Speech

PM's speech on Big Society

Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech on Big Society on Monday 14th February 2011.

Read the speech and Q&A:

Prime Minister:

Let me just say a couple of things. I mean, normally in politics the difficulty is getting people to talk about your ideas. You make a speech, you come up with something, and actually it falls stillborn onto the floor and no one refers to it again. That is not the problem we have with this, so that’s a good start.

People have got very many questions about it, and I’m going to try and answer some of those even before taking yours. Is it too vague? Is it going to be made impossible by cuts? Is it a cover for cuts? And all of those questions. I want to take on some of those questions, but first of all, I just want to say why this is so important to me. I know full well that the first task that my government has got to carry out is sorting out the deficit and the debt and an economic recovery. That is – if you like, our duty. I really believe in duty in politics. I find myself as Prime Minister at a time when we have this appalling budget deficit, bigger than almost anywhere else in Europe – we have to sort it out. I know that is the major task facing the government, and we’ve got to do it.

That is our duty, but if you like, what is my mission? What is it I am really passionate about? It is actually social recovery as well as economic recovery. I think we need a social recovery, because as I have said lots of times in the past, there are too many parts of our society that are broken, whether it is broken families or whether it is some communities breaking down; whether it is the level of crime, the level of gang membership; whether it’s problems of people stuck on welfare, unable to work; whether it’s the sense that some of our public services don’t work for us – we do need a social recovery to mend the broken society. To me, that’s what the Big Society is all about.

To me, there’s one word at the heart of all this, and that is responsibility. We need people to take more responsibility. We need people to act more responsibly, because if you take any problem in our country and you just think: ‘Well, what can the government do to sort it out?’, that is only ever going to be half of the answer. Take crime: yes, government’s got a huge role. We’ve got to put the police on the streets, we’ve got to make sure the sentences are there, and we’ve got to make sure that prison places are available – that is our job. But actually, we will never crack crime unless parents bring up their children properly, unless businesses stop selling alcohol to underage people, unless we all decide that these are our streets and our communities, and we have a role to help make sure they are safe.

So, responsibility is the absolute key. If you ask yourself the question, ‘Can I take more responsibility, can I do more?’, very often, the answer is no. How easy is it, if you are not satisfied with education, to club together and start up a new school? It’s incredibly difficult. How easy is it to try and take over the closing down pub in your village to keep it running? It’s incredibly difficult. How easy is it to volunteer if you want to take part and do more, with all the rules in the past about vetting and barring and criminal records? It’s extremely difficult. So, what this is all about is giving people more power and control to improve their lives and their communities. That, in a nutshell, is what it is all about.

Now, what about those key criticisms? Some people say it is too vague. Well, if they mean by that there isn’t one single policy that is being sort of rolled out across the country, then yes, I accept that, because actually what we are talking about here is a whole stream of things that need to be done. First of all, we have got to devolve more power to local government, and beyond local government, so people can actually do more and take more power. Secondly, we have got to open up public services, make them less monolithic, say to people: if you want to start up new schools, you can; if you want to set up a co-op or a mutual within the health service, if you’re part of the health service, you can; say to organisations like the Big Issue: if you want to expand and replicate yourself across the country, we want you to.

The third part, but it is only a part, is yes, I think it would be good if we had more philanthropic giving, more charitable giving and more volunteering in our country, so that all of those three things need to happen. But then people will say: ‘Okay, maybe it’s not so vague – I can see you’ve got the three parts to it – but this is just a cover for cuts, isn’t it?

It is not a cover for anything. It is a good thing to try and build a bigger and stronger society, whatever is happening to public spending. But I would make this argument: whoever was standing here right now as Prime Minister would be having to make cuts in public spending, and isn’t it better if we are having to make cuts in public spending, to try and encourage a bigger and stronger society at the same time? If there are facilities that the state can’t afford to keep open, shouldn’t we be trying to encourage communities who want to come forward and help them and run them?

Then there are the people who say, ‘Maybe it is not a cover for cuts, but the cuts will make building a bigger society much more difficult.’ What I would say to that is: of course, there is no area that can be really immune from the public spending problems that we face, but if you actually look at what central government is doing, you look at the part that I am responsible for, we are actually doing things to try and make a bigger society more possible. We are setting up a Big Society Bank, and we are putting £200 million into it from the banks this week. We are setting up a transitional fund so we can actually help organisations that need funding in this difficult environment. We are going to be announcing this week how we train another 5,000 community organisers to help build the Big Society, because there is no naïveté here. I don’t believe that you just sort of roll back the state and the Big Society springs up miraculously. There are amazing people in our country, who are establishing great community organisations and social enterprises, but we, the government, should also be catalysing and agitating and trying to help build the Big Society.

