There are many projects in Darlington that will now no doubt be described as big society projects on every funding application. As a local councillor, I was often asked to look at funding applications from local groups.

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We would see, “This is an example of partnership” absolutely everywhere on such applications, and now I expect that people will say that their project is “big society”.

About three or four years ago, I was involved with one such initiative. A young lady called Ashleigh Trevarrow, a keen music fan, turned up at a local music venue, which incidentally is a social enterprise, but was turned away because she was only 16—people had to be over 18 because there was a licensed bar. She decided that she wanted to find somewhere to put on live music nights for young people. It would offer a safe environment. There would be an alcohol-free bar and it would all be run by young people for young people. One cannot get more big society than that. She found that what was needed was the co-operation of the local council, of a local business that would be prepared to host the evenings, and of the parents of the young people. That took some months. A lot of fundraising, co-operation and support from the local youth service were needed to enable her to achieve that. I am certain, and I think that she will agree with this, that that could not have been done without the support of the local council.

The issue with the big society is that some people see it as a national joke. I am a fan, but there is a difference between what the Government are saying and what they are actually doing. I took a delegation of people from the voluntary sector to meet the Minister, who is well regarded by them, but if one spent an hour in the company of some chief executives and chairs of voluntary community organisations from Darlington, one would be left in no doubt about some of their doubts about what the big society can achieve. In some ways, the voluntary sector in Darlington feels that it has been led a merry dance, because we have gone from a year ago, when we were told that we had a broken society, to now, when we are told that we have a big society. People in that sector are looking at their own situations, their volunteers and their budgets. They are trying to plan for the next year or two and they see not a world full of fresh opportunity but a world full of fear and threat. That is the big problem. There is a difference between telling people that we want them to take part and engage in the big society, as we all do, and showing them through our actions how they are able to do that.

Two weeks ago in Darlington, the best of Darlington awards were held. I can recommend such an event to anyone. The business community, the voluntary sector and residents come together. Nominations are taken and we have a wonderful evening of fellowship. We are able to celebrate community work in our town. This year’s winner of the Darlington citizen of the year—

Chris Ruane: Jenny Chapman.

Mrs Chapman: I can only dream. The winner this year of the Darlington citizen of the year award was Gordon Pybus. He is one of those tremendous people of whom I am sure there are examples up and down the country, including in Surrey. He is a real community champion; he has worked for years championing the needs of disabled people in the town. He heads the Darlington Association on Disability and works with local businesses to improve access for disabled people. He does advisory work and, if he has not been before a Select Committee before, he should have been.

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One of the major funders of the association is Darlington borough council. It gives Gordon long-term contracts and spends about £5 million a year in the voluntary sector. We are hearing from Gordon and other voluntary sector representatives that there is a big threat to their organisations because of the cuts to the budgets of local government by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. There is a perception out there that the Minister here today understands very well the needs of the voluntary sector, and I am sure that that is true, but that that understanding does not permeate the whole of Government. That is one of the big problems. When we have a Government who want to sell off the forests and then say that we have a big society, we can understand the cynicism that exists in some communities.

There is another example in Darlington of how success can come from a failure such as the proposal to sell off the forests. It is the community cohesion that we have built around a campaign against a local skip hire company that, in the minds of residents, and I agree with them, has been committing environmental crimes at an estate in Darlington. The group has come together, meets regularly and campaigns to prevent some of the worst abuses of the local environment by that company. That group, without any funding, which is obviously seen as a bad thing by certain Conservative Members, comes together, complains together and will be a real champion of its local area. I say to the Government that it is great to have this big society idea. We all support that, but we do not want the Government to say one thing and then do another.

7.5 pm

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): I am fortunate indeed to live in Herefordshire, which is the very model of the big society in action. I congratulate colleagues on both sides of the House on sponsoring this important debate. I agree with the insight of the hon. Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) that we are all motivated by a sense of public duty, and it is on that ethos of public duty that the big society seeks to draw.

I remind the House of something that is easy to forget. The big society is the most important idea in British politics for a generation. It is not like the so-called third way, as was acknowledged by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). The third way was a piece of triangulation designed to allow Mr Blair to have his political cake and eat it. This, however, is a fundamental rethinking that tries to lay the groundwork for our social and economic renewal as a nation. As such, its natural span is not over days and weeks, but years and perhaps even decades.

The Labour party helped to dig the huge hole of indebtedness that this country now finds itself in. It is a great shame that it is now trying to use the present economic crisis to take cheap political shots at the idea of the big society itself. This is an idea which it should support, not disparage—many Labour Members have already shown that, in some cases, it supports the idea.

At its deepest, the big society seeks to correct some glaring flaws in our most basic political assumptions. Ever since Hobbes 350 years ago, we have been taught to think of politics in terms of just the state and the individual; to see individuals as basically self-interested and financially driven; and to ignore the independent

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institutions that populate our lives and give them point and purpose. Those assumptions have been the basic drivers of Government policy for the 20th century.

The big society rejects those dogmas. Its focus is precisely on what they leave out: first, the value of free institutions, from the family to the school to the village pub, the city and the nation state; and secondly, a generous conception of human beings as social animals seeking to express their capabilities and to trust and to link with others. That is why volunteering, for all its value, is just one part of a far bigger picture.

Tristram Hunt: Does the hon. Gentleman have any sense that he is slightly over-selling this particular project? He talks about Hobbes casting a shadow for 300 years, but the trade union movement, associationalism and mutualism—all those elements of human capacity—have been a part of the Labour tradition for the past 200 years.

Jesse Norman: I think that those elements have been in British society for 200 years, but they have been very far from the ethos of the Labour party, as I will shortly demonstrate.

The big society is not itself either a left or right-wing idea. For one thing, it contains a deep critique of the market fundamentalism of the past three decades, and the past decade in particular—the idea that free markets by themselves are the solution to all of life’s ills. But, crucially, it also repudiates, as William Morris himself would have repudiated, the state-first Fabianism of the modern Labour party.

I am not an enormously ideological person, as the House will know, but I will waive my scruples in this particular case. In 1900, the political left was a teeming mass of different political traditions, encompassing guild socialism, religious non-conformism, civil dissent and suffragism, many shades of Marxism and communism, and mutuals, co-operatives and unions. There was no reason why that astonishing plurality had to yield a political party which for over 60 years has emphasised centralised state provision of public services above all else. On this point, I agree with the fragrant hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt). [Hon. Members: “Fragrant?”] I use the word advisedly. That happenstance was the result of an intellectual takeover of the Labour party by Fabianism—the doctrine that intellectuals can make over society according to scientific principles using the spending and legislative powers of the state. Labour’s Fabian leadership—let us not forget that every Labour Prime Minister has been a Fabian—quickly made common cause with the unions, and that trend has worsened.

Under its present leader, Labour is even more in thrall to the unions than it was then, with £9 out of every £10 coming from union support, which effectively sets a massive dilemma for the Opposition. On the one hand, their leader can stay within the Labour comfort zone, and remain the darling of the unions and of the left of his party, trying to use the economic recession to political effect like the shadow Chancellor.

Tristram Hunt: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jesse Norman: Yes of course. [ Interruption . ]

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Tristram Hunt: I apologise for my colleagues. During his wonderful speech, is the hon. Gentleman at some point going to tease out his pre-history in Barclays bank and the role of market fundamentalism in driving us to the crisis and hence the cuts and hence the veneer of the big society.

Jesse Norman: That point is ad hominem, but I am delighted to do so. I went to Barclays having run a charity in eastern Europe during the communist period giving away educational materials and medical textbooks to hospitals. I joined Barclays to work in eastern Europe, and I did so.

As I have said, the Labour leader can try to use the economic effect like the shadow Chancellor, who has attempted to rewrite the history of the deficit and his own role in it. The trouble, as we know, is that that is not a credible position, and the public know it. Alternatively, the Labour leader can reach out and seek to build a political coalition, as Blair did before him. He will know that a purely sectional appeal has cost the left roughly seven years in government since Labour became the official Opposition in 1922, but that more ambitious approach carries its own risks: it requires a more nuanced approach to the economy; it requires him to face down the unions, as Blair did over clause 4; and it requires Labour to rediscover its older, non-Fabian traditions—the traditions of Morris, Robert Owen and many of the people who have been mentioned today—and make them live again in its policies.

Which alternative is it to be? The truth is that the Leader of the Opposition is a little confused. In November, he said that Labour must reclaim the “big society” concept, and he made that the task of a major policy review. Just this month, however, he said that the idea is doomed, so we must ask whether he will recall his policy folk as a result. Must his squadrons of wonks return to barracks? What is his policy review to do, if the big society is, as he suggests, both doomed and a concept that Labour must reclaim.

In fact, the Leader of the Opposition was closest to the truth in his speech to the Labour party conference last year, when, under the influence of Lord Glasman and perhaps the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), he said:

“I believe profoundly that government must play its part in creating the good society. But our new generation also knows that government can itself become just such a vested interest. That unless reformed, unless accountable, unless responsive, government can impede the good society.”

His union backers may wish to look again at those words. Accountable, responsive government—government which is not a vested interest or an impediment to society. I congratulate the Labour leader on those remarks, which were spoken like a true Conservative.

7.13 pm

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): It is a pleasure, Madam Deputy Speaker, to be called to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on securing the support of the Backbench Business Committee for this debate. It is a pleasure, too, to follow the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), whose book I enjoyed reading in preparing for this debate. I am afraid that I

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would be accused of misleading the House if I said that I enjoyed his speech just a little less than I did his prose over the weekend, but he made an interesting contribution.

There is a degree of consensus across the House that increasing levels of social capital in our communities should be a Government priority. There is also a sense, I detect, of shared purpose that local communities should be involved in the design of public services, where possible. Similarly, it is recognised that social change is best fought for and achieved from the grass roots up. The campaigns led by women for the right to vote and by trades unions for better employment rights and welfare at work are powerful historical examples. In the US, from the 1950s onwards, Saul Alinsky developed community organisation projects that delivered radical social change in excluded communities.

There is vast gulf between the Government and the Opposition about the means to achieve improvements in social empowerment, and huge uncertainty as to whether the Government view that in the context of greater equality and liberty, as we do, or simply seek to share the responsibility for the Chancellor’s excessive and overly hasty cuts in public expenditure. The Opposition note the progress made by Government Members in acknowledging that there is indeed such a thing as society, but the execution of the concept of the big society risks being characterised by incoherence and confusion at its core.

Social action plays a crucial role in generating social justice in my constituency. People in Glasgow North East are not mere collections of individuals co-existing by chance in a state of mutual indifference; they live in vibrant communities with shared ambitions to improve their environment and schools and to care for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and they are prepared to work together to achieve those aims. I urge hon. Members to consider the work of these organisations: the disability community in Possilpark, one of the most deprived places in the country, provides meals, social interaction, and shared activities for disabled people in north Glasgow; Royston Youth Action works to reduce the impact of territorial gang disorder and the lack of organised social activities for young people in Royston, Germiston and Provanmill; the Alive and Kicking project in Balornock provides advice, activities and low-cost meals for the elderly; and the integration network in Petershill and Sighthill gives the many asylum seekers in Glasgow North East the opportunity to train for new skills, if they are awarded refugee status and are permitted to work in the United Kingdom. Those are examples of people coming together to organise day trips or social activities that they simply could not afford, if they had to do it alone. As Robert Putnam, a strong supporter of the theory of social capital, might have put it, it is about people choosing to bowl together, rather than bowling alone.

What all those great voluntary organisations have in common is the requirement for a willing partner in government at all levels, whether at local, devolved, or national levels. They have all received funding and support from the state over the past decade. Social action groups in Glasgow North East and across the country need a hand up, rather than a handout, but the Government’s approach on the economy and on funding for local and devolved government threatens to snatch away this helping hand just when it is most needed.

