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John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): We share the Prime Minister’s objective of having a successful and stringently controlled defence export sector in the UK, but, on reflection, would he not have made better progress toward that objective if he had reconsidered the timing of his trade mission last week?

The Prime Minister: I disagree—I would like to make people happy, but I do not agree. It was a long-arranged trip, and it was worth while going to Cairo and being one of the first people to make it to Tahrir square and to meet some of those protesters. Also, going to Kuwait on the 20th anniversary of its liberation and being able to make a speech in the Kuwait Parliament about the importance of spreading democracy and freedom was extremely important. On who accompanied me on the trip, I had a little check and in November 2008 the former Prime Minister took many of the same companies, including British Aerospace, which plays quite a big role in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Companies such as Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace are large employers in this country, and it is important that we help those businesses and make sure that they go on employing people, not least in his constituency.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Chancellor on their quick action to prevent moneys being exported and on the action at the United Nations. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will take action, and will press the UN to take action, against any country that breaks the UN resolution?

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The most important thing is to encourage countries to take action in respect of the UN resolution and to put in place its terms as quickly as possible. We held a Privy Council meeting yesterday to allow us to pass legislation putting in place the asset freeze. We should encourage others to take that step before considering the next step of widening the net and putting even more pressure on the regime.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Before the Prime Minister takes too many cosy trips down memory lane with Sir John Major, perhaps he will recall that the arms that were exported to Iraq under the last Tory Administration were never paid for. As part of his review, will he look into the role that the Export Credits Guarantee Department played in providing cover for arms sales to unstable countries?

The Prime Minister: The trip down memory lane that I was taking was to Kuwait with John Major to celebrate the fact that 20 years ago this country played a part in an international coalition to bring about its liberation. Kuwait is not a democracy like us, but it has a Parliament and is taking steps to greater openness. Should we have a close relationship with such countries? I say yes, we should.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I, like most Government Members, thought it immensely impressive that the Prime Minister was in the middle east so early. Will the Prime Minister again pay credit to our extremely brave RAF personnel who carried out the two desert rescues, and will he point out in particular that 95 British

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nationals were rescued, as well as 270 foreign nationals? Does that not show that we were leading in the evacuation of non-Libyan nationals?

The Prime Minister: I know that my hon. Friend has an interest in this, because his son is a Chinook pilot and has served bravely in Afghanistan and elsewhere. What the British military has done is outstanding—the Royal Navy in Benghazi and the Air Force in the desert mission. My hon. Friend is right. More than 32 nationalities have been rescued and brought back by the British. There is also co-ordination by the British going on in Malta and our AWACS aircraft are providing much of the air traffic control. Once again, the whole country, with our armed forces, can be very proud.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): The Deputy Prime Minister once said that the Prime Minister is amazingly flaky on foreign affairs. Flaky or not, does the Prime Minister accept at least that he showed poor judgment last week in prioritising arms sales to the region over helping the Libyan people and our citizens in Libya?

The Prime Minister: That question was the definition of flaky. I went to Egypt, an important country whose democratic transition we should be encouraging. I also made a speech in the Kuwaiti Parliament about democracy. Yes, links with middle eastern countries are important. One of the reasons for going was that country after country had said to us that they were ignored, downplayed and downgraded by the previous Government. Making sure that we are building those relationships is important, and the hon. Gentleman’s judgment on this one is wrong.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): Libya is a wake-up call that Afghanistan is not the only country that matters in the world. It shows that we have not had a balanced, moderate foreign policy. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is a reason to accelerate the draw-down of resources from Afghanistan, so that we can meet the many crises in the world, of which Libya is one, that will confront us over the next decade?

The Prime Minister: I do not think this is an either/or. I know that my hon. Friend has considerable experience in Afghanistan, but I think that the draw-down should take place. We have set an end date, but between now and then it should be done with our NATO and international security assistance force partners to make sure that we are doing on the ground what we need to do, so that that country can have some chance of controlling its own affairs and its own destiny and providing its own security. But our aim in Afghanistan is no more than that the Afghans themselves should be able to secure that country, so that it does not require the presence of foreign troops. It is as simple as that.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): The past few weeks have shown that not everything in the middle east is necessarily contingent upon the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As we move forward, does my right hon. Friend agree that whatever democracies emerge in north Africa and the middle east, it is important to ensure that they recognise the legitimacy of Israel, function as democracies and act as a counterbalance to Iran?

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The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a good point, although we should not be pessimistic about the effect of greater democratisation in the middle east and the Arab world on the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace. Some of the more autocratic regimes use the Arab-Israel conflict as a way of keeping their own populations happy without having democracy. So, yes, the road between here and there may be quite bumpy and difficult, but in the end, deals between democracies will be stronger.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): My constituent, Richard Foscolo, was stranded in the desert in Ghani in an oilfield. He returned home last Friday. Initial contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was naturally difficult, partly because of the circumstances on the ground, but the family feel particularly let down by his employers, OPS International, which did not make all the information available to the embassy or to the FCO, so that co-ordination could be brought about effectively. What action will the Prime Minister take to ensure that information is shared as efficiently as possible?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and there are lessons to learn about how information is shared. It is a difficult and ever-changing picture. Let us just look at the numbers of people who we think are in Libya and who want to come out. Even in the age of the internet, the mobile phone, computer databases and the rest of it, getting a real grip of those numbers, as I believe we now have—we will go on publishing more granular information about that—is difficult, but companies working with the Government is clearly an essential part of that process.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Does the Prime Minister agree that much of what we have heard from the Opposition over the past week, at the height of the Libyan crisis, has been nothing short of naked political opportunism, and that the deputy

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leader of the Labour party should apologise for comments that she posted on Twitter, when she said:

“Rapid deployment force not rapid”—

Mr Speaker: Order. I am always interested to hear the hon. Gentleman, who is an extremely keen and assiduous new parliamentarian, but I am afraid he is asking the Prime Minister about something for which even the Prime Minister does not actually have responsibility, so we will leave it there.

Andrew Bridgen rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. We will leave it there.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): It is obviously right to send assistance to tackle the growing refugee problem on Libya’s borders, but are efforts being co-ordinated with EU partners and others to prevent the turmoil throughout north Africa becoming an immigration problem for Italy and southern Europe?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and there are urgent conversations under way about that. At the moment, the pressure is on the borders between Libya and Tunisia and Libya and Egypt, and a lot of it involves migrant workers from Tunisia and Egypt returning to their countries, but, as I said in my statement, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will visit the region soon. We are sending out technical experts to advise us on what is necessary, but I think that there is a real job for the European Union to work together and make sure that the situation does not turn, as my hon. Friend suggests, into a refugee crisis.

Mr Speaker: I must thank the Prime Minister and all colleagues, whose succinctness meant that no fewer than 53 Back Benchers were able to be called to ask questions on the statement. I am very grateful to colleagues.

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Points of Order

4.42 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I draw the House’s attention to my earlier declaration of interest. During questions to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Minister for Housing and Local Government said that I misrepresented his policy on the new homes bonus. He claimed that he had equalised the payment for new homes built, but that is simply not the case. The new homes bonus matches the council tax for each new home built over six years. The council tax for each band is averaged; the payment per home is not. The Library has produced research that supports the case that I made with regard to Hull and to Kensington and Chelsea. Will you, Mr Speaker, advise me and the House on how the Minister can correct the record?

Mr Speaker: I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me notice of what she intended to raise and has, indeed, now raised. She has put her point on the record, and she will have other ways of pursuing her concern about the matter. I must advise her, however, that it is not a procedural matter on which I can rule this afternoon.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister, during his statement, referred to a meeting yesterday of the Privy Council, which has frozen Libyan assets. I do not object to the freezing of Libyan assets—quite the contrary—but I wonder whether you, Mr Speaker, have had any notice of any parliamentary procedure to approve that particular motion, because the Prime Minister did not refer to one during his contribution. Clearly, Parliament must have a role in any decision of that magnitude.

Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. Indeed, it is so important and so deserving of serious consideration that it would be a gross discourtesy for me to respond now, thoughtlessly, inadequately and, from the vantage point of the hon. Gentleman and the House, disappointingly, so I will not. I will reflect on the matter, and I might come back to the hon. Gentleman, who has, on the strength of his nearly 28 years’ experience of the House, put his own thoughts on the matter very clearly on the record.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Of course, I fully agree with the stricture that you laid on us earlier in relation to naming members of the royal family, but I am sure that, in reading “Erskine May”, you will agree with me that the only reference to the matter is:

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“The irregular use of the Queen’s name to influence a decision of the House is unconstitutional in principle and inconsistent with the independence of Parliament.”

I presume it must therefore still be perfectly possible for us to criticise members of the royal family when they play a particular role as a trade ambassador for this country on behalf of UK Trade & Investment, and that it will be possible for us to table written parliamentary questions on that matter?

Mr Speaker: My understanding, off the top of my head, is that the hon. Gentleman is correct. He is an assiduous follower of the use of language, and I think that he will recall that in making my observation, I emphasised the importance of treating these matters with great care, and said that on the whole it is preferable if references to members of the royal family are both sparing and respectful. I think, however, that the entitlement to raise matters which, in a sense, he is pleading in evidence, is undisputed, and his understanding of “Erskine May” on this occasion—as, I have to admit, it is on most occasions—is notably accurate.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As more and more universities are planning to do the Government’s bidding and charge the full £9,000 in tuition fees, last week the Government announced yet another delay to their higher education White Paper, and also raised the prospect of even deeper cuts to teaching and research funding. That White Paper, which has at its core the future of student numbers, is fundamental to the future financial health of our universities. Although it increasingly appears that it is being written by Walter Mitty, nevertheless it is surely the responsibility of the House to give it proper consideration. Can you bring any clarity to the House, Mr Speaker, as to when we might be able to debate that White Paper?

Mr Speaker: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s inquiry is no, but I note that the Leader of the House is in his place. The hon. Gentleman, who has become rather a seasoned professional at raising matters of this kind, the better to advance his case, has obviously decided that today should be no exception. He has registered his concerns very forcefully, and it may be that he will hasten the day when satisfaction becomes his due; we shall see.

If there are no further points of order, for which there has been quite an appetite after the half-term break—I suppose that that is to be expected—we now come to the main business, which is a debate on the big society. Before we get under way, perhaps I can explain a number of things. First, the amendment that was tabled has not been selected. Secondly, there will be a 15-minute limit on the opening Back-Bench speech, as the hon. Gentleman who is about to deliver it is aware. Thirdly, there will be an eight-minute limit on each subsequent Back-Bench speech.

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Backbench Business

[21st allotted day]

Big Society

4.48 pm

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House supports the Big Society, seeking stronger communities where power is decentralised and social action is encouraged.

I place on record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, particularly its Chair, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who has been such a great advocate of Back-Bench business and so encouraging in the process of bringing forward this debate. I also thank the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), who cannot be with us today because she is on official business, for her assistance in making the case to the Committee, and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman). It is a great thing to have secured this debate. The big society has been much discussed in the media, and yet this is practically the first proper occasion on which it has been discussed on the Floor of this Chamber.

