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Big Society

Volume 521: debated on Wednesday 19 January 2011

5. What recent discussions he has had with the civil society organisations on the implementation of the big society initiative. (34284)

All Cabinet Office Ministers meet civil society organisations regularly. I was present recently with the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude), the Prime Minister and other members of the Government at a round-table meeting with a cross section of voluntary and community groups and their representatives. We had extremely fruitful conversations about the new opportunities opening up for the sector and the way in which we can encourage those.

Yesterday, my local Tory council announced that 22 well-regarded voluntary organisations would be evicted from their home in Palingswick house, which they have been in for 25 years, to provide a site for a free school run by the self-publicist Toby Young, most of whose pupils will come from outside the borough. Will the right hon. Gentleman extend his deliberations and come to Hammersmith to sort out the broken big society there?

I have of course heard about the Palingswick house events, but it is hugely in the interests of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents that there should be a free school there, as it will improve education standards, I have no doubt. That is of course entirely a matter for the local council, not for the Government, because we believe in localism, but I understand that the council intends to find other ways to house the voluntary and community groups that are involved, and I am sure that it will do so with his help.

May I draw your attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, Mr Speaker, and ask the Minister what the likely timetable will be for local voluntary organisations to access the big society bank?

My hon. Friend has a distinguished record in financing voluntary and community groups, and the big society bank will make a difference to that area. The bank is a quite a complicated proposition, and we have to organise it and find the funding for it, but my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General is at work on that at the moment. Although we hope to be able to progress it at a reasonable rate, I certainly do not want to give my hon. Friend the impression that it will happen overnight, but I anticipate it being up and running in the not too distant future.

What reassurance has the Minister given civil society organisations that the big society agenda is being driven not by marketisation principles and the desire to see the voluntary and community sectors bid for public sector contracts simply to reduce costs, but by the desire to enable genuine community empowerment?

If the Speaker will permit a little essay, I would say two things in response to the hon. Lady’s important question. First, this is not all about money, in any dimension. The Localism Bill that we are bringing before the House has a huge effect on building social capital, and it does it by empowering people to make decisions about really important things such as their neighbourhood planning. That has nothing to do with saving money and everything to do with building social capital and empowering people.

Secondly, I fear that the hon. Lady shares the error that many of her colleagues have exhibited in thinking that the issue is one of services versus money. We are actually trying to find ways of getting more for less, and we believe that the innovation, enterprise, intelligence and social capital in the voluntary sector will enable us to do that.