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Voluntary groups are being hurt by the pressure on costs from the hike in VAT to 20% from 4 January this year, and the uncertainty over the continuation of local government support. Charities are also suffering through the £3 billion in cuts to be imposed over the period of the comprehensive spending review.

The previous Government had a good record in supporting the third or voluntary sector. Funding to the sector more than doubled from £5.5 billion in 1997 to £12 billion in 2009. At the end of 2010, there were approximately 62,000 social enterprises in the UK contributing at least £24 billion to the economy. Some of the initiatives pursued by the Government originate in the plans of the previous Government, including social investment bonds and the social investment bank. The Financial Times leader asked on 10 February:

“But can these new forms of investment, and the Big Society Bank, possibly plug the gaping holes left by the spending cuts? In the short term, absolutely not.”

Where the Government’s vision is limited is in its refusal to challenge some of the real inequalities of power and wealth that persist in the country today.

There seems to be little appetite on the part of the Government to respond meaningfully to many of the grass-roots campaigns supported by thousands of people in the past few months. Let us take the issue of capping the total costs of credit to end the abuse of high-cost, short-term credit faced by the poorest in our society, which is an approach championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), or even the fairer taxation of bonuses paid to highly paid employees in the banking sector. Both are policy areas where a genuine redistribution of power to people would see government action follow social action.

The Government’s version of the big society sees no role for communities seeking to organise to challenge concentrations of power where people believe that markets should better serve them, not the other way around. The rhetoric of the big society is indeed ambitious, but the scope of its vision in reality is disappointingly small. What the country needs is a strategy to deal with the unacceptable levels of social disengagement and inequality of wealth, opportunity and power that still scar our society. That is the essence of the good society. Failure to tackle these issues will mean that the Government will fail in their ambition to create a society with more liberty and more equality—the two concepts are inextricably linked. If the Conservative party cannot meet these challenges, Opposition Members will make it their task to do so in the months and years ahead.

7.21 pm

Charlotte Leslie (Bristol North West) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the great contributions that have been made, particularly the one by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who provided a fantastic intellectual framework for the concept of the big society. If I can add anything to it, I hope to illustrate what that intellectual framework means on the ground for all our constituents outside these walls. He hit on the heart of a debate that is not new in this Chamber: the relationship between the state and the individual and society. Because “the big society” is a new phrase, people expect to see a new thing, but of course it is not new; the big society has been going on for as long as this country has been great—indeed, it is

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what made this country great. I cannot pass from that point without mentioning amateur sports clubs and other things that often go unmentioned in the big society debate.

A great man posed the question:

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”.

Of course, that is already happening, but it is not wrong to say that although the big society is already very much in place in this country, it is possible to detect a shift in which people are beginning to ask less what they can do for their country and are more inclined to ask what their country can do for them. This is interesting, because the population of our great country has not changed. It is not the people who have changed, but the circumstances around, and it is important that we look at those circumstances to see what has brought about this shift—a shift that becomes very apparent if we talk to the older generation. Many people express it to me in terms of the shift from responsibilities to rights, and from a view that sees rights as the product of collective responsibility first, towards one that sees rights as a concept somehow dislocated from anything else. That is very interesting.

If the big society had another name, it might be “power to the people”. This concept of empowerment hits very much on the question of why there might be a shift towards a concept of rights, and away from one of responsibility and the question of what we ourselves can do. No one can be a candidate in a marginal seat—or any seat—and not find multitudes of situations in which normal people want to do normal, neighbourly, everyday things, but find themselves unable to do them because of a piece of well-meaning legislation—often vetting and barring legislation or something like it.

When someone who wants to do something good, such as driving their elderly neighbours to the next nearest post office because their previous one was shut down or helping a child who has fallen over in the street but worrying that it might be misinterpreted and so cannot do so, there are two reactions. The first is disbelief: they say, “This is nuts. In what way is this common sense?” The second reaction, when they find that they still cannot do the intuitive thing, is despair: “If I cannot do this, because I need to go through endless paperwork and CRB checks, what is the point in even caring?” When people get to the point of asking, “What’s the point of even caring?”, we realise why the concept of taking responsibility begins to mean less. What is the point of trying to take responsibility, if at every point there are small well-meaning reasons why we cannot? I am beginning to see a fundamental shift in this country, and it is fundamental to who we are.

On that note, I would like to bust a few myths that perhaps divide the Chamber on this issue—an issue on which we are very much of the same heart in a lot of ways. The first myth is that people do not want to get involved. One Opposition Member said that we would need a stick to get people volunteering. Well, people want to volunteer, whether formally or informally, but too often, instead of saying, “We’re going to help you”, the state, however well meaning it might be, puts up barriers. The second myth is that people are not competent. I have been involved in a free school bid in my constituency, and I heard all the criticisms from people saying, “We

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can’t have parents running schools. They’re not going to know how to do it.” But I have news. Those parents are absolutely capable of organising the set-up of the school. Of course they are not going to run it or teach, but over the time they have been involved, they have developed and proved that, if we trust people, my goodness they are more than capable of reciprocating that trust and delivering.

The idea of the big society matters for another reason. The very fact that cuts have been brought into this debate illustrates how dependent on public funding the idea of civil society and normal people doing good things has become. I know that we had a Prime Minister and Chancellor who perhaps honestly believed that he had abolished boom and bust. Of course, if we believe that we have abolished boom and bust, it makes no sense not to hose out public money to every good cause that in an ideal world we would like to, but the fact is that the economic cycle carries on, and there is boom and bust. We need to change dramatically the balance in our voluntary sector to ensure that it is safeguarded against what will inevitably always be a turbulent economic cycle.

Two things that I have come across in the past couple of months have given me great cause for concern. The first was when I was talking to some providers of youth services—in many areas, they do a fantastic job—about the inevitable lack of public funds. While we were discussing how they might get around this, I mentioned something that I had done in my constituency when a group had wanted to set up street dancing classes but the money was not available. Part of the youth activity of the street dancing group was raising the money themselves, and I mentioned this to the providers. They said, “Oh yes, we give our young people an identity and control over their activities by letting them decide how the grant is spent.” I said, “No, that’s not the point. That is not making the money; it’s spending someone else’s money.” It was that fundamental conceptual barrier that gave me cause for great concern.

Charlie Elphicke: Does that not exactly highlight the need to encourage people to take charge, to raise money, and to not be so dependent on public money being handed out to them?

Charlotte Leslie: Very much so. I thank my hon. Friend for that point. A belief has grown up that there is no money except state money. Were there limitless state money, that would not matter, but as we can see, state money is limited. A Government organisation that I will not name, but which does fantastic work, came to me and said, “We are very concerned about the cuts. We won’t be able to carry on.” I am no genius on this front, but in the half-hour meeting that we had, I suggested four ways in which it could seek alternative funds. They might not have been very good ways and they might not have worked, but I said, “Have you thought of these ways?”, and they said, “Oh no, we hadn’t thought of anything like that.” That to me was a great signal for concern.

Finally, this debate matters because we need the state to do what it has to do. The big state, small state debate sometimes misses the point. I want a competent state that is strong where we really need it, not a panicking, out-of-control, flabby state that interferes in areas that

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it should not be in at all because it is worried about how things are going and does not have control. Where people have been victims of crime, for instance, I want to see a strong state to ensure that they are looked after properly.

T. S. Eliot defined the difference between the views of those on either side of this House when he warned against people who talked about

“devising systems so perfect that nobody needs to be good.”

I am a Conservative because I believe in devising systems that are so perfect that they enable people to be good.

7.30 pm

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I welcome the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), his party and his Government to the big society, which is something that we on this side of the House have been involved in since birth. It was what brought many of us into politics. Reference has been made by Members on both sides to Burke, Paine and Hobbes as the people who invented the big society, but it goes back a long way beyond them. It goes back to the time when man was a hunter-gatherer on the plains, when co-operation, camaraderie and esprit de corps mattered because people’s lives depended on them. This was reflected in all the great religions. Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs all make reference to the concept. They all declare that there is such a thing as society, that the worship of mammon works against society, that we are our brother’s keeper, and that we should do unto others as we would have done unto ourselves.

The Prime Minister had a Damascene conversion five years ago, and I welcome that if it was a true conversion. If, however, it was about countering the Tory dictum that there is no such thing society, about domesticating the rabid right of his party for the purpose of electoral gain, or about airbrushing his party’s past, it will not wash. The Conservatives’ philosophy in the 1980s was that greed was good, that unemployment was “a price worth paying”, and that people should get on their bikes when they became unemployed. Many people on this side of the House, and in the community and voluntary sector, find it hard to believe that they honestly believe in the big society.

We remember the Conservatives’ record of voting against measures to promote unity, cohesion, equality and inclusion. Many of them might have changed their position over the past 10 years. Let us take the issue of gay rights. Where did the Conservatives stand on that, 10 or 15 years ago? I do not think that there are any Conservative Members here tonight who voted against that measure; those here now are mainly new Members. Where were the Conservatives on the issue of the minimum wage? Where were they on the issue of help for the most persecuted and the poorest in society? The Conservatives coined the term “broken society”. We remember Lilley’s list, and his singing and vilifying single mothers. We remember the damage done to mining, to the steel industry and to inner city communities. We remember hooray Henrys awash with money and champagne stepping over the homeless in the west end. That is the historical perspective.

I shall turn now to the present big society. The Minister’s Department has made a number of big mistakes in introducing the concept of the big society. The first

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was the terminology that it used. The term “big society” does not resonate with the person on the street. People do not live in a society; they live in a community. Perhaps the Conservatives used the term “big society” because it had some resonance with the term “broken society”. Perhaps they thought that the big society could heal the broken society. It sounds so simple and easy, but it is so trite.

The Department’s second mistake involves the need to apologise for past actions and show a little contrition. It was the Conservatives who broke society in the 1980s. It was they who increased inequality and gave the green light to greed. It was they who denied the very existence of society. I shall give the House an example. The story from the holy book of the Good Samaritan was perverted when Mrs Thatcher said that it was not about being good but about being rich. She suggested that if the Good Samaritan had not had the money to pay the innkeeper, the poor man would have died. That totally misses the point.

The Government’s third mistake was to party politicise this agenda without even having the support of their own Back Benchers. Where are their big beasts? I do not want to disparage anyone sitting on the Government Benches tonight, but they are all newcomers. Where are the big beasts? Many of them do not support this agenda.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): They are having several suppers.

Chris Ruane: Indeed—[ Interruption. ] Ah, I see a big beast there.

Stephen Pound: The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) is more beast than big.

Chris Ruane: He is indeed.

The Government are presenting the big society as a simple solution to a highly complex issue. There are big issues out there around which we can build consensus. It can be built around defence, for example, or around Northern Ireland or Iraq. Those issues can be depoliticised. Another example is pensions. We all came together over pensions, except that the consensus was broken by the Conservatives just before the election when they tried to make party political points on the matter. There was also consensus on the constitution in Scotland, when we had the convention.

That is how this important issue should have been approached. It is probably the biggest issue that western society will face this century. The fact is that, across the western world, we are atomised and alienated. There are many theories to explain that. They have been put forward in cogent arguments with statistics to back them up. Oliver James, in his book “Affluenza”, traces the cause of the problem to advertising and the promotion of an ideal that we can never attain. When we get on to the treadmill of trying to attain it, we lose our sense of direction; we lose contact with our families and communities as everything becomes about ourselves.

Robert Putnam’s fantastic book, “Bowling Alone”, identifies television as one of the biggest reasons for the problem. He found that an individual today spends more time in front of his TV than he spends at work.

