Thanks for having me here today.
It’s good to be among friends and colleagues.
I know that you’ve heard me on this before and in a way I am preaching to the converted but I cannot attach enough importance to local government and its role in so many of the things that weave the fabric of our society together.
- social care for the elderly and infirm
- children’s services to protect kids
- providing housing to homeless families, or creating economic growth for much needed jobs
Where would be without the work that councils do?
Whitehall has 10 different government departments covering everything that you do and you have to knit them all together and make sense of them.
The best of local government is better than any bit of Whitehall that I’ve seen.
That’s why, given the right circumstances, I am a believer in devolution.
Local power to local leaders of local people. But it’s not easy, and as someone very clever once said - I’m not sure if it was Sir Eric Pickles or Spiderman’s Uncle - “with great power comes great responsibility”.
And it is the responsibility of leadership that I want to talk about today. Leading through the difficult times ahead. I think that’ll take courage and determination.
And I think our country wants that too.
Casey Review – an opportunity
Almost a year ago the Prime Minister and Home Secretary asked me to take stock of our nation.
To look at issues including:
- social integration and opportunity
- segregation, social exclusion and economic disadvantage
- community cohesion
- racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia
- seeing how we could prevent extremism and hate wherever it occurs
- ‘bringing the country together as One Nation’
This came from a good place. A desire to stop harm before it happens.
We are used to this approach in social policy terms – how do you prevent a problem rather than just mop up its symptoms? This was and will be a real chance to do good.
I’ve spent the last 12 months out and about – meeting as many people as I can, listening and learning and thinking about how we deal with some of the things that I have seen.
I’ve thought about and asked some questions:
How do we promote our common values of liberalism, fairness, democracy, tolerance, equality and kindness for all?
How do we ensure all young people, whoever they are, whatever family they are from, interact and mix with each other?
To make sure all kids can develop their character and resilience and grasp the opportunities that they have ahead of them.
How do we unlock the potential of all women, including those from some minority backgrounds who have been held back by a lack of opportunity, a lack of English language skills and yes, in some cases, persistent patriarchal or misogynistic attitudes?
Not that these don’t still persist everywhere. We’re living in a country where despite the fact women are the ‘majority’ population numerically we remain a ‘minority cause’ that needs special help. That’s not right.
How we stop what should be a cause of national shame, that young black men remain under-represented in the labour market and over-represented in the criminal justice system;
And alongside that, on the same list, is the disaffection and disillusionment of some of our traditional white working class communities and the poor school attainment rates of some of their kids.
And, perhaps most importantly, how we all of us, together, unite to take on the small number of hate mongers who want to drive us apart, whether that is the extreme Far Right or extremist Islamism.
A report but also a brave conversation
So yes there will be a report and recommendations, including some ideas about money that needs to be spent. I recognise that, before you ask.
But we must also have a conversation about our collective will and responsibility to stand up to anyone who (with or without intent) undermines the values and traditions that bind us all together.
That requires leadership.
Public service is a selfless and sometimes thankless task. But it is also a privilege. A privilege for elected members and officers alike. To have the opportunity to create the space for us all to live and learn and love and prosper.
We have got to prove that we are up to making the difficult choices and telling the truth, being as good at this stuff as we say we are and as we all want to be.
And that means all of us.
You all know what I mean. We’ve all got to be a lot braver, to talk about the really hard stuff. And we’ve all got to start that now.
It hasn’t been hard to find examples of what I mean. Sometimes they’re small and seemingly harmless.
I was in a community centre at the start of the year, just after they’d taken the Christmas decorations down. Except they hadn’t called them Christmas decorations. They’d had a ‘festive tree’.
But it wasn’t the Asian or Muslim staff who’d asked for that. It was the incredibly well-meaning white manager, who just didn’t want to cause offence.
But what offence did he think he was causing? What did we ever think would be offensive about celebrating Christmas with a tree?
Of course this was just somebody trying to do the right thing. Or over-worrying about doing the wrong thing. But there’s no need to make it easy for our critics.
In Rotherham, the best case that can be made for what happened there was that some public servants didn’t want to upset race relations in the town. So they didn’t talk about the fact that some of the child sexual exploitation that was occurring there was perpetrated by Pakistani Heritage men.