It is traditional when discussing the big society to start talking about the invention of the telegraph, the growth of centralisation, and the invention of the internet, and then to wind up with a discussion of something called the post-bureaucratic age. That is fascinating to those of a philosophical bent and technocratic in nature, but it does not mean much to my constituents. 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 Prime Minister put the case succinctly in The Daily Telegraph on 21 February 2011, when he said:

“The idea at the heart of this—the Big Society—is about rebuilding responsibility and giving people more control over their lives. But that doesn’t just apply in areas like volunteering. It’s as relevant when it comes to public services and the decentralisation

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of power. Indeed, I would argue that our plans to devolve power from Whitehall, and to modernise public services, are more significant aspects of our Big Society agenda than the work we’re doing to boost social action…In the past decade, stories about bureaucracy over-ruling common sense, targets and regulations over-ruling professional discretion, and the producers of public services over-ruling the people who use (and pay for) them—became the norm, not the exception. This might have been worth it had it led to dramatic improvements, but the evidence shows otherwise. Whether it’s cancer survival rates, school results or crime, for too long we’ve been slipping against comparable countries.”

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): I am doing my best to follow what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If there are people who will not jump into a pond to save a drowning child, will he explain how the big society will persuade them to do so?

Charlie Elphicke: The central point I am making is that people who want to take charge and responsibility feel put off from doing so by the concern that they will somehow be held liable. The law on rescuers used to be very clear: if a person attempted a rescue but completely messed it up, they would not be held liable. That position has changed in recent years. There is a fear that if one clears the snow on the pavement, one will be sued by someone who slips up because one has done it ineffectively. The balance needs to change so that the individual who takes responsibility, acts and steps up to the plate for the wider social good is encouraged and given the maximum possible latitude to do their best. That is at the heart of my point about individuals.

I will move on and warm to my theme of decentralisation. Something is slightly overlooked in discussing decentralisation. It is often seen as just being, “Oh, let’s get rid of big government.” That point is important because if things are too top-down, they tend to squash the vitality of communities. The benefits from decentralisation and from enabling communities to take more responsibility are not simply social. It is not simply about making people feel that it is worth looking out for their neighbour, or about giving them a sense of belonging and a sense of enthusiasm that they can change things around them in their lives. It is not simply about giving people more of a sense of responsibility and well-being. Decentralisation is also important in the growth agenda because of its economic effects.

If we allow greater decentralisation, allow communities a greater sense of confidence and allow communities to take charge of their direction, they will develop. That has economic benefits. As all Members know, the more confidence, energy and buzz a community has, the greater the economic effects. That is not only true of the private sector. There is evidence from the European Central Bank that the countries with the most efficient public sectors are much less centralised than the UK. The United States, Australia, Japan and Switzerland enjoy an average efficiency lead over the UK of some 20%. To put that in context, if Britain could match those efficiency levels, spending would be cut by £140 billion with no diminution in the standard of public services. That is not un-equidistant with the size of our budget deficit today. We should consider carefully whether decentralisation can be captured in order to produce positive effects on the economy and the public sector.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman has talked about a lack of confidence, but in my constituency we have all the volunteering that one

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would expect. There are community councils, traders associations, crime prevention panels, neighbourhood watch schemes and all the very things that he wants to see. There is no lack of confidence. In Scotland that is normal—it is simply civic society. If the big society is anything other than simply cover for the cuts, why the rebranding of what already happens the length and breadth of the country?

Charlie Elphicke: It is in no way, shape or form cover for cuts. It is a vision that the Prime Minister set out well before the crisis that engulfed the public finances and made necessary the tough decisions that the Government are taking. I do not want to focus on the deficit and the current difficulties in reining in the size of the state, because the big society is about much more than that, and it is more important than that. It is about giving people and communities a sense of responsibility.

I shall take the example of Dover, my constituency, which I advance as a case study of the difference that can be made. Before the election, the previous Government were planning to sell off the port of Dover. That proposal was in the operational efficiency report, the so-called car boot sale. There was to be an allegedly voluntary privatisation, but it was pretty clear that there was a desire for the port to be sold. My constituents understood that it would almost certainly go to a buyer overseas, and there was a sense of frustration about that.

That sense of frustration in relation to the port has existed for many years, because the directors have always been appointed by Whitehall and have had very little to do with the local community in their direction or in community engagement. That connection with the community has not been in place. The port is not simply an economic and transportation facility, it is also a social facility, as anyone with a port in their constituency will know. The interconnection between a town and the port in it is deep, and there is a symbiosis between the two. That is very much the case in Dover. With a whole load of directors having been appointed in Whitehall, hundreds of miles away, the people of Dover have been unable to effect positive engagement.

If the port were sold off overseas, we would simply be swapping one remote interest for another, and the community would not be engaged with it. Part of the difficulty in that situation would be that the community would think that the port’s management did nothing for the town and did not engage positively with it. Sadly, the port has gone to war with the ferry companies, which are the key port users for both berthing charges and general relations. There has been a breakdown of the relationship in the heartland of Dover’s local economy. The town and the community are not happy, and the key businesses are not happy. The port is on the block, threatened with being sold off overseas.

What can the community do? Under the traditional model, the solution would be about either the big state or big business. We say that it is time to try something new and different—giving the community a chance to take charge of its future and its destiny. We have been asking why, instead of the port being sold off overseas, the community cannot buy it as a community mutual and run it in partnership with those who use the port,

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the ferry companies that effectively account for all the port’s money. Many people will ask, “How can you possibly do that? How can these stupid yokels know what they are doing? Either you need big Government running it or big foreign business doing it, but you cannot possibly expect a community to have the intelligence or wherewithal to run an important facility like that.”

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I am following my hon. Friend’s speech with great interest, and he is making a powerful case.

Charities lead the way in the big society, and one of the parts of the charitable sector that does best is air ambulance services. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that I have had a letter from Andy Williamson, the chief executive of the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire air ambulance, who states:

“I do hope that the Government will adhere to its ‘Big Society’ agenda and not waver under the current media frenzy seeking the continued protection of a ‘Big State’…we do not seek or desire Government funding; instead we have a solid belief that people will care for and support an organisation like ours that provides real, tangible and visible benefits for all.”

Do not the air ambulances show the way forward?

Charlie Elphicke: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Air ambulances play an important role in many communities up and down the country. Such voluntary action to take responsibility and raise money makes such a difference.

That is exactly what the community is up to in the case of the port of Dover. What is the response of the community? It is getting together with the ferry companies to make a bid to buy the port. We are asking the Government to allow us the opportunity to make that bid. The proposal is led not by people who do not know what they are doing, but by people who are extremely experienced. The president of the Dover People’s Port community trust is Sir Patrick Sheehy, who used to run British American Tobacco, the massive cigarettes and tobacco combine, and another director is Algy Cluff, who opened up the North sea to oil exploration. The chairman, Neil Wiggins, who is in the Members Gallery, has expertise in buying, selling and managing ports all around the world.

That is the key point. There is so much talent and knowledge in our communities, which have the wherewithal and ability to take on serious responsibilities. That is why we have been able to go to the City, raise £200 million to buy the port, and put together a business plan that includes investment in the national interest of £100 million over the next five years, plus £50 million for the regeneration of the port. Anyone who knows Dover will see why it needs the big society and why it can be a landmark for the big society.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Am I right in thinking that the whole point of the big society is empowering people to determine their destiny? My hon. Friend talks about the port of Dover, but the big society could come down to smaller initiatives in respect of, for example, development and planning, whereby local residents and not bureaucrats determine their destiny.

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Charlie Elphicke: Exactly so—my hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I have said how the big society can be big, but it can also be big in many small ways. Small initiatives are an essential part of the big society. It is not simply about proposals such as the large, eye-catching port of Dover example, but about small things that are done on a day-to-day basis, whether that is the individual volunteering—dare I say it?—to help the elderly lady to cross the road in the example that is so often given, or the small tenants’ association that wants to run its estate, or public sector workers who want to set up a social co-op in the private sector. We should foster such changes by getting the state to back off a bit and by giving communities, individuals and small and big groups room to breathe, and a greater say in, and a greater sense of, their future direction.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a powerful case for a change in the regime of the port of Dover, which seems to accord with the Government’s vision of the big society. Do the Government support his vision for the port of Dover?

Charlie Elphicke: I am unable to confirm that, because as my hon. Friend knows, that is subject to a quasi-judicial process. Even if the Government are supportive, they would be unable to say so, lest they attract a judicial review. Nevertheless, I hope the Government review the criteria of the bidding and privatisation process to enable a community bid to go through, and indeed that they will price in social and community enterprise value in privatisations or movements out of the public sector and into the private sector. In that way, communities will have a fair and a good chance to take over assets that are important to them and that matter to them.

I hope the Government produce revised proposals and that they give firm consideration to making that change. In doing so, they will send a strong signal that communities and decentralisation matter, that we want to give the balance of confidence to communities and that we want those economic benefits. Our proposal would give Dover a massive confidence lift and help to drive our local economy.

Regions throughout the UK need more confidence and to be more able to grow, prosper and do well, so that we can heal the divide between London, where all the prosperity seems to be, and the regions, which are left out. The regions will then have much more economic vitality and energy, which will make a massive difference in the future of the big society.

5.4 pm

Jon Cruddas (Dagenham and Rainham) (Lab): I welcome the debate because, judging from the press coverage, the big society appears all set to become a national joke. It remains the Prime Minister’s “absolute passion”, so I find it strange that the debate has to be secured through the Back-Bench business route. According to a report in T hird Sector Online in June last year, the Cabinet Office, in its structural reform plan, wanted to set up a Select Committee on civil society, but we are where we are.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on securing the debate and on his contribution. He has shown a commitment to the future of his port. It appears to have become his absolute passion and I wish him well in that.

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Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Just to let the hon. Gentleman know, the Select Committee on which I sit, the Select Committee on Public Administration, is responsible for civil society and is doing a lot of work on it as we speak.

Jon Cruddas: I take it then that the plan for a Select Committee on civil society is suspended for the time being because it is covered by the Public Administration Committee.

I have to make an admission: I quite like the notion of the big society. It returns us to issues of duty, obligation, service and contribution that should be the hallmark of all political parties, so I do not think that a monopoly is obtained by any party. Moreover, I resist the simple notion that the big society is a sham and simply a veneer for ideologically driven cuts, not least because, as the hon. Member for Dover said, the Prime Minister’s attachment to that agenda predates the economic crisis and the onset of the cuts. I have read a number of what are supposedly the key texts in the big society debate. I refer hon. Members to the pamphlets of the hon. Member for Hereford and South Hertfordshire on compassionate conservatism and compassionate economics—his big society book.

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): I am deeply grateful for that wonderful accolade but may I point out that it is Hereford and South Herefordshire, not to be confused with the doubtless equally marvellous county of Hertfordshire?

Jon Cruddas: I stand corrected.

