Tim Loughton delivers the Edith Kahn Memorial Lecture

The Children's Minister talks about altruism, the Big Society and the function volunteering has in communities.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Tim Loughton

Can I start by saying how delighted and privileged I am to be asked to give the 20th Edith Kahn Memorial Lecture? My association with the excellent organisation that is CSV goes back to 2001 when I became a trustee, and whilst I regretfully and reluctantly had to give up that position after the election this year, that does not mean that my respect and association with the charity should be any less enthusiastic. And can I thank, on behalf of CSV, all the supporters - many of them represented here today - for all that you do to make the work of the CSV possible?

This year we are in the House of Lords - a slightly ominous development given the not-entirely apocryphal anecdote about graffiti in one of our noble colleagues’ loos here which poses the question - ‘What do you call 2 MPs at the bottom of the ocean?’ - to which has been added the answer: - ‘a good start!’ It is gratifying, however, that politicians are still invited to address such august audiences after everything that has passed.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a voluntary organisation in possession of a good idea and in want of a meeting with a minister will use the buzz phrase ‘Big Society’ before breakfast, lunch and dinner - to open with a cacophonous car-crash of mixed misquotes. But it does seem that every time I receive a letter or email requesting a meeting, let alone the subsequent meeting itself, there is something of a target quota system operating to see how many times ‘Big Society’ can be inserted into the dialogue.
The trouble is that most people don’t know what the Big Society really means, least of all the unfortunate ministers who have to articulate it. What actually is the Big Society, let alone is it good or not? Exactly how big is it now or is it going to be? Is it, in fact, Anne Widdecombe? Is it a very British thing? Or is it another American import?

In America, the Big Society can, of course, mean something completely different, as a recent survey showed that one in three Americans weighs more than the other two put together - a statistic that gave rise to a recent Sun headline to an article on an environmental report that ‘Fatties cause global warning’.

More appropriately, however, we perhaps heard early rumblings of what it meant when President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke in 1964 of America’s ‘opportunity to move not only towards the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the great society’. His predecessor John Adams, however, the second president of the US, warned more ominously that ‘the happiness of society is the end of government’.

On the other side of the Channel, Rousseau put it more desperately: ‘Nature makes man happy and good but society corrupts him and makes him miserable’.

So is there anything more British about the Big Society? Well, of course Britishness is something of a movable feast these days. Being British these days is about driving in a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, then travelling home via an Indian restaurant or grabbing a Turkish kebab on the way, to enjoy a TV supper sitting on Swedish furniture, watching American shows on a Japanese television.

  • Only in Britain can a pizza get to your house faster than an ambulance.
  • Only in Britain do supermarkets make sick people walk all the way to the back of the shop to get their prescriptions while healthy people can buy cigarettes at the front.
  • Only in Britain do people order double cheeseburgers, large fries and a diet coke.
  • And only in Britain do banks leave both doors open and then chain the pens to the counters.

Clearly then, to be born British is to be born into a world of contrast and contradiction, where eccentricity and manners, faith and cynicism, tradition and modernity, have all conflated to create this collective sense of identity that is framed far more by its ambiguities than its consistencies.

And yet, through some quirk of anthropology, those same great ambiguities also combined to create one of most enduring, and famed, of all national characteristics -the British sense of fair play - with the nation both admired and mocked, in almost equal measure, for its strict codes of social conduct and propriety, which Sir Malcolm Bradbury once jokingly described as ‘the most rigid system of immorality in the world’.

Now, in part, you could argue that that reputation was never much more than a fig leaf, conceived of on the playing fields of Eton. But in reality, the British sense of social justice and generosity goes far deeper than that, with an extraordinarily rich catalogue of great names and moments that have helped shape, and distinguish, our communities over the years. Whether that was the first time William Wilberforce stood up in the House of Commons to make the case for the abolition of slavery. Whether it was Mary Seacole setting sail from Jamaica to volunteer as a nurse during the Crimean War, or whether it was the RAC volunteers who gave up their cars to take men and women to hospital during the blitz, and the continued, unabated acts of charity by organisations like the British Red Cross, Barnardos and - of course - CSV. Each, in their own right, helping to define what it now means to be British.

