of the ‘third way’. In a recent article for Prospect magazine, he insisted that:

"The prime emphasis should be that of reforming the state itself, as Labour emphasises, so as to provide greater choice and voice for users. Removing key services from the state is another thing altogether. Does anyone seriously think that education or social services could be provided mainly by local vicars or well-meaning ladies’ associations?"

For a professor of sociology, Mr Giddens has a remarkably quaint view of the nature and capabilities of the voluntary sector – which in the UK has an annual turnover of around £30 billion, a paid workforce of half a million people and a committed volunteer workforce encompassing one fifth of the adult population. Moreover, voluntary organisations are already providing public services to a standard that exceeds that of many state providers.

Thus the question is not whether the voluntary sector is capable of taking on services from the state, but just how far this process can go. The Conservative answer, surely, is as far as charities and social enterprises are willing to go and are able to provide high standards of service.

One of the reasons why voluntary action is becoming more, not less, important today is that the collective challenges that we face today are not susceptible to single, top-down solutions. There is no ‘silver bullet’ policy that will cure poverty. There is no single solution that, if uniformly imposed, can make sure people who have committed a crime never to do so again. There is not a single initiative from government that will revitalise every community. The world today is different from a world suited to centralised solutions. It is less uniform, more personal, less obedient, more spirited.

The fact that there are not single, uniform solutions to the collective problems facing our society in the 21st century is not a reason for despair, but a source of possibility. There may not be a single measure that can ensure that children born into poverty can be helped to attain their full potential. But there are a thousand pieces of help - from extra care from a health visitor in the days after birth, to support for parenting, to the chance to attend a good school – each one of which can contribute to improving the life chances of that child. It may never be possible to demonstrate that any single one had a decisive influence, but a society in which every possible source of inspiration, innovation and effort is unleashed is one that has the best chance of success.

The obstacles to this approach are largely of the Government’s making: arising from the nightmare bureaucracy that voluntary organisations have to cope with in dealing with the state. What Ministers advertise as “partnership” turns out to be subservience, with voluntary providers of public services subject to contracts which specify in mind-numbing detail the processes by which a service is to be provided, when all that is usually required is an agreement on outcomes. It is a paradox that a Government that praises voluntary organisations for their effectiveness and innovation won’t trust them to deliver public services in an effective and innovative way.

Voluntary Action in the 21st Century
, the green paper that David Cameron and I are launching today, is all about clearing away these pointless and destructive obstacles – and not just for the benefit of organisations that can help reform our public services. We want to create an environment in which charities and community groups of all kinds can flourish. That’s why we will also tackle the impediments to charitable giving, volunteering and the other resources which sustain the independence and diversity of the voluntary sector.

When you read of yet another stabbing or shooting of a young person, it is easy to succumb to despair about the future direction of our society. And yet there are few social problems to which somebody, somewhere in the voluntary sector isn’t already finding a solution. Sometimes the best way for them to do so is genuine partnership with government, and sometimes government just needs to get out of the way. It will take a Conservative Government to know the difference.


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