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That has consequences for the amount of time he can allocate to his community, to his family and to society. Wilkinson and Pickett’s book traces the causes of the present situation back to inequality, which increased rapidly in the 1980s. Are we going to be able to get on top of the issues of advertising, TV and inequality without coming together? The Government think that they have come up with a great idea, but we have known about it for thousands of years. They have party politicised it.

The Government’s fourth mistake was to introduce this idea at the wrong time, when they knew that they were going to make cuts. Some of those cuts are necessary, but many of them are ideological. The budget for the voluntary sector last year was £36 billion, of which £6 billion came from local authorities alone. Labour doubled the amount going to the voluntary sector over 13 years. If the present Government are going to cut that budget and make voluntary sector workers unemployed, they are not going to win the argument with the Churches, with the trade unions, with the community and voluntary sector or with the Labour party. They need to build consensus.

7.37 pm

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): So far in this debate, we have heard Government Members give a huge list of examples of people’s personal experiences of how they have seen the big society work and the difference that it makes to their communities. I might be exaggerating slightly, but it seems that what we have heard from the Opposition is the theory that we have made the big society up or that, if it already existed, it was created by 19th-century socialist thinkers. Alternatively, Opposition Members seemed to suggest that it could survive only if it were funded by huge amounts of public subsidy, and that the argument that rules, regulations and bureaucracy get in the way of the big society does not exist.

I believe that the situation is much simpler. I believe that communities sometimes come together to act to improve their lives, and that they are better at doing that, because they understand the problems more acutely, than any Government could ever be. The role of the Government should be to support those communities in taking those actions, to give them a framework in which they can take them, and sometimes to give them some financial support so that they can deliver them.

When I think of the big society, I think of a number of people and organisations. First, I think of my grandfather, Tyrell Barnes, who worked for 50 years as a toolmaker at the Pianoforte Supplies factory in Roade, Northamptonshire. In 1963, he and a group of his fellow villagers came together to form the Roade and Quinton Old Folks Fund, which raised money for the elderly and for pensioners in that community. The fund provided a free annual holiday to give the old folks a break, as well as a hamper of goods at Christmas. The fund continues to this day, and it has helped many hundreds of people. In my grandparents’ case, they went from first being involved in the fund, through selling the Tote tickets door to door to raise money for it, to benefiting from it themselves.

I can think of a project in my own village of Elham. Play for Elham is a group that was set up by three mothers who lived in the village and thought that the

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play facilities in it were not good enough. They could have written letters to their MP or the council; they could have lobbied, but instead they went about designing a plan for what the village needed and sought to raise the money to make it happen. They were successful and the play facilities have been transformed. I know that that project would not have taken place and would not have been successful without the action of those three mothers who came together to make it happen.

Yes, they received some public funds—from the lottery—to make it happen and some people say, “Ah, we can see that the big society is still underpinned by public money.” The big difference is that the project was designed by local people with an understanding of local need. Some of the money was raised by the community and some of it came from the lottery fund: there was a partnership. If we look at other big society projects where a community has taken over the running of a swimming pool or the running of a library service, what is the first thing that happens? The people who use the relevant facility are asked how it can be done better, how the opening hours can be made more suitable for the people who use it, how services can be provided that are more in touch with what people need. That is what makes the difference.

I thought that the hon. Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) provided a good example of groups trying to put on live musical events to raise money for their work. Of course raising money is very important for the work of voluntary and charity groups, but within that story, there is also an example of the Government’s role to deregulate and get rid of unnecessary and complicated legislation that puts people off.

Mrs Chapman: Although there were licensing rules for that project and rules specifying that there must be a dry bar, that a certain number of volunteers had to be trained and Criminal Records Bureau had to be done on them, that bags were to be searched when people come in and so forth, the project was successful because the parents had confidence in it. They knew that in its three years of operation, that project had not seen a single incidence of violence, antisocial behaviour or drinking abuse. That happened because those rules were in place.

Damian Collins: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, but she made a point in her speech about the importance of having help and support so that people can navigate their way through all the rules and regulations. There is a concern among a number of people in the music industry about the provisions of the Licensing Act 2003, passed by the last Government, which made it necessary for smaller venues to apply for licences to put on live music events. Many Conservative Members hold the view, and the Government are looking at it, that those regulations are too onerous and impose an unnecessary burden. We could free up the voluntary groups to put on more of such events and also free up the time of council officers simply by getting rid of an unnecessary piece of legislation.

Anyone involved in community groups trying to put on events to raise money for their own funds or to draw attention to their activities will have come across many stories of woe about regulations on putting up banners and notices, the requirement for different types of insurance

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and the costs of obtaining it. There is much we can do to deregulate this work and make it easier for the big society to step forward and for people to take charge of the events they want to put on and take charge of raising money for the community and for the projects they want to advance.

Sometimes it is a matter of impetus. In Folkestone, the main town in my constituency, a group was formed, which called itself “Go Folkestone”. It started as the Go Folkestone action project, which was launched by the Folkestone Lions club. The Lions and similar clubs do a fantastic job of raising money for their local communities. That was simply a group of people coming together with an ambition to change their town and a feeling that the usual political processes were not the best way of achieving that. A work programme was launched, which led to the formation of a town council in Folkestone for the first time and within a number of years it took action to deal with some of the dereliction caused by absentee landlords letting buildings fall into abeyance. It created a new sense of civic purpose within the town. That was not designed by politicians or the Government. It was people coming together with a shared vision to change their community.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) spoke of a lack of purpose and a focus on process, but I think she is completely wrong, as it is the other way round. When communities come together to change things, they know what their purpose is. The problem they face is that they are quickly pushed into a world of process in which they are told that if they want to apply for funding for their project, they can apply, but they might need to redefine what the project is for and money might be made available only if they can prove that they are advancing a gender project or one targeted at a particular part of the community. That process often serves to make them lose sight of the core purpose of the original project. There are far too many of these rules and regulations in place, which undermine the big society and people’s fundamental belief that by coming together and acting together they can really change the society in which they live.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): Some of the hon. Gentleman’s points highlight the importance of the independence of voluntary and community groups. Does he share the view of the famous red Tory Phillip Blond that at a time of such large Government cuts, the big society cannot come about? It simply will not work. People who, like me, have worked in the voluntary sector for 15 years and engaged in charitable fundraising are likely to welcome comments about the independence of the voluntary and charitable sector, but we fear that much of this talk of the big society is an ideologically driven smokescreen for large-scale Government cuts.

Damian Collins: The vision of the big society—including the understanding of Conservative Members of the importance of communities, volunteers and groups in transforming their society—has been articulated by Members of all parties for many years and by the Conservative party for a number of years, certainly predating the recession. The hon. Lady is right to say that to deliver our plans at a time when there is less public money around creates challenges, but it would also be wrong to relegate the voluntary sector to being

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simply an arm of the state that is totally reliant on state funding. This applies not just to the voluntary sector that she mentioned but across the arts and heritage groups as well. There is a danger of over-reliance on state funding so that people do not look beyond it and end up simply chasing the state subsidy and state money. Rather than work for a philanthropist or corporate entity that is providing all the money, they work for the agency of the state that is providing it instead. That, I think, perverts the essence of what the big society is all about.

There was much talk earlier about the role of 19th century thinkers, politicians and leaders in shaping what the big society was about. One good example was overlooked, however—the role of Tory reformers such as Lord Shaftsbury in pushing through the factory reform legislation. One consequence was the creation of leisure time for the working classes, which they had never had before. That is what led to the birth of popular sports, including football. The set-up and success of football clubs and the football league programmes throughout the country and the birth of organised sport can be traced back to those industrial reform Acts passed by this House. There was no Government pathfinder programme that dictated which sports should be set up or that football should become a national sport. That happened through volunteers and working groups made up of communities across the country with a shared vision of what they could do with their new time. That provides a good example of how Government action and legislation created the time and space for communities to come forward and create something new for themselves and was then followed up by a massive response right across the country.

I therefore think that the big society is akin to the aspirational society. It is a marriage of the aspirations people have not only for themselves and their families, but for their community. This reveals an understanding of how by working together and achieving together through common goals, there is no limit to what communities can do together. The role of the Government is to act as a facilitator and an enabler and not to stand in the way. We have seen plenty of examples today of where Government regulation and bureaucracy are hindering the big society rather than taking it forward.

Finally, I thank my Kent neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) for securing this debate. On behalf of myself and my Folkestone constituents, I say that we are fully behind his plans for the mutualisation of the port of Dover. We wish him every success in that venture.

7.48 pm

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), who articulated well the relationship between the Government and the voluntary sector in delivering the big society. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on securing this debate.

The hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) reminded us of the comments of the noble Baroness at the height of her power as Prime Minister when she said that there was no such thing as society.

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There is a danger and a fear that the big society is nothing more than the rebranding of the Conservative party by an excellent public relations manager. Across the House, there is agreement that, as the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) said, the big society is not new, but is something that makes this country great. Community spirit and community action have always been at the heart of British society.

In her excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) gave us great insights into the nature and effectiveness of volunteering but, as she said, the big society is neither new nor free. As we were told by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), it is alive and kicking. In my constituency, in the last fortnight, I have been in contact with the scouts and guides, the women’s institute, Lindsey Lodge Hospice, the Magic Moments charity for autistic children, Voluntary Action North Lincolnshire, Church and faith groups, town and parish councils, school governors, retained firefighters and Alzheimer’s support groups. On Saturday night, I had the privilege of meeting the winners of not the Darlington but the Kirton in Lindsey civic award, Jenny Cripps and Penny Hoey, who received it for raising £1 million to restore the town hall to its old diamond jubilee glory. Last week I met a business man who had had the enterprising and imaginative idea of developing a community enterprise partnership to run the Humber bridge, removing the debt from the state. That may not be the right answer, but it is worth examining.

There certainly is a society, and there certainly are great communities. We see that in our constituencies, and their strength has been demonstrated today in contributions from Members on both sides of the House. My hon. Friends the Members for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) reminded us of the grand traditions of community self-help and mutual support, which have a long history on which we can build a great future. Over the last 20 years, government at all levels and of all political persuasions has encouraged the voluntary and community sector to grow and prosper. At national and local level it has supported capacity building, recognising that in wealthier, more prosperous areas people have more time, money and expertise, and that support is necessary if more disadvantaged communities are to realise their potential.

As was spelt out so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), we need an infrastructure to deliver the big society, and that is now at risk. Those great communities are now threatened by a Government who, I fear, speak with forked tongue: a Government who say that they believe in communities and in a big society, but who are presiding over the biggest attack on communities for 30 years. We see that in the spending cuts that are being made throughout our communities at this moment.

We can judge how big a society is, how big a people are and how big a Government are by the way in which our young people are treated. The hon. Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) reminded us of the key role played by volunteering in that context. Studies have made it clear that long spells of unemployment in youth can create permanent scars, which will imperil any

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realisation of the big society. Youth unemployment has returned to the level of the 1980s, the number of young people not in education, employment or training is at a record high, and the education maintenance allowance is being scrapped. I know from personal experience that EMAs have been highly beneficial in providing a ladder to aspiration. Kicking away that ladder will undoubtedly increase the number of NEETs and the level of youth unemployment.

Initial research by the Department for Work and Pensions has indicated that the future jobs fund has been a success. This week a constituent, Jan Williams, who had written to the Prime Minister kindly sent me a copy of her letter. She wrote:

“I am Managing Director of Crosby Employment Bureau a not-for-profit social enterprise based in Northern Lincolnshire. We are involved in a number of employment and training programmes that aim to help people from deprived communities back into work. We also get involved in a range of other projects that help benefit the local community. I would go as far as to say that our organisation can be taken to embody your idea of the Big Society.”