Increasingly however, volunteering and acts of charity have become a less and less visible feature of our national conscience, largely forgotten and bypassed by successive governments who have tended to ignore the good and focus on the bad when they design and institute policy. Which explains, perhaps, why we’ve seen so many governments attempt to muscle in on family and community life over the last 30 or so years - in a well intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to make up for the fact that families have become increasingly nuclear, and communities increasingly fragmented.

Sadly, as we all know, this approach has largely failed - and many of the gravest problems we today associate with those social changes are, in fact, greater than ever, with the UK suffering from some of the highest levels of drug and alcohol abuse amongst young people anywhere in the world, having the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe, stubbornly high levels of child poverty, and more than a million young people suffering from some kind of mental health condition.

So today I wanted to argue the case for a return to social policies that reinforce and support communities rather than supplant them. And a return to the kind of governance that promotes the work of organisations like the CSV, and its workers and volunteers, and helps families and local communities to tap into the spirit of generosity that’s such an important hallmark of British life. That is the starting point for the Big Society.

Because the simple reality, as I see it, is that although our society has changed in many ways, our nature hasn’t. For as long as humans have stalked the Earth, we have been distinguished by our altruism and sense of community. When hunter gatherers emerged from the tree line some 12,000 years ago, dragging their knuckles behind them, they didn’t survive by bashing each other over the heads with their clubs; they survived because they offered each other support. Altruism was, to put it bluntly, crucial to their social cohesion - precisely because a cohesive group was more likely to survive in interactions with other groups.

Even now, scientists argue over why that is - with many of the most eminent claiming it must be an evolutionary mistake and others, like Richard Dawkins, famously saying, ‘we have to teach generosity because we are born selfish’. But for the rest of us, it is, perhaps, simply enough to know that altruism does indeed exist. And that its benefits to our communities are vast, as, in fact, are its psychological and practical benefits to individuals. We know, for instance, that volunteering stimulates the reward centres in our brains. It helps people access social networks, provides opportunities for learning and developing skills, and gives us the satisfaction of making a contribution. In the case of CSV research, we notoriously know, of course, that 17 per cent of 18- to 24-year-old volunteers also claim that volunteering improves their sex lives.

In short, not only is being nice good for others - it is also personally rewarding and likely to be reciprocated. Conversely, of course, being selfish or unpleasant is likely to reap its own rewards.

A lesson was vividly highlighted to me on the train the other day by my private secretary, who told me a story about the late Alan Clark - who, although a wonderful politician and writer, had something of a reputation for his fiery personality. Apparently, whilst he was in government, one of his speechwriters decided to get his own back after a series of particularly bruising encounters - just before Clark was due to deliver an address at a major conference on employment law.

The speechwriter presented Clark with the draft just before he went on stage. The first page said something like, ‘Good morning. I’m delighted to be here. Today I will run you through seventeen complex issues in employment law, which are in desperate need of reform’. On the second page, the speechwriter had simply scrawled the words, ‘You’re on your own now, you bastard…’

I restocked the jelly babies I keep on my desk for officials almost immediately after hearing that story.

The fact is, we are healthier, happier, safer, and more socially cohesive when we are at our most altruistic - a point that has long been recognised by many of our greatest leaders, both past and present - with Churchill once famously saying that, ‘we make a living by what we do but we make a life by what we give’, and Barack Obama making the point, when he launched his new age of responsibility in the States, that people who join together ‘do amazing things’.

Nevertheless, I’ve heard the somewhat disingenuous arguments that the Big Society is either a way of providing public services through the back door or that it’s profoundly over-optimistic about the scale of change it can deliver.

The first is, perhaps, the most important to counter, because it makes the tacit - and frankly rather discredited assumption - that public services are like a glorious medicine chest of potions, lotions and tablets that have the capacity to cure all social problems. The simple reality is that too much government frequently adds to problems rather than solve them - by stripping away individual accountability and responsibility. That is what Rousseau was talking about. And by supplanting the family and community support structures that give each and everyone one of us our mental resilience, adaptability and strength.