I think the last question I want to answer before opening it all up is those people who say, ‘Okay, it’s not a cover for cuts. You’re trying to make cuts in a way that doesn’t damage the Big Society, and I accept it’s not vague, but there are lots of different bits to it.’ Some people say, ‘This is nothing new. This is what happens already. You’re just trying to take credit for the very good work that people already do.’ Now, to that I would say: yes, this is not entirely new. The idea of communities taking more control, of more volunteerism, more charitable giving, of social enterprises taking on a bigger role, of people establishing public services themselves – all of these things are happening in our country. All of these things have happened in our country for years. My question is: should we try and do more of it? How do we encourage more of it? How do we replicate it across the country? How do we make this country a really brilliant place for setting up a new charity, a new social enterprise, for opening up the provision of public services? So, yes, this is not entirely new – of course it isn’t – but it is a new approach in government to say: instead of thinking we in Whitehall have got all the answers, what are the things we can do to help you to do more to build a stronger society.

As I say, this is my absolute passion. I think it is a different way of governing, a different way of going about trying to change our country for the better, and it’s going to get every bit of my passion and attention over the five years of this government. But above all, it’s going to depend on many of the people in this room, because it’s actually enterprise, it’s entrepreneurship that is going to make this agenda work. So with that, let’s go to the first question. Who wants to kick off?

Question:

Good morning, Prime Minister. I’m involved with various charities and uniformed services. I’ll give you one example: the Scout movement ­– Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Girl Guides. There’s a 50,000-person waiting list for people to join this organisation. The big issue for us is getting adult volunteers, and the issue there is bureaucracy. It scares people away when they have to do multiple CRB checks, for no reason other than it’s costly. The Scouts pays for that. So, one of the issues I think is to encourage more adult volunteers by breaking down bureaucracy.

Prime Minister:

I think you are absolutely right. The fact there is such a big waiting list to join these sorts of organisations shows the enthusiasm there is for this agenda. In terms of volunteering, I think under the last government it just became much more difficult, for very good reasons sometimes because you’ve got to have Criminal Record Bureau checks, and it does make sense to ask some questions about who is looking after our children. But for instance, the vetting and barring procedure just became hideously complicated. At one stage, I think 11 million adults were having to be vetted. You were having to be vetted if you were doing something only a few times, like for instance driving a neighbour’s children to sports practice or taking a crèche in a Sunday school, as I occasionally, very badly, have managed to do. So we are changing that. We are radically reducing the number of people who will be subject to vetting. We are simplifying Criminal Record Bureau checks. This is just one example of something positive a government can do to help deliver a bigger, stronger society and we are certainly going to fulfil that agenda.

Question:

Thank you, Prime Minister. I found myself on BBC Radio Humberside this morning.

Prime Minister:

I sometimes find myself there too.

Question:

And I was described as a fan of Big Society which slightly took me aback because I have been a vehement and vocal critic about cuts to our sector, but actually in some ways, parts of what you’re talking about are incredibly important and I want to welcome the emphasis you are putting on more service delivery through charities and social enterprises. I want to warmly welcome the Big Society. I think that is a very important initiative, something that will grow and provide loans and social finance for our sector which will support our increasing role. This is good, but I have to say what is bad, is what is happening to our charities and our voluntary organisations. You have a passion for Big Society; I have a passion for charities and when I see them cut, that is bad. And I think you need to think about the cuts they are making. They are hurting disadvantaged communities and perhaps you should be talking to us about how you reshape public services so that actually we could work together and do things better.

Prime Minister:

Thank you. I think this is the absolutely key question. Because look, the truth is, everyone is having to make cuts – central government, local government and it’s incredibly difficult. And it’s not possible to make those cuts without cutting some things that are important. It really is that difficult, and that is the situation we are in as a country.

Now, I will make a couple of points about voluntary bodies and charities. As I’ve said, first of all, central government is actually going about the spending reductions while trying to protect those things that are valuable to the Big Society. That is point one. Point two – of course 75% of charities and voluntary organisations get no government money at all. It’s worth bearing that in mind. Point three, and this goes exactly to what you said. While difficult decisions are being made, the bigger picture is we are massively opening up public services to charities, to voluntary enterprises, to social enterprises. Hundreds of millions of pounds of potential funding – let me just give you a couple of examples. Welfare to work providers – we’re opening that up. That is worth about £700 million to social enterprises and voluntary bodies who want to get into that sector. In the health service – because we are giving people the right to hold their own budgets and purchase their own care if they’re in need of that at home – that is going to be worth well over £1 billion. So we shouldn’t belittle those opportunities.