There are some points of common ground in the texts that I have seen, which are interesting and add to the sum total of public knowledge. Aspects of the big society could lead to people having more control over their lives and to the creation of a more responsible society. That is a good departure point for the discussion today. Labour should welcome that and support empowerment and social responsibility.

I therefore refer Members to a pamphlet entitled “The Politics of Decency” written by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), who cannot be here today, a number of years ago, which set out many of the terms of the current debate; her substantive policy proposals predated many of them. However, despite all the warm words that I am offering for the agenda, my reservations start to become apparent when we talk about delivering empowerment and social responsibility on the ground.

I suggest that, for three basic reasons, the Government agenda will not succeed in delivering on its stated objectives. First, it is weak on the role of the state. Witness the amendment that was not selected, which clarifies some of the views of the Conservative party on the matter. Secondly, the agenda does not have a robust enough approach in its criticisms of the private sector. Thirdly, the agenda is essentially silent on central issues of social justice.

Fundamentally, the big society agenda is about a redistribution of power and responsibility away from Whitehall and towards local government, intermediate organisations, local communities and individuals. However, the Government will be unable to achieve that. Consider the argument that the Government are uncertain, to put

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it in a charitable way, on the role of the state. The Prime Minister regularly acknowledges that the state will have to play an active role in building the big society, but what is happening on the ground? The Government want to encourage giving, but despite lobbying from the charitable sector, they have said that they will drop transitional relief on gift aid, worth around £100 million a year. The Government want to encourage community ownership and management of local assets built around the right to buy in the Localism Bill, but in reality they prefer to flog public sector assets off to the private sector. Witness what happened on the forests. A similar thing is happening with the £500 million of regional development agency assets. There is clear potential for something similar to happen with the £37 billion of primary care trust assets.

Moreover, the Government say that they want more third sector delivery of public services, but the detail of their policies will not necessarily enable that to happen. For instance, where their reforms are most advanced in terms of welfare to work, the scale and cash-flow requirements of the contracts mean that the vast majority will go to very large private sector firms, which then may or may not subcontract to charities or social enterprises, and may or may not do so on a fair basis. I have heard that the welfare Minister in the other place recently said that he anticipated a “perfect car crash” among providers. That is dangerous, because of the human consequences, and because providers will go to the wall as a result. Future examples could include offender rehabilitation and health.

Another example is the way in which the Government want to encourage public sector workers to spin out and form independent mutuals. I was recently told that the Secretary of State wants one in six public sector staff to do so by the end of this Parliament. Under the Labour scheme, those public sector workers could keep their pensions, received significant transitional support, and were guaranteed a three-year contract.

I tentatively suggest that none of that would be the case under the Tory plans. Communities have a right-to-buy asset, but minimal support to do so. They have the right to challenge local public services, but minimal support to do so. Public sector staff have the right to provide or to spin out, but minimal support to do so. We must consider alongside that the inability to deliver because of the cuts. If the big society is about more than informal acts of generosity, we need the infrastructure to provide it: people to train and manage volunteers, and people to win public service contracts and ensure that the services are delivered to a consistently high standard. That infrastructure has been hit. The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations estimates that the voluntary sector will lose £1 billion as a result of cuts, the loss of gift aid transitional relief and the rise in VAT.

The cuts to the sector are beginning to stack up. Charities and voluntary groups in London have been subject to cuts of £50 million in the past 12 months. Council community grant programmes have been cut up and down the country. The list is growing by the day, and includes mental health services, autism charities, rape and crisis support centres, stroke associations, career support services, carers, housing and homelessness

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charities, YMCA branches, citizens advice bureaux and children’s charities. Similarly, some cuts to benefit services will leave people feeling less in control of their lives, not more. They include cuts to disability living allowance, tightened thresholds for social care, cuts to Supporting People budgets and cuts to housing benefit. That reflects a failure to deliver the big society.

The Government are silent on the private sector. If people feel disempowered vis-à-vis the state, the same applies to their relationship with the private sector. The Government essentially say nothing on redistributing power and responsibility in that regard. For example, they propose to reduce workers’ rights in the “Resolving workplace disputes” consultation, yet beyond praising best practice, they do not appear to have much appetite for doing anything practical to encourage more corporate social responsibility by giving time or money to good causes. Such contributions are significantly lower in the UK than they are in the US, which relates directly to levels of civic engagement and volunteering. For example, 82% of people who do not volunteer but would like to do so cite lack of time as a reason, and research by the Cabinet Office recently found that half of employees would like a volunteering and giving scheme to be established by their employer.

Mr Sam Gyimah (East Surrey) (Con): The hon. Gentleman speaks as if the past 13 years have been a rosy world in which the long arm of the state has been able to deliver all the public goods that we need without any problems. Is it not the case that we have tested to destruction the theory that the state knows best? We should harness the creativity of individuals and communities to partner the state to deliver the services that we need at local level.

Jon Cruddas: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me for literally one minute, I will come on to a couple of instances that are a hallmark of the previous Government’s record, which should be compared and contrasted with the collapse in infrastructure that will result from providing the big society on the ground.

The Government say little on fairness in talking about the big society. There is a strong correlation between levels of deprivation and levels of civic engagement, with more deprived areas less likely to participate in volunteering. Third sector organisations tend to be more dependent on public money in more deprived areas, and more deprived areas have tended to get a worse deal from the spending review. The cumulative result is likely to be that the infrastructure for delivering the big society will be hit hardest in deprived areas that are less able to deliver the big society vision. To my mind, where the Government’s big society reforms genuinely empower people and lead to a more responsible society, Labour should welcome them. Conversely, where their reforms do not empower people or lead to a more responsible society, Labour should oppose them.

Finally, I want to make a couple of points about Labour’s record. Between 2000-01 and 2007-08, the voluntary sector income grant grew by just over 40%, from £25 billion to £35.5 billion, of which individual giving accounted for more than 40%, and the voluntary sector work force grew by 124,000. Labour set up the Office of the Third Sector, and the current Leader of the Opposition was the country’s first ever Minister for

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the Third Sector. I think that we can argue that under Labour the third sector thrived. It appears that some define the big society as a national joke, but I have to say that I fear—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. I call Rory Stewart.

5.15 pm

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I honour the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) for giving a good defence of many of the good elements of the big society, and a good warning on some of its dangers. Much of the debate, however, reminds me of sitting in a room with a group of philosophers looking at some bird and explaining why the bird cannot fly. Again and again, I come to these debates and hear people say, “The big society cannot work, because people do not want to take responsibility”—I take the point from the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) about people not wanting to save a child from a pond—or they say, “It cannot work, because they do not have the resources or expertise”, or they say, “It ought not to work, because if these communities were trusted, they would do the wrong thing.” So there are three kinds of argument: communities do not want to do this stuff; they cannot do this stuff, because of cuts; and they ought not to do this stuff, because they will do something irresponsible. For example, in debates on planning, we hear again and again that communities left to their own devices would build a concrete jungle or act as nimbys and block all development.

There are many good points here. The Opposition are making many good points. 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—this is where I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham—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. To those philosophers who say that this bird cannot fly, I say that it does fly. They should come to Cumbria or go in fact to any constituency. As was pointed out in an intervention, we can all see again and again exactly what big society is about. It is not about the state; it is not even about the voluntary sector, although it does a wonderful job; and it is not about individuals or businesses. It is about communities and community action.

Why does it work? Why, if someone comes to Cumbria, can they see in Crosby Ravensworth a better affordable housing project built by a community than would have been built by the county council on its own? Why, if someone comes to Kirkby Stephen, can they see a really

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smart neighbourhood plan—not one pushing for a concrete jungle or a nimby objection to any development, but one sensitive to the vulnerable and imaginative in how it does its development? And why, if someone comes to Appleby, can they see wonderful renewable energy projects? It is because those projects are different from those done by the state in exactly the three ways I mentioned—in the degree of knowledge, in scale and in their relationship to the risk to the vulnerable.

These are projects in which communities have a competitive advantage over the state because local knowledge matters in those projects. It is very important to live in a place in order to produce a really good plan for that place. The people who live there know about the place and care about it. They come up with creative solutions, street by street, on where to place a school, on how much housing to allow and on who will live in the affordable houses and where they will be located.

It also really matters that people care about these projects. Communities want their children to have a house in a way that a distant expert does not. Finally, although it is difficult to quantify, I think that all of us—as politicians, as opposed to civil servants—understand the will and the desire in communities to make things work in a way that a distant expert might not.

This debate should be familiar to the Opposition. There is a very distinguished tradition on the left of believing in people, of not being pessimistic about them, and of not being over-optimistic about technocratic, centralised expertise. There is a tradition of understanding that there is of course a place for the state, but that there is also a place for the community, and that that does not just involve mowing the lawns. A patronising idea is sometimes expressed that communities can be trusted to do only small, limited things.

In Cumbria, we bang on about what we have done with broadband because it is an example of communities, not the state, delivering a highly technical, highly challenging engineering project for a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time that the state would have taken. That has happened because the parish can ask people to do things in a way that the state cannot. The parish can ask communities to take out loans to pay for some of their own broadband, it can ask farmers to waive their way leave in order to get the fibre optic cable to the houses, and it can ask the church to put the transmitter on its roof. In that way, the price can be reduced fivefold. And this is just the beginning.

There should be a resonance between both sides of the House over our scepticism of expertise, and over our understanding that there are forms of knowledge, not theoretical knowledge, but “knowledge of how”—“capacity knowledge”, forms of caring, of will and of desire that are not a replacement for the state but that, in the right place and the right circumstances, can achieve miracles.

All the points that hon. Members will make in this debate are true. They will be worried that a project might not be sustainable, or that it has not been the subject of sufficient research or strategic planning. They might also worry about whether it would fit into a global planning framework. All those objections are important and valid. Nevertheless, to return to the bird that I mentioned earlier, some people will stare at it and try to analyse it anatomically, wondering how it will ever get off the ground. I say to them: “Come to Cumbria and see the bird fly.”

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5.23 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): In listening to the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), I had great difficulty in finding any connection between what he was saying and the subject of the debate. He cited three splendid initiatives, but presumably they all took place under the last Labour Government.

Rory Stewart: They are three examples from the big society vanguard project in the Eden district of Cumbria, initiated by this Government, and the hon. Gentleman is very welcome to come and see them.

Paul Flynn: I am glad to have heard that explanation. I was also relieved to hear from the hon. Gentleman that we are not going to have volunteers doing brain surgery.

We should all beware of Prime Ministers bearing three-word gimmick policies. I have served in this House under six Prime Ministers, and I remember “the cones hotline”, “the third way” and “back to basics”. Now, we have “the big society”. I think that the big society has most in common with the cones hotline. These were all pet subjects of various Prime Ministers who were willing to distort their own priorities to find money to plough into them over and above their general policies. There will be a degree of cynicism, when the cuts are taking place in all directions, if money is available to employ volunteers—

Jesse Norman: For some unaccountable reason, the hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten the third way, which was possibly the most bankrupt of all these ideas.

