This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Children’s Minister speaks to the Partnership in Action 'EESI Does It!' conference on the Big Society and the benefits of volunteering
Good morning and thank you Kevin. It really is a very genuine pleasure to be here today as a guest of the EESI project.
Now, Kevin has outlined some of the uncertainties facing the voluntary sector as we lead up to the spending review next month. And, of course, the difficulties that our own West Sussex EESI project has been dealing with as its Big Lottery funding comes to an end after Christmas.
It is, clearly, absolutely vital that that funding challenge is resolved, and resolved quickly. And I’m delighted that the CVS network has been coming together to help make sure that the project can continue to deliver its services to community groups in the constituency.
It’s patently obvious when you hear about the work that the project has been involved in, and about the quality of its advice, that it is a hugely valuable commodity for our local services and organisations. Helping, among others, the West Sussex fire service. Along with a vast range of our local charities, from drug addiction organisations through to heritage societies. And, of course, any number of community groups.
The question I wanted to ask today is whether we have done enough in the past to promote that kind of work and volunteering more generally? My own feeling is that we haven’t. Volunteering and community groups have always been valued, yes. But they’ve very rarely been trusted to lead change. Instead, they’ve been marginalised by the architecture of big government. With quangos, arm’s-length bodies, bureaucrats and goodness knows who else, often crushing the capacity of local communities to take power into their own hands, despite what have often been very well-intentioned Government interventions.
The problem, as I see it, is that that approach hasn’t really worked. Successive governments have desperately tried to patch over the effects of the changes we have seen in society over the last 40 or so years - frittering away billions of pounds in the process on x, y, z glitzy Whitehall initiatives. Unfortunately, like a used car salesman who promises a ‘nice little runner’, but delivers an old banger that conks out a few metres from the showroom, we have all too often been left feeling a little cheated, with a series of underperforming programmes rolling off the shelves that have never quite lived up to the marketing hype.
The fact is: society has changed hugely. Families have become more nuclear, and communities more fragmented, and the UK has had to face up to the consequences of that change, with some of the highest levels of alcohol and drug use amongst its young people in the developed world, the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe, and more than a million of our children suffering from some kind of mental health disorder.
Unfortunately, over the years, successive governments assumed that the best way of addressing those issues was to supplant local communities rather than support them, acting as a surrogate parent. A policy that makes the rather depressing assumption that in the modern world we don’t really care enough about each other to be trusted. But the simple reality is that although society has changed, our nature hasn’t. For as long as humans have stalked the earth, we have been distinguished by our altruism and sense of community.
And while 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’ - the rest of us are left to say that 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.
I’ve seen, however, as I’m sure we all have, the somewhat disingenuous argument that volunteering is a way of providing public services through the back door. But that totally misses the point, I think. As Barack Obama said when calling for a new age of responsibility in the States, people who join together can ‘do amazing things’.
That’s not something Government can conjure up through the traditional mechanisms of Whitehall. That has been tried and it’s failed. It is, instead, something that is done by properly supporting our 22 million plus volunteers to address the things that are important to them.
Indeed, one of my old opponents, the former Home Secretary David Blunkett, once said: ‘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 it is that understanding that goes to the heart of the Coalition’s Big Society plans. The idea that big communities are based on the altruism and expertise of great individuals - not on big government.
In essence, the Big Society is about turning less often to central government to provide all the answers, and instead supporting local communities and volunteers to build their own solutions, helping projects like EESI to carry on the great work they are doing.
It does, though, challenge everyone to think differently. It involves a new relationship and partnership between the voluntary, private and statutory sectors. One where social entrepreneurs, charities and others collaborate in the design and delivery of complementary services and initiatives.
We know it works because we can see it operating with our own eyes, from the smallest community projects in Worthing, to the biggest worldwide events. Just this week, for instance, London 2012 launched its campaign to recruit 70,000 volunteers for the Olympics. Huge numbers of people are expected to apply, despite the fact most of them know they are not going to be handing Usain Bolt his tracksuit top or marshalling the opening ceremony. Instead, they are doing it because they know that volunteering is something special.
And it’s not always just about helping others; it can be just as empowering to take individual responsibility for improving your own environment or circumstances rather than relying on others. I was at an event at Google in London the other day where the ‘Fix my Street’ website was mentioned. If you haven’t seen it, it basically gives people the opportunity to report anything and everything from broken street lights to potholes on their road. It’s proving so successful there’s even an iPhone app for it now, and an Australian spin-off called - in good old Aussie fashion - ‘It’s Buggered Mate’.
The point surely is that in an age where information flows more quickly than ever before, when people are in greater control of their lives than ever before, and where we are more sceptical than ever before of attempts at large-scale social engineering, communities want and expect to have greater say over their own local priorities.
This is why we want to make volunteering and community groups the cornerstone of villages, towns and cities across the country through the Big Society. Using what might be perceived as the ‘old-fashioned’ virtue of altruism, to effect a thoroughly modern type of government. And, at the same time, to make those ‘amazing things’ happen that Barack Obama talked about.
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. Government still has a vitally important part to play, and will of course always have a duty to protect citizens and promote their welfare. But that role should always be to support, rather than supplant our local communities.
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 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, whilst we are already 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.
- We have committed to provide greater information to local communities on what is being spent by central government in their area, and they’ll be given the power to influence how this money is spent.
- Communities will be provided with detailed, street-by-street, crime data, enabling residents to hold the police to account.
- We will provide 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.
- We will establish ‘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.
- And, finally, we’re introducing the National Citizen Service, which will provide a programme for 16-year-olds to give them a chance to develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens, to mix with people from different backgrounds, and to start getting involved in their communities.
The point is, this is a new type of government that can adapt to the changes in society we have seen over the years, but that takes as its starting point one of the most fundamental building blocks of human nature: altruism.
Our society was not made great by strong government and weak communities. It was made great by the strength of its communities. With people willing to share, trade, help, cooperate and support each other.
In Worthing and West Sussex, we have some of the most profound examples of how volunteering and community spirit can create strong networks of anywhere in the country. Much of that is down to the resilience and support of organisations like the EESI project. I can promise you today, both as a constituency MP and a Government minister, that the Coalition is determined to build on that success and place volunteering and social responsibility at the very heart of British society.
The Big Society should mean a very big future for EESI, and the partners it supports so brilliantly.