But let me go straight to your point about local authorities. We have asked local authorities to reduce their budgets. We have no choice about that. We have to do that. But the local authorities do have a choice about how they reduce their budgets and we are saying to them as vigorously as we can, please will you make sure you cut your own bureaucracies, you cut your pay, you cut your bureaucracy before you cut voluntary bodies and charities. Now some local authorities are responding extremely well to this – for example in leafy old West Oxfordshire they are working as hard as they can to make sure the Citizens’ Advice Bureau – an absolutely vital part of the Big Society – doesn’t get a cut.

Now, not all local authorities are behaving in the same way. Now this is a democracy; it’s not a dictatorship. I cannot order every local authority what to do with their budget but what I can do is actually give local people a tool that they have never had before, and that is transparency. We are now getting every local authority to publish every item of spending over £500 and the reason you are reading in the pages of the Daily Mail and the Sun and the Times and the Telegraph and elsewhere, the salaries of the chief executives, it’s not because they’ve got armies of brilliant journalists going out and finding this information, it’s because we’ve got local authorities to publish it. This is great pressure and I want to see that pressure exerted on local authorities so they make the right decisions, not the wrong ones. But as I say, this is not a dictatorship – I cannot order those local authorities what to do. Now I hope they will make the right decisions, and I am giving local people the tools, the transparency to help encourage them to do just that.

Question:

My question, Prime Minster, relates to your last point about the importance of democracy and we’ve engaged over a million young people in our election programme over the last year to ensure that young people – particularly disadvantaged young people – have a seat at the table and at important times so that their voice is heard. What more can be done to strengthen the role of youth voice in societies at a time when the Big Society needs to ensure that young people are at the heart of it?

Prime Minister:

I think the Youth Parliament is an excellent idea for doing just that and I think it’s right for instance that we’ve opened up parliament for young people to come and take part and actually have their debates in parliament. I think one of the things that we will find – and Peter Cruddas was talking about it just a minute ago – is that young people do have a passion for volunteering, for taking part, for getting involved and I think this agenda of opening up social enterprises and charities and encouraging them to do more will massively benefit young people.

But again, I am not naïve; I don’t think that Big Society just grows as you have to make difficult decisions about public spending. A number of things we are doing to help make it grow – I have mentioned the Big Society Bank, I’ve mentioned the Transition Fund; another one is National Citizen Service. This is a very simple idea that every 16-year-old when they finish their GCSEs should have the opportunity to take part in volunteering in community service and in also something that’s stretching and exciting like training with the army on Dartmoor or climbing the three peaks, or climbing a rock face in the Lake District. National Citizen Service is something that this year about 30,000 young people are going to start on pilot schemes. I didn’t just talk about this in opposition, I set up a charitable organisation to run pilots to get the right sort of programme to make it work, to mix children from across the country and I hope that by the end of this Parliament we will give the opportunity to every single 16-year-old there is. So this is a massive way in which the government is taking a step to help build a bigger, stronger society, particularly involving the young people that you are talking about.

Question:

Good morning, Prime Minister. I am a student at university and I just want to raise just a tiny point. A lot of what you say about the Big Society – totally agree in terms of handing more and giving more responsibility to students such as myself. Now, the thing that I tend to find with a lot of the students I communicate to is not necessarily a point of opening up – which I think is a great thing – opening up these opportunities. But it’s a question of once you open up these opportunities, a lot of especially students – young, entrepreneurial students with a passion to really get in and get involved in society – they need that education, they need that bit of a push. So I would just like to ask for a little bit of clarity on how we are going to educate this, our society today to be able to step into the new society.

Prime Minister:

That’s a good point. I mean I would say that National Citizen Service is probably the best way to do that. At the moment what happens is lots of children get incredible opportunities through the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme or the Prince of Wales Trust, but we don’t actually do something as a country that brings everybody together and gives everybody that opportunity. And the reason I called it National Citizen Service is, when you listen to people who did National Service – don’t worry, I’m not just about to introduce National Service in case you’re worrying – but the point is, when you talk to people who did National Service, a lot of them say the thing was we did it together. It didn’t matter whether you were rich or poor or what god you worshipped or where you came from in the country, we all did it together and I think that’s the idea behind National Citizen Service.

That we encourage people from across the country to do this. We mix people together; they are taken out of their home environment; out of their community environment; they go off and do something and then they go back and learn about community service and volunteering and taking a bigger part in their community. And when we’ve tried this, mixing kids together from Warrington and Southwark I think it was, taking them off the Lake District, then back into their communities. It was a massive success. And that I think will engender in people the sense of ‘we’re all in it together. We’re part of something bigger than ourselves. We have obligations to not just ourselves and our families but our neighbourhoods, our communities’. That’s what it’s all about.