As to the second charge against the Big Society, around the scale of its ambition, the answer is, I think, all around us. It’s in the work of great, great organisations like the CSV and its members. It’s in the continued commitment of the 22 million plus volunteers who support their communities. And it’s in the growing interest of business in corporate social responsibility - as we heard so strikingly from a previous Edith Kahn memorial lecturer, the Chief Executive of Timberland, who has been in the vanguard of corporate employee volunteering schemes. In short, no matter where you look, kindness, generosity and community activism are on display.

The London Olympics, for example, has already attracted well over 100,000 volunteers who want to help out for those two weeks in 2012 - huge numbers of people who have put their names forward despite the fact that most of them know they’re not going to be handing Usain Bolt his tracksuit top or marshalling the Opening Ceremony, but are instead doing it because they know that volunteering is something special.

In business there is a growing realisation amongst chief execs that the promotion of volunteering and social responsibility amongst staff has potentially huge benefits for both morale and balance sheets. I was at an event hosted by News International recently to mark its decision to allow each member of its staff to take up to four days off work for volunteering each year, which is then posted on their pay slip. Their scheme has been modelled on that of Timberland and I am delighted that it was CSV who helped broker that sharing of best practice.

Perhaps this is really a new manifestation of older schemes and even older notions - philanthropy, particularly local philanthropy. When I think back to my own constituency and the town of Worthing, many of the municipal good works that marked a period of frenetic development in the early nineteenth century when we officially became a town were instigated not from central government but from local businessmen and community-minded residents. The theatre, assembly rooms, baths and circulating library all have their origins in this period, and later the town’s drainage system, as Worthing promoted itself in contrast to nearby Brighton as ‘a nice place for nice people’.

Last week I joined a group of business leaders in Blackburn working with the founders of the Bolton Lads and Girls Club - the best youth club in the UK - to establish a network of similar youth facilities across the North West. Complimented by some seed corn public funds, they are looking to build state-of-the-art facilities for young people; help run and maintain them with volunteer time from their employees; develop them as hubs for other voluntary organisations, educational and other activities; and use them to train and bring on young people as potential recruits. This surely is a microcosm of what the Big Society is all about, with Government as enabler and supporter, and surely that contributes to a good society.

Elsewhere in our communities there are countless thousands of smaller projects, organisations and volunteering opportunities in action - whether that is acting as a ‘toad warden’ and helping toads across the road, or whether it’s taking the simplest of civic responsibilities in your community. Just a few weeks ago, for example, I was at an event at Google headquarters in London, where the ‘Fix my Street’ website was mentioned, which if you haven’t seen it online already, basically gives people the opportunity to report anything and everything from broken street lights, to pot holes on their road. I’m told it is now so successful that there’s even an iPhone app for it, and an Australian spin-off called - in good old Aussie fashion - ‘It’s Buggered Mate’.

The point is surely this: we’re all volunteers, even if we don’t realise it. It might not be the grandest gesture, or even a life-changing experience, but we all have that deeply ingrained understanding of the benefits of altruism and reciprocity.

And, as one of my old opponents, the former Home Secretary and longstanding CSV supporter, David Blunkett, once pointed out, this spirit of generosity should be a cornerstone of any good government. Or, in his own words: ‘People coming together on a voluntary basis to achieve common aims is a key feature of a dynamic democracy … Volunteering empowers people … it strengthens the bonds between individuals which are the bedrock of strong civil society’.

How right he was. And the Big Society is about harnessing this understanding and using the enormous pool of goodwill, sense of fair play and desire for social justice that we know exists in this country, to help create, as Matthew Parris has called it, a ‘big-hearted society’.

Does that mean Government wriggles out of its responsibilities? Does it mean Whitehall has no role to play in family and community life? The simple answer is no, absolutely not. A Big Society remains a supported society, where government has a hugely important role to play.