Paul Flynn: I mentioned the third way. The hon. Gentleman has only recently joined the House, but he might know that I was not the most enthusiastic supporter of the previous two Prime Ministers. The third way was a candyfloss and vacuous policy, as is the big society, and no one ever knew what the first and second ways were, let alone the third way. I am sure that my Front-Bench team will reinforce the point, but a host of initiatives have already taken place over many years.

Robert Halfon: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Paul Flynn: Yes, of course.

Robert Halfon: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Is he aware that the author of the third way idea—none other than Anthony Giddens—recently wrote for The Guardian a paean of praise to Colonel Gaddafi? Does the hon. Gentleman think that that might be one reason why the third way did not succeed?

Paul Flynn: I am grateful for the accolade of being regarded as the hon. Gentleman’s “Friend”—we sit on the same Committee together—but he provides a fascinating insight with his comment.

Let us think about what has happened to these initiatives. The hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) described one of them in an Adjournment debate, in which he raised a constituency point, which he is entitled to do. If, however, he is looking for an example on which to build his “enterprise” in Dover, he should look at the Tower colliery. A group of people got together—

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notwithstanding the fact that everyone, including the previous Government, said that there was no chance of the pit becoming economic at any time—and provided a wonderful example of a co-operative enterprise that was successful, made money and provided employment for a long period. All that happened without Government intervention and without any top-down support from any Government body. Such initiatives have taken place.

I do not know what sort of nightmare world is inhabited by many Conservative Members. The idea that people will not jump into ponds to rescue children or that the last Labour Government, with all their deficiencies, did not want laws to encourage people to help old ladies to cross the road is absurd. This is to go along with the tabloid view of the last Labour Government: despite all his deficiencies, Tony Blair was certainly not a Ceausescu or a Joseph Stalin.

We have all advocated the outcomes of the big society; we have all supported them for many years. We have backed volunteerism, for example, and we had a year of the volunteer. I asked every Minister in the previous Government what they were going to do to volunteer, particularly how many days they were going to give for volunteering. I asked two Ministers who came before the Select Committee the other day the same question of how many days they were going to devote to volunteering. The responses were very weak, although I understand that the responsible Minister in the other place talked about giving three days a week, which he rapidly reduced to two. Anyone supportive of the big society and who is serious about the joys of voluntary work should tell us what they are going to do to lead by example rather than provide mere exhortation.

Volunteerism has always played an important part in, and has contributed to, our national life. The current danger is that the big society might send that process backwards because it is an attempt to nationalise volunteerism. Those who give out of the goodness of their hearts because they want to help their own society are suddenly going to be part of a Government scheme that will promote the aims of, and give credit to, the Conservative party. It might well act as a disincentive to those thinking of volunteering.

The Welsh Assembly Government developed a Communities First programme, which had more or less identical aims to much of what the big society is about—giving small groups some pump-priming money to assist their schemes, for example. As to whether this has been an unqualified success, some schemes were very successful, some less so. This idea is not new, however; it has been tried before, and it has proved to be a limited success. We have had no details from the Government about what will happen to the bank that is currently in an embryonic state. There is talk of it having about £200 million. I asked the Minister whether it was true that the Government’s take from the charitable sector could amount to £5 billion a year or £3 billion a year, or whether it would be £1 billion this year and then £3 billion. The amount of money that is going in each year is nothing compared to the amount that is being taken out. The Minister denied that the amount was £5 billion, but he could not give me a figure. If he does not know what the amount is, he will not be able to tell me what it is not, but I should be glad to be given a figure tonight so that we can make a comparison.

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Charlie Elphicke: I hate to obtrude on the hon. Gentleman’s fascinating speech, and I accept that he has never knowingly supported a Prime Minister for as long as he has been in this place, but is he not being a little uncharitable about the cones hotline? The big society is about a bit more than just volunteering; it is largely about rebalancing the role of the state and the role of communities. Will he not give that some credit?

Paul Flynn: I think we all agree that the aim of creating a society in which people are empowered is desirable. One industry has suffered chronically from the dependency culture. It has been given handouts for many years, which has resulted in a lack of innovation and a habit of expecting everyone else to solve its problems. It has looked to the Welsh Assembly, to Europe, and to the British Government. That industry is the farming industry, and I doubt that that point will meet with much enthusiasm from Government Members. It is not people in working-class areas who feel that they are part of a dependency culture. It is those who are supported by huge subsidies which have a debilitating effect on their industries.

I return to what was said by the Select Committee. We should consider the reality. For instance, the Government are destroying a quarter of the Members of Parliament in Wales. I am sure that it will cause you some distress, Mr Deputy Speaker, to know that someone in my position, on the threshold of a promising parliamentary career, may find that his constituency has disappeared. Is that part of localism, of taking power down to the people? The truth is that power is being destroyed at that level.

Let us consider the idea that a Minister who is the son of a former Cabinet Minister, and who represents leafy suburbs somewhere in Surrey or Essex, will suddenly waltz down to my constituency—where employment in the coal mines was destroyed for the senior generation and where employment for the younger generation is now being destroyed by cuts—and tell people that he will rescue them from their misery by allowing them to work for nothing. The idea of working for nothing is very much a millionaire’s view of helping society. If millionaires do not work, they still have their sustenance and their accommodation. Life does not change for them. Do they realise how deeply insulting it is to expect people to work for a long period with no wages at the end of it? It is fine if people do it because they believe that they are helping society, but if they find that they are doing it to help a Government project or advance the career of a Prime Minister, they will turn against the idea.

I believe that we are seeing nothing very new in the big society. Its aims are desirable, and we wish it well in the context of the worthwhile developments that may come of it, but it is wrong to pretend that it represents a revolutionary development in our society. I look forward to seeing—along with many other members of the Public Administration Committee—what advantages there are in it, and I am sure that we will reach a fair and balanced decision; but we may well decide that the big society is very little other than a big cop-out.

5.33 pm

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). I agreed with what he said about the role of

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Communities First in Wales. I could take Members to see deprived rural wards in west Wales, in Ceredigion, and in urban wards as well. The hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) spoke of engagement, social activism and volunteerism in deprived communities, and of the mismatch that often occurs. Communities First has given such communities the leadership, resources and facilities that will enable them to become more engaged, and I think that that is as valid in Ceredigion as in Newport West.

I welcome the debate. I suspect that by the time it ends, at 10 pm, we shall have been given 30 definitions of what the big society is. People are increasingly familiar with the phrase, but they are still somewhat baffled about what it means. We have a chance to address that this afternoon. The concept is not well defined and neither is it understood yet. Sadly, it has come to be seen as synonymous with big cuts in public spending. That is inevitable, but it is also regrettable given the many positive points that we have already heard in this debate about encouraging the third sector and volunteering, which I will discuss in my speech.

Volunteerism is alive and kicking in our communities. The hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) made that point first, when he mentioned everything that is already happening, and the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) said the same in respect of his constituency. Last week I was at the university in Aberystwyth in my constituency. It was hosting student volunteer week, an open day with 23 different organisations in attendance, encouraging students to volunteer and offering them work experience.

We cannot, however, ignore the fact that many charities face a reduction in their core funding, whether through cuts in direct funding or in local authority funding. In questions earlier today, we heard about the funding priorities that certain local authorities are setting, and I endorse what has been said, but we are still looking for a lead from Government, to ensure that many of our charities are not hit by the loss in core funding. The Government have had some positive news on that, but I would like to hear a little more from the Minister. I also hope that this debate is a discussion not of ideology, but of practicalities and the good delivery of services. [Interruption.] There is a note of dissent from the Opposition Benches, but I am concerned about the delivery on the ground of good services to my constituents.

Concern has also been expressed about the transfer of functions from quangos to voluntary organisations through the Public Bodies Bill, which is being debated in another place. In principle, if a charity can deliver a service that is being provided by a public body, it is preferable that the charity does so. That varies depending on what service we are talking about, however, and the key difficulty lies in ensuring that the resources and expertise are provided to do the job. It is all well and good talking about handing responsibilities from Consumer Focus to citizens advice bureaux, but the Minister needs to reassure us that CABs are sufficiently well equipped and financed to undertake those services.

Rehman Chishti: The Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but it is my understanding that there will be sufficient resources, with 5,000 extra professional community organisers and 4,200 extra health care visitors to ensure

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that families get the support they need and communities can come together. There will also be £200 million for the big society bank.

Mr Williams: I welcome those resources, of course, but let me go back to my point about the CABs. I was at a meeting last week, and there was genuine concern about the ability of volunteers to carry on doing the work they are doing if resources are cut to such an extent that the training courses they undertake are no longer available.

It is crucial that we address the concept of the big society correctly if we are to achieve its potential in helping to deliver services. As we have heard this afternoon, there is support for giving individuals and groups more power and opportunity to help their communities. I have no difficulty at all with the motion—although I would have perhaps a little more difficulty with the amendment, which was not selected.

What sets the concept of the big society apart is its recognition not simply of the contribution that charities and voluntary groups can make, but of the difference that can be made through allowing groups and individuals to make decisions and take control. St David’s day is coming up, and I want powers and responsibilities to be devolved further to the National Assembly; I want them to be devolved to the community level—to our counties and our communities and our individuals. That may be about minor things such as garden exchange schemes or bigger things such as community energy projects and community broadband.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that in talking about communities we should also consider businesses? In my constituency, we have set up Teignbridge business buddies, under which businesses help each other with small individual problems for free. That is not addressing a state role, but it does show that community is bigger than just individuals; it is also about the businesses within communities.

Mr Williams: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, in whose constituency I was briefly at the start of this week. I can testify that there are some very good businesses there, and the ethos she alludes to is very important.

I want to mention one or two projects in my constituency, such as the community-led project Transition Llambed, which works to challenge the issues of peak oil and climate change and to give Lampeter transition town status. That is a perfect example of an organisation run and led by the community for the community that aims to have a positive impact on the world around it. It epitomises the phrase, “Think globally, act locally.” Formed four years ago, Transition Llambed has been extremely well received. It has 400 members—drawn from a town with a population of just 2,500 people—and has support from the town council, the university and local organisations.

Lampeter is also home to the excellent Long Wood Community Woodland group, which I had the pleasure of meeting last week, and which is in the process of securing 300 acres of woodland for local community use. I do not want to reopen the debate about forestry

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sales and the Government’s climb-down; however, that very good project in Lampeter involves many different groups in the community.

I am never quite sure whether the tentacles of the big society extend beyond Offa’s Dyke, but I do know there have been discussions between the Wales Office and Ministers in the National Assembly. I want to cite last November’s excellent report from the Welsh Assembly Enterprise and Learning Committee, which discussed the role of social enterprises in the Welsh economy. It recommends that

“the potential of social enterprise should not be viewed as a means of mopping up services that need to be developed more cheaply but as a way of developing new, innovative and more effective methods of delivery”.

That committee was dominated by Labour and Plaid Cymru Administration Members—there was a Liberal Member as well—and I very much endorse that view, which is not at odds with what is being suggested from this side of the House. That issue goes to the very heart of this debate.