Jan Williams drew attention to the successes of the future jobs fund that her organisation had been managing. Eighty long-term unemployed people were currently serving in or had completed placements with local organisations. Twelve of the first 21 had completed their six-month placements and were in full-time, long-term employment. The young people themselves had made comments such as

“the Future Jobs Fund has changed my life”.

However, Jan Williams also pointed out that all that was in peril because of the Government’s actions.

The way in which we treat our young people is a good measure of whether we believe in the big society or whether it is little more then rhetoric. The way in which we treat the members of society who are least able to look after themselves is also important. Another letter that I received this week came from Ian Millard of Lincolnshire House, who drew attention to the problems of disabled people in his care. He wrote:

“Taking the mobility allowance away from disabled people in care will have an adverse effect on the quality of their life. How do they fund taxis, go on holiday or just go for a day out with family or friends?

Maybe the high rate of mobility needs to be addressed, but some allowance needs to be considered to replace the income…disabled people…cannot live on £22.30 per week. If this change is implemented disabled people will become prisoners in their own homes.”

That is not the big society, and we must not let it happen.

If the big society is not just rhetorical cover for cuts in public services, the Prime Minister must demonstrate through actions rather than words that he cares about the real people in our society. He can start with three big society actions: he can restore EMA, he can restore the future jobs fund, and he can restore the mobility component of disability living allowance. I hope that he listens, I hope that he cares, and I hope that he acts before it is too late.

7.56 pm

Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to this excellent debate. Let me say first, as a member of the Backbench Business Committee, that it was a pleasure to make the successful

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bid for the debate. It was pointed out that the whole country was talking about the big society, from a number of different angles, and a compelling case was made for the House to debate the subject.

I want to focus on two aspects of the big society debate, and, if I have time, to make a request for practical support. The first of those aspects is the potential of wider community involvement in the delivery of services to drive social mobility in communities that have become excessively dependent on the state, sometimes over several generations. The second is the power of volunteers to generate much greater enthusiasm and support for projects than can be generated by national or local government.

During my short time as a Member of Parliament, I have become very concerned about families who look only to one or another arm of the state for financial support and services. That has a potentially deadening effect not just on people’s ability to solve problems, but on the responsibility that they take for the lives of themselves and their families. I fear that the delivery of services and activities solely by the state can reinforce the disadvantages of such families, and, in particular, can reinforce the lack of social mobility that troubles many Members.

Far from seeing the role of volunteers and community groups in delivering services as a threat, I see it as an opportunity. I represent an area that contains extremes of wealth and poverty as well as all that is between those extremes. Tonight my local council is discussing an innovative plan to run a local library serving many disadvantaged children and young people with support co-ordinated through a local private school’s charitable foundation. Irrespective of the financial aspects of the plan, I welcome it. Rather than viewing their involvement with suspicion, I hope that some of those professional parents and other middle-class people who will contribute their time—supporting, for example, homework clubs and study groups—will, in due course, be inspired to offer some of the young people mentoring, work experience and internships. In this instance, involving volunteers in the delivery of services will bring together members of my community who would probably have never met otherwise. I think that that has the potential to drive social mobility.

Many Members have spoken of the enthusiasm generated by their local voluntary groups—an enthusiasm that cannot easily be replicated by the state, although I agree with many Members on both sides of the House who have pointed out that it can often be enabled by the state. We have not heard much about support from business, but I think it important to see it as a potential force for good. I encountered a classic example on Christmas day last year, when I attended a traditional festive lunch for elderly people in my area run by Battersea Park rotary club. It has done that for a long time, and the idea is that no one need be alone at Christmas. There were so many volunteers there that I briefly wondered whether quite a lot of them were keen to be away from their own families at Christmas, but I quickly banished that cynical notion and instead looked on admiringly at the effort, with volunteers such as me being marshalled by experienced Rotarians, many of whom brought professional experience to bear. Publicity and transport support was co-ordinated through the council, and the venue and food was supplied by public-spirited businesses. It was a perfect example of all these

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good things coming together, but I doubt that we would have had the same response if the council had put out the call for volunteers on Christmas day.

As this debate has at times been very philosophical, I hesitate to introduce a practical note by turning to a matter that has long been a concern of mine. I can only echo the words of Members who have expressed frustration at the barriers put in the way of voluntary groups who are just trying to do good in their community. I shall mention one barrier in particular, in the hope that the Minister will address it: the often ridiculous requirements of public liability insurance. Some years ago I co-founded a community music festival in north London, and I still remember the moment when I was told that I needed to take out £2 million in public liability insurance to enable a junior school band to take a turn around the local park. I wondered to myself how much damage eight-year-olds with drums could really do. The only person on that occasion who came anywhere close to endangering the public was me, when I briefly unplugged a nearby bouncy castle to plug in the band’s accompanying piano, but it was a mistake quickly rectified.

The fear of vexatious claimants and of being sued, and the disproportionate cost of public liability insurance, are among the factors that drive small voluntary groups out of action and discourage those who just want to do good. I hope the Minister will give practical consideration to tackling this barrier and some of the others that Members on both sides of the House have spoken about in the debate.

8.2 pm

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Like the two previous speakers, I do not want to talk about the theory of the big society. Instead, I want to talk about the reality of what is happening now. How can anyone argue with the notion of a big society—a society of stronger communities, where decisions are devolved to the most local level possible and where social action is encouraged? The problem is that the Government fundamentally do not understand that the big society already exists and they are hell-bent on destroying it.

There are already millions of people volunteering in this country. They run youth clubs and lunch clubs for the elderly. They run community centres and mentor offenders. They run churches and work with the homeless. They support battered women and provide meals on wheels. However, there is a common theme that runs through the circumstances of almost every voluntary and community group: they receive grant aid or other support from local authorities and, somewhere along the line, they are supported by paid staff. These may be people working directly in their organisation, such as in my Horwich and Westhoughton visiting services, where part-time co-ordinators recruit and train the volunteers, seek the elderly who need visiting and do the administration such as paying expenses to volunteers, thus leaving the volunteers to do what they have signed up for: visit elderly and disabled lonely people. It may be the paid person in the council for voluntary service—CVS—or the council who helps the group get funding or set up and organise itself, or it may be the paid people working in the group’s headquarters, such as at the Scouts and Guides. All of these people are essential for the voluntary sector to survive and thrive.

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The Government also seem to ignore the need for professional workers to work alongside volunteers—for people to train volunteers, to mentor them, to ensure that the work undertaken is safe and appropriate, and to deliver the work alongside them. Volunteers are not, and cannot be, a substitute for them. Groups also need funding for room hire and equipment and resources, and an endless list of other things. Of course the voluntary sector fundraises, but many groups find funding hard to come by. Those rooted in poor areas, and especially those dealing with unpopular problems such as alcohol and drug misuse or offending or mental health issues, find fundraising difficult and sometimes impossible.

Volunteers and the community and voluntary sector are not free; they are not a cheap alternative to the maintained sector. They need Government support. Instead of giving support, however, the Government are destabilising the sector through cuts to direct grants and to local authority budgets. Fledgling organisations will not now get off the ground, and organisations such as Bolton Community and Voluntary Services will not be able to support them. I hope the Minister does not respond by saying that local authorities should protect the voluntary sector, because Bolton council is doing what it can to protect voluntary groups, but the Government have chosen to cut too deeply, too fast. Bolton will lose a quarter of its budget over the next four years. The Government are making the choice—the wrong choice—and leaving the local authorities to implement their cuts.

An example of Government madness is the cut to vinvolved, the national youth volunteering programme, whose funding will be cut at the end of March. This project is the big society in action, with young people being trained as volunteers to work in every sort of project we can imagine. Vinvolved provided fun, exciting and eye-opening volunteer experiences for young people. It provided one-to-one tailored, sustained support. Most of the young people engaged in the project were experiencing difficult social and economic circumstances; indeed, many were at risk of social exclusion. Volunteering enhances young people’s employability, gives them the opportunity to gain experience to put on their CVs, and allows them to get references and to develop contacts to help them find full-time work. It enables them to give back to their communities and, perhaps most importantly, gives them confidence and self-respect. What is the Government’s replacement? It is an eight-week summer programme for 16-year-olds.

I have spoken before in this House about the honour I had of presenting the volunteer of the year award for Greater Manchester to Matthew, a 21-year-old from Bolton. Matthew has multiple disabilities, had no confidence and was doing nothing. His Connexions adviser referred him to vinvolved, and he was offered a number of volunteering opportunities, which he took up. He became a dedicated and valued member of the team at StreetWise Soccer, and teaches soccer skills to a range of people several times a week. He is now taking a coaching course so that he can teach football to disabled young people. He would not be doing any of this if it were not for vinvolved.

Who is going to support young people into volunteering now? The Greater Manchester v team award was won by Bolton YMCA’s youth council. It is involved in

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fundraising, project planning, decorating, writing funding bids and supporting individual projects and users alike. It was said to be

“dedicated, energetic and a credit to the YMCA”.

However, without local authority funding and Government grants, the YMCA will not be able to employ the youth workers who support young people and other voluntary youth workers. They are the big society in action, but they are in jeopardy because of the Tory-led Government.

If we need further evidence, the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services has stated that three quarters of youth charities are cutting projects, and 80% of them are being cut because of the end of targeted help from the Government. The Government’s decision to front-load cuts is also creating chaos for the voluntary and community sector, leaving groups no time to find alternative funding. At present, 6% of the work force of Greater Manchester is employed in the sector. I will be very interested to see what that figure is after April.

I visited Moss Bank Park animal world last Thursday. The council is having to withdraw funding because of the £60 million in cuts it must find over two years, with £42 million to be found this year. A group of volunteers is forming who would love to take over animal world and the butterfly house, but who are in a race against time to get organised and to get funding in place. If the council had to cut only £18 million this year and £42 million next year, the group would have a better chance—but, no, the Government are going ahead, too deep and too fast.

The coalition parties want to take the state out of support for our society and want to do away with any targets. However, targets are the device that ensures that the vulnerable—such as teenage mums and homeless addicts, and young scallies hanging out on street corners who are unwelcome in the voluntary youth club—get the services they need. The state has a duty to ensure that our citizens get the support they need, and that cannot just be left to possible voluntary action.

The big society exists, but this Government are destroying it. The big society can never be a replacement for local authority services, however. The big society works best where there is a partnership between local authorities and the voluntary and community sector. Volunteers are not a replacement for paid, qualified, professional staff; they complement them. This Government must stop this destruction before it is too late.

8.9 pm

Mr Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): I am very pleased to speak in this debate today, which is yet another triumph for the Backbench Business Committee and a tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who instigated it. I know that dozens of colleagues would happily have called for this debate and signed up to say that it should happen.

It is apt that we are having this debate at the start of Fairtrade fortnight. Fairtrade is a great organisation that is very active in my constituency. There has been much mention of the noble Baroness Thatcher and her infamous quote. One of my colleagues said that she was misquoted, but I think it was more a case of her being selectively quoted. I honestly was not a geeky teenager reading such things under my bedclothes, but I do so

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hate misquoting, especially where Baroness Thatcher is concerned.




Let me keep going—you’ll enjoy this.

It was Baroness Thatcher’s conference speech in 1987 in which she used that phrase. She said:

“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the Government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant’, ‘I’m homeless, the Government must house me’. They’re casting their problem on society. And you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no Government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

If any hon. Member disagrees with that statement, they should not be on the Government side of the House; they should certainly be on the Opposition side, and I guess they probably are.