Question:

Very impressive to hear your robust defence of the Big Society and we needed it right now. In fact I was writing a blog about it on Saturday; you answered all of the questions in The Observer on Sunday. But the one thing I think we really need now is a bit more detail on the short term. I mean the aspirations for the medium term are impressive and the long term – incredible if we get there. But we do know that in our communities, in our local councils, there is a sense of devastation. I think the rhetoric of broken Britain can feed into that sense of loss, so I think we do need a bit of detail on that.

Prime Minister:

Let’s just deal with the devastation, and what we’re talking about in terms of local government grants from central government is that they’re going to go back to the level that they were in – who wants to fill in the gap? What do you think? From reading the papers – 1985 from reading the papers? 2007? In the case of Liverpool, the case I quoted in the House of Commons the other day, the level of grant they’re getting, by 2013 it would have gone all the way back to 2009, so we’ve got to get this into perspective.

Yes, we are having to make some painful decisions. Yes, some of these cuts are difficult, but I think sometimes we’re getting out of perspective the sort of level of spending and the level of grants that local authorities are going to get – I think that’s a really important point to make. People ask about libraries – libraries are vital but if you’re going back to 2007 grants, there was a good network of libraries in 2007, there should be a good network of libraries in 2011. There are a lot of people, in a lot of different organisations, including some charities, including the government, who are making a very persuasive case for more spending, and we have to hear that and it’s actually right that they do, but let’s keep this in perspective.

In terms of the short term and the medium term – one of the reasons I set up the Transition Fund of £100 million is recognising that some organisations will get cut because not all local authorities will make good decisions – that’s why the Transition Fund is there. But the really big opportunity for charities and voluntary bodies is, instead of getting a sort of drip feed of handout money, is as we open up public services and say we will pay you by the results you achieve, they have a massive opportunity to get involved in rehabilitating criminals, in terms of getting people off drugs, in terms of running services in health and education – that’s what the payment by results idea is all about. The Big Society Bank is there to lend money to these organisations so they can actually scale up, they can get bigger, they can replicate themselves across the country so they can take advantage of this new, more open way of delivering public services – so it is short, medium and long.

Question:

Thank you very much. I am the founder Family Beehive, which is a network of the ultra-high net worth society and business leaders. Business leaders have said on the website that they want to engage business in philanthropy – for example, retailers want to be able to invest in a programme to stop shoplifters re-offending. They also want charities to be accountable to their funders, and these are the sorts of things that the business leaders want, what they see is the Big Society.

Prime Minister:

Business has a huge role in this. If you ask yourself who is actually the best organisation at, for instance, getting people with mental-health problems into work, it’s actually Marks & Spencer – so there are lots of businesses doing incredible work at building a stronger society. And that’s not just because businesses are philanthropic; it’s actually good for their image, it’s good for their business, it’s good for their brand.

Actually, if you go to any school now and you look at what children are learning about with business, and the websites they’re going on, they’re asking a lot of questions about is this an ethical business? How does it do business? So it’s going to be even more important for business in the future. I know that sometimes businesses can feel a bit cut off from this agenda – I don’t want them to feel like that all. This whole agenda, I think, is wide open to business to come and join in and play a part, and I’m looking forward to a lot of interesting announcements on that front.

Question:

I run an organisation called Food Cycle which is one of the recent award winners in the Big Society awards, and my question is about immigration. I really believe that the Big Society is great and I also think that you need a lot of international talent for this work here in the UK. My question is, with the current immigration changes, how this will reflect the Big Society, because potentially, as you can tell, I’m not British; I’m Canadian. Running Food Cycle, I will be potentially out of this country in a year’s time because I do not meet the strict new immigration laws.

Prime Minister:

First of all, actually in the immigration rules we’re putting in a new category of entrepreneurs so we can attract some of the best and the brightest to come to our country. But what I would say, having looked at the figures and looked at what we’re proposing, I think there is an enormous amount of room to deal with the abuses that there are of the immigration system, which will enable us to make sure that we can still attract the brightest students and entrepreneurs and others to come to our country.

I was looking, for instance, at education – about 90,000 students who came last year, who were coming not to universities or even highly regarded colleges, but were coming to colleges or other recently established colleges that have a not-trusted status. So if you think about that, if you think about the huge amount of abuse there is, if we deal with that there will be plenty of headroom to allow in people who can make a real contribution while not breaching the strict immigration limits that we’re going to put in place.

Question:

At a time when everybody is worried about falling living standards, even keeping their job, public-service cutbacks, do you think there is really an appetite for people out there to get involved in the voluntary sector? Aren’t their energies more taken up with just worrying about themselves at this time, in particular?