The committee also called for an improvement in the quality and coverage of business support and advice for the social enterprise sector—a relatively new sector that has sometimes been ignored. All Government Departments must be thinking of ways of fostering volunteerism and social enterprise, and that should mean the availability of advice and support as recommended by the committee. It might mean in some instances relaxing some of the regulations that make life difficult for many of our charities; the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) might agree with that, given her interest in small businesses. It might mean enforcing some existing laws and regulations more stringently.

The Government have made progress on this issue. For instance, they are looking again at the provisions under the vetting and barring scheme. Although there is of course a need to ensure that children are protected from those who use voluntary groups as an opportunity to gain access to children, those rules must be sensible and proportionate and should not hinder the many volunteers who do excellent work in the youth sector.

There is also the Government’s recent pledge to put money aside to assist mountain rescue teams, who have to pay VAT on equipment. Again, that is money to allow volunteers the breathing space they need to enable them to be more effective.

Many of us will have received representations from Sue Ryder Care, which is concerned that once services are transferred from the public to the voluntary sector, there will be an increased cost for the charity because it will be unable to reclaim much of the VAT. It has been suggested that section 41 of the Value Added Tax Act 1994 should be amended to include charities providing services transferred to them by the NHS. Another charity in my constituency, the Beacon of Hope, would very much empathise with that call.

There is good news. The big society bank is coming, the funding for which is being provided from dormant bank accounts and as part of Project Merlin. I welcome that.

I end with a request. Much of what this debate is about is already happening in our communities. What I am looking for from the Minister and the proponents of the big society—I rather prefer the word “community”, however—is that add-on, that extra. The engagement is there; it needs to be built on.

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5.44 pm

Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and the Backbench Business Committee for securing this debate. The issue that we are discussing goes to the heart of what I believe politics is about: how to secure a just and fair society, where everyone has the freedom, power and opportunity to fulfil their potential and thrive. There has and always will be a strong strand within the Labour movement that believes that self-help and community action are the foundations of a good society and the route to a good life. During the industrial revolution and earlier, ordinary working people came together to form co-operatives, mutuals and friendly societies. Those organisations were owned and run by their members for the benefit of one another, and were established to protect working people from the consequences not of an overbearing state, but of unfettered markets that treated people as mere commodities to be bought and sold for financial gain. Generations of working people learned to help and develop themselves by taking roles in those organisations. They learned how to read and write by running a trade union branch or got health insurance from friendly societies in case they had an accident at work.

The modern Labour party was born out of those organisations and we then went on to create the welfare state, so that the security, opportunities and other benefits provided by those organisations were made available to all. The values of community, self-help and mutual aid remain strong in the Labour party, as our record of the past 13 years shows. Government-funded programmes such as the new deal for communities have helped to transform the most deprived areas in my constituency, such as Braunstone, by empowering local residents and community groups. Labour councils have opened up local services to the voluntary sector. In Leicester, organisations such as Streetvibe now provide fantastic youth services, which young people themselves help to shape and run. In Rowley Fields, in my constituency, residents who campaigned to save the Manor House community centre are now running and developing community services that better meet local people’s needs.

Some of the biggest changes that Labour made were in the NHS. We created foundation trusts and backed pioneering new social enterprises, such as Central Surrey Health, so that local staff, patients and the public can now own and run their local health services. However, we did not just harness the skills of voluntary and community groups to transform public services; we empowered those groups to help change markets, too. For example, we increased support for credit unions and updated their legislation, so that more people on low incomes can now save and get access to affordable loans denied to them by the commercial market.

Those are just a few examples of Labour’s good society in action. They show, first, that the state and civil society are not mutually exclusive, but inextricably linked; an enabling state is vital to supporting civil society, and vice versa. Secondly, they show that securing the good society is as much about changing the economy and markets as it is about reforming the state. The Government’s big society fails to acknowledge either of those crucial points, which is why it will fail to empower individuals and communities to take control over their own lives.

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Let us consider the Government’s proposals to encourage more volunteering, which is an important and laudable goal. The real issue is not that people cannot or do not want to volunteer because of work or family constraints; it is that securing the good society requires more than kindness and charity alone. Giving people real power and real control depends on far deeper and more powerful principles and values: solidarity and reciprocity; taking common action to achieve common goals; and knowing that your fellow man will share the burdens as well as benefits that life inevitably brings.

The Government say that the big society is about not only encouraging volunteering, but opening up public services so that the voluntary sector can play a bigger role, but some of their plans are likely to achieve the opposite. The Prime Minister says that the new Work programme will make up to £700 million available to the third sector, but organisations are to be paid only after they have got people into work and kept them there for some time, which will mean that many small and medium-sized charities cannot get involved because they simply do not have the resources necessary to put in this money up front.

I have long championed the idea of giving people more choice and a greater say over their public services. As the former director of the Maternity Alliance charity, I have always thought that different providers have an important role to play in public services, but that must be done within a properly managed system so that the benefits of choice are felt by all, with genuine accountability to users and the public. That is not this Government’s approach. They want to drive a full market and full competition approach through the whole public sector, regardless of any evidence about whether competition works in particular fields and without the vital checks, balances and accountability that Labour had in place. That is not the way to improve the quality of our public services or to give users and communities greater control.

Rory Stewart: The hon. Lady has spoken very eloquently about the barriers to volunteerism in relation to resources, and about solidarity, but what about regulation? In my experience, the main barrier that people tend to complain about is that they are prevented by regulation from doing what they want to do, so a lot of this is about clearing regulation out of the way, not about giving people resources.

Liz Kendall: I think that is an important point, but it is not the issue that people in my constituency raise with me about volunteering—it is about whether they have the time and the resources to do it because they have family, caring and work commitments. That might be the hon. Gentleman’s experience, but it is not mine.

Whatever the Government’s plans for reforming public services, the more immediate and pressing issue is the speed and severity of their public spending cuts. There is no getting away from that. Two weeks ago, in my constituency, I met a whole group of charities, which told me that the cuts threaten their very existence. I am talking about brilliant organisations such as Lighthouse Learning, which has played a huge role in reducing the large number of young people not in education, employment or training in Leicester. The Government say they have recognised this problem and provided transitional funding, but groups in my constituency tell

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me that the funding is available only to charities that are “undergoing change”—for example, merging with others—and not to fund existing work, salaries or rent. If the Government support the voluntary sector so much, why do they refuse to provide transitional funding to continue that work? Unless other funding is found, the very voluntary and community groups that they claim to want to support will have no choice but to close. I do not doubt for a second that Government Members support the voluntary sector and want it to play a bigger role, but their economic policy threatens the existence of many voluntary and community groups because their public spending cuts go too deep and too fast.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Has the hon. Lady reflected on why the country has an historical high deficit and a difficult financial situation?

Liz Kendall: I am sorry but I did not hear the hon. Gentleman because of comments from my hon. Friends. Will he repeat what he said?

Henry Smith: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way again. Has she reflected on why we are in such a difficult financial predicament? I suggest that it is not just because of the badly regulated banks under the previous Administration.

Liz Kendall: Yes—because of the failings of the market, which is the point I am trying to make. If we want a good society, we have to acknowledge that while there can be problems with an overbearing state, some of the problems created by markets are far greater than those created by the state.

Rehman Chishti: The hon. Lady says the situation is because of the market’s failure, but was there not a failure of policy? When this Government came in, one in five 18 to 24-year-olds were unemployed; that was a failure of policy by the previous Government, not of markets.

Liz Kendall: I return to my earlier example about why it is important to support credit unions—some banks were not giving credit, loans or bank accounts to some of the poorest and most deprived people in my constituency. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) has rightly been highlighting the need to take on some of the illegal—and legal—loan sharks who prey on such people, including my constituents. That is down to a failing of the law, yes, but also of markets, and it needs to be tackled.

In conclusion, the Government claim that their big society is about empowering local people, but in reality it is about rolling back the state and using markets alone to drive change in our public services. That will leave too many communities to fend for themselves. That is okay in areas with huge resources and people who have time to volunteer, but in my constituency where people are struggling to find work and get on the housing ladder and have real problems and issues, I do not think that will work. Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour party, believed that the role of the state should be to enable people to choose the life they want to lead, and that markets should serve the people, not

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the other way round. He wanted to create a society based on the inherently human values of solidarity and community and not on those of the market or an over-powerful state. Hardie’s vision is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. The Government’s big society will not achieve it, but I hope and believe that Labour’s good society will.

5.54 pm

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this valuable debate.

Let me start by looking at the origins of the Prime Minister’s conviction, which is driving the big society forward. It goes back to shortly after he was elected Leader of the Opposition six years ago. At that time, his commitment was very much informed by the work of the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and his founding of the Centre for Social Justice. In 2007, the Prime Minister stated clearly that the task of the next Government would be to reverse decades of social decline and that that crisis of social decline was every bit as great as the economic crisis that confronted the new Conservative Government in 1979. It is completely disingenuous of certain sectors of the media and of certain interests to suppose that the big society concept is some sort of cynical cover for spending cuts, and I am glad that some Opposition Members have acknowledged that that is not the case.

The difference between now and 1979 is that this Government confront both a social crisis and an economic crisis, which the Prime Minister probably did not foresee back in 2007. Those two crises are two sides of one coin, and one will not be solved without the other. This country has been living beyond its means for some considerable time—at least a decade. Throughout the boom years, we spent vast and increasing amounts of money on social problems that still persist, such as the 2 million or so people on out-of-work benefits, while new jobs were created but mostly filled by newly arrived immigrants. More and more money was spent on schools every year, but that did not reverse the relative educational decline of Britain compared with other countries.

Why do we have so many problems and what will the big society do to address them? I acknowledge the speech of the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), which was in many ways excellent, and I agree that the state and civil society are inextricably linked. However, I argue that things have got out of kilter and that over the past 10 years there has increasingly been a dominance of the state and a “Government know best” mentality. Let me give a few examples of the adverse effect that that has had. The Criminal Records Bureau is a laudable organisation, but it has become quite extreme in its intervention, affecting people who want to volunteer to drive one another’s children around. I am on my third CRB check, and I am just a school governor and a volunteer with an FE college.

Health and safety has got out of control, and I am delighted that the Government are going to tackle the excessive approach that prevents teachers from taking schoolchildren on much-valued trips. The risk of finding oneself on the wrong side of the law for intervening in a street situation is a problem, as is the fact that families

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are prevented from hiring carers or agency nurses to support their elderly relatives in hospital—I have argued with my hospital in Dudley about that. We have heard the reports about the treatment of older people in our hospitals, and if people want to hire additional support, they should be allowed to do so.

Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case against health and safety legislation, which many of us know to be extremely onerous. Does she agree that another issue is the no win, no fee legal environment—the compensation culture—in which we operate, which puts an undue cost burden on voluntary organisations seeking to help in their local communities?

Margot James: I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention; I certainly agree. The compensation culture has grown up over many years—to a certain extent, we have imported it from the United States. I hope our Government will address that significant problem.

