Thank you very much for inviting me to speak this morning.
This conference is dedicated to examining the Big Society and assessing whether it can work in Scotland.
I believe it can and it will.
It’s an opportunity, not a threat, to charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises.
This morning I want to share my thoughts with you on the Big Society in greater detail; before updating the conference on welfare reform and the Scotland Bill - 2 issues I know you are interested in.
The Big Society: the big picture
Representing Scotland on the UK Ministerial Group advancing the Big Society agenda, I am determined that our voice and interests are heard.
However, I am not wedded to titles such as the Big Society. Indeed, some have suggested that in Scotland it would be the ‘Wee Society’.
But for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll use Big Society as this has partially led so many people to show a significant interest here today.
There are 3 pillars to this agenda:
- community empowerment
- reforming and opening up our public services and
- encouraging greater social action
These 3 pillars are vital.
But most important is what is happening on the ground and acknowledging those who are doing it.
The Big Society is not another government programme.
In fact, the Big Society is quite the opposite.
It’s about giving power back to individuals, families, communities and groups.
It’s about turning government upside down - so that society, not the state, is in the driving seat.
Some of our critics have said that government cannot create a Big Society on our own. They’re right.
But there is no need for such a magic wand solution.
Because we are not starting from scratch.
Scotland already does the Big Society or whatever we call it. I want us to do more of it.
We are building on the long-standing tradition of community engagement and social action in Scotland.
The grass roots are there. Many of you are the manifestation of movements already out there - helping Scots nationwide.
The UK government’s role is to play an enabling role in the Big Society and it will focus on ensuring that all parts of society are able to play their part and thrive.
The Scottish government will also have a part to play and I hope they will engage, whether they formally acknowledge the Big Society concept or not or not.
Sometimes it will mean that the state, in all its forms, pulling back when it has overreached and acknowledging that it doesn’t have all the answers to local issues.
I want our vision to interact with the work that so many Scots are already doing.
I believe that this is an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the excellent work done by local groups across the country.
The UK government has opened up a dialogue on taking forward the Big Society in Scotland.
It is already proving a rewarding conversation.
Stakeholders across the country have given me a flavour of what they are doing and the good practice they are encouraging.
It’s an ongoing process.
There are more Scotland Office events in the pipeline, culminating with a Scotland-wide forum.
Empowerment stands at the forefront of our vision of a Big Society.
It is about freeing people and communities to make the decisions which affect them.
It marks a radical and welcome break from the tired old view that civil servants in London and Edinburgh, or dare I say local authorities, always know what is best for you and your community.
Reforming and opening up public services
Some of our critics claim that the Big Society is geared to providing public services on the cheap. I don’t agree.
I view the Big Society as more about working with, and improving, existing services rather than replacing them.
However, not all answers and services need to be provided by officials, councils or government.
Tough times also demand innovative thinking.
There is no escaping the need to tackle the deficit - the challenge we face in terms of public finances cannot be ignored.
So our detractors also characterise the Big Society as a shorthand for cuts.
That’s both wrong and unfair.
The Big Society is a positive, proactive agenda developed before the recession to achieve a better quality of outcomes with limited resources.
Our priority must be to seek the best value provider of public services.
That’s the right answer for service users and taxpayers.
Greater social action
And I want to see people and communities across Scotland feeling both free and powerful enough to help themselves and transform their neighbourhoods.
So in many ways the Big Society is a challenge to achieve even greater social action:
- to think and act differently
- to consider the personal and social consequences of your actions
- to take ownership of an area and find ways of to transform it for the better
And it poses the question to the state, ‘why can this not be done by individuals themselves, by voluntary, community or social enterprises?’
We’ve seen the success of the National Citizens Service pilot south of the border.
It’s designed to build a more cohesive, responsible and engaged society by bringing together 16 year olds from different backgrounds for a programme of activity and service during the summer.
It gives these young people an introduction to community action.
It shows them the positive differences they can make in their localities and beyond.
We are planning to expand the service to offer 90,000 places by 2014.
I hope that over time, the Scottish government will look at what we’re doing and want to take part.
This renewed commitment to a stronger sense of society, where taking a more active role will be both expected and recognised, can only benefit us all.
But I recognise that we need to make it simpler for individuals and organisations who offer their time and knowledge to benefit their communities.
Good intentions must not be deterred by the burdens of bureaucracy.
That’s why we are examining ways of reducing regulation and red tape faced by charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises.
It’s not for government to tell Scots how they can best support their communities.
But government can provide support when society is restricted - such as by removing the red tape which can hinder community groups from forming.
Local people and local bodies know their communities better than anyone. Charities, churches and co-operatives have the unique grassroots knowledge to drive social action at local level.
We want to make it easier for you to do what you do best.
It’s self-evident that most of the specific policy areas within the Big Society are devolved to the Scottish government and not all the major Westminster Big Society projects have exact equivalents in Scotland.
That’s why it’s imperative that Scotland’s 2 governments work together and co-operation is central to our approach.
I’m keen to engage on the issue and have had useful discussions with both John Swinney and Alex Neil; and my Cabinet Office colleague Nick Hurd will be in Scotland soon to share experiences from elsewhere in the UK.
Big Society Bank
I know you will also be interested to hear about the Big Society Bank.
We have delivered on our commitment to set it up, although it is no longer being called a bank.