But I see our job as one of making it easier for the voluntary and community sector to step in - to provide that help - part of which is making sure organisations like CSV have the advice and support they need to develop and grow. Part of which is providing greater financial support and the policies to unlock volunteering and community action.
The Big Society bank, for instance, which formed one of the main compacts in the Coalition Agreement, will unlock hundreds of millions of pounds worth of new finance, using unclaimed assets to finance and sustain the voluntary sector.

We are also giving neighbourhoods the ability to take greater ownership of local projects. Whether that’s helping parents to open new schools so that they have greater control over their children’s education, or whether it’s giving communities the opportunity to take over local amenities such as parks and libraries that are under threat.

However, I do also think there is a trade-off in the sense that the voluntary sector itself needs to become more savvy about the way it works - particularly where it is being supported by government money. And we in turn, need to think smarter about how we use the voluntary sector in local services.

This is one of the reasons why we want to offer every young person in the country the opportunity to take part in an experience - through the National Citizen Service - that will help their personal development, strengthen their sense of identity, and give them the opportunity for community service. But provide it through civil society organisation rather than through an almost inevitably less effective, and less inventive, government programme.

In addition, we are encouraging local councils in particular to consider how they might use outstanding voluntary and community organisations to provide services for young people in particular.

We are providing neighbourhood grants for the UK’s poorest areas, with that money going to charities and social enterprises to work with new and existing groups in the most deprived and broken communities.

And we are establishing national centres for community organising that will train thousands of independent community organisers who can then, in turn, help communities to tackle the individual social challenges they face - a project that has, I must add, already been hugely successful in US cities like Chicago.

There is, though, another aspect to the Big Society because it is not just a one-way street where government withdraws and frees up local energy and talent and generosity to get on with it. Government - national and local - needs to do its bit too. Back in 1992 when I first stood for Parliament against David Blunkett in Sheffield and narrowly lost by 22,681 votes on the day, one innovation was the Citizen’s Charter and in particular, the Tenant’s Charter. Council tenants who did their bit and looked after their properties only to bang their head against a brick wall when it came to help from the Council with essential repairs, were empowered to have the work done privately and then send the bill to the Council. Yet even when tenants did join together and look after their own properties and even their neighbourhoods, there was no recognition of this and no two-way street when help was required.

This was self-defeating and the Big Society must mean that good citizens who do their bit must be recognised, and the local authority must do its bit in return. When you play to the strengths of people we know that many of them will step forward and go beyond their responsibilities. It’s cheaper, quicker and just better. Many innovative housing associations, such as the Irwell Valley in Salford, have been practising this for years. Tenants who look after their properties, keep the environment tidy and discourage anti-social behaviour in their localities are rewarded with a gold card discount scheme, faster repairs and preferential tenancies for their children. The Big Society has much to learn from Irwell Valley and its counterparts.

The point is, this is a new kind of governance that can adapt to the changes in society we have seen over the years, but takes as its starting point one of the most fundamental building blocks of our cultural development - altruism. Everyone can be part of it, although a bit of motivation and energy is preferable. Even those who might claim that they are not so much lazy but rather ‘blessed with a lack of ambition!’

Our society was not made great by big government; it was made great by big communities and individuals - with people willing to share, trade, help, cooperate and support each other - whether that is a man like Wilberforce, a woman like Seacole, or an organisation like the CSV. History remembers those who have given back to their communities rather than those who have taken from them.

So whilst it is true that the recession has made the case for radical reform greater and more urgent, the Big Society has never been an idea born of economic expediency. It is an idea based on optimism and on the example of great, great organisations like the CSV, its members and its volunteers. It is an idea based, at its most beautifully simple, on human nature.

So maybe everything I have spent the last half an hour articulating was academic and unnecessary, occasionally boring and occasionally irreverent. Because surely one of the starkest manifestations of the Big Society is right in front of me - CSV. Led by what we can call a one-woman Big Society in the form of Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, who in the 45 years she has run this wonderful organisation has been ahead of the game in promoting, in practical terms, what the Big Society is all about - and surely that has been, and is, an undeniably good thing.

Thank you.

Updates to this page

Published 9 February 2011