Big Society Debate -Transition Town Letchworth

Thank you to Transition Town Letchworth for inviting me to speak this evening to engage in this debate on the Big Society. I very much welcome the good work which Transition Town Letchworth does- amongst many other pressing issues, it certainly plays an important part in heightening local awareness of the challenges of both climate change and peak oil.

I also welcome your sustainability agenda with your initiatives on cycling, food growing, collection and distribution. Big Society is about people, organisations and communities driving things rather than the state.

(Photo shows Oliver with (left) Sarah Wren, Chairman of Hertfordshire Community Meals and (right) Joanna Jefferson, of Transition Town Letchworth.)

The “Big Society” is not a policy, it is an idea, an approach, an important influence on the coalition government’s thinking on public policy. First, “Society”. Mrs Thatcher once made the point that society is made up of individuals. This has been endlessly misquoted as her saying “there is no such thing as society”, but that is not the meaning of what she said.

Society involves an accumulation of inter-connected relationships: the individual parent and child, the wider family, work contacts with co-workers, your road or street, the organisations, churches and clubs you join, school or other educational or training establishments, your town or village, your relationship with the council, with the government and with nature and so on.

In some places, society is in good shape and I think Letchworth is such a place with its friendly, peaceable community, its excellent schools and workforce, many local clubs and societies, vigorous high performing businesses and councils that care about the services they provide and the environment.

The first point I wanted to make is that “Society” is big. It covers a lot of ground.

The second point is that Britain’s society is broken. By this Conservatives do not mean that it is broken in every direction. It is not shattered, but there are some areas that need attention, need mending. The riots this summer highlighted a group of disaffected people, 80 per cent who had been convicted previously of criminal offences.

There is a group of about 150,000 families who commit almost all crime. There are 3 million households with working age adults, where no one works. This did not change during the 10 year period up to 2008, when Britain created 3 million extra jobs, but long term unemployment hardly changed. Most new jobs went to foreigners. 40,000 young people leave school unable to read, write or add up properly. Teachers talk of tots arriving at school unable to talk, because they have had so little socialisation with other children and adults.

Many people hate their environment, badly built estates – rabbit warrens for crime.

Even in the countryside, there is disquiet at the building which is proposed – often great estates of 4 beds detached. People worry about losing facilities on the High Street or in the villages.

The environment is not being protected adequately – whether the state of our rivers (a Hertfordshire problem) or the risk of climate change and the need for energy efficiency, recycling and a range of energy sources.

What needs to happen is that certain parts of society need to be bigger and stronger.

David Cameron has talked about using “liberalism, empowerment, even freedom[1]” to tackle these issues. So, the Big Society is about acknowledging the strength and extent of society and trying to mend and improve it by making the necessary interconnected relationships stronger.

Starting with vulnerable children, free child care is to be extended to all vulnerable two year olds and provided more extensively for three and four year olds and will be available to those working less than 16 hours per week. This should help working single parents, including part time workers. Charities provide volunteer help to vulnerable families. The combination of providing socialisation and support is important.

We are also putting much more emphasis on ensuring youngsters learn to read and write by the time they are 7 years old. This involves volunteers helping by listening to children reading aloud.

On crime, many people are keen to turn criminals away from crime. All too often criminals think their crimes are victimless. It is important that the process of changing their lives involves the community. Where offences do not warrant prison, I support restorative justice where the victims have the chance to explain to the offender the effect of his actions on the local community. For example, vandalism and theft meaning that jobs go, as businesses leave an area and the living environment declines. They should be made to clear up the mess and pay for repairs.

In prison courses should be run to bring home to criminals the effects on others. It is said that when the mothers of deceased gang members explain their sense of loss, the criminals often end up in tears. They need to be made aware of their actions. They should be made to work in prison and the money used for reparation. They should be imprisoned close to their families so that they do not lose touch with a home and family.

All these things involve building on the interconnected relationships which make up society and they involve voluntary action. But it is also necessary to strengthen relationships between citizen and style of government – community empowerment.

In this constituency there is often disquiet about large proposed housing developments such as Great Ashby and West of the A1M. These were top down proposals from Regional Government. The Coalition has abandoned regional planning and will leave it up to local councils to produce Local Plans and leave it to local neighbourhoods to produce neighbourhood plans. This localism will mean that local people decide what their environment will be.

Policing will become more locally determined as Police Commissioners will replace Police Authorities. This means that local people will decide the sort of leadership they want and there will be a proper debate about policing priorities.

This principle encourages a large decentralisation of power from the centre to local  and in due course, such decentralisation will encourage local innovation and nurture civic action too[2]. An emphasis on improving local relations will enhance societal responsibility and in fact this theme has much in common with the ideals of Transition Town Letchworth I believe.

In encouraging active citizenship, it is important to do away with red tape and allow greater transparency, so that people have the information they need to play a bigger part in society. The provision of finance in the form of Big Society Capital and formalised by the creation of the Big Society Bank, will allow smaller organisations, charities or voluntary groups to have the opportunity to partake in local projects.

