Matt Hancock speaking on Civil Society in the 21st Century

The speech was delivered on Wednesday 16 May

Matt Hancock speaking at Central Hall on 16 May

It’s great to see you all today and to see such engagement with this the Civil Society Strategy.

This is a good venue for it. Methodism was one of the great social movements of modern times. It was democratic, egalitarian, radical - a new model of organisation which empowered ordinary people to challenge established power, and to find meaning and purpose, and to serve their communities.

One of the reasons we are here today is because I believe we’re in need that radical community spirit once again. I want to argue today that we face a concatenation of change, which is forcing us to think hard about the country we are becoming – and the country we want to become.

And you all have a role in that.

Times of great change bring great opportunities, but they also challenge our social fabric. They risk us pulling apart as a society.

And these changes are begetting a great yearning in our country, I think, a yearning for belonging, and or place, and for connection.

The same goes for two more topical and immediate changes which I wrestle with every day – the twin phenomenon of Brexit and tech.

And my view is that we have an imperative to seize the upside of these developments – an upside which is undoubtedly there – to become a more connected, not a less connected society.

And when I talk about these connections – I mean not the connections over the ether, however important, I mean these connections human is through civil society.

Not through our trade policy, our economic policy, our industrial strategy. Vital as they all are, I want to subversively suggest that the real action isn’t there – it’s here.

The real work of connecting our society, of creating the country we want to be, rests with you, with civil society in all its forms.

The future

Let me start with a starker assessment of the challenge of Brexit plus tech. We see how Brexit is dividing us politically – but we know the vote to leave the EU was itself the outcome of a divided society.

Despite its enormous benefits, too many people feel globalisation is leaving their communities behind, and that they can’t do anything about it.

We need to make sure that the independent UK that we are creating responds to that feeling. Deliberate action is required to help people take back control, not just of our national borders or our global trade, but of their own communities. This is a central theme of our strategy.

The downside of technology is, of course, obvious to all of us every day – especially those of us with children old enough to swipe a finger across a screen. But I am also a massive believer in the power of technology to transform our society for the better.

Crucially, though, tech will not bring progress simply by creating a more efficient system, some kind of utilitarian algorithm to calculate the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Tech will bring progress by enabling what it can never create: the radical reforming human spirit that created the Methodist movement, sparked social reform across the UK, and built this hall to the glory of God.

The future is taking form all around us. New movements are emerging to build stronger communities and challenge social injustices.

Take community sponsorship – a remarkable model of social generosity where groups of people come together to host a refugee family in their community. They are organised through faith groups and among friends and neighbours, but also they are using the convening power of Facebook or Whatsapp.

Or look at crowdfunding, the paradigm of tech-enabled, disintermediated association which is transforming the opportunities for charities and social enterprises. Or the myriad of ‘tech for good’ platforms that are hacking deep-rooted challenges for individuals and communities. I’m particularly impressed by the brilliant work of Zinc, a VC firm targeting the developed world’s toughest social issues using new technology.

This is the future. The new technology, which is so discombobulating to old structures, is powering a new generation of little platoons. I want the UK to lead the world in the development of this new social model, just as we led the world in the development of capitalism in the 19th century and of state welfare in the 20th century.

And DCMS is working to bring together digital and civil society - both to improve the systems which manage local life, but also to empower local people to direct and own those systems. One move has been to open all government grant-making to the maximum standard of transparency: a first step towards genuine local accountability for public spending.

But there is much, much more to do.


Of course, I recognise that the greatest resource that civil society has is its oldest, and in many ways its defining characteristic: independence. The essence of civil society – one reason it has such strong roots in this country – is freedom.

I want to preserve and extend the independence of the sector in two ways.

First I want to see it develop a more sustainable operating model. The strategy which Tracey is leading is focused on supporting charities and community groups to become better capitalised and more resilient.

We are working closely with many of you on this. I particularly want to acknowledge the work of Julia Unwin who is developing the voluntary sector’s own response to the challenges of our time.

Second, I want to see civil society recover its confidence to speak into our public life. The greatest social and political changes in our history have come about because independent people formed associations to press for change. If that means respectful criticism of government, so be it.

And I say that very deliberately. It’s true that like most ministers I don’t want charities spending their time – or even taxpayers’ money – pursuing a narrow ideological or political crusade against the Government. That would be wrong. It’s natural for me to say that. But I don’t think you should stick to your knitting either – if indeed any of you know how to knit..

The business of civil society is society, and within the limits of charity law, you have the right to campaign, to persuade the public, and to press for change in the systems which affect the life of this country.

But I also think – there is a flip side. If civil society is entitled to its views, so too is government. You need freedom – and you also need clarity on what government wants to do, and how we intend to work with you.

And that is what the Civil Society Strategy will set out.

Social foundations

As this suggests, the independence comes with responsibility. I believe in the role of government – and I have seen for myself how it turns lives around - but its job is to lead and to enable, not to supplant the natural functions of society.

This is an argument, which comes easily to Conservatives when we talk about the economy. But surely the same goes for civil society too. Our role in government is to boost growth, enterprise and responsibility.

There is a parallel here, for instance with the work Michael Gove is doing at DEFRA: boldly framing regulation, to be sure, but most of all exhorting society itself – producers and consumers, the stewards and users of our countryside and oceans – to act morally, sustainably, sensibly.