It is becoming predictable to hear colleagues say, “While others talk about the big society, in my constituency we’ve been doing it for years.” I am sure many of us have uttered those words at AGMs and meetings this past weekend, not least me. However, it is not merely “predictable” to say that in the case of my Winchester constituency; rather, it is most definitely true. Nevertheless, the use of the word “predictable” misses the point. For me, as others have said, the big society is not a revolutionary new idea, but a renewed mission for troubled times. Passing power from state to citizen and encouraging people to be empowered in their own communities and to take responsibility for their own lives is an idea as old as the hills. It is an idea that has always been at the core of what my party believes, of how it shapes policy when in government in good times and bad—and, it must be said, in surplus and in deficit.

In the infamous “sermon on the mound” in May 1988, Margaret Thatcher—I am becoming obsessed with her—said:

“Intervention by the State must never become so great that it effectively removes personal responsibility.”

I cannot disagree with that. There are others. Addressing the Labour party conference for the first time as Prime Minister, the former right hon. Member for Sedgefield said:

“I tell you: a decent society is not based on rights. It is based on duty. Our duty to each other. To all should be given opportunity, from all responsibility demanded.”

Excellent, as always! Our current Prime Minister, on the eve of the general election last year, said that the big society was his “mission” in politics. Of course, there is also the great man John F. Kennedy and his inauguration address in January 1961, which has been quoted twice today, so I will not go there again. For me, those approaches all have one common thread: they present a positive vision; they all have optimism at their core; and they all believe in people over the state. That is not a bad thing.

I believe in the big society—I always have—and I do not think that that is a political risk; nor do I think it is “cover” for clearing up the appalling mess left by the Labour party. For me, it is a principle of faith—a way we want to govern in a country we want to live in. I am happy to stand under that banner, now and at the next election, in this House and outside it.

I understand why some people want to talk down the big society idea—we have heard that plenty of times today—just as they want to talk down our economy

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and, ultimately, our country. It suits their argument, and I suspect that for some, that has “traction”, as the pollsters call it, outside this place. However, ultimately it will not serve them well. What a very dark place it must be for those who think that Government know best and that only the state can guarantee fairness, when all they seek to do is undermine those who believe we can be better as a society. Politicians, and especially Prime Ministers, have to lead and to believe in something bigger than simply managing Government Departments better than the last lot, passing legislation and bringing about our economic recovery, vital as the latter is right now.

This coalition Government do not want the story of this Parliament to be just one of economic recovery; we want it to be one of social recovery, too. If I look at my own constituency, in the city of Winchester and the villages and towns that surround it, I see a strong society already thriving, but I also see a big state keeping far too many people in their place.

Here is the good part. According to the Charity Commission, we already have 524 registered charities in Winchester, a thriving voluntary and community sector and a sense of community involvement in the form of public consultation, meetings and—dare I say it?—e-mails to the local MP. That hardly constitutes being uninterested. We have dozens of active residents associations, and we have busy community groups that get stuck in. There are groups such as the Alresford Society, the City of Winchester residents association and the Hiltingbury community association. Numerous rotary groups have been mentioned today, and they do great work in my constituency. There is also the Alresford Pigs Association, which will love a mention, and the Dever Society. We have big charities such as Trinity Winchester; the Churches Nightshelter, which I was volunteering with just last week during the recess as part of student volunteering week; and Naomi House, the children’s hospice. We have heard some very good things from my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) about hospices. There also the smaller charities such as Young Carers, Wells for India and the mental health charity the Olive Branch, all based within an infrastructure company called Winchester Area Community Action, or WACA, which recently came here to visit the Minister. I pay tribute to their team, who do so much to make our society in Winchester strong.

Not a week goes by when my office does not receive a request for me to sponsor or help publicise a charity bike ride or some other event to raise money for charities at home and far away. Just this weekend, I was at a dental practice in Winchester to help it launch a bike ride across Tanzania in aid of Bridge2Aid, a dental charity. There are many other such examples.

On the “work to do” side, I had an e-mail just before the recess from a constituent of mine. It said:

“I would like to tell you of my experience yesterday at Winchester Hospital. I have become a member of The League of friends and offered my services as a volunteer. I had helped out one morning on the desk on the Nightingale Wing and decided that I could help on other occasions. I was then told to register and given 4 forms to fill in asking all manner of personal questions. I am just telling you this as many…will be…as I am, put off applying.”

That is a small example, but I bet that hon. Members in all parts of the House can provide similar examples.

There are many other such examples, and one of the biggest misconceptions about the big society remains the idea that it is all about the voluntary and community

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sector and how much grant central or local government gives to individual charities. Perhaps it is our fault as a Government—our communication failure. Either way, I hope this debate will help in that regard. The big society is about a culture change in volunteering, yes, but it is also about a revolution in the culture of giving and public service reform. Above all, it is about responsibility. We have to reject the perverse and pitiful message we are teaching our children that nanny—the nanny state—knows best.

8.17 pm

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr Brine), who was quite right when he said that the Backbench Business Committee has shown the diverse range of opportunities that it provides. Like the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who is not in his seat, I represent a coastal and port community, and I wish him well in his campaign on behalf of the port of Dover.

The hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) was right to say that the big society is not about ideology—left, right or centre. I consider myself a communitarian first and foremost. I live in, was brought up in and have the privilege to serve the rich, resilient and diverse community of the Isle of Anglesey. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) make a contribution on the Isle of Anglesey. Like me, he was born there and brought up on a council estate there, although not the same estate. He rightly mentioned the late Iorwerth Rowlands, who died recently. He was a Conservative, and someone with whom I worked before I was elected to this House of Commons; indeed, when I became a Member of Parliament, he lobbied me.

I have roving surgeries in Anglesey, and I use the Iorwerth Rowlands community centre for that purpose. I was proud to be there on the day when that centre was opened in Iorwerth Rowlands’s name. One thing that he would have agreed with is that that would not have happened had it not been for grant aid. I helped him to get the money to build that community centre, which is in the heart of the community of Beaumaris.

I want to stick to the issues that have been discussed today and the big society. As the hon. Member for Winchester has said, it is predictable that we give examples from our own constituencies. I lived through the big society just this week. On Thursday, I attended a very special launch of the lifeboat at Trearddur bay, which attracted a crowd of 1,000, as well as the world’s media, who came from places ranging from Japan to Australia and the United States. The fact that two prospective constituents of mine, Prince William and Kate Middleton, were also in attendance made the launch a special focus of attention for the world’s media. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is an example of the big society, although I declare an interest because I am a member of its general council.

The following day, I had the privilege of being the guest speaker at the Llangefni rotary club on its 50th charter. I am an honorary member of the rotary club and the Lions, and I acknowledge the work that they do for communities across the United Kingdom. Again, that is

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an example of the big society in action. On Sunday, I attended a St David’s day celebration. We are not being given the opportunity to have a Welsh day in this House this year, but I was able to participate in an excellent celebration of St David’s day with voluntary groups, the RAF, the private sector and everybody else who came together to put the event on.

I also believe in devolution, which has also been mentioned in the debate, and in localism. I want to talk not about the devolution of power from Westminster to Cardiff bay or to Edinburgh, but about real devolution that helps empower people to run their own activities. In the 1980s, prior to coming into this House, I worked as a manager of a centre for the unemployed. Society was very fractured in the 1980s, and it needed help and attention. As manager of that centre, I worked with the public sector, the private sector, the third sector and community groups to help people in society. We worked together and we built up many achievements, not the least of which was educating and training people for the world of work. That was the big society and the community coming together. We have heard some quotes from Mrs Thatcher and some defence of what she said. I can tell hon. Members that no matter whether or not she believed in society, we had hard experiences in my constituency and my community at that time, and the big society coming together helped alleviate much of that hardship.

In order to create a better society we need to work together. Hon. Members have talked about partnerships, but I am still struggling to understand what the big society is and nobody sitting on the Benches opposite has really explained it to me. We can all give examples of what we think it is and what we think it should do, but we have never heard a definition.

Chris Ruane rose

Albert Owen: Before I take an intervention from my hon. Friend, may I say that he was right when he said that the Government probably picked the wrong term with the “big society”? I was surprised that the Prime Minister chose the term “big society” and was unable to market it or explain it to the public, given his public relations skills. The “big community” would have been a better idea and concept to sell, had he chosen it.

Chris Ruane: One of the 300 questions that I have tabled on the issue of the “big society” asks the Minister to define what it is. The answer has come back, and I have been told that there is no definition.

Albert Owen: The Minister is a very decent man, and I am sure that he will find 300 answers somewhere up his sleeve to say what the “big society” is, but we have not been given clarification in this debate. As I have explained, I am a communitarian. I live and work the big society, yet I am struggling to explain to people exactly what it is.

I wish to cite another example of the big society with a link to my constituency. The women’s institute was formed in Ynys Môn, the Isle of Anglesey, in 1915, and a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of going to the annual general meeting. The membership in my area is 500, and the institute mustered almost 200 of them to attend a meeting to listen to their Member of Parliament

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speaking. Again, that is the big society in action. The agenda that the women’s institute had in 1915 is the agenda that we are still running today; it talked about food security in 1915. So, fantastic examples can be given of the big society, but it is difficult to explain this concept and we need to make progress.

Some hon. Members have asked why cuts should be brought into a debate about the big society. I have worked in the private sector, the public sector and the voluntary sector. I still visit these groups and they raise the problems that funding cuts cause them in creating the community ethics that they wish to promote and in running groups and activities in the community—it is they who are talking about cuts. It would be a big mistake for anybody who has contributed to this debate to say that the cuts will not have an impact on those services in the community, which is what concerns me.

I wonder whether this is the wrong time to talk about a big society in many ways. We need to work to help communities, but we also need to get the right balance between state funding, community spirit and looking for finance from the private sector. I did that and still do it, and I help groups to do it. By working together, we will create not only a big society, but a better society—a society that people really want. As a communitarian, I believe that the Prime Minister rightly talks about “bottom up”, but then tries to lecture from the top about what the big society is, which is where the confusion arises. Do not just take my word for it; take the word of members of the RNLI, the women’s institute and rotarians, who tell me that they do not understand this situation. The Government talk about localism, but we see many measures that are centralised. So a confused message is being sent out, and it is difficult to understand. I hope that the Minister will answer my one question, not the 300 that have been posed. I hope he will tell me what the big society is and whether we live in a broken society.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Just before I call the next speaker, may I say that 15 Members still wish to catch my eye and that their speeches are going to have to finish just before 9.35 pm?

8.27 pm

Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): As many Government Members have said, empowering citizens and local communities to take more control over their lives is at the heart of the big society idea. I am delighted that this key philosophy of returning power to the people is a core feature across the Government’s policy agenda, be it in education, local government or health. Under the previous Government, we developed a culture of government knows best, where individuals and communities often felt helpless to bring about local changes. Thankfully, that is changing and the big society agenda is playing its role in encouraging more local community engagement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who is not in his place, made an excellent opening speech, in which he gave the example of individuals being concerned about the possibility of being sued if they cleared snow from pavements. It is a sad state of affairs that after 13 years of Labour that is where we had come to. It was clear that the pendulum had swung

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too far in the wrong direction in terms of the role of the state versus the role of community. Fostering a spirit of community engagement and social responsibility starts at home and school. I suspect that many hon. Members have been struck, as I have, when schoolchildren come to visit Westminster or when speaking at local schools, by how engaged our young people—seven and eight-year-olds—are when talking about things in their neighbourhoods that they want to change. We need to capture that enthusiasm and engagement and nurture it into adulthood, so I welcome the Government’s national citizen service, which is aimed at 16-year-olds and will help to deliver that.

