Have you found or lost faith in the Big Society?
Thank you for your kind introduction.
Introduction: faith in the Big Society vs faith in Big Government
You have given me a fascinating title: Faith in the Big Society.
I believe that the principles of the Big Society mirror, in many ways, the values that make faith communities such vital assets to national life.
It represents a volunteering, social action, philanthropic approach to life that inspires great numbers of people into public service and to provide help to those in need.
But, the Big Society is also about the opening up of public services to local control and devolution of power.
Most of all - what I hope that the Big Society represents - is a government that has faith in people.
That is, a government with a well-founded belief in the ability of individuals and communities to identify problems and opportunities, and a faith in the power of community groups, charities, businesses and faith groups to help them rise to those challenges.
For too long, Government has put faith mainly in itself.
Top-down control from Whitehall has stifled and confused public service professionals, and taken control from communities.
This approach has not worked.
We are all now over familiar with the litany of unflattering statistics about Britain.
Britain, we are told, compares badly with its peers in crime, teenage pregnancy and drinking and youth worklessness, and many of you will know these problems first hand through your work.
Let me be clear.
The United Kingdom is an incredible country.
Its people are innovative, entrepreneurial and culturally vibrant.
We are a country of enormous opportunity and great potential.
But we are not always realising that potential.
And so, people are losing faith in Big Government.
Two out of three Britons now feel that government and public services have tried to do too much, and that people should take more responsibility for their lives.
Last year, the Prime Minister described a society in which people feel both free and powerful enough to take responsibility for themselves and others.
The Big Society is about acting upon this approach.
We in government understand that the Big Society will not spring up automatically, simply by government leaving the stage.
Government has a responsibility too.
- We will retain the responsibility to ensure the UK has high quality public services;
- The responsibility to provide those services that only the state can provide such as core police and core defence functions; and
- We will ensure that the vulnerable continue to be protected.
Most importantly, this government will be a responsible partner in building the Big Society; in supporting communities and individuals to take greater control of their lives.
We will fulfil this responsibility in three ways:
First, we will actively encourage social action.
We will work to encourage the sense of responsibility that the Prime Minister spoke about, and we’ll work to make it easier for people to give time and money to causes they believe in.
This is why the Cabinet Office recently launched a Green Paper which looked at new, innovative ways to encourage people to give their time and money.
We will also encourage our young people to volunteer and have announced the creation of the National Citizen Service, which will bring together 16 year olds from different backgrounds in a residential and home-based programme of activity and service.
This programme will reach 10,000 young people in its first wave this year and will set them on a path of life long engagement in their communities.
And, our Community Organisers programme will train and support 5,000 people who want to make a difference to their community.
Community Organisers will have a strong understanding of local needs and will catalyse social action through creating and supporting neighbourhood groups.
Secondly, we will give people more control over the public services they use.
In the Localism Bill, we are introducing a Community Right to Challenge, which will enable voluntary and community groups to express an interest in running a local authority service.
The Right will hand the initiative to these groups, where they believe they can run local authority services differently or better, ensure their ideas get a fair hearing, and give them the time they need to prepare effective bids to run services.
I encourage Churches and faith-led charities to take full advantage of the Right to Challenge. Churches have centuries of experience in delivering services; and if you think you can do it better than the local authority, or can deliver better value for public money, you will have the right to tender.
A further power will be introduced called the Community Right to Buy which will ensure that community organisations have a fair chance to bid to take over assets and facilities that are important to them.
These facilities could include the village shop, the community centre, or the library.
This power builds on the transfer activity of local authority assets, by extending the scope to private as well as public assets, giving communities the initiative to identify assets of community value and to bid for them on the open market.
And, we have also established a Big Society Bank.
The bank will provide new money through intermediary organisations for Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise organisations who wish to provide public services.
It will help social enterprises, charities and voluntary organisations to access more resources and to play a bigger role.
And finally, we will put more control of local matters in the power of local people.
For instance, we will:
Enable the local community to elect chief police commissioners;
Reform planning to give communities more control;
And, we will enable parents to take greater control of their children’s schooling with our free schools policy.
The Role of Faith Organisations
As I said in my speech at the Anglican Bishops Conference last year - and as the Prime Minister re-iterated days later in the farewell to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI - this Government recognises and respects the role that religion plays in our society.