Prime Minister:

I don’t think the British people are like that; I think there’s an enormous appetite. Every time you ask people ‘would you like the opportunity to step forward’ they actually say yes. Free schools is a good example: everyone said to us no one wants to run their own school, they’re all far too busy, everyone is very happy with what they’ve got. We’ve already had hundreds of applications for free schools.

We came up with the idea that people within the health service might want to turn that part of the health service they work in into a mutual, into a cooperative. People said everyone’s happy with the National Health Service; they don’t want to change the National Health Service. Again, hundreds of organisations are coming forward saying, yes, actually we would like to run a mutual, I’d like to take control of this part of the health service and run a better service.

The community right-to-buy: ‘Oh, people haven’t got time to bother with that’. Again, loads of interest and applications, including ones I know about from my own constituency, even my own village, where people are very keen to step forward, particularly when they see the last – if it’s the last post office or the last shop, or the last pub, or a bit of land in the community that’s been left fallow for so long. There is an appetite for this. So, I think that the proof is always there. Whenever you give people an opportunity to step forward and play a greater role, in my experience they almost always take it. I believe that they will with all these opportunities that will be coming forward.

Question:

However good the values that underlie the Big Society might be, do you accept that a lot of people find the idea quite irritating in these rather austere times, and do you accept at the very least that it perhaps hasn’t been sold as well as it might have been, and that there are plenty of people in your party who would quite like you to stop talking about it now?

Prime Minister:

The reason I talk about it is not because it’s popular or I think I am going to win an election with it. The reason I talk about it is because it’s what I care about. You know, the idea that actually you might put into a manifesto something you are passionate about and believe in, rather than just because it makes a great headline on the 10 o’clock news – that may be novel, but that happens to be what I think. I think the evidence is – and I think you see it round the room, you’ve got a lot of organisations represented here today – the evidence is that people are enthusiastic if they are given the opportunity. It tends to be, when you ask people: how do you feel about this idea of playing a greater role, of communities having greater control over their lives? People say, ‘Well, I like the idea, but I don’t believe it’s possible.’ I think we have to show that it is possible, that actually there is a way of making the police force accountable to you with local beat meetings; there is a way for communities that aren’t satisfied with what they’ve got to establish a new school; there is a way, if you’re depressed with the way the health service is run, you can run a mutual within the NHS. There is a way of actually opening up the provision of public services to voluntary bodies; there is a way of encouraging young people to volunteer and get involved.

Now, as I have said, the duty of this government is to deal with the economic mess. We’ve got to deal with that deficit. We have to make these cuts. We have to put up those taxes. It will not make us popular; in fact, it will make us unpopular. It will make me unpopular. I recognise that; it is my duty. We have to do this for the good of our country. But I don’t believe it’s impossible to do your duty at the same time as having a sense of mission and purpose about what would make this country a stronger, better, nicer place to live and make our communities more healthy. I think there’s an enormous appetite for that. People do believe that we need a sort of social recovery as well as an economic recovery, and I think, as I say, this would be the right thing to do whether we were increasing public spending or cutting it, whether the economy was growing or not growing. This is a really good agenda that I think people when they hear about it say, ‘Yes, I do think this is a good thing, because in the end, a stronger society is a nicer country to live in.’

Question:

Can I make a suggestion for a quick win? With regards to the National Citizen Service, it’s welcomed by the majority of young people and by youth organisations themselves, and a very quick win would be if you were to create a framework which would allow existing organisations like the Duke of Edinburgh Award and the Prince’s Trust, that you’ve mentioned before, to start helping to deliver the citizenship along the lines of the programmes they do already, because the aims are really quite the same as the ones that you suggest, and we could all come together under the banner of this new idea, rather than creating a separate scheme.

Prime Minister:

That may well be the answer. Last year, we ran a small number of pilot schemes to try and get the concept right, and this year we are running more, again with the same idea. When it then expands, can we do more to involve other organisations? I absolutely hope we can. When I go back and think of when I had this idea and wanted to get it going, I didn’t just sort of write out a blueprint and make a speech about it. I got all those organisations – Fairbridge, Prince of Wales Trust, Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, all the others I can think of – I got them all together I think in a television studio somewhere in North London and heard their views and talked to them about it, so we could try and shape the programme and get it right. So, yes, I’m sure we will be able to do that, but at the moment what we are trying to do is just see if we can do it at scale, and if it works and if it is the right sort of six-week programme.

Question:

I am confused standing here actually. You’re talking about social enterprises taking the lead, and people using their own initiative for their own community. I’ve been doing that for four years with an ex-offender led project, ex-offender run. We have a 15% re-offending rate, and I am sure you can do the maths on that, and all the way through we have got to a certain point, and I am getting blocked, constantly blocked. We cannot compete against the big boys, but we are having a great social impact.