The bureaucracy of the grant and contracting process at local authority level has put off a number of smaller organisations, which, every year, have to make their case afresh for the same grant or contract for the same service. They cannot get any core funding. We are committed to changing that, and change is long overdue.

Some charities have become overly dependent on the state, particularly at a local level, so that too much of their money comes from local authorities. They almost cease to exist as voluntary bodies, which takes away a great deal from their esprit de corps and the motive that drove their passion in the first place. In many ways, the tail starts wagging the dog. Small voluntary groups are tailoring what they do to meet the criteria of the next grant body that they approach.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): My hon. Friend is making some good points, including the one about the proportion of income that charities are getting from statutory governmental sources. Should the Government consider stripping the charitable status from organisations that achieve 80% of their funding from the state?

Margot James: I would like to consider that suggestion more fully. It is a laudable one, which would address the problem of over-dependence, although I fear that too great a bureaucracy would be required to oversee such an idea, resulting in two steps forward and one step back.

Liz Kendall: What other sources of income should the voluntary sector turn to, if the hon. Lady believes that it is too reliant on council and central Government funding?

Margot James: There are many voluntary and charitable organisations that derive no income whatever from the state, such as the air ambulance, which one of my hon. Friends mentioned earlier. It raises £48 million a year through a lottery and fundraising volunteers. A dear aunt of mine aged 88 has a standing order for the air ambulance, which is how such organisations get their money. The hospice movement is another case in point. My local hospice, Mary Stevens hospice in Stourbridge, receives only 18% of its funding from the primary care

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trust and raises the rest of its money itself. I am very much in favour of grants from local authorities. When I was a local councillor, I served on the board of a charity that received virtually all its income from the primary care trust and the local authority, which was detrimental.

Mr Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con) rose—

Margot James: I shall make progress, if my hon. Friend does not mind, because I do not think that I will get any more credit on the clock.

Let me make a few points in conclusion. 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.

We must leverage the good will of business. Many large and small businesses have a sense of corporate responsibility, which should be tapped. I am pleased to see that the Secretary of State for Justice is looking at what business can do to rehabilitate and train people in our prison system. There is so much that business can do, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) has pointed out, and we must not forget that individuals, communities and corporations can all contribute to the big society. I congratulate the Government on getting as far as they have done already with this initiative.

6.5 pm

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): I commend the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and the Backbench Business Committee for initiating the debate.

I shall focus on volunteering, which in many ways is the keystone of the big society. I started my career 25 years ago as a volunteer with the citizens advice bureau. I have to say that I never thought of myself as part of the big society. Indeed, I gained so much from my time as a volunteer and from the support from the paid staff that I wanted to remain in the voluntary sector and work to provide the same service with both volunteers and paid staff. However, in the 23 years that I did that, the demographics of volunteers and the type of support that they needed to enable them to have a positive experience and to be of value to the organisation changed dramatically.

When I began, the majority of volunteers were, to put it kindly, older ladies with time on their hands. They wanted to volunteer for three hours or so a week and

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anticipated remaining with the organisation for quite a long period. The volunteers worked extremely hard and were very dedicated but, as we all know as Members of Parliament, life has become more complicated, the public’s expectations of any service have become much greater and family life has changed, causing the pool of volunteers to change, too. People are retiring later, and many women work until retirement age and then want a break or become carers as people live longer. Younger people, particularly women, are returning to work as two incomes are a necessity, and grandparents are pressed into service.

The expectations of services have been raised and volunteers have become younger, more short term and often use volunteering as a route to work. All that increases the need for paid support to ensure that the expectations of clients, volunteers and organisations are met. There are a number of different and diverse volunteering opportunities, and it is important that prospective volunteers are matched with the right organisation that will give value to both the volunteer and organisation. That is why I was appalled to hear that my local council for voluntary services in Wigan has lost £100,000 from the involved scheme, which provides volunteering support and brokerage for 16 to 25-year-olds, and the other non-age specific project performing the same function. This has led to an overall loss of the entire volunteering infrastructure within the borough, which is more important now as the big society is introduced and people are encouraged to volunteer.

People who want to volunteer will now face the choice, as used to happen in the past, of approaching an organisation that they may have heard of, without knowing how suitable that choice is for them and the amount of time that they want to give, or not bothering. If they find a place and discover bad practice, which exists in some voluntary organisations, there will be no one to report it to, to improve the practice and to work with the organisation to ensure that the volunteers are working in a healthy, safe and supportive environment.

I want to speak about that supportive environment. Volunteers give their time freely, but they, in return, can expect adequate training and support for the roles that they take on. A paid employee would not be left to get on with the job, and neither should a volunteer. Particularly in these days, when people of working age are volunteering to improve their CVs, volunteers demand a development plan and ongoing training and support. Volunteers’ time is given freely, but the support costs and the money for infrastructure costs is ever more difficult to find. In some cases, I cannot see where they can get it, apart from state bodies.

I turn to the example of citizens advice bureaux. I ran a citizens advice bureau, and we had almost £1 million of funding. One third came from legal aid, about one tenth came from the local authority, and there was primary care trust funding, Government funding to increase face-to-face advice in communities and Government funding from the financial inclusion fund. Citizens advice bureaux do not have popular appeal, however. They are not a “fluffy bunny” charity, so people do not give large amounts to them. Furthermore, volunteer turnover is increasingly rapid, and money needs to be made available to train and replace volunteers

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as they leave. Any responsible employer has a budget for recruitment and training, and how much more urgent and necessary that is when working with volunteers. I have referred to larger voluntary groups, but even small community voluntary groups need money.

Stubshaw Cross residents association started a teenagers disco when young people who were hanging around the park and causing a bit of trouble said that they had nowhere to go. The association volunteered to staff the sessions for nothing, but it needed access to a small grant to buy some sound equipment, to heat and light the building, to clean it and, as they said, to buy some earplugs. Those young people now run their own disco, with some support, but they still need ongoing funding. Without the support of the local council for voluntary service and the council’s funding officer, and without the availability of the small grants pot to help them to look for that funding, the disco would never have happened. Those teenagers would not have been part of the local community, and they would not sit on the residents association as they do now.

The big society is not new, but most of all it is not free. It is a partnership between community and voluntary organisations and the state, and to unbalance one side either by removing state funding or by restricting access to state funding and to grants, is to threaten society. It will leave people disaffected and dissociated. A true big society does not replace the state and public sector jobs; it works together to support and to empower the most vulnerable. To expect volunteers to replace public sector workers is to undervalue both, and it will unravel the fabric of society. It is by working together, with adequate funding, that the two sectors will become more than the sum of their parts.

6.12 pm

Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): I congratulate hon. Members on securing this debate. I am delighted that we are discussing the big society, because its principles got me where I am today. I relied upon them during my 16-year career in the charity sector.

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.”

Those who are cynical and critical of the big society all too often talk about money. Yes, it is important and as a fundraiser I knew that, but the trouble is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) said, some charities have become too dependent on a single income stream. That was a dangerous precedent which we in my charity avoided, but I welcome the fact that the Government are providing £100 million to help those charities that might be struggling.

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In my job, I realised that the most important and greatest commodity that any charity or organisation can enjoy is people: people caring for the community, being neighbourly and having civic pride. That is all incredibly expensive; indeed, we could not buy it with all the money in the world. Such people inspired me as a young boy on a poor council estate to do my bit, and two individuals spring to mind: Iorwerth Rowlands and Jackie Waddicar. Our estate had little money but bags of spirit, and those two people led it to build the facilities of which others became proud and envious. They did a fantastic job despite the low incomes in the area, and that belies the patronising idea that some communities cannot do so because they are poor.

The hospice movement is an exemplar of the big society, and it was my privilege to work in it for more than 12 years. The movement all started thanks to the inspiration of Dame Cicely Saunders, a person who saw the glaring need to care for people at the end of their lives—and did something about it. Today, we see hospices throughout the country, and remarkably the vast majority are funded thanks to the generosity not of the Government but of the public. Most draw on the considerable help of thousands of volunteers to care for patients in both hospices and our communities. Such community ownership, and the community’s relationship with its hospices, mean that people are responsive to patients’ needs.

The hospice movement has had many inspirational leaders who have helped it to evolve and develop over the years. Indeed, Sister Frances Dominica recognised the glaring need to help children through the movement. I spent the previous seven years working for Martin House children’s hospice in Yorkshire, which cares for more than 300 terminally ill children and more than 100 bereaved families every year, at a cost of more than £4 million. Almost 90% of that money comes from the public, and it is a credit to the good people and businesses of Yorkshire that it keeps coming, even in these most difficult financial times. The care that the hospice provides is second to none, and, as one family said to me, the trouble is that it is the service against which all others are measured, and they can barely catch up. The hospice would of course like more public finance, because nobody would say no to extra money, but too much state involvement would dilute the wonderful facility that is Martin House, and heaven spare it top-down targets from Westminster.

Throughout my career in the charity sector, I saw how the big society is working, but I want to see it become bigger. Many politicos who are sceptical about the big society ask, “What does it mean? What does it stand for?”. They want that all-important buzzword to describe it, but they should take it from someone who has spent their working life in it: the big society is so big that no word could possibly do it justice.

6.17 pm

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): It is a great pleasure and a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), and I congratulate the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who is no longer in his place, on securing this debate. We on the Opposition Benches are enormous fans of the big society, not least because it cost the Conservatives an overall majority at the general election. Well, we thought it did until we saw their friends on the Liberal Benches.

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I was happy to put my name to the motion, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) suggested, the big society is absolutely fundamental to the Labour vision and to the Labour traditions of mutualism, co-operation and associationalism. However, there is a strong case for saying that we have lost sight of many of those traditions. We lost sight of them in the early 20th century, when we allowed clause IV to be written as it was, and we lost sight of them in the later years of our period in government, when we became over-regulatory and over-zealous in our admiration of the state. The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) cited some of the Criminal Records Bureau’s activities, and that is an example of exactly where we began to go wrong.

As I think about how the Labour party begins to renew itself and ask questions of itself as we prepare for our speedy return to government, I think about our relationship with the big society and the tradition re-emerges.

Mel Stride: Before the hon. Gentleman processes on his speedy return to government, may I ask him something, as someone who has an interest in history and knows that he has an acute interest in history? That aspect of the state crowding out private and mutual endeavour was highlighted by William Beveridge in his report. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Beveridge would look back now and say that the state had become too big, and that Labour Governments had played their part in that?

Tristram Hunt: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is an acute question. I do not always accept the notion of crowding out, although there are times at which one can point to that.

The Labour tradition, as it has evolved, has sought to create a critical relationship with local government and central Government, and that is the difference between ourselves and Conservative Members. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West suggested, the enabling state is part of the Labour tradition. When we look back to where we have come from, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) will imminently explain in beautiful prose, we can go right back to the late 18th century to the traditions of Paine and of critiquing the functioning of the market while believing in market principles. This was based on a belief that the state was not always a force for good. As Adam Smith argued, the state in the late 18th century was often a force for arbitrary activities, clamping down on the rights of working people and interfering in proper market practice.