Nowhere is this role better demonstrated than when you consider the work of almost 30,000 faith based charities and the millions of believers who take part in social action every year.
Our aim is to build a culture where communities of different backgrounds and beliefs come together to take control of their local communities and neighbourhoods.
That is why I am pleased to be standing here in front of an inter-faith audience that is actively talking about the Big Society.
And yet, all too often, faith groups in a given area can be unaware of each other and of the work they each is doing - often to address the same problems.
The Government wants to encourage people of different faiths to come together and help them build effective, friendly working relationships.
The Church of England - as demonstrated by the Bishop of Burnley - already plays a key role in supporting the capacity and development of other faith communities and in building cross-faith interaction through its presence and engagement programme.
I am therefore delighted that we, as a Government, have been able to invest £5 million in the Church of England’s Near Neighbourhoods programme which will help faith communities to come together and work, in partnership, for the benefit of the whole community.
This programme will help build real, productive relationships with local communities; coordinating the effective delivery of the small grants fund and the capacity building in four key geographical areas: Leicester, North Birmingham, East and South-East London and North West mill towns.
When people from different faith backgrounds come together to help improve the local area, they learn to trust each other and they realise how much they have in common.
In this way local integration is boosted much more than centrally-led Government programmes could ever achieve.
I believe that practical co-operation between churches, mosques, temples, gurdwaras, synagogues and the wider voluntary sector can become a huge force for good in building the stronger communities that we hope to see.
However, we recognise that in their social outreach work faith groups sometimes encounter unnecessary barriers such as excessive bureaucracy, ignorance about faith on the part of local authorities, difficulty with obtaining planning consent and so on.
It is important that we recognise the importance of increasing understanding of faith to support the huge contribution that faith communities and the voluntary sector make locally.
Lack of knowledge must not be a barrier to faith communities in undertaking effective social action.
I set out earlier that social action, local control of services, and putting power into the hands of local people were the fundamental principles of our approach to the Big Society.
With the transfer of power comes the transfer of responsibility.
And, I have no doubt that you, as faith organisations; have a clear sense of responsibility.
Indeed your actions are often guided by your sense of social, as well as spiritual, responsibility.
We need to have faith in you to do this without constantly having to comply with petty rules and regulations.
The Government has made it clear that we wish to sweep away intrusive and stifling regulations of this type.
I am pleased to see colleagues from local government here today and know that many of them are making good progress in reducing the burden of local regulation - though some of them need to pay more heed to this opportunity to have faith in you.
I invite you all, as harbingers of the new society, to demand that all sections of government, local, and national, statutory and non statutory, have this faith that you will act responsibly and remove the unnecessary and inappropriate regime of excessive restriction, regulation, and restraint.
I know that there are sceptics about the Big Society, and I respect people’s right to take a different view.
But let me take one issue head on, and that is the issue of cuts.
The need to reduce an unsustainable budget deficit means that we must build the Big Society at the same time as reducing public spending.
However, they are really quite different agendas.
The Big Society is about putting people in control, and the PM has said quite clearly that he would have pursued this agenda in benign economic times as well.
We understand, of course, that in the short term many charities and social enterprises are concerned about their funding from government.
In fact, around three quarters of charities actually receive no state funding whatsoever.
For those who do, the Big Society should ultimately put more public money their way, as public service reform opens up billions of pounds of new opportunities for independent organisations.
But we know the period of transition is daunting for many.
That is why the Government has been very clear that local authorities should not see the Voluntary and Community Sector as an easy target for cuts.
We think it is reasonable to expect that local authorities should not pass on disproportionate costs to voluntary and community groups.
Councils should recognise the importance of the voluntary sector and we encourage them to maintain an open dialogue that ensures communities are consulted on the delivery of public services and that plenty of notice of any changes.
We know these are challenging times, and they ask a lot of all of us.
But our faith in people and in civil society is well-founded.
It is grounded in experience of the ability of voluntary organisations, faith groups, businesses and individual citizens to improve people’s lives.
So I don’t just want to say to you that you have a lot to contribute to building the Big Society.
I want to tell you that for me you are at the heart of society already and key to its future, and that this government will be on your side.
We are committed to creating the right environment to build a bigger, stronger, more united society together.