In the 2010 Budget, proposals were outlined to remove gift aid paperwork for charitable donations up to £5,000 (by April 2013) together with the creation of a new online filing system for gift aid claims (also by 2013). There is also to be a reduction in the rate of IHT for Estates that leave 10% or more to charity. 

These measures are a substantial start in the attempt to give more to charity. This summer alone, over 8,000 16 year olds took part in the first wave of National Citizen Service and this scheme aims to deliver opportunities to 30,000 young people by next year. Each civil servant – including MPs - will be encouraged to do one day of volunteering using special leave and the civil service itself will aim to give 30,000 volunteering days per year too. Many MPs have done this voluntarily in the past. I have taken part in social action projects and worked in a charity shop, delivered meals on wheels, been out with the Special Constables, worked in a Homeless Hostel for a week and in my youth I used to run a youth football team down the Old Kent Road. All these projects have been worthwhile and have encouraged others to join in.

The Big Society Awards will acknowledge the good work of both individuals and organisations and so far this year, 24 awards have already been made, which is an encouraging sign that people are already responding in a positive way to this initiative.

Last May, the White Paper launched by Cabinet Office Minister Nick Hurd MP outlined a number of policies to support the giving of both time and money in other ways: over £40M will be provided in the next two years to support volunteering, and the volunteer infrastructure by way of the Social Action Fund, Challenge Prizes and Local Infrastructure Fund. £1M will support Youthnet which runs the website and Youthnet will also share its data more freely with organisations. £700,000 will also be provided to Philanthropy UK so that wealthy people will be connected with charities that would benefit greatly from such associations. In addition the Government has delivered £400,000 to trial a scheme that would recognise the good work of volunteers by awarding them with vouchers or discounts with local businesses and a new honours committee will ensure that people and their work is recognised be it for exceptional or sustained philanthropy.

With regard to opening up public services, the White Paper has set out plans to create greater diversity in the delivery of public services by opening up the market to a greater number of providers.  16 areas covering 31 councils and their partners are currently involved in delivering a “Community Budget” that pools strands of Whitehall funding into a single “local bank account” and this will be used to tackle the social problems of families with complex needs. The intention is that all places will be able to operate Community Budgets from 2013/2014, whilst this year the four largest UK banks have started to put £200M of capital into the Big Society Bank.

In addition, impressively, 323 applications have been made for the set up of “free schools,” and 41 of these have progressed to business case stage or beyond. (For your information as of the end of last month, 24 Free Schools are already up and running.) 

300 VCSE organisations have won contracts to deliver the DWP’s new Work Programme and of the prime contractors, two voluntary sector organisations have been named as being amongst these. 

Transparency Agenda now being pursued by the Government, allows for all public sector data to be at the public’s disposal and open to scrutiny. Obviously in terms of legislative attempts to formalise this approach, we should look no further than the Localism Bill; now I appreciate that some of you might have reservations about some of its elements. However you cannot mistake the positive attempts the
Bill makes to decentralise power into the hands of local communities rather than let it be retained by the centrally imposed administration of previous Governments. 

To support those charities that are most vulnerable to public sector cuts, the £107M Transition Fund has been designated to help them. Importantly Criminal Record Bureau checks will become updatable instead of the previous set of arrangements which existed, whereby a new CRB was needed in respect of every separate position[3].

I have outlined very briefly some of the policies which the Government will be adopting in its quest to achieve the “Big Society” and significantly how far in the last year, it has managed to achieve these. I do realise however that some of you might remain still unconvinced as to its real intention. Indeed critics of the concept have branded it merely a cost-cutting exercise and I understand the pr é cis to this evening’s event[4] even suggested as much; no doubt we will debate this point in due course. Well –it’s true that by enlisting the support of voluntary groups and decentralising power, money can be saved. But if you look at it from another perspective, there is no doubt that we need to encourage the positive ideals of the Big Society and therefore what better way to do it? 

Back in May this year, David Cameron posed the question I imagine many have thought, “is this Government about anything more than cuts?” In reply he said “....well yes...because spending cuts are not the ends; they’re not even the means to the ends....they’re just a symptom of the inescapable reality that you cannot get anything done, if your country goes bankrupt...” and with this thought in mind, “alongside the task of building a dynamic economy, there is another great long-term challenge we must meet...of building a bigger, stronger society...strong families...strong communities, strong relationships...(and) these are the things that make life worth living...[5]

In a more recent article that featured in the magazine published by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Lord Taylor of Gossmoor has suggested that Big Society principles are already present within rural communities. Some communities have already recognised the importance of social ties[6].

When writing in another article, a Social Entrepreneur Sarah Hamilton Fairley makes the point that Government needs to build the necessary infrastructure to ensure the continued survival[7] of social ties and the many local voluntary organisations that encourage and support them. I agree. 

Thank you for listening to me this evening and I look forward to hearing your points during the ensuing debate.

[1] PM Speech “The Big Society”, 19 July 2010

[2] Ibid

[3] All of this information has been provided by Nick Hurd’s Office “One Year of Big Society: Fact Sheet” September 2011


[5] PM Speech “The Big Society” 23 May 2011

[6] “The Big Society” Countryside Voice: Head to Head, September 2011