Jesse Norman: I am thrilled by the robustly Conservative —indeed, Burkean—tone of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. However, I am interested in his support for Paine. Does he really believe that a person who backed the French revolution and its support for abstract rights over and above the legal privileges of the free-born Englishman deserves his support, and that he can be invoked in the context of the big society?

Tristram Hunt: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The wonderful thing about Paine is that he can be invoked on almost any issue, and in this particular seminar we are talking about the associationalist Paine rather than the Jacobin Paine.

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Another part of the Labour narrative is the Owenite tradition, which was about co-operation rather than competition, and about man’s character being formed through his interactions with others rather than through being born with original sin, which was the Conservative position. We can also point to the Liberal tradition of the Rochdale pioneers—this, too, is part of the Labour story of co-operation, self-help, mutualism and self-improvement. We have to ask why these institutions and forms came into being. Why did working people club together in friendly societies, trade unions, burial societies and other associations? It was because of the failings of the mid-Victorian big society—the failings of noblesse oblige, Lady Bountiful, the night watchman state, and the attacks that we still hear today, whether on health and safety or over-regulation. It was a Tory vision which failed for millions of working people, and that is why our tradition of mutualism, associationalism and the big society came into being.

Jesse Norman: I noticed the subtlety with which the hon. Gentleman moved from a critique of Victorian society to a critique of the Victorian state. Can he outline the terms in which the state was able to support the development of these priceless independent institutions which we all now celebrate?

Tristram Hunt: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is right in one sense: part of the brilliance of the British tradition is our ability to create all sorts of forms of associational activity, be it limited liability companies or co-operatives. However, Labour Members point to our particular tradition of mutualism and associationalism, which comes from a failure of the Tory approach.

I would happily wax lyrical about the Labour tradition for many minutes to come, but I suggest to my hon. Friends that we cannot be too romantic about the past. Many of the worst actors in the recent financial crash were mutual organisations with co-operative governance structures. There is no inherent virtue in these modes of organisation that protects them from the kind of activities that we saw. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) said, we need to think innovatively about how we take these forms into the 21st century. We need to think about tax advantages for employee benefit trusts, the right to request the mutualisation of public services—as well as what that means for pay and conditions—and systems of asset locks. A relevant and credible example of this was announced by Ministers today regarding the future of British Waterways. The Government seem to be heading towards the charitable model, but many Labour Members will think that a co-operative model, with all the differences that that entails, would be the best way. I am more hopeful about the hon. Member for Dover’s plans for Dover harbour.

The difference between Labour and the Conservatives as regards the big society is about the history of co-operation with forms of government—first, in the mid-19th century, with local government, again following Tory failures. In Manchester, in Birmingham and across the country, there was a coalition of the associationalist, mutualist tradition and local government. Then, in the early 20th century, when the new Liberals actually believed in

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progressive politics, it was a coalition with the central state based on the belief in an enabling state and a relationship between forms of civil society and forms of the state. That continues today in relation to the big society and our politics. We believe in a relationship with a progressive, activist, enabling state.

That brings me to the crux of the issue. Various Conservative Members have pooh-poohed us for suggesting that there is an ideological element to the Government’s thinking and said that because the Prime Minister wrote an article six years ago in which he might have hinted at some of these ideas, we should think that there is some noble tradition involved. The big society is being used as a vehicle for justifying some of the major cuts and assaults on the state that we are seeing today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) pointed out, voluntary institutions—the building blocks of civil society and of many of our communities—will be undone by the Government’s cuts, which are going too far and too fast. Some of the communities that we represent need capacity building, capability building and investment building. I say that not because, as the hon. Member for Pudsey suggested, we believe that poor people cannot organise themselves, but because we believe in investing in those communities to achieve better outcomes rather than ripping away support for citizens advice bureaux, youth services and all the other developments that are taking place. I took a delegation of organisations from Stoke-on-Trent, including Chepstow House and the citizens advice bureau, to see the Minister, who kindly listened to us as we pointed out the serious troubles that they will face—that the big society will face—as a result of this Government’s plans.

There are confusions in the Government’s belief in the big society. We are seeing, on the one hand, their ripping away of the capacity building that is necessary, and on the other, as in the case of the NHS and what they tried to do with the Forestry Commission, a neo-liberal belief in the market that has very little to do with an organic state-civil society relationship. The mixed social economy is best, with the virtue of the state and the virtue of civil society building up communities, but also reforming the state and, crucially, reforming markets as well.

6.29 pm

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): We live in acute political times. We have a coalition Government for the first time in a generation and, as has been said many times in this Chamber, we have an historically high peacetime deficit. That makes for a somewhat sceptical political environment. I do not necessarily think that that is such a bad thing, as scepticism in our political system has stood this country in very good stead. Right hon. and hon. Members will be well aware that the great British public do not let us get ahead of ourselves too much. That great tradition has served us very well. However, with policy initiatives such as the big society, my concern is that scepticism has become something more destructive—cynicism. That is a great shame.

In our privileged position as key members of our local communities, right hon. and hon. Members from across the House experience the big society in action on almost a daily or certainly a weekly basis. That is my experience in the Crawley constituency. This morning as I was preparing what I would say in the Chamber,

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I happened to glance at my schedule for the past couple of weeks. Although it did not surprise me, I was struck to see that it was packed with visits to voluntary organisations and community groups, and telephone conversations with the chairs of local action groups. In addition to helping individual constituents, that is the fundamental work of hon. Members.

I will give a few random examples from my diary. Early last week, I met with Jack Doors, a local voluntary organisation in my constituency. It was started by Jackie Rose, who is disabled and has mobility issues. She realised that it was difficult for many disabled people to get out and about. Off her own back, working from her home and using her own resources, she established a group to arrange transport for disabled people so that they could get out on a fortnightly basis to visit the seaside, go to a garden centre, or to have tea or lunch somewhere. That provides a vital link for many people with mobility issues and it has made a huge difference. It is not something that the state did, but something that was done by an individual with passion.

At the other end of the spectrum, my experience of St Catherine’s hospice in my constituency echoes what my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) said so eloquently about his experience of the hospice sector. It has minimal funding from the state and a great amount of funding and voluntary effort from individuals. With their support, it creates a massive difference for people in my constituency and the surrounding counties.

There are other examples. About a year ago, residents in my local ward were saying on a web-based community discussion forum where I have an e-surgery that the neighbourhood looked a bit unkempt and untidy. Through the online discussion, they organised a community litter pick. We all turned up on a Saturday morning—fortunately it was sunny and dry—with our black bags and the health and safety regalia of high-visibility jackets. For three hours, mums, dads, kids and all members of the community picked up litter, which made a significant difference to the neighbourhood and made it just a bit more of a pleasant place to live.

There are many more examples. I have am proud to have been a governor at three schools. It is important, like other hon. Members, to pay tribute to school governors who work hard—and freely, of course—to create the ethos in our schools and to ensure that those most important of institutions for our young people are successful.

The other weekend, I spoke at the annual general meeting of a gluten free society that was set up in my constituency.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Good on you.

Henry Smith: Thank you.

Chris Ruane: I bet its butties were awful.

Henry Smith: Things have moved on a lot in the food available to coeliacs, and a lot of that is due to the work of individuals in the community. That is certainly the case with the Crawley Gluten Free Group, which has come together to make a positive difference to people’s lives.

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I met another disabled access group and spoke to its users, in particular those with learning difficulties. They have been meeting almost every week for more than 10 years to improve their lives by discussing ideas and common issues and problems.

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.

Margaret Thatcher has been infamously misquoted as saying that there is no such thing as society. I am glad that our current Prime Minister has said that there is such a thing as society, but that it is not the same thing as the state.

Tristram Hunt: I am unclear what the misquotation of Lady Thatcher was.

Henry Smith: What Margaret Thatcher said has been quoted out of context. I am pleased to say that our current Prime Minister very much believes in society. I repeat that it is not the same thing as the state. It is important that we make that distinction.

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I think I am right that the context in which Margaret Thatcher said those words was that one could not talk about society in terms of grand blandishments, but that one could talk about families, communities and people working together—that is not the same as society as a general term.

Henry Smith: My hon. Friend is correct and I am grateful for his intervention.

Finally, I will mention one more group in my constituency that was started by an individual. It is the embodiment of the idea that if people are given hope and opportunity, they will respond with innovation and ideas that make a huge difference to people’s lives. Donna Nevill sadly lost her child early in life due to congenital heart failure. As a result, she set up a group that supports parents who are going through bereavement. Those are obviously difficult and traumatic circumstances. I am sorry to say that it happened to me, and I was privileged to be asked to become a patron of the organisation. Donna set it up out of a desire to help other parents who go through this difficult situation. I regret to say that all the obstacles she found came from government—in this case local government. Her leaflets were not displayed in the library until I intervened. The group could not get a meeting room because its availability was made difficult until there was intervention from elected representatives.

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I believe that many more such groups will flourish and make a huge difference to people’s lives if we let go of power at the centre. I am delighted that the Localism Bill has been designed to do that, and that that is the whole thrust behind this Government.

6.39 pm

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to speak in this debate and I am pleased that the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who unfortunately is not here, secured it.

Many hon. Members have set out the historical traditions behind this debate, but I come at it from a slightly different angle—as a psychologist analysing participation, the proposals that have been put forward for the big society, and the evidence base. From that angle, it seems that we start with a puzzle. In the points put forward by Government Members about the problems that they have experienced with public services and regulation, there is nothing to suggest that the removal of the state and the propagation of the voluntary and private sector will always achieve better results. Nor have we have seen any evidence about what shape the commissioning may take at either local or national level, and who will make the decisions or participate in that process.

Above all, many Labour Members, and I believe some on the Government Benches, wonder how a concern for increasing social activism fits with a Government who want a cut in spending in and of itself. That appears to many of us to be not so much nudging as shoving people into volunteering through a cut in public services, and that is likely only to destroy the social fabric with which we are all concerned. It is not often that I find myself on the same side as Phillip Blond, but we agree that making radical change is hard at the best of times and near impossible at times of extreme austerity.

I come to the big society, then, not with stories of jobsworth local officials or quotations from Burke, or perhaps even Paine, but with a more fundamental problem facing the Government. It is impossible to ally a Conservative ideology—the prejudice that personal liberty and the role of markets are undermined by collective action—with the recognition that when people work together to fund, run or do something, it has the power to change the world.

With that in mind, I wish to set out four problems that I see with the big society, and an alternative proposal based on the principles of fellowship that I see emanating from the left. The four problems are simple. First and foremost, it is a process-focused philosophy, and as such its purpose cannot be set out. Secondly, its shows a misunderstanding of the nature of contemporary voluntary sector organisations. Thirdly, it shows a misunderstanding of the nature of modern communities and communal bonds, and fourthly, it takes no account of the lives that people lead or the willingness of the public to engage.