Our charity and voluntary groups are the face of the big society in our towns and cities and form the backbone of civil society in our communities. Reading is no different and has a vibrant and diverse voluntary sector. Church communities play a big role in our town, providing services that are open to all, such as support for the homeless, debt counselling advice and schooling for children who have been excluded from mainstream education because of behavioural difficulties. Earlier this month, I spoke at a local voluntary and community sector networking event in Reading, at which there were well over 100 participants representing just about all the key community and voluntary sector groups in the town. The event was billed as a

“cross section conference involving all agencies interested in growing a genuine Big Society in Reading”.

It is absolutely clear that the voluntary and community sector in Reading is keen to grow the big society. It wants to do more and believes in community empowerment. Many in the sector welcome the Government’s agenda of seeking to increase the role of charities and voluntary groups in delivering public services. Locally, I am very pleased that we are supporting such groups. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that now runs Reading borough council has increased funding for voluntary groups and there is much more flexibility in getting funding throughout the year. There is now clear recognition, which was not there before, that voluntary groups should not be treated as a branch of Government that is there to deliver on Government targets, but that they are there to deliver for local communities. The Conservative-run West Berkshire district council, which also covers part of my constituency, recently wrote to the Department for Communities and Local Government to apply to become a big society vanguard area following Liverpool’s withdrawal. In my part of Berkshire, we certainly know what the big society is all about and we are supporting it.

More widely, the beneficial effects of the Government’s policy agenda of empowering local people and communities to take control over their lives can be seen across our constituencies. I hope that my constituency will have one of the first free schools in the country in September—the Reading free school. That initiative, which is led by a local parent group called the All Saints Action Group, came about because there is huge pressure on school places in Reading. Local parents saw an opportunity to set up a new school, which is fantastic news for children across the town. Most importantly, it represents real collaboration between the local community, local parents and the local authority. This could never have happened under the previous Government.

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The Localism Bill is another great example of how the big society concept is being furthered, whether through the community right to buy, the community right to challenge or communities being allowed to decide how their neighbourhoods should look. As a result of the Bill, I have been approached by members of the community who want to do more to save local pubs and who want to work out how their neighbourhoods should look. All that should be welcomed. Above all, the Localism Bill is about trusting local communities and letting them take the lead in creating neighbourhoods of which they can be proud. We should welcome that.

I know that many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall draw my remarks to a close. I fully support the motion and I welcome all that the Government are doing to advance the big society and return more control to local people and local communities over their own lives.

8.32 pm

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): I believe that all hon. Members in the Chamber recognise that these are difficult economic times that require us to make tough choices and to change our way of life. It is tempting to focus on the negative, but we should also focus on the positive. We are presented with an opportunity to show the very best in our national character and to call upon the values of responsibility, public spiritedness and compassion, which are intrinsic to a strong and vibrant society. Those ideals are not new, but have been woven into our politics for as long as any of us can remember. We are ultimately seeking to address the most fundamental question in politics: what does it mean to be a citizen? For me, the big society is an attempt to answer that question and to create a new, more balanced and more positive concept of the citizen. For that reason, I support the motion.

The big society is novel because it recognises the importance not only of people but of institutions. There is a clear role for the state in the facilitation of a stronger society. In some ways, that will be rhetorical—pushing people forward, persuading them that it is good to do more and giving them a reason to feel part of a wider social project. That is why it is so important that senior members of the Government keep talking about the need for people to get involved and continue to spur people forward. The idea of a civic service which the Prime Minister outlined is an important part of achieving that.

I welcome efforts by Ministers to change perceptions of volunteering. Our education system should do more to develop a new generation of citizens. The national citizen service represents a fantastic opportunity to bind young people together and encourage them to participate as much as possible in the wider community.

As Members of Parliament, we need to get into our local communities. We should be advocates for social action, galvanising people to do more and championing local causes. In my constituency, we have a fantastic array of organisations which I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with, both as a candidate and now as an MP. They work tirelessly to help the wider community and the most vulnerable within it.

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In some ways, the state’s role is institutional. We need to change the way in which our public services are delivered and how our priorities are set in order to engage our communities and ask local people to do more, whether that is by helping to set priorities through referendums or giving local people the right to challenge. We need more diversity in public services to break open monopolies and to give the best organisations, whether they are voluntary, public or private, a chance to take on our social challenges. We should say, “If you have a good idea to solve these problems, and if you have a clear financial plan to achieve it, we will help you.”

We must use the power of the voluntary sector, social enterprise and socially responsible business to drive forward better quality in our public services. I am trying to play my part with my private Member’s Bill which, I am sure colleagues will be pleased to know, will shortly reach its Committee stage.

The role also has a financial aspect. The state has at its disposal hundreds of billions of pounds, which it collects in taxation with the aim of supporting our society through welfare, investment, infrastructure, law and order and public services. Although some of my colleagues on both sides of the House might like to debate how little or how much we should raise in taxation, that debate is for another day. We need to use the public resources to achieve the maximum public benefit. That means taking a long-term view of social issues, not being afraid of investing in social projects because they cannot generate results within one financial year, and not cutting small-scale local projects in order to save large-scale prestige ones.

There are examples across the country and in every constituency. I am reminded of organisations such as the Warwickshire community and voluntary action group, which helps individuals to find out about the voluntary and community organisations in their area and how they can help, which is vital. Our community centres are hubs of local activity. They help to give local people the space to host events and support local causes. Communities need assets and locations if they are to do their good work, and we need to ensure that they are maintained. In my constituency, assets such as the Bath Place community venture could become the catalyst for a range of social action projects. We need to recognise their importance and use local community spaces as effectively as possible, empowering local people, not hindering them with unnecessary red tape or through lack of assistance.

Voluntary and community groups also need funding. I agree with the Government and with my colleagues on the Government Benches that we must do more to encourage charitable giving and create innovative methods of funding and investment. The big society will be an important development in this respect. The grants from local and central Government are important. We spend as little as 2% of public money on the voluntary sector, yet it can have a huge impact.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): My hon. Friend is right. In Gloucestershire we are benefiting from a sensible and forward-thinking county council paving the way for local people to take over libraries. That is excellent. Does he agree that we should encourage more such initiatives across the piste?

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Chris White: Indeed. Such ideas should be promoted. We should look at the models that work and make sure that other constituencies adopt them.

Although reducing funding today might seem like a quick saving for local authorities, ultimately they should remember that the small amount that those groups and organisations cost could save them far more costly interventions in the future.

The big society needs all the tools of the state at all levels. Ultimately, however, we keep coming back to the citizen and their role in the community. No idea, no vision, will take root in our society unless people decide to keep up the challenge themselves and own their own change. It cannot be imposed from the top down; it has to come from the bottom up. We have to nurture, incentivise and fund it, but above all we have to recognise that all the resources of the nation—economic, political, social and environmental—need to be directed to achieving it.

The economy has rightly been the main focus of attention for much of the debate in this House and throughout the country, but it is no good having an economic recovery if there is no social recovery. It is important that all sides engage constructively in that, because ultimately it is in all our interests to see it succeed.

8.40 pm

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate and a particular delight to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), who counts my mother, father and brother among his constituents. They routinely tell me what an excellent job he is doing as their Member of Parliament.

Stephen Pound: Get on with it.

Richard Fuller: I shall, indeed.

It has been interesting to hear people’s different perspectives on what the big society means, so at least we know that the big society is something. We might not agree on our perceptions of it, but I am with my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) in being quite comfortable with that difference of approach. For me, however, the point of the big society at this moment is about building institutions—other than state bureaucracies—that can deliver effectively the social goods and services that we all desire.

The bureaucracy was, as we have heard, always only one model, not the only model, for the provision of social goods and services, but over the years it has come to dominate the space in social goods provision. In so dominating that space, it has created other organisations that are less sustainable and resilient because of their dependence for their continuation on state funding.

Under the previous Government, new forms of charitable organisations evolved, and in fairness institutional forms will evolve over time. It takes time to create institutions; we have only to look at the construction of different forms within the private sector and other aspects of organisational theory.

It is also important to recognise the imbalance between bureaucracies on the one hand and charities, social enterprises and so on, on the other. Over the past 10 years, charities have in many ways been co-opted by

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the Government. If we look at the earned income of charities in 2000, we see that 40% came from statutory Government sources. Within just seven years, that percentage had risen to 52%. How does that help the independence of those institutions? How does it help to create resilience within them?

Not all charities are the same, however. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) heralded the women’s institute as the paragon of a big society organisation, but as Government Members know, women’s institutes do not claim Government money at all. Smaller charities have a far greater reliance than larger charities on individual donations: 64% of the income of very small charities comes from voluntary donations and private sources, and only 5% comes from statutory sources. For the large charities, those that are pretty good at cosying up to the Government, 34% comes from individual sources, and 38% comes from Government sources.

That mirroring of the state can also be seen in senior executive pay. On many occasions in the House, we have heard people talk about the growth in senior executive pay in local and national Government, and, as we look to the big society, people will have questions about whether the chief executive officer of Barnardo’s should be paid £166,000 a year, whether the chief executive of Action for Children should be paid £130,000 and whether we should really allow the chief executive of World Vision to sneak in at £99,994 a year without pointing to it. These are areas where we have to say that we need change. Do we see these social organisations as institutions in their own right or just as agents of the Government? If it is the former, we need to enhance their institutional strength.

I have some suggestions, many of which are already emanating from our Government. It is sometimes argued that giving people a tax deduction for their charitable donation will have the same result as gift aid, but I think we should change the system. People will respond more positively if they know they are going to get a tax deduction for their charitable donation. We do it for venture capital trust contributions and for the enterprise investment scheme, so why cannot we change the system to do it for charitable donations too? We need to look at ways of simplifying the rules and regulations. In particular, can we ease the rules on mergers and acquisitions between charities so that they can be done more effectively? Looking at the big society bank, can we ensure that we limit its scope to focus on those who are most important for society as a whole?

Most importantly, can we use this opportunity to create centres of excellence for non-profit bidding expertise? ConsortiCo in my constituency has brought together 35 charities to help them to bid for local government contracts. That is important, because many charities find it hard to access Government contracts. These organisations will become the platforms for outcome-based financing in future, and we need local centres of excellence to appear with their local government authorities in order to gain the experience of writing contracts that can be used for outcome-based financing. Fundamentally, the fight between charities and bureaucracies is not fair because bureaucracies hold all the cards. If we do not give charities the strengths to compete effectively with bureaucracies, we will not achieve the big society at this time.

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It is a challenge for Conservative Members to implement the changes of the big society in this period of office, and it will govern and colour the context of our time. For Labour Members, however, the challenges are even more significant. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) said, they have to decide whether they want to continue to move forward with the reform agents in social enterprises and charities or to remain as guardians of the status quo.

8.47 pm

Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): I am grateful to have been brought into this seminar, as it has been called, on the big society and what it means. I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller), who was keen to get involved earlier when there were endless discussions about what Baroness Thatcher said and did not say; I know that he has quite positive views about that. I am going to have to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who so brilliantly introduced the debate and got it off the stocks. He said that we would be talking about the post-bureaucratic age—well, I, for one, do not understand the post-bureaucratic age. I have learned from the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) about episodic volunteering, which I think must be a psychological disease.

I will deal with one or two facts about my constituency and what we are trying to achieve in making the big society play out a bit further, particularly in terms of regeneration. I also have a suggestion to top some of the practical suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford about what may help in increasing volunteerism.

