This is my first speech as Minister for Civil Society so I’m delighted to address such a broad cross-section from the sector.
As all politicians like to do, let me begin by telling you a little about myself.
Social action is at the heart of what it means for me to be a father, an active citizen and a politician.
I have 5 children and, like all parents, I want them to be able to live in a strong, supportive, caring society.
I hope I’ve raised them to be thoughtful and considerate individuals, who don’t think twice about helping others in need.
In my own life I have had the opportunity of a good education; an education which has enabled me to pursue not just a fulfilling and rewarding career but also to follow my dreams. And I want others to have that same opportunity.
Having spent every summer over the past eight years working on social action projects in Rwanda, I recently set up my own charity in Rwanda. My charity was established not just to build a primary school in the capital Kigali, but also to work with teachers throughout Rwanda to educate vulnerable children from poor backgrounds; giving them the best possible start in life so they can contribute to the future of their country.
My own early schooling wasn’t in the UK, but you’ve probably guessed that already…
I lived in the United States until the age of 9 and returned when I was 18 to go to college and business school there.
Although we often tend to characterise that country as being all about unabashed capitalism and rugged individualism, at the heart of the American psyche there is also an incredible belief in the power of humanity to overcome hardship.
So I’m an optimist. It may be unfashionable, but I still believe politics can be a force for good in the world.
Ask me to choose between The Thick of It and The West Wing and I’ll choose The West Wing any day.
For me politics is all about helping others. So I was delighted when the Prime Minister appointed me to this role.
And quite simply, I see my job as being able to help you do yours. In other words, it’s people helping people – or the government helping people to help people.
We are a nation of philanthropists and campaigners, time-givers and fund-raisers, poppy-wearers and marathon-runners.
The British public are among the most generous in the world.
Even in times of economic hardship they never fail to reach into their pockets or give their valuable time to support others.
I’ve now been a constituency MP for almost ten years and I see it all the time: the volunteer in the local hospital; the busy professional who sacrifices a precious evening off in order to serve as a school governor, or even a parish councillor; the working mum who manages to find time to cook a meal for an elderly neighbour.
They probably don’t think of what they do as being social action – they’re just doing their bit to help others.
But social action is happening all the time around us – and it’s growing all the time.
I’ve seen this even in the few short weeks that I’ve been a minister.
Last month, I joined young people in Cumbria who were spending part of their summer holidays with the National Citizen Service.
They reminded me of my own children.
I know how important it is that young people know how to seize the opportunities that come their way – but also to understand the importance of giving something back in return.
More than 100,000 young people have now passed through the scheme.
Each of them will enter adulthood more confident, more skilled and better equipped to make a positive contribution to society.
They have already given some 2 million hours of service to their communities through around 7,000 social action projects. If this isn’t the Big Society in action, then I don’t know what is.
I also visited the Repair Academy in Wiltshire. They transform unwanted household goods into marketable new products. But they’re not doing this to make a quick buck. They’re doing it to equip the young people who work for them with the skills they’ll need for the world of work and to change public attitudes to waste and recycling.
The Repair Academy is one of thousands of social enterprises in the UK which are changing lives.
So whether it’s a social entrepreneur with a brilliant idea to make the world a better place, large scale programmes, mobilising communities to take action on the issues they care about, or individuals simply helping others through every day acts; this is what I mean by the Big Society; making it easier for people to help their families, their communities and those around them; giving everyone the chance to get on in life and contribute to making our country a better place.
And we should be shouting this from the rooftops, because it’s one of the most successful and powerful forces around, and it’s part of the fabric of British life.
The economy is moving again.
We are in a much better place than we were four years ago, but I suspect austerity in public finances will be a fact of life for some time to come.
At the same time public expectations are constantly rising.
The internet has changed the way people shop, how they bank, how they keep in touch with friends and family and they rightly expect public services to be equally quick and convenient.
And there are always new challenges.
Look at how quickly dementia – a result of an aging population – has become recognised as a major priority for health policy.
Over the next 50 years some estimates suggest we could be spending a fifth of our national wealth on health and social care.
So there will always be pressure on governments, of all political colours, to do more, and to deliver better services, for less money.
We must work together to find better ways of tackling our social problems and to redesign public services from the bottom up.
For years, traditional private sector organisations have dominated the outsourced public services market.
But now we are changing this, by supporting staff to take control of their own services through public service mutuals.
Why? Because services improve and productivity rises when the staff have a stake in their success.
There are now 100 public service mutuals, up from just 9 in 2010, with many more in the pipeline.
And in the same way, other forms of social enterprise and charities have an enormous amount to offer too.
Even now, our communities and services wouldn’t be the same without the unique contribution social action makes.
And this contribution is going to become even more significant in the future.
Not because the state is shrugging its shoulders and offloading its responsibilities onto others.
But because government isn’t always best placed to deliver the services people need.
Social enterprises, community groups and charities are often much closer to the people we want to help.
And volunteers can provide a level of support beyond the capacity of busy professionals.
So bringing together the public, private and voluntary sectors into new partnerships will help us find solutions to the most complex challenges we find today.
And government can play an important role in making this possible.
Support to date
In some areas – like school governors or special constables – social action has long been a fundamental part of public life.
But in other areas we have only just scratched the surface.
That’s why the Centre for Social Action is supporting more than 150 projects to explore new ways in which social action can complement how we deliver public services.
We are looking for the most effective programmes. And when we find them, we will help them grow.
So we’re backing Dementia Friends, to give 1 million people an understanding of the small things they can do to make a big difference to people living with dementia.
We are also funding projects that help older people stay well – because this can help reduce pressure on hospitals.
But so often the best ideas come from individuals and communities themselves.
So we have trained more than 3,500 community organisers to inspire and mobilise communities to tackle the issues that are most important to them in their own communities.
And we are putting power in the hands of local people through the Community First programme.
Already around 600 volunteer panels have distributed more than £22 million of government funding to thousands of projects – which local people have matched to the tune of £82 million in cash, volunteer hours and in-kind contributions.
Of course, none of these programmes offers a complete solution.
But taken together, they represent a challenge to commissioners, policy makers and funders to think differently about how services are designed and shaped.
And I hope this challenge will be a rich source of discussion today.
I know the economic climate has been difficult.
But this government is serious about opening up public services for civil society, charities and the voluntary sector to play a bigger role.
We are serious about finding new forms of long-term sustainable funding.
And we are serious about providing practical support.
It’s a bumpy process, but we are making big strides.
Big Society Capital and Social Impact Bonds are the first of their kind.
We have one of the most developed social economies in the world.
We have much to be proud of – but it’s just a start.
So my promise to you today is that I’ll do everything I can to make it easier for each and every one of you to carry on doing the fantastic things you already do.
But let’s also be bold.
Let us look for ways of developing the ideas you’ll be discussing today so we can unlock the full potential that social action offers, and build a bigger, stronger society that we all want to be part of.
Like I said at the start – I’m an optimist.
And I know if we continue to work together, together we can continue to build a better civil society.