And worst of all the council and the police were in denial about what was happening in their town.
That was a tragic failure on so many levels, not least for the victims who weren’t heard or whose abuse could have been prevented altogether.
It turned out to be terrible for the reputation of the council, from which it will take years to recover. And, while Rotherham was an outlier in its awfulness, the reputation of local government as a whole has suffered by association too.
And, let’s be frank, it’s been a tragedy for the whole town as well. Race relations weren’t protected, they got worse. The ordinary majority felt badly let down. The Far Right was encouraged and Islamophobia increased. The vast majority of good Muslim men were wrongly branded as abusers.
And can you imagine what it must have felt like being a Muslim woman wearing a head scarf walking into the town centre suffering abuse and harassment? – that’s nothing for anyone anywhere to be proud of.
My heart went and still does go out to those women.
That’s the very opposite of community cohesion.
It’s not just these sorts of things; we’ve got to be better at basic integrity too.
If a councillor has not paid their Council Tax how does anyone think it’s acceptable that they take part in discussions and decisions? It shouldn’t be down to local discretion or protocols but a red line.
No more politicians – local or central – not playing by the rules they set for everyone else.
Or if a serving councillor is convicted of child sexual offences, then I find it extraordinary that they are not forced to step down and out of office automatically and immediately. Just because it’s not a custodial sentence doesn’t mean they aren’t bringing the office and all councillors into disrepute.
I think the public would agree with me too.
The more that I have seen and heard in our different communities, listened to those teachers, managers, workers or chief execs and leaders who are all negotiating these complex issues, those who daily struggle to make the fair decision that reflects the common good and not one that that sets the rights of one interest above another –
The more that I have listened to them, the more I have become convinced that it is only the upholding of our core British laws, cultures, values and traditions that will offer us the route map through the different and complex challenge of creating a cohesive society.
Laws and values that have evolved over years, that set out the kind of country that we want to live in.
Laws developed through marches and lobbying and vigorous debate, where people hold strong and opposing views but negotiate together, sometimes for years, to reach a common accommodation.
Equality laws that mean that women are equal to men, that you cannot discriminate on the grounds of someone’s colour or sexuality, that it is legal to marry whoever you love.
Laws specifically intended to help define how we live together. Laws and values that, yes they are British, but they are also human.
One set of laws democratically decided and with the intention that they are upheld by every community in the land, new or old.
So I think that across all of our institutions we need to be much bolder in not just celebrating our history, heritage and culture, but standing up for our democratically decided upon laws of the land, and standing up to those that undermine them. Nothing can or should override them.
So, we need to be braver about calling out things for what they are. And to be even braver about intervening when others do not.
Even since my report into Rotherham and that of Alexis Jay, we’re still getting elected councillors say things like “it takes two to tango” in cases of child sexual exploitation. Whether 1 or 100, we shouldn’t tolerate it anymore. Frankly, comments like that make someone unfit for office and we need to think hard about what we can do about that.
Why for example do we ask more of our rank and file police officers in terms of standards than we do of our politicians?
A police constable has to “solemnly and sincerely declare and affirm” that they will
“well and truly serve the Queen in the office of constable, with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and according equal respect to all people”.
I also like the wording in the judicial oath that they will “do right to all manner of people … without fear or favour, affection or ill will”.
In contrast an MP simply has to swear to “be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her heirs and successors, according to law”.
I think we might need to do better than this across our public sector, including councils, and set ourselves some higher standards.
People should be proud to be a politician and public servant. It’s a good, decent and worthy thing to do. And the public should be able to be proud of you.
I want 3 things from my political leaders – elected or otherwise:
I want them to be kind, I want them to be honest and I want them to represent all of the people and not just some of the people, or sectional or special interests.
Real practical leadership
To deliver this we need more than a new code of conduct though, more than a new round of regional training seminars and more than an agreement in this room that this is all very true, as important as all those things are. Because those things will mean nothing if we all go home afterwards and do nothing about it.
We’ve got to live and breathe it. And we’ve got to tell the truth and call things out for what they really are.