The question of purpose goes to the heart of political ideologies and public office. The big society, as currently articulated, seems to be very much about processes, not purposes, so it is about the process of volunteering or social action rather than the ideas behind it. Fundamentally, therefore, it cannot tell us what explains or sparks volunteering. A vague sense of shared interest

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and neighbourliness is not enough to hold and sustain involvement. Anybody who has had neighbours that they have not got on with, or been in voluntary organisations with people to whom they would not necessarily send a Christmas card, can explain that to us.

Jesse Norman: I think that is quite wrong. There is a large literature—I am sure that, as a psychologist, the hon. Lady is aware of it—showing that people are happier and live healthier, more contented, longer lives when they are able to link with other people and exercise compassion. The big society draws on such emotions, and it is simply nonsense to say that there is no substance behind it. Her own discipline contains a vast amount of evidence for it.

Stella Creasy: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s passion for the subject, but if he lets me continue, he will hear that I am not saying that there is no substance behind it. I am saying that by not setting out the purpose of the big society, the Government leave themselves open to acknowledging a whole range of volunteering activities that they may not want to support. Taken to extremes, for example, the Ku Klux Klan and the English Defence League would be seen as wanting to bring people together for a particular purpose in their local community, but I am sure that none of us would want to promote such organisations and their values.

Jesse Norman: One marvellous thing about the set of ideas behind the big society is precisely that it is not subject to any overwhelming social purpose. A purpose for society, and a plan to put it on a purposeful basis, is a recipe for totalitarianism.

Stella Creasy: The hon. Gentleman and I therefore disagree about the value of purpose. I believe that purpose, and particularly people coming together with a common bond and for a common purpose, is how we get social change to happen. That is where there are disagreements between us about the value of the big society.

Jesse Norman rose

Stella Creasy: I am going to press on, because I do not have much time.

We on the left have always understood that for any organisation to work, it needs a sense of purpose and a common goal. It needs to know what it is trying to achieve, not just how it will try to achieve it. People can then be brought together around that current goal.

That leads me to my second point about why purpose is so important in the big society. It seems to me that in the points that are being made about it, a whole series of objectives are conflated, whether democratic engagement or increasing volunteering. We all understand that volunteering is not the same as voice, but the conflation of more meetings at a local level with encouraging more people to volunteer and looking to commission more within the voluntary sector seems to reflect a lack of purpose.

Richard Fuller rose

Stella Creasy: I am not going to give way, because the clock is ticking. I do apologise.

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Either the big society is a programme about the devolution of power, with single, double or treble participation, or it is about encouraging more people to be involved in running services. A lack of purpose comes from not having a mechanism to ensure that the purpose of those processes is fair and balanced. We on these Benches are very clear that all the purposes of Government should be about achieving a more equal, fairer society.

Equally, there is no mechanism in a process-driven purpose for judging value for money. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I look forward to seeing some of the reports that will come to us. Above all, there can be no clarity about the tough choices that any Government or any public may have to make about the type of services that they want if there is no sense of what those services are intended to achieve. Why are free schools and encouraging people in the voluntary sector to work together more seen as the same thing? It seems like apples and pears.

That leads me to the second problem with the big society, which is that it does not show an understanding of the voluntary sector as it is currently constructed. The focus on processes obscures as much of the work as it illuminates and shows a misreading of the fact that civil society is intricately connected with the public sector as much as it works with the private sector. Many charities are little different from businesses, as I believe the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) set out earlier, and many people who work in the public sector do so with an ethos of care and concern for their communities. Taking the argument for reform of the state and using it to call for its abolition like cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

The history of the co-operative movement proves that. It was set up as a form of protection against the absence of publicly provided services—to fill a gap rather than to replace those services. The modern voluntary sector is intricately interconnected with the state, whether through the funding that it receives or the people with whom it works. The voluntary sector organisations that many Members have mentioned having in their communities will struggle without a sense of purpose to draw people together.

We have to be clear that the voluntary sector in itself is not a panacea. Some voluntary sector organisations work well and others do not work so well, so there needs to be a sense of purpose and a series of tests to set against it. We must also consider the type of volunteering that people are prepared to do. We are seeing a rise in what people call “episodic volunteering”, and there are many questions about whether such volunteering can deliver the purported goals of the big society. There are questions about whether there will be the sustained involvement and participation that people wish to see, or whether people will be willing to turn up for a day to volunteer on a stall but not to volunteer in the long term.

That leads me to my third concern about the big society, which is that it shows a misreading of the nature of community. Basing our view of community on the “little platoons” that people are so fond of talking about makes little sense in a contemporary era when we can know and feel the consequences of riots on the streets of Libya, poverty in Asia or earthquakes in New Zealand. Connectedness happens in many different ways around the world, locally, nationally and internationally, and through many different life stages.

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I appeal to Conservative Members to learn the lessons that we on these Benches did about the danger of reading too much into communitarianism and the work of Etzioni. I found it fascinating to find out over the weekend that Robert Putnam and Colonel Gaddafi had once met to talk about whether there was a connection between “The Green Book” and social capital.

If we are to secure change in contemporary society, we need a better way of understanding how and why people connect. We also need a better reading of how and why people are connecting in their current societies, given that nearly 40% of people already currently volunteer through formal organisations and a further 56% volunteer in informal ways. The idea that Britain is broken or a nation of people who are alienated from their communities is simply not true. Furthermore, there is a danger in forcing our vision of what community looks like on communities that may have many social networks but are not connected to the public sector. The big society needs a better analysis of the nature of community and community bonds than it currently offers.

That leads to my fourth concern about the big society, which is that it does not show an understanding of the resources that communities have to give to volunteering and public service. We can learn not least from the experience of the big society ambassador himself, who found that he did not have the time to be involved in the way that he wished to be.

Anyone who has worked in the voluntary sector knows that time, money and confidence are critical factors in securing the contribution that anybody can make. The big society needs a better articulation of how that time, money and confidence will be shared out more equitably among society, so that we can unlock the potential that many people have. Asking people to do so much in such a short period does not allow for the time and effort that is required to allow that potential to grow.

I urge Members to look again at a case such as Porto Alegre and see that it took 20 years for people to be involved in the delivery of public services in Brazil in the way that many now want here. Perhaps they should learn from New Harmony, a colony set up by Robert Owen in Indiana that for 20 years developed libraries, community centres and hospitals, and then fell apart because all the people involved decided that they hated each other. That is the reality of trying to get people to work together—it is complex, messy and difficult, and without a sense of purpose it is destined to fail.

That is why I urge the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) to read a little less Burke and a little more William Morris, who understood that fellowship is life and a lack of fellowship is death. We on the left understand from Morris’s work that fellowship was about not just asking people to work together but about the conditions under which they worked. He understood the tyranny of inequality and the ability to bring people together to work in co-ops.

I also encourage the hon. Gentleman to read Tawney, who talked about fellowship being expressed not only through relationships between people but through institutions. We see the national health service as the best social insurance policy that the nation can have, and we work together at many different levels to achieve such goals. We look to the purpose first, and then to the different models for delivering it, rather than starting

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with the process of volunteering and asking what it can do. I hope that in this short time I have set out some alternative suggestions, and I would be happy to discuss the matter further.

6.49 pm

Jessica Lee (Erewash) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and others on securing this important debate.

I disagree with a number of the conclusions of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), although it is with a little apprehension that one follows the speech of a psychologist—I am a little nervous of any analysis she would offer me. I should, however, pick up on one of the hon. Lady’s points. She said she was concerned that there is no clear definition of the big society. I do not need a clear definition. I want people to be aware of the big society, and I want it to work, which brings us to some of the fundamental philosophical and political differences that have been aired this evening. I do not need strict rules and regulations, or to compel people or boss them about. I want to make people aware of what is important to the Government and to me, which is how we go about making our society bigger and better.

Human rights have been much talked about recently, but another issue that arises from the debate is responsibility, which is just as important. Inspiring young people to take responsibility for their actions and to contribute in the widest possible sense to our community is rewarding for them, gives them a broader outlook and helps with their self-esteem and confidence. The big society is therefore relevant to young people and we should make them aware of what they can give back.

Many hon. Members have volunteered in various capacities for many years. I started my volunteering when I was still at school, which was an extremely rewarding experience. It does not matter whether someone helps out at the local school or visits elderly people; what matters is that people participate and contribute, because that gives them a wider perspective of their local community.

I have some varied examples from my constituency of the big society contributing to my community. In Stanton-by-Dale, sadly, the post office was closed three or four years ago, but it is now a thriving café and shop. Immediately after the closure, the local community and local volunteers rallied around. The village needed such a local resource, without which pensioners, for example, would need to take two buses to collect their pensions. We needed something local to support people, and that is a brilliant example of what the big society means to me.

A slightly different example is the local football club in Ilkeston. Sadly, it ran out of money last year and a new buyer had to be found. The local community got together to put in a bid to create a supporters co-operative club. That immediately took root and grew organically into a successful local campaign. Ultimately, it was not successful in its bid to buy the club, but it brought the community together. Since that time, the new owners of the club, who are off to a really good start, have done their best to embrace the supporters and the community

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to ensure that they are a central part of the new club structure. Everybody is relatively happy at the moment. The supporters co-operative may not have won in their bid, but they raised the issue and kept the community together. That is a success story.

Church and faith groups do so much valuable work in our community, including St Laurence’s church in Erewash. Arena church in Ilkeston does absolutely brilliant outreach and support work for vulnerable young people. It creates a safe environment where they can go and chat and do whatever they want, such as listen to music and so on. The beauty of that structure for helping young people is that it came almost from nowhere, and evolved organically rather than from outside pressure, which is probably why it is so successful.

Few hon. Members have mentioned the difference between the voluntary sector and volunteering, but there is a difference between the many individuals who volunteer and the voluntary sector, which is a valuable sector in its own right. A couple of years ago, I was a very small cog in a large wheel at the Centre for Social Justice, where I did some research into family breakdown and the voluntary sector. I met people from a range of fantastic organisations, from national organisations that work hand in hand with statutory organisations and social services to provide top-level professional child protection support, right down to a small, strong local group in south London that supports Muslim women victims of domestic violence. That organisation was set up by an amazing lady who, in the classic scenario, was sitting in her front room, thinking about how she could help her local community. She knew, as a Muslim woman, that she had the power and the strength to communicate most effectively, so she set up her organisation, which flourished.

One theme that united the large charity and the small local charities was their concern about the time it took to apply for funds, and the overwhelming amount of bureaucracy and paperwork. Both large and small organisations struggled with that, because the volunteer and staff time that was taken up to deal with it was disproportionate. Will the Government consider how to reduce the time scale for applications and—bluntly—produce some shorter forms?

Finally, we also need to look at the time it takes to go through Criminal Records Bureau vetting and barring checks to encourage people to get involved. If we can encourage people to volunteer, we will all benefit.

6.57 pm

Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): It is a great privilege to contribute to this evening’s seminar on the big society. I find myself rather under-prepared intellectually given the marvellous speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) and for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). I look at the big society and find myself wondering what is not to love. Anyone who puts themselves forward for election is saying to the people who live around them that they want to do something for them. In some part, there is—or should be—a strong altruistic motive.