We are all agreed, across the patch, that there is nothing new about the basis of the big society. As Members of Parliament, whether new or old, we all have a great deal of admiration for the voluntary groups that we meet, the numerous people we see volunteering, and their involvement in the committees that they sit on. I have often thought that one of the great defences of this country is that if Parliament fails and we get a dictator, no dictator would ever be able to cope with the quantity of committees and voluntary groups and control them across the country. Even getting on to the agenda of some voluntary groups would be difficult for any dictator. They stand there as a bulwark against future takeovers of this country, and they do a brilliant job.

I want to mention a couple of examples from my constituency. On Friday, I went to St John’s church, which is a redundant 18th-century church in the middle of Lancaster—a beautiful building that I knew nothing about, and to which I had been invited. Mary Halton, a neighbour of the church, singlehandedly created the Friends of St John’s and singlehandedly checks to ensure that the clock is working every day. She is not religious, but she lives near the church and values it. She opens it to other groups and is working actively with what was the Redundant Churches Fund to get things moving. She has not been compelled by the Government or asked by the council; she did it herself. We can all recognise such people in our constituencies and what they have done.

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The Opposition have rightly asked what is new about the big society. I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Stourbridge (Margot James) and for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) that all that is new is the recognition that there needs to be a rebalancing between the state, community and the individual. I am not talking just about the past 13 years and I am not going into the history of the Labour party, although I have learned from this debate or seminar that the left is still alive and kicking in the Labour party. That a Labour Member can stand up and say, “We on the left,” has taught me something valuable: we now have a real ideology to play with. Congratulations should probably go to the new leader of the Labour party for allowing that to function; it has not been allowed in the past 13 years.

My party agrees that the Government clearly play a valuable role and we do not underestimate that. However, individuals and communities feel that over the past 40 or 50 years, whichever party has been in power, the state has got bigger and bigger and has squeezed them out. I think that there is some truth in that.

Stephen Pound: Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting, even for a moment, that ideology plays any part in the modern Labour party? I ask him to weigh his words with great care before making such assumptions or—dare I say it—accusations.

Eric Ollerenshaw: I thought that I was being positive. I take the hon. Gentleman’s strictures and accept that ideology does not play a part in the whole Labour party. I was saying that I am pleased that it now seems to play a part in part of the Labour party, and I regard that as novel.

I will give an example of what I was saying about the state. All that we have heard about from the Opposition is cuts, cuts and cuts. I hope that Opposition Members who criticise the Government will put the same criticisms to the Labour council leaders who are responsible for the balance of the present budgets. I remember from London politics in the 1990s, when apparently we had all the money, the massive amount of regeneration money that was poured into the east end. As a councillor in Hackney and as a member of the Greater London authority, I saw endless attempts to deal with problem estates when there was real money. Usually, that meant that outsiders came to the estates and that consultants were appointed. The Government passed the money to the development agency, which passed it to the council, which appointed administrators, who went in and sorted out what had to be done. I am not saying that no good was done, and there was certainly a lot of good capital work. I am talking in particular about the social regeneration schemes.

In particular, I remember one social regeneration scheme on a problem estate because it was examined by academics at East London university. It had the laudable aim of training the youth of the estate to use computers so that they could get better jobs. It took three to four years, the outsiders came in, the hardware was brought—it is probably still at the back of the estate community offices somewhere under lock and key—and the money was spent. The council ticked off the scheme as having done a good job. The development agency ticked it off as a good job with everything done. The Government who had spent the money—I think it was Department

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for Communities and Local Government money—ticked it off. Academics then chose it at random as a scheme to look at. When they went through the statistics of what had been done, the only conclusion they could come to was that either there were twice as many young people on the estate as the census said, or every young person on the estate had been trained twice on the same computers. They could never reconcile the figures.

To me, the big society is about the message that we missed in the ’50s and ’60s with the great slum clearances and again in the ’80s and ’90s with regeneration. That is the fact that however bad an area seems from the outside, it still possesses something of the big society and there is some community there, however bare it is. We have to work with that community, not introduce something from outside on top of it. We as a Government have to learn that lesson.

Labour Members say, “You can’t do this now, because times are bad”. I would put it the other way around. We want to be in such a position that when times are good, we have the structure on the ground to avoid the same mistakes. That is the purpose of the big society, and it is why it more important now than ever before that community organisers train volunteers.

The big society can be described as plain common sense—shall I say Lancashire common sense?—or localism, or whatever. I have tried to think of an alternative term to “big society”, but I cannot, so I will go with it, because it means the restoration of the balance between communities and individuals.

8.56 pm

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): As many Members have said, it is a pleasure to contribute to this terrific debate. It happens at a time when several million Libyans are trying to find their way to a future without their great dictator. We are debating a motion on something that they, and many others around the world under the barrel of state power would dearly love—the pursuit of stronger communities and decentralised power and the encouragement of social action.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who gets out more words per minute than anybody else in the Chamber, said that the trouble with the big society was that it had no purpose, but what other purpose is there than creating stronger communities? That is surely at the heart of all political activity by all parties. Is there really anyone in the Chamber who would vote for weaker communities, state monopoly of power and the discouragement of social action?

There was a time, of course, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) said, when his party arguably led on those beliefs, with the co-operative movement, the formation of credit unions and the role of the trade unions in training. What has happened since? What happened to self-help and mutualism? Today there is more enthusiasm for, and I suspect there are more members of, credit unions on the Government side of the House. I do not just talk about co-ops, I worked for a mutual insurance group. We are the party that leads on apprenticeships and is changing British Waterways from a state-owned entity to a charity and the Post Office from a state-owned company to a mutual.

Somewhere along the line, Labour Members have, first, mistaken new Conservative Members—that is what those of us here today are—for 1980s Tories and, secondly,

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have lost confidence in their own roots and in anything except the state or state-funded voluntary organisations. In fact, the hon. Members for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) even asked how their charities could survive without Government funding. Surely everyone in the House is aware of, for example, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, a charity that fulfils its statutory duties without a penny of Government funding. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), who spoke so eloquently, is here and available to help explain how to raise funds for charities. If need be, the Minister can help, with his transition fund.

For Opposition Members, the word “cuts” invariably means “worse service”. It does not need to if the community is involved. I shall illustrate that briefly with two examples from wards in my constituency that are among the most deprived in the south-west of England. The Podsmead Community Association has a building at a peppercorn rent from the city council, and it has 400 members, 20 volunteers and masses of activities. It has funding from both its bar and local businesses, and not a penny from the state. Nor can the 20 volunteers be remotely classified as millionaires, which was a particularly outrageous suggestion made by an Opposition Member.

Not far away, in Matson, we have an isolated library building, with two parking places, two staff—for health and safety purposes—and an inefficient, larger-than-necessary building that costs £54,000 a year. That is an important service in the wrong place and the wrong building, and it could be provided much better for rather less money. By contrast, the community offer could give the ward a library service and nearby community centre with lots of parking, plus sports, dancing and arts next door, and possibly a café, to be run by a charity formed by three religions, at a cost to the county council of £20,000, or slightly more than a third of cost of the current facility. In that way, there would be a better library service at slightly more than a third of the cost.

Many Opposition Members have called the big society a fig leaf for cuts, candyfloss, a big cop-out and a national joke, but for me, it is no laughing matter. Those are my most vulnerable wards, and I want to ensure that our communities are stronger and that we can continue the services that matter most to the people who live in them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) was right to list the bureaucratic obstacles that I hope the Minister will commit himself to hack away at, so that more people will join the big society, volunteer and help to make our communities stronger. Of course the big society already exists—look at what the Civic Trust did in Gloucester and many cities around the country. I am committed, as all Government Members are—I hope Members of all parties are so committed—to working with anyone who wants to improve and strengthen their community. I have no idea how my community leaders vote. That is the least important thing. As Deng Xiaoping said, it matters not whether a cat is black or white, but whether it catches mice.

The motion defines the big society, which we were elected to do, and I encourage all hon. Members to support it.

Several hon. Members rose

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Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I have eight speakers to get in and there are 34 minutes.

9.1 pm

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): I will try to abide by your advice, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and the great dose of common sense that was injected into the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw).

I wonder how many Opposition Members would be in the Chamber, compared with the few who are here now, were this debate entitled, “The Big State”. The Opposition do not care for the big society or what it stands for, because they prefer society to be based on the premise that the state must work its way into every nook and cranny of life. Those who prefer the big state approach do not in any way shape or form like any type of competing provision, which is perhaps why, over the past few years, the previous Government encouraged a large number of organisations, including charitable and non-governmental organisations, to take funds from the centre, so that they were that tiny bit more reliant on what the central Government hand gave them. I wonder how much money is taken by charities from central Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) described. Perhaps that is why Opposition Members are more focused on dependence on the centre.

There are many hindrances to the big society. We live in a society with a “Make a mistake and I’ll sue mentality”, which the previous Government encouraged in legislation. We therefore need massive public liability insurance. I am a soccer referee, and I must have extra public liability insurance just to put on my kit and blow a whistle every Saturday afternoon, in case a player injures himself while under my control and tries to sue me.

We need proposals to fix health and safety requirements, the massive number of Criminal Records Bureau checks, which I believe we are beginning to sort out, and the bureaucracy that many hon. Members have described. We also need to simplify gift aid to make it easier for everyone to give, and to encourage businesses to allow their staff to volunteer—DHL has a fantastic policy on that.

In my time in the House, I have been constantly surprised by the fact that those who work the hardest in society, and who have the least net disposable income—the “squeezed middle”, as I have heard someone call them—are the ones who go out of their way to give time to and help their communities. Those people are the big society. A number of Opposition Members asked who they are, and what the big society is, and then managed to define it in individual cases.

In my constituency, it is dead simple. The big society is a lady called Fiona Tompkinson, who is spending 10 days walking the great wall of China for Springboard, which is a charity, or it is Eydon village community soup kitchen, which raised money last week for the upkeep of a local church, or it is Nigel Smilie and Trevor Rowden, who are climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for the Daniel Worrall Memorial Trust, which was set up after a young lad aged just 20 was killed in a road accident. He was a keen sportsman, and he would love the fact that the trust in his name raises money for better sporting facilities for young people in his village.

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The Phoenix Centre, hospices, rotary clubs, Home-Start, Take Time to Make Time, which is a time bank, Diversity Fitness 4 Life, Brushes and Spades, which will make an old lady's garden look a lot better in springtime, are all wonderful organisations. If one scratches the skin of the society of Daventry, one comes to the wonderful rich fabric that is the big society, which does exist. There are national organisations such as the Special Olympics that are sponsored by big business, including Coca-Cola and the National Grid, but contribute massively to the betterment of life for those with a learning disability.

Therefore, there is a big society out there and I welcome the motion and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on securing it.

9.5 pm

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): This debate is ideological. It was a Labour Cabinet Minister who said that the man in Whitehall really does know best. What we are talking about here—it is one of the reasons the Liberal Democrats are such an important part of the coalition; it is one of the biggest areas where we agree—is the philosophical split between those of us in the coalition who believe that the state is built bottom up, and our socialist friends who think that the state is created top down.

If we go back to the beginnings of society—man in a state of nature—we see that there is no government, but there is society. Man is a political animal. There is society in our earliest history and forms. Government comes later. The problem with government is that, when it comes, it binds. Let us recall the image of Gulliver when he is bound down by the Lilliputians. Thousands of little people have crawled all over him and tied his hair to the beach. They have put ropes over him so he is stuck—he is tied down. That is what we saw in 13 years of socialist Government. The view was that, if it was not done by the state, it was bad.

