Social Economy in Northern Ireland

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Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): I share the Minister's delight in serving under your chairmanship, Mrs. Roe.

I congratulate the Minister on his deserved and, frankly, long overdue promotion. Some of us had begun to speculate that he was not promoted earlier because the Prime Minister needed at least some supporters on his Back Benches. The Minister's promotion is no less welcome for being long overdue.

This document was largely the responsibility of the hon. Gentleman's predecessor, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Dudley, South, who signed the foreword, but I do not believe that he wrote it. The last time I faced the hon. Gentleman across a Committee Room was during discussions on the draft Agricultural Statistics (Northern Ireland) Order 2004, in Standing Committee D on 18 March. He treated us to four column inches of Seamus Heaney's poem, ''A Constable Calls''.

The Minister who treated the Committee to that cultural feast could not have written the foreword to this document, redolent as it is of the gobbledegook of modern management-speak: ''strong social focus'', ''improving service delivery'', ''working in partnership'', ''key structures'',

    ''a more integrated approach to the development of the sector'',

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''optimise experience'', ''consultation process'', ''share best practice'' and

    ''strengthen and grow the sector''.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): May I humbly suggest that the hon. Gentleman makes such phrases sound like poetry?

Mr. Swayne: That was the best bit of the document. After that, it gets worse and worse. I refer the Committee to page 18, paragraph 5.10:

    ''The creation and operation of the key structures noted above provide the opportunity for joint, ongoing and structured dialogue between the social economy and the public sector. Their operation and activities will be monitored and evaluated to ensure optimum outcomes for the development and long-term sustainability''—

2.50 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.17 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Swayne:

    ''of the NI social economy sector.''

Such psychobabble characterises so much pseudo business language and disguises the fact that it actually does not amount to a row of beans.

I wish to preface my remarks on the social economy by saying that I have the highest regard for the organisations that constitute it. Some enormously good work is done by dedicated people. What I say is not at all a criticism of them. The thrust of my attack is entirely elsewhere.

I come to the debate with a certain amount of ideological baggage. One might call it prejudice, but what is prejudice but the inherited wisdom of the ages? My first prejudice is that the recent emphasis on defining the social economy seems to be very much a continental preoccupation.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has made his point about the concept of the social economy. Does he accept that under some of the programmes from which Northern Ireland benefits—specifically, Peace I and Peace II—there has been a significant financial contribution to the growth of the social economy in Northern Ireland? Would he pursue his prejudices to the detriment of those projects?

Mr. Swayne: I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but he is on the wrong track. My concern is with the preoccupation with defining social economy, not with the reality itself.

My second predisposition is my firm belief that it is not from the benevolence of the butcher that we expect our dinner: it is enterprise, individual initiative and effort that are the true generators of wealth and will always be the primary engine in liberating communities from social exclusion. I reject the European Union definition of social economy, which sees it as

    ''the sum of all organised, democratically based activity which are organised independently of the public sector and aimed primarily at addressing concerns within the community.''

Such a definition arrogates to itself all independent activity of a non-commercial nature.

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I am much more at home with the definition that the Minister has given of what constitutes the social economy. The term ''social economy'' implies genuinely economic activity and not just voluntary associations. That is not a criticism of voluntary associations and the very important work that they do, but what they do does not constitute economic activity. To be part of a social economy, organisations must trade goods or services with an intention to generate revenue to cover the cost of the activity. Of course, they may well be subsidised to a greater or lesser extent, but a key issue will be to what extent they are viable without the support of the public sector. That is a matter of importance, which might come out of the studies the Minister has spoken of today.

There must always be a proper balance, but my ideological prejudice is that the state does not generally do things well. Where it interferes, it displaces private initiative and activity. It stifles activity and enterprise with regulation and taxation. It distorts the pattern of economic activity with its own priorities and its procurement. Big Brother has, in effect, turned out to be not a clenched fist raised in anger, but an open hand dishing out largesse that has created a dependency culture in many parts of our kingdom.

I wish to turn to the great five-year plan, or should I say the three-year plan—they share the same philosophical inspiration. The Minister asks a number of questions about the priorities and the objectives. In so far as the objectives are set out in the document to show priority, I would say that those priorities are wrong. The third, to

    ''create a supportive and enabling environment'',

should be the first. The key role for Government in a mixed economy is to enable, not to do things themselves. More importantly, they should not obstruct. I am very glad that the document acknowledges that in paragraph 5.5:

    ''The main focus of the Group has been to consider how departmental policies and programmes support,''—

and now the key bit—

    ''or indeed, hinder the growth of the sector''.