Prime Minister:

Please don’t be confused, because you’re exactly the sort of organisation that I think we should be looking to work out how we try and expand. If you take rehabilitation of prisoners, it’s a classic example of where we need a Big Society approach rather than a big state approach. The big state approach, our big prisons, are failing. In fact, actually if you asked the governor of a prison what is the re-offending rate of the people in their prison, they can’t tell you. That’s not because they are bad people; it’s because they are not actually set up to do that. They are just set up to house prisoners, to keep them inside, to give them a bit of training, and then to release them, whereas your organisation is absolutely focused on what really matters to everybody in this country, which is how do we turn them round? How do we rehabilitate them?

Prime Minister:

Now, you keep getting stuck for all sorts of reasons, one of which is that the state has certain areas of criminal justice it won’t open up to the voluntary sector. Well, I say: why not? These prisons are costing us a fortune and they are not doing a very good job. Each prisoner costs £40,000 a year to keep. Wouldn’t it be better to try and spend some of that money with organisations like yours and pay them by results? Indeed, why shouldn’t we be paying prisons by results? If they are good at rehabilitating prisoners, they get paid more; if they are not, they get paid less. So, not only have we got the ambition to enable your organisation to do more, we have also thought of some of the ways in which we could help make that happen: opening up these big contracts; putting them all online; making sure they are all transparent, so you can see how much money the state is wasting and how much money you could save. Then the Big Society bank should help you to raise money to build up your organisation so you can do more.

So look, this is the start of a very long process. The media will be frustrated because there won’t be a result tomorrow, but we are asking the right question, which is: how do you enable entrepreneurial organisations like yours to do more, to change the country, and to improve public services? And it isn’t a simple switch that you flick; it’s a whole series of things that we have to do to help your organisation.

Question:

I gave a talk at the National School of Government a fortnight ago about the challenges facing the Big Society.

Prime Minister:

How did you get on?

Question:

It took a while. I posed a question to the room, largely full of senior civil servants, grade 7 and above: who here knows what a social enterprise is? Ten percent of the room had even heard of social enterprise. What do you think we need to do to make the state, the civil service more permeable to innovation, to partnership working? What conditions do you think we need to create in order for this innovation to occur?

Prime Minister:

I think that’s a very, very good point. As well as changing laws – for example, creating a community right-to-buy, so communities can buy something, as well as changing the rules about the health service, so they can set up mutuals if they want to. Some of this is about a change of culture, because the government, the state, the civil service, just hasn’t done things like this before, and so it’s a big change. When they’ve had a big contract to let in the past, too often it’s just gone to the big organisation and it’s all been kept very secret, and no one’s been able to see the figures. So, the culture change is partly from leadership and the people at the top saying, ‘This is how things are going to be. We are going to open up. We are going to do things differently. This is what social enterprises are. This is what they do. Could you engage with them?’

But also, this transparency agenda is hugely important. By putting every contract over £25,000 online, by making all the details public, by making sure as a small social enterprise you’ve only got to register once to bid for any government work – these are technical changes, but they will make quite a big difference. On Friday, I launched an initiative to make sure that we give 25% of procurement contracts to smaller and medium-size enterprises, including voluntary bodies, charities and social enterprises, who were in there at the birth, designing this policy. But there’s a culture change.

The civil service is, I think, a great organisation. I have come into government. I have got an absolute Rolls-Royce in terms of people who work for me. They are brilliant: hard working, dedicated, impartial, professional. I couldn’t fault them. I think I’ve kept Gordon Brown’s entire private office. But is there a culture change needed in the civil service to understand this agenda? Of course there is, and there’s a danger that because they are good, hard-working, impartial, professional people, they tend to take an idea like the Big Society and think it must be one idea that is an initiative that has to be rolled out across government. You’re in danger sometimes of turning the Big Society into the big state (society), and we need to be very careful that doesn’t happen. We’ve got to open things up to allow the entrepreneurialism of this sector to prove itself.

Question:

My question for you is given that is a kind of philosophy, and a mission and a vision, how will you know whether it has been successful? So, in five years’ time, how will you measure your success?

Prime Minister:

I think there will be lots of things you will be able to look at. You can look sector by sector; you can look at education. Are there more free schools being set up by communities? Is the academies programme expanding and is business still investing in it? Are organisations like yours thriving? Look across at the health service. What’s the involvement of social enterprises and charities? I think you’ll be able to look at communities and say: have they actually taken advantage of these things that we’re putting in place, like the community right-to-buy? I think you’ll be able to look at the Big Society Bank and say: right, how big is it now? How much lending is it doing? What is the health of this charitable social enterprise sector? I don’t want to produce a sort of top-down target, you know: eighteen weeks to set up a social enterprise, tick that box, okay, move on, let’s go on to the next thing. I don’t want to do that, but we can find some ways of showing and saying: well look, these are the things we were talking about; these are the things that have now happened.