Sometimes I think we hope that if we don’t talk about difficult issues then those issues will go away. We think that if we see bad things happening we can do good things and that the bad will be “balanced” out.
In previous jobs there was a powerful lobby that said the solution to youth crime was more youth clubs. They might be part of the solution but we all know it simply wasn’t that easy.
I did not use that excuse to explain to a disabled person why some youths abused them. The abuse was wrong – youth club or no youth club.
I have seen these attitudes across so many aspects of public policy. It’s easy to say the easy things, to make excuses. It’s tougher to tell the truth and find the solutions.
It is not racist to say that the pace and rate of immigration has created a lot of change in in Britain and for some people that feels too much,
Or that when a large number of people from a different ethnic or religious background suddenly move into an area that it can be unsettling for those already resident there,
Or that when a school has a large religious minority population it can change its character quite quickly.
Not talking about this and the issues that arise from it only creates more tensions, rather than resolving them.
Not talking about hard things does no favours to anyone or any part of the community.
It is a simple truth that without honesty about the challenges we face we cannot find the solutions to them either. So it’s actual, real, practical leadership that’s going to be the answer to this.
Standing up for our values when they’re under attack, and defending the decisions we take to promote and protect them. Not looking at our shoes and hoping it will go away, or buckling to whichever pressure group has lobbied us that week.
But before I finish I want to come back to the issue of unity.
Two weeks ago the country went through a big referendum and made a big decision. The debate wasn’t always civilised, that was wrong and we should reflect on that.
But we should also reflect on the fact it was a great exercise in democracy too. That’s rightly how we make decisions in this country, it’s one of our strongest values.
It’s one of the reasons we remain attractive as a nation to others who need our help and protection.
And of course a referendum also divides us, it asks us to make a binary choice and by necessity puts us on different sides of that vote.
But I’m not sure that remain or leave is the big divide in this country, any more than it is black or white, gay or straight, religious or secular, north or south, or urban and rural.
99/1 not 52/48
I feel the divide is somehow less obvious than that but also staring us right in the face.
It’s between the “99%” of us who share common values and want to get along and the “1%” who don’t and who want to divide us.
It’s between the vast law abiding majority and the minority who want to peddle hate.
Hate mongers from the Far Right and hate mongers from Islamist extremism. The peddlers of hate and of harm.
This is what we cannot let take hold and what we must stamp out.
I’m horrified by every incident of hate crime. And the rise in incidents since the referendum is a source of real concern. But I don’t think the referendum result has made more people racist.
It might have emboldened the minority of haters or misled them into thinking they are the majority. But they are not. They remain the minority. The result does not legitimise hate. And we must not let it.
So I think the real divide isn’t between the 52% and the 48%. It’s the 99 and the 1. Dividing us down the middle won’t help, coming together as 1 country will. And that will need strong leadership.
Whichever way people voted, they did what they thought was right for our country. To give hope for the future.
I’m not daft – we’re not without our problems, some that have built up over time. The implications of the vote need to be dealt with by those way above my pay grade.
But today right now I want you to remember this. We all share a common interest in wanting to do the best for our children and our families.
We all want to live in friendly communities and get on well with our neighbours, whatever their race, religion, sexuality or background.
We all live in a country that helps those less fortunate than ourselves – just look at Comic Relief and Children in Need.
Voting in or out doesn’t change any of that. It doesn’t make most human beings living here more or less racist, more or less charitable or more or less worthy.
Stand up for ourselves
But there is a danger that we allow those extremists and racists who want to divide us to define that as the big split in the country, and make that division worse.
So let’s not lose sight of what we do have in common and let’s stand up for it:
Let’s redouble our efforts to reinvigorate leadership in local government;
Let’s restore and promote more trust in the public sector;
And let’s show that we can bring people together, not drive them apart.
I am privileged to speak at the biggest civic leadership conference nearly every year.
I thank you again for having me. I thank you again for all the support, help and warmth that you give.
We face tough times. But we faced them before in this country and we were a match for them then and we are a match for them now.
You are the civic leaders that can help deliver what the country now needs.
None of what lies ahead is or indeed need be beyond us.
But it will require us to be leaders and to be brave.