That is a most important caveat, and I am glad that it is highlighted in the document.

The first objective is

    ''to increase awareness of the sector and establish its value to the local economy''.

I would say that the second bit is very important but the first bit is no business of Government whatever. Let the vitality of the sector be its own ambassador. If the Government promote it, it becomes a self-serving loop. I draw the Committee's attention chapter 1, paragraph 1.4, on page 5:

    ''The 2002–05 DETI Corporate Plan identifies the Department's lead role in developing a more fully integrated approach to promote increased awareness of its value and particular significance to the Northern Ireland economy and its potential for development and growth.''

That is a circularity. I shall come back to that point in a moment.

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I shall now deal with the second part of the first objective which talked about establishing the value of the social economy. I believe that that is very important. We want to know what its contribution to the domestic product of Northern Ireland is, and we want to know whether we are getting value for money, because much of this activity is based on subsidy. It would be useful to know precisely the value of the activity being generated in response to the subsidy. That is something that we do not know at the moment. The document points that out in chapter 6. I draw the Committee's attention to paragraph 6.6 on page 21, which says:

    ''This research will capture information on the number of social economy enterprises, employees, geographical location, core trading activity and turnover.''

That is all vital information, which it would be useful to have. In that respect the document has much merit and I applaud it.

As to the second objective, to develop the sector, I do not believe that that is the proper role of the state. The danger is that, far from developing the sector, we develop an industry sitting on top of it—a quango wonderland. On page 7, in a brief column inch, no fewer than five Government and quasi-autonomous Government bodies are mentioned: the IDSG, the DETI, the SEUPB, which is the special EU programmes body, and the SEA and the SEN, which are the Social Economy Agency and the social economy network. One must add to them all the other quangos in this field that are set out in rest of the document—the Voluntary and Community Unit, the DSD and the CENI—and one could add in the 26 local support partnerships, NICVA, which is the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, and the CDFA, or Community Development Finance Association. It is quango on quango.

One reason I support the studies that the Minister has set out in this document is that they will begin to shed a little light on this bonanza of quango-land, and we will be able to see how much overlapping activity is taking place and what really is going on. That would be a singular service to the social economy sector.

3.28 pm

Lembit Öpik: As ever, Mrs. Roe, it is a pleasure to work under your wise guidance. I welcome the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) to the position of Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Hope springs eternal, but, having been passed over yet again for the position, I offer him whatever support is necessary to enable him to bring about the onset of lasting peace and the re-establishment of the Assembly. We will work out what he will do next week when the time comes.

I very much enjoyed, as I always do, the interpretation of this debate provided by the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). Mine is a more positive view of government than his. I take issue with his statement that the state generally does not do things well, but my primary issue is with his slightly sceptical view of the motives that could be

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associated with the social economy. I believe that people do act based on good spirit or humanity and that the state can sometimes facilitate that. What reason could the hon. Gentleman possibly have to make poetry out of the document other than, out of the kindness of his heart, to help the Government shine in their performance in Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman talks about the state's involvement, and there is a problem when the state regards the community as a means by which to facilitate its objectives. If, on the other hand, we regard the community as a vehicle to facilitate the objectives of citizens, we can be more optimistic. In that scenario, the state serves communities rather than expecting them to serve it. Inasmuch as I observe Ministers and the Government taking the less desirable approach, I agree with the hon. Gentleman: there are times when the Big Brother attitude means that the state regards communities and sometimes individuals as its servants. Indeed, that is my core objection to the introduction of identity cards: individuals are expected to subjugate their freedom and privacy to make the job of the state easier. Through the social economy, the Government and the Under-Secretary have an opportunity to take matters the other way around.

There is plenty of precedent for the successful advancement of social programmes in the context of a social economy in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. One of the most successful examples is the advance of credit unions across the country. The Minister may be interested and delighted to know that much of that comes from the work of Robert Owen, who was born in 1771—in my constituency, as it happens. Without giving a long history of the man, he instigated the modern co-operative movement and did a great deal to improve workers' rights. I would go as far as to say that he put in place many of the building blocks of the social economy in the United Kingdom. I can say without fear of contradiction that Montgomeryshire was the birthplace of the co-operative movement, modern workers' rights, socialism and the welfare state. In making those humble claims, I do not necessarily take responsibility for the abuse of those fine concepts by successive Governments.

In the work of Robert Owen and in the way in which the consultation document lays out its objectives, we see how a few good people in a position of power who are able to invest in social economic activity can alter the culture of an entire community. For that reason I welcome the thrust of the consultation paper on the social economy.

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Prepared 29 April 2004