We have heard a great array of examples from my right hon. and hon. Friends of what that means: the insurance policies for referees; and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) needing £2 million of insurance. We have heard about the CRB checks. Bell ringers in my constituency are worried about having any children come to ring bells. Although large numbers of them ring together, they are frightened that the big state may not approve and may not say yes. We have data protection. I know that fellow rotarians are here in the House this evening. My own rotary club, Midsomer Norton and Radstock, takes old people shopping—a good thing to do, one would have thought. Members of the rotary club go around to local churches and ask, “Are there any elderly people who might need a hand?” What is the response? It is, “We are not allowed to give you the names of the old and the lonely because of data protection, because the man in Whitehall, who knows best, is fearful that you have evil intent and he will not allow that to happen.” That is why the big society is so important.

If we believe that society is built by individuals, their families, through communities, they are the ones who should make the decisions, raise the money and spend it according to the needs of their communities. One of the great cankers of socialism was that it took over the funding as well. Then we get into the argument about

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cuts, which is the great confusion in relation to the big society. It is a bad idea for charities to receive most of their funding from Her Majesty's Government because, as soon as they do, they become agents of the state and lose their independent action. They become subject to the rules, regulations and disbursement requirements that are set upon them by Governments. All that must be swept away. The Minister must cut Gulliver free. Gulliver’s hair must be released. He must be unbound. He must be able to stand up and stride forth.

Stephen Pound: As ever, the House is so much in the hon. Gentleman's debt as we move from the noble savage to “Prometheus Unbound”, spanning as we do Somerset rotary clubs. The logic of his comments would appear to be, and I speak as a proud member of Greenford rotary club, that we should, for example, get rid of the Charity Commission, because surely the dead hand of the state would apply just as much to that commission. Is he suggesting that it be cast into the dustbin of history?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: The hon. Gentleman and fellow rotarian makes an excellent point. I hope that the Minister will consider thorough reform of the Charity Commission—set the people free!

9.9 pm

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): It is relatively easy to draw up legislation to increase taxation on the banks, but it is much harder to draft a big society Bill. Unlike my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), I am quite a simple man. I am not a philosopher, so I am going to offer a doorstep definition of the big society. First, the big society says that social capital—the glue that strengthens community and binds us together—is as important as economic capital. We cannot have one without the other, because capitalism works best with strong communities.

Secondly, the big society believes that people power is as effective, if not more so, than state power, which means devolving power to individuals to make decisions. Lower taxes, for example, give us more economic power and direct political devolution for individuals and communities means more social power. Thirdly, the big society gives as much impetus to social entrepreneurs—those who use social action to transform their communities—as it does to economic entrepreneurs. Social action is as essential as economic action, and it must be incentivised. I want to deal with those three factors in turn.

First, if economic capital is about the level of wealth, social capital is about the level of community. Robert Putnam has been mentioned this afternoon, and he defines social capital as the

“collective value of all social networks, and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other.”

That means strong families, strong ties between neighbours, vibrant voluntary associations, and schools as the focal point for community endeavour. We cannot find a better example than the market. When we think about old-fashioned street markets, of course they were about buying and selling, but they were an essential part of social capital too, as they brought people together. The internet is a modern market and online community.

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Secondly, the big society believes that people power is as important, if not more so, than state power, which means devolving power, not just to local versions of Whitehall but directly to individuals to make decisions. Just as lower taxes give individuals more economic power, direct political devolution to individuals and communities means more social power. Something that will make that a reality is the mutualisation of the state, as touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), which could lead to a fundamental shift of power, because people power is Robin Hood politics. A new wave of co-operatives will shift ownership from the Whitehall bosses to the workers; from the inherited monopoly of the establishment to the striving classes.

Thirdly, on social entrepreneurs, if the state cannot legislate the big society into existence, it can create the conditions to make it flourish. My own local council in Harlow has launched a big society team and is working with the umbrella Rainbow Services charity to nurture civic action in our town with over 160 smaller charities and community organisations. We must break the state monopoly on the provision of services. Instead of “Tesco charities” with £1 million budgets that have become indistinguishable from Government Departments, funds must cascade down to the grass roots. In the UK, just 6% of charities receive almost 90% of the total annual income, and much of that comes from the state, so I urge the Minister, as we open up billions of pounds of Government contracts, to give the fairest chance to the smallest charities.

We must also do more in partnership with the trade unions. Setting aside the Bob Crows and the militants for a moment, what are trade unionists, if not members of friendly societies and social entrepreneurs? I am a member of Prospect, and I believe that, as Conservatives, we should embrace sensible unions because, at their best, they are examples of the big society in action, as voluntary associations that work for their membership.

In conclusion, it was the architect of the welfare state, William Beveridge, who said:

“Vigour and abundance of voluntary action…, individually and in association with other citizens…, are the distinguishing marks of a free society.”

Social capital, people power and social entrepreneurs—this is the big society in action. As has been said, the big society is not new, but has been thriving for years. However, we need a Cabinet-level enforcer to drive implementation through Government, and we need an impact assessment for all new legislation on how it will help to build the big society. There are many other possibilities, however, such as turning the big society bank into a big credit union that could work with local credit unions at a grass-roots level, asking websites such as eBay and JustGiving to offer matching services for big society donations, or even helping communities to set up labour exchanges.

Last week, I attended a public meeting with a group called Harlow Council Watch. The people there were worried that the big society would be all about the great and the good, and large charities operating on a regional scale. The big society is not just a part of the national conversation. It will work only if it builds the little society as well. I hope that the Government’s policies are designed to reinvigorate the small charities and community groups—the little society that is the bedrock of social capital in the United Kingdom.

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9.16 pm

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): I want to start by addressing the criticism of the big society that it breaches the principle of additionality—that it treads on the state’s turf and requires the public to perform do-it-yourself public services. The debate on additionality is not a new one. We started this debate by hearing about air ambulances, and if we go into any hospital around the country we will probably find that the curtains around the beds have been purchased by the League of Friends. Furthermore, many health charities are providing services, including patient and health care education, care and support. Mention those services to the general public, and we will get a very mixed reaction. Some people will think that the state is providing those services, some will think that it should be providing them, and others that the state is claiming that it is doing those services.

When charities breach that principle of additionality and step in to provide those services, it is they who get criticised. They are being criticised sometimes by their own organisations. The head office phones up a local branch that has just bought something for the local hospital and says, “You are letting the Government off the hook. This should be provided under a national service framework.” A focus is not put on what the state has, or has not, been doing, and there is very little focus on why the state has failed to deliver those services. I hope that a side effect of a debate about the big society will be that we get more focused on what the state should be doing.

We have a reality gap. We have an NHS constitution that is supposed to enshrine and guarantee treatments approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, and in certain circumstances access to non-NICE-approved treatment. However, we know from our mailbags that that sometimes does not happen. We pay our taxes to support an education system that is supposed to provide education to every child according to their need, but the parent of a special needs child will know how hard it can be to get the right provision for their child. The list of what we want our local authorities to fund—whether flowerbeds or community centres—is year on year becoming less fulfilled. That is the case no matter what the colour of the Government of the time or, very often, the colour of local authority government.

I think that local and national Government need to do fewer things better. At a time when we are cutting services for people with dementia, we could probably do without the local street-naming team in my local authority. In areas where the Government take responsibility, they should be working to meet all the needs out there. In my local authority’s budget this year, under budget pressures, much was made of the ageing population and the prediction that, over the next five years, there would be 200 additional adult social care clients for whom the authority would have to provide services. However, there was not a squeak about the existing 1,500 people with dementia, but no access to services. If we are going to focus on and address that need, and close that gap, we have to enable charities to be on both the demand and the supply side of those services.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) mentioned, we need to create a level playing field. We need to ensure that charities hear about the opportunities for them to tender, and that when they

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submit bids according to best practice, having costed for full cost recovery, they are not the only bidder doing so. We need greater scrutiny of tenders to ensure that we are comparing like with like, and that organisations are not undercutting charities, only to pile on the costs once they have won a bid. There should be penalties for organisations that do that.

We should also allow organisations that are on approved provider rosters not to bid, without penalty, if they do not think that they are the best outfit for the job. Penalising people for not bidding is completely wrong. As we build capacity in the charities sector, I urge the Minister to look at organisations such as Community First that are already doing a tremendous amount of work in this area, and to give them some resources so that they can speed up their work.

We also need to build capacity in our communities. I want briefly to mention Wymering in my constituency, which has already been short-changed to the tune of £400,000 of section 106 money. Its community centre has been burned to the ground, but the resulting insurance money was not spent on those services. The historic buildings in the vicinity are continuously under threat, the most imminent case being that of the Wymering Arms, which will go before the local planning committee this Wednesday. We have a plan to take over some of those community buildings and refurbish those that are derelict. Some of them are listed buildings. There is great support for the plan from the community, but to date it has not really felt that it can step up and do those things. The people do not feel that they have the resources to do them, but if we were to introduce them to high-value donors, business leaders and charity fundraisers, that work could become possible. In addition to the big society enabling us to meet the wish-lists of our communities, which has never been achieved by any Government before, it should also be a catalyst to enable the Government to do their job better.

9.22 pm

Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on securing it and on shamelessly promoting the port of Dover throughout his opening address. Before I became a Member of this House, I knew that the port of Dover was important. After two months here, I knew that it was very important. After tonight, I know that it is perhaps the most important entity in the entire country, if not the entire world. I thank him for educating me on that.

There are some on the Opposition Benches who I believe also need educating, particularly having heard their rather thin arguments against the big society, including, first and foremost, that it lacks any clear definition. That charge was levelled by the hon. Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). We have heard many Members today speaking eloquently about community empowerment, about opening up public services and about social action. Those are very clear definitions of what the big society is about. I accept, however, that the Government need to get better at communicating this message succinctly, particularly when we are in front of left-wing journalists from the BBC or the newspapers. We have to roll it out in a snappy two or three-sentence version in order to get it right.

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We have heard a great deal about the big society simply being a fig leaf for cuts, yet many Opposition Members have accepted that the Prime Minister was talking about the big society well before there was any obvious need for cuts of this size due to the profligacy of the previous Administration. The big society is about a great deal more than simply resourcing. It is about the way in which society is organised and the way in which organisations are structured. It is about getting rid of top-down command and control, and replacing it with the empowerment of individuals, families and communities. It has also been suggested that we are on some kind of ideological crusade to attack the state. We are not on any such crusade, but implicit in a belief in the big society is an acceptance that the state has, in part, failed, that it is not perfect and that it has its limitations.

I want to dwell briefly on some of the work that was carried out after the second world war by a gentleman called Michael Young, who might be familiar to some Opposition Members. He was one of the authors of the 1945 Labour party manifesto. He went into Bethnal Green in the east end of London and sought out the deprivation that was to be the subject of his study. He interviewed members of every 36th household in the area. He certainly found deprivation there, but he also found something even more important—something he had not expressly sought to find out. What he found was best exemplified by an interview with a young boy who lived outside the area, who came home from the local school and said that his teacher had asked him and all the other children to draw their families. He said, “I drew myself; I drew my mother; and I drew my father”, but all the other children had drawn their mothers and fathers, nannies and aunties, grannies and so forth. Of course, what he was led to enunciate at that point was the big society—the extended family, the communities living in the east end at that time.

The socialist top-down approach to that problem was to destroy it all, bulldoze it and build the high-rise buildings that the socialist planners wanted to build, yet many of them were subsequently destroyed—exploded in the ’70s and ’80s. It seems to me that one of the most important things to grasp about the big society is the need to get away from that command-and-control, “we know best for you” mentality and to empower individuals, families and communities to take those decisions for themselves. That is why I particularly welcome the Localism Bill as part of the big society idea. I will conclude there to allow other Members to speak.

9.26 pm

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I welcome this debate, highlighting as it has the excellent community work done across constituencies that are represented on both sides of the House. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who has recently returned to his place, on securing the debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister who has remained steadfastly in his place throughout the almost six hours of this debate.