It has been renamed the Big Society Capital Group, in case people are confused into thinking there is a new high street bank on the scene.
Most importantly, it’s open for business in Scotland.
Big Society Capital will invest in social investment intermediary organisations across the UK, such as Charity Bank and the Key Project.
And these intermediaries will bring together bodies that need capital and bodies that have capital and want to invest it.
Big Society Capital will not make grants to individual organisations or charities.
Your organisations should be able to gain access to capital at a more competitive rate than you would be able to secure from a high street lender.
Big Society Capital will act independently of government to support social enterprise through intermediaries.
I want organisations in Scotland to benefit from the very favourable terms it will offer.
Encouraging charitable giving
The UK government is also committed to helping charities in these challenging economic times.
We understand that charity law and charity reform straddles reserved and devolved policy areas.
A key focus in the UK government’s Giving White Paper is on encouraging charitable giving.
Innovative schemes can make it easier to give - at the cash point, at the till, by text or by phone app.
Government is committed to incentivising giving.
We want to grow and raise the profile of payroll giving and are sponsoring the National Payroll Giving Awards to encourage this activity.
Similarly, inheritance tax will be cut for those who leave 10% or more of their estate to charity.
Finally, in the 2011 Budget we announced a number of significant tax incentives and the removal of red tape for gift aid donations up to £5,000.
These are sensible, practical measures geared to making it easier for charities to raise more money.
The Big Society also has responsibility at its heart.
It offers the opportunity for individuals, businesses and organisations to step forward to help address the social issues in their communities and help shape the future direction.
People like you are already giving significant amounts of your time for the benefit of your communities.
Businesses are seeing the benefits of supporting volunteering and encouraging their staff to do the same.
Individuals and groups are improving communities across Scotland.
On recent visits I have seen how volunteers at Peterhead Projects are raising funds in their town by recycling furniture, running a gift shop and holding car boot sales.
Or how Cambuslang and Rutherglen Community Health Initiative is promoting better health locally.
Our aim is that volunteering becomes a social norm and is considered by all the responsible thing to do.
There are 2 more issues I want to touch on - 2 significant issues for this sector - welfare reform and the Scotland Bill.
Fairness is a pivotal part of the Coalition’s approach.
We are committed to helping the vulnerable.
We will take over 90,000 Scots out of tax altogether by April 2012.
We have helped one million older Scots by re-establishing the link between pensions and earnings after a gap of 30 years.
We have maintained Winter Fuel Allowance payments for Scottish pensioners.
While last year’s Spending Review turned the temporary increase in Cold Weather Payments into a permanent increase.
They are geared to reforming the benefit system to make it fairer, more affordable and better able to tackle poverty, worklessness and welfare dependency.
The introduction of Universal Credit in 2013 will radically simplify the system - and make work pay.
We are determined to remove the barriers to work and to ensure that work pays more than benefits.
Our back-to-work initiatives will pay a crucial part in supporting employment in Scotland.
As part of our reforms, the Work Programme went live in June.
We know that one size cannot fit all.
That’s why the Work Programme is built around the needs of individuals - providing the personalised support people need, when they need it - so they have the right support to move into employment.
The UK government’s ‘Get Britain Working’ measures like work experience are geared to this end.
In the Youth Unemployment Seminars, hosted by the Scotland Office across the country, we are hearing about the benefits of work experience with local employers.
Some Scottish employers see young people, particularly inexperienced young people, as high risk.
So giving young Scots greater work experience enhances their readiness for work by developing the skills which are essential for the workplace.
We need to work side by side on this - to collaborate more effectively to support our young people into work.
As with the Big Society, Scotland’s 2 governments must work together, alongside our key partners to address the labour market challenges we face.
One of the Coalition’s key commitments is to improve the devolution settlement and strengthen the accountability of the Scottish Parliament.
The Scotland Bill delivers this pledge.
This Bill has real economic teeth.
It signifies the largest transfer of financial powers out of London since the creation of the UK.
It will give the Scottish Parliament new levers over the Scottish economy and strengthens its accountability and responsibility to the people of Scotland.
The First Minister has told us about other areas he thinks should be devolved to Scotland in the Scotland Bill.
We have made clear that we will consider all proposals for amendments to the Bill on their merits.
Any amendments must meet the three tests set out by the Secretary of State for Scotland. They must:
- be based on detailed and well evidenced proposals
- maintain the cross-party consensus on which the Bill is based
- demonstrate that they would benefit Scotland, without prejudice to the UK as a whole
The Scottish government has made their set of demands as a package and we will respond as a package at the appropriate time.
The UK government will also fight to maintain the United Kingdom in any independence referendum.
We will not place obstacles in the way of a referendum but we believe strongly that more powers for the Scottish Parliament - through the Scotland Bill - is the right constitutional route for Scotland.
That’s why we will oppose separatism in any guise whenever the referendum takes place.
Alongside our commitments to more tailored welfare and improved devolution we are also determined to build a bigger and stronger society.
In the coming months and years we aim to build on the deep-rooted foundations we have in Scotland to achieve this goal.
Government can be an enabler but it cannot be expected to deliver the Big Society alone.
We all have an important role to play.
We want to support a thriving market in charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises.
I support and admire what so many public-spirited Scots are doing in their communities.
I look forward to working with you to realise the benefits of the Big Society in Scotland.