What we have done in government is instead of setting targets like the one I just mentioned, we have these things called structural reform plans, where we just set out what the department promised to do, the date by which they were going to do it, and then you have to check off whether they have done it. So, have we introduced the community right-to-buy? Have we trained the 5,000 community organisers? Is the Big Society Bank up and running? Those things ­– you know, like a business, we should definitely be ticking them off as we do them, and on some of them we are ahead, and some of them we are a bit behind, but it’s all transparent, so you can go on the internet and have a good look.

Question:

We are a national charity supporting community groups. Prime Minister, yourself and other ministers have talked about the extraction of £200 million from the banks to support the Big Society Bank, but can you explain to me how that actually helps, when it’s a commercial loan? Does that make cheaper money available – cheaper capital available to the sector?

Prime Minister:

I think two things: (a) it should be cheaper money, but (b), perhaps more importantly, it is understanding. I was at a social enterprise this morning, the People’s Supermarket, which is a basically a new cooperative. They have set up, and you pay £25 a year to join, and you have to volunteer to be part of it, and as a result, you get cheaper food at your local supermarket in Camden. They were saying to me, ‘Right, we think we’ve cracked this. It really does work. We’ve got enough people volunteering. We’ve got enough money coming in. We are delivering prices that are 10% below the local supermarket. We have got the model. Now, we’d love to be able to set this up in other parts of London and in other parts of the country, but the banks aren’t interested, because banks – a bit like the civil service – don’t necessarily understand social enterprises.’ But if you have a Big Society Bank that is absolutely versed in that whole sector and understands that sector, and is mandated to lend to that sector, I think you’ll get more understanding, more money and hopefully at a better price.

Question:

To the sceptics about the Big Society, I suggest that they go and look at what has happened in social housing over the last 20 years. 20 years ago, housing associations were formed. They were very small; they were run by volunteers. Today, they are the dominant producers – developers of housing for those who need low-cost accommodation. There’s a precedent for the Big Society too: the Housing Finance Corporation was established at the same time to provide a means to the debt markets for these housing associations. Having established the credit, the banks now are in, and we raise at the moment £2.5 billion for housing associations at rates cheaper than the government of Japan can borrow. So, the precedents are there for this. Let me suggest one idea perhaps for the lady in the corner. Prisons are a rather specialised form of housing. Housing associations already provide housing for assisted care; they do training especially in IT skills for their residents so that they can access the web. Perhaps housing associations should take over some of the prisons.

Prime Minister:

Very interesting idea. I mean I think you’re right. You know 20 years ago you just had monolithic council owned housing stock, often very badly run, very badly looked after, and the growth of housing associations – the competition, the choice, the new money they brought into the sector – has been a great success. But I would almost turn the challenge back to you. I would say you would come across say farmers, who would love to build and let houses at social rents because they want to try and provide an income stream and keep people on the farm but they can’t because they are not registered social landlords. Housing associations also need a bit of Big Society work as it were, to open up and say ‘right, let’s make this sector a bit more bigger, a bit more entrepreneurial’ and allow other people to come into it to provide that innovation because that’s often what’s needed in housing to meet people’s needs.

Question:

I’m the founder of a social enterprise called People Who Share which is dedicated to growing a global market place for sharing. Now what we are talking about though is a very big cultural change. I mean many people in this country don’t know who their own neighbours are, so if we are talking about this notion of harnessing the power of sharing and people actually taking responsibility, how do you see that cultural change happening?

Prime Minister:

Part of it is what an American politician would call the bully pulpit. Part of it is talking about it; talking about social issues and social change and society and responsibilities in a way that fires people up and gets people going and gets people asking those questions and one of the reasons I’ve never had any doubt that the agenda of the Big Society is going well and will go on and will grow is that people talk about it the whole time. I was at my constituency at the weekend; people endlessly come up and say ‘well, you know, we’ve just taken over the open-air swimming pool because the council closed it. We’re running it. That’s very much Big Society, isn’t it? And we are getting local schools involved and we are encouraging people.’ And this weekend I probably had about four examples of people who came up and said that’s exactly what we’re doing. And the questions I posed at the beginning is ‘this isn’t all new, is it?’ I mean it isn’t new – this has been going on for centuries in our country. It’s just about trying to take it to the next stage and I think politicians do have a role by discussing these things, trying to get people to think about how to be better citizens, more active citizens and to do more things along the lines you suggest.

