Well, thank you all very much for coming; it’s great to have the Deputy Prime Minister here, as well as Francis Maude, who’s a Minister in the Cabinet Office, and Nick Hurd, who also have responsibility for this area.
I’ve been saying for the last four-and-a-half years that I want to empower the voluntary sector, social enterprises, social capital, the Big Society - all the things that can actually help us build a stronger and bigger society in Britain. I can’t think of a better way of empowering you than actually starting by sitting you round the Cabinet table, in power effectively. Also today, we are publishing the first part of our coalition agreement. It’s a very comprehensive coalition agreement between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, and I think it’s a big signal that the first part that we publish is actually that part about the Big Society - about decentralising power, about empowering communities, about all the work that you do to help build the big, strong society that we want to see here in the United Kingdom.
I hope this is the start of something very big. Because, frankly, for decades, you’ve had politicians sitting round this table, making decisions, telling us all what to do, issuing orders and instructions and passing laws and regulations; and, actually, I profoundly believe that if we want real social change - if we want to solve our deepest social problems, whether it’s drug abuse, whether it’s problems of poor housing, whether it’s problems of deep and entrenched poverty, whether it’s the problem of children in care - it’s going to be the voluntary sector, social enterprises (no longer to be called ‘the third sector’, from now on: that phrase is to be abolished). The office of the voluntary sector and social enterprise sector will be a bigger part of government than ever. But we have to involve your organisations, and work with you and through you. Today’s agenda, really, for me, is hearing from you what more we can do to help catalyse social action and social enterprise in our country.
I’ll just set out some of the things that will be in this coalition agreement to be published today. The first element is about giving communities more power - so, for instance, our policy to train more community organisers, to help actually create the social action of the future. Also, passing a law to have a community right to buy, so that if communities want to come together to save the last pub, the last post office, to take over that bit of derelict land or derelict buildings, and to enable social actions that way.
Next, to encourage people to play a more active role in their communities, one of the things I’ve been pushing for the last five years is the idea of National Citizen Service, where we take 16-year-olds, and actually have a programme for them, which is about understanding the importance of voluntary work and social contribution. I think that’s going to be a very big part of this government.
Third, giving more power to local government. It shouldn’t stay there; in my view, it should be driven down even further into communities. But step one is transferring power from the centre to the local. One of the other elements we’ve been able to agree very rapidly in our coalition agreement is support for co-ops, for mutuals, for charities, for social enterprises - making sure that the compact you’ve got already with government, which we think has been honoured more in the breach than the observance, really means something. And one of the early bits of work, I think, is to refresh and renew that compact.
Lastly is the information agenda. If you want people to play a bigger part in our society you have to give them, yes, the power; you have to have a government that believes in it; but you also need to give people information. I think crime maps, the right to data, and opening up government data, so that people can see how a social enterprise or a voluntary body could do better what government already does, is part of the agenda.
I hope you see that as a positive programme from a government that really believes in the Big Society and in what you do. And the big ask, if you like, from us to you, is: what more can we do to make it possible? What steps do you need us to take? I fully recognise that in the financial situation that we’re in, there are going to be difficult decisions for government and for government spending. I don’t have some naive belief that the Big Society just springs up in its place. It’s what can we do to help enable you to do even more of what you do. That, I think, is the agenda for today.
It’s something, as you know, I care passionately about; it’s something I would like to be one of the great legacies of this government: building the Big Society. Yes, we have to deal with the deficit; yes, we have to make sure we secure the future in Afghanistan and bring our troops home. But to me personally, what I would most like to be a legacy is actually helping to build the Big Society through the work that all of you and many hundreds of thousands like you around our country do. So that is what today is all about as far as I’m concerned. I’m going to ask Nick to say something, and then it is your agenda to give us ideas for how to make sure we deliver this in practice.
Deputy Prime Minister
I think this is the first public thing we have done together as Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister since our jolly press conference in the garden a few days ago, and that’s an expression, I hope, of how much importance, together, in this new coalition government, we attach to what you do. What I’m discovering - I’m sure the Prime Minister will feel the same - is that we’ve been using different words for a long time and actually mean the same thing. ‘Liberalism’: ‘Big Society’. ‘Empowerment’: ‘Responsibility’. It means the same thing. I think what we are grappling with, and what we are aiming for, is nothing less than a huge cultural shift, where people, in their everyday lives, in their communities, in their homes, on their street, don’t always turn to answers from officialdom, from local authorities, from government, but that they feel both free and empowered to help themselves and help their own communities.
I always have one person in mind when I think about this - a wonderful, wonderful man who lives in one of the most difficult housing estates in Sheffield. It’s a big estate, blighted with all the problems these big estates have - it’s right on top of a hill, the wind comes straight off the Peak District; social breakdown; single parenthood; drug abuse; alcohol addiction; children playing truant. This chap was an Italian who married a local girl, moved into this estate, and he basically looked around and said, ‘I don’t like this’. There was litter, there was graffiti. He literally started cleaning up the place himself. Then children started joining him - he became a sort of latter-day Pied Piper. After a while, all the children followed him, and now he’s single-handedly done things that not a single government programme managed to do, which is actually re-instil pride in the estate, and, particularly, provide a role-model to a lot of children who weren’t receiving that role model.
I always think of him, because I always think: his sort of bloody-minded, almost eccentric desire not to just accept the way things are is exactly, it seems to me, the kind of culture of empowerment, of the Big Society, that we want to instil. So I’m delighted to be here; delighted to, along with the Prime Minister, welcome you here today.