Our social environment needs the same approach. For in fact the foundations of a strong economy are a strong society. As Adam Smith knew, the wealth of a nation is founded on its moral sentiments – the way people behave towards each other.

So while the Industrial Strategy focused on productivity and economic growth, the Civil Society Strategy focuses on community and social growth.

These are the things whose value can’t be measured in GDP – the arts and culture and the sport, the social clubs and faith groups. The individuals and groups - often in areas of significant disadvantage - who hold their communities together, doing everything from visiting the elderly to running the youth club.

These are the things that strengthen our social fabric. And they can’t be measured in simple GDP but they are the things that make life living. They also make our economy succeed.

I’m delighted the latest Treasury Green Book, which is the bible of government’s assessment of value for money – now acknowledges the contribution of social factors like these.

We need a strong independent civil society because without it, we’ll have no economic growth. It is the enabler of enterprise; the strong base from which the bold ventures of innovation can set sail.

And I also want to lift our eyes to the horizon beyond our shores because I believe in Global Britain - but to make it happen we need Local Britain to be strong, and that means we need a strong infrastructure of independent social institutions to hold us up. Our national life needs deep institutional roots.

Now, let’s be very honest about this. This includes the institutions of private wealth - the banks and pension funds where people keep their money. There are growing calls for people to have more power to direct their investments to support good causes; and I welcome this.

Indeed I would suggest that unless we can find a way to make capital responsible, and put power in the hands of ordinary people, the crisis of trust in our economy will deepen. I believe strongly in business as a force for good. But we need business to adapt to a new, more empowered, more values-driven age. This is how we will save capitalism from itself.

Public funding

Of course government - central and local – government is itself a major funder of civil society.

But I don’t think we spend nearly enough on the small or local organisations – whether for or not-for profit - which are often the best people to deliver a local service.

Something is seriously amiss when in some markets 60 per cent of public procurement goes to just five huge companies. I want to see a far more plural supply of public services - with a lot more mutuals and other value-adding innovations. In this context we are investing in a great expansion of social impact bonds, and also exploring how to ensure the Social Value Act to deliver on its revolutionary promise, which has not nearly been met yet.

I also want to see more effective co-ordination of different public funding streams, and especially the streams, which flow directly into local places. Conversations are underway across Whitehall – both with Treasury and with the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government – to bring greater focus on this. I’m pleased that Big Society Capital is looking at how local approaches to finance, mixing public and private money, can be used to support some of our deprived communities.

And while I believe in commissioning and payment by results, I don’t think they are the answer to everything. Tracey and her team are looking closely at whether we can deliver a new era of public sector grants - Grants 2.0, let us call them - without sacrificing the efficiency and focus on outcomes that contracts are designed to achieve.


There are two final issues which are high on the agenda of DCMS, and which are fundamental to the work we’re discussing today.

The first is young people.

This runs through everything we’re doing in the Civil Society Strategy. I want to give young people a meaningful stake in society and a meaningful role - a job to do.

I don’t see young people as somehow the victims, but as contributors to the future of Britain. We need their ideas, the creativity and their commitment to help build the society we want. So we have backed an alliance of youth organisations to deliver the #iwill campaign to encourage social action by young people.

There is an amazing enthusiasm and we need to use it.

And of course it’s why we’re proud to support the National Citizen Service, which this year reached its 400,000th participant. We are working with the NCS Trust to secure their future and embed the programme in the wider youth sector, supporting local youth services and giving more young people the opportunity to make a contribution to society.


The final issue – and perhaps the one I feel most keenly we need to deliver in this area - is loneliness. I don’t know whether any of you were involved in the Prime Minister recent appoint of Tracey to lead on this. The fact her appointment was so spectacularly well-received reflects on the enormous respect that people have for Tracey – and frankly how brilliant she is - but just how strongly people feel about this agenda.

Civil society - Tracey’s ministerial responsibility – is a big part of the answer to the challenge of loneliness.

It is, indeed, the answer to so many of our social problems. We are a disconnected society, divided by age and geography and class and ethnicity and religion. Civil society, supported by digital technology and by government action, but most of all by the compassion and commitment of people across the land, is the way we will heal these divides.


Let me finish with a word about my own motivation, and the job I want to do at DCMS.

In the Soviet Union life was organised around economic production. In support of this, the Kremlin created a department called the Everyday Life Administration. It managed the people’s leisure in the dormitory towns that surrounded the great factories.

I want to say this. DCMS is not the Everyday Life Administration.

Economic production is not the purpose of life. Instead we are the Department that makes life worth living, places we live and raise our families in are not an adjunct to the real business of the community, a liability on our national balance sheet. They are the assets that deliver our nation’s success.

Enriching the places we live in is central to the work of my department. I am in politics because I care about making the country a better place. I find that profoundly fulfilling. And I want to do my bit to build a country where others can find fulfilment too.

Now I will admit that charity policy wasn’t my first calling in politics.

But I believe very strongly that this agenda and that the role of civil society in the 21st century is at least as important as anything else I do, including the vast responsibilities of retaining the digital world.

I hope you will continue to work with me and my brilliant team to develop the great opportunities of the future – to make our great, diverse, rumbustious country, a place where everyone belongs.

Thank you very much.

Published 16 May 2018