Question:

Top marks for sticking your neck out on culture change which is difficult – and I think it’s great for schools to be able to innovate or have permission to innovate because as I say, those that have done well or have done it in the past because we have broken the rules of the government or at least not been limited by them. But, what concerns me about this in relation to education is that there’s an unintended consequence of an increase in centralisation because every innovation has to go somewhere in order to be moderated particularly if it’s a state-wide thing.

Prime Minister:

Give me a for instance on that because I’m conscious of this – if we come up with something new and we then try and force it – we’re not trying to do that – but give me a for instance on that.

Question:

Okay, well, to set up a free school for example, as soon as I saw the White Paper, eager to start one, get the paper work in but actually it all has to go the top of now quite a fine pyramid in order to get that through and actually the more people who wanted to do that, the more that constriction would be there. Or a different example – actually having got the local authority on side about one such project, the local authority are worried about the Big Society kyboshing the free school because a different bit of the Big Society wouldn’t like to have a new school on their doorstep.

Prime Minister:

It’s a good point. I think though what we’ve got to be about is trying to clear the obstacles out of the way. So when it comes to free schools or new academies, there are – I think – almost too many ways in which trade unions or local authorities or whatever, can sort of frustrate the creation of these things. And one of the reasons for announcing pathfinder schemes in Liverpool and in Cumbria and Windsor and Maidenhead was that these were not pilot schemes, because you don’t roll out the Big Society; it’s all of these things we’ve been talking about. The idea behind the Pathfinders was to say to these communities – you sort of volunteer for it – tell us what it is that’s stopping you from doing more things like handing over work to enterprises and charities, enabling communities. Tell us the national rules, the regulations, the laws that get in your way and we will then get government to act with you to get them out of the way. And we’re finding lots of examples where actually local authorities would like to step in and help out and find a community solution to this problem or that problem. So I hope that we can do this in a way that is genuinely enabling rather than smothering. That would be the worst – it would be a disaster if this agenda ended up actually stopping the sort of social change that we want to militate on behalf of.

Question:

Prime Minister, very glad that you mentioned welfare to work – a very important area – but there are serious concerns here that you’re creating a new sort of Byzantine bureaucracy to replace the old one. We are presently involved – as I think probably some of the people in this room also are – in putting in expressions of interest to the big service companies that have won or are preferred biller in the new single work programme. And I think there is a serious concern here that – or there’s a warning that I’d like to make – that the big service companies could strangle the Big Society at birth. How do you stop these wonderful companies that we will end up working with, from doing this?

Prime Minister:

It’s a really good question. I was looking at it on Friday when we were opening up government procurement to the private sector and the point was made – it’s all very well to say the lead contract has got to be a SME or this sort of company, what happens if all the people they contract with are actually the big organisations? So I accept, this is very difficult and we want to work with you to make sure that we are genuinely opening up to the small, the innovative, the enterprising. Some of the big organisations will say ‘well you’ll never save money if you do that because only we have the scale to deliver these programmes at low cost.’ I don’t accept that. I think that when you’re looking at things like welfare to work, where often the hardest cases need the most personal attention. If you think of someone who hasn’t worked for say five or ten years, who has got mental-health problems, that person – if you can get them into work – is saving you probably £40,000 because of the likely time they would spend on benefits if you don’t help them. But the organisation that is likely to get them back to work is probably very specialised, very personal, very sensitive, very innovative. So I completely agree with you; if this ends up with a few big companies running big government projects that is not what we’re looking for.

Question:

I run a social enterprise called Start Here which is all about making information accessible and what we’ve discovered is that what people need most is local information. And what concerns me is how people really navigate through the system. And I think that if voluntary organisations collaborate together because a lot of charities do have local information, we can actually build a consistent social services type directory which I would have thought – and I’d love to hear your comments – should be one of the planks of the Big Society. And we’ve made some progress building that so we’re not starting from scratch; I just don’t want to see duplication of effort and us pooling resources.

Prime Minister:

I think one of the absolute building blocks is transparency of information. There is a bit of bossiness in the Big Society – you have got to boss local authorities to make them make available all of their information and this is an absolute plank of the Big Society because once all of that information is available – what services they run; who they pay; how much they pay – once all that information is available, it creates a lot of wealth and opportunities because organisations can take that data; they can mash it up; they can create new businesses. There is a very good one called ‘They Work For You’ which is about your MP and how hard they work and this is based on the transparent data about how much we all vote. This is exactly the same with local authorities; by making all this data available, we are actually enabling social enterprises and charities to come forward and run new services, compare different councils and actually start running services themselves. This is a very big part of the agenda.

Can I thank you all very much for coming. I’m sorry I didn’t get to answer all your questions. I think we should probably do this again but thank you very much for coming today, and above all thank you for what you do. Thank you.

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