Skip to main content

Community Cohesion

Volume 522: debated on Wednesday 26 January 2011

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to hold this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I called this debate because I am deeply concerned about the communities in which I live and in which I grew up. At a time of public sector cuts, declining rates of growth are exacerbating the efforts of the north-east to help rebalance the economy. In County Durham, Sedgefield could suffer the same fate this decade that it did in the 1980s. There was hope, because the previous Government drew up a plan to halve the deficit, but that has now been replaced by a strategy to eradicate the deficit. As a consequence, unemployment is rising, economic confidence is damaged and growth is starting to stall.

When we left power, unemployment was falling and home repossessions and business bankruptcies were only half what they were in the 1980s and 1990s. The previous Government were acting in the spirit of the big society. In the 1980s, unemployment in Sedgefield stood at 5,500, 40% of whom were out of work for 12 months or more. Then the figures were massaged, so people were taken from the unemployment register and put on incapacity benefit and whole communities were closed down. If you met someone in the street, you never asked them if they were well; you asked them whether they had a job. Lessons are being learned. As the Government cut deep into public services with a fury, we do not want their mantra, “There is no such thing as society”, thrown back in our face. Some argue that the Government’s notion of the big society is a cover for the cuts, but it is, I believe, worse than that. I accept that the Government believe in a big society—after all they cannot be against fresh air. However, their deep cuts into the grants awarded to the third sector will inevitably prevent them from building such a society. Those who want to build a big society will not be able to do so, because they are denied the proper tools.

Charities have always had a role in society. People have always volunteered, but the need for charity and for volunteers becomes more acute when society fails its people. You only need to look at the coal mining traditions of County Durham in the late-19th and 20th centuries to prove the point. As A. J. P. Taylor said:

“Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state beyond the post office and policemen.”

Perhaps some would like to return to such an age, but let us look at what it meant to the mining communities of that time.

Colliery owners provided housing from which colliers could be evicted at any time. Thousands of miners died at their jobs—sometimes hundreds of them died in a single incident, because of the lack of mine safety. Education was provided by charities, the Church and sometimes by colliery owners. At the opening of his school in East Hedleyhope colliery towards the end of the 19th century, Sir Bernhard Samuelson said:

“If elementary schools were being built for the working population, colleges and secondary schools were also being erected for those who employed them.”

Life expectancy for miners was poor. In the 20th century, 27% of miners were disabled before they retired. Health care, which was provided at the county hospital in Durham city, was funded by miners’ subscriptions. It was a time of great volunteering, of banding together and of mutual help. It was driven not just by altruism, but by enlightened self-interest.

In the 1890s, some 52% of the adult population—the highest figure of any county—belonged to a co-operative and were known as co-operators. Some 130,000 miners in Durham joined together to form the Durham Aged Mineworkers’ Homes Association, which built homes for miners, so that they could live out their retirement in dignity. They were able to live in a “haven of rest” rather than go to the workhouse.

The miners also formed a trade union and, as we all know, the trade union movement itself helped to form the Labour party. Keir Hardie, one of our founding fathers, believed in “a communal consciousness”, which is what we today would call a big society. It is this belief in community that has always driven my politics. I am proud of what the miners did for themselves and I am proud of their heritage, but you could argue that they were practising the big society.

It is obvious that the miners did not live in a big society and that they did what they had to do. They risked their lives every day of the week, and there was no one there to help. As they left the pit, they had to run charities and raise funds to look after themselves. They put into practice the belief that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone. To me that is what a society that is fair, big and good should be doing.

For the big society to work, there must be more than just volunteering and charity, because there must be a democratically elected Government who act on behalf of the people and the community. People will be able to live secure in the knowledge that society will work with them to provide the environment for health, work and education.

With respect, the hon. Gentleman’s seat is very different from the one that I represent. None the less, I have some big problems in my own area, too. He makes the case for the history of Sedgefield and brings it up to the current day. Did he not agree with the Prime Minister when he said that there was such a thing as society, but it was not necessarily the same as the state? That is not to say that the state has no role, but that it should not have an exclusive role.

I do not think for one moment that anyone is saying that there is no place for charity or for volunteering, but both must work in hand with the state if we are to have a fair and just society. We cannot have one without the other. I use the miners as an example, because what they were practising is what we would see today as the big society. Self-interest made them behave in such a way, because there was no one there to help them and the state would not take part. As A. J. P. Taylor said, the state was nowhere. The only time you came across it was when you went to the post office or when you met a policeman in the street. A strong society is what we need, and it is something that the Labour party has helped to build over the years.

The big society cannot only be about you and what you do for yourself, because it is also about what you can do for others, which is something with which we can all agree. The greatest acts of volunteering and charity will come where there is the greatest need, such as in the coalfields of County Durham in the 19th and 20th centuries, and I do not want to return to those times. The Government thought not only that they did not have a role but that they should not have a role either. A lot of volunteering and charitable work goes on today, which the Government have acknowledged. Volunteering levels have remained stable since 2001 with 40% of people volunteering once a year and 27% of people volunteering once a month.

Citizen Survey, which has been quoted by the Government, also states that 83% of people perceive their community as cohesive and agree that their local area is a place in which people from different backgrounds got on well together, which is an increase on 2003.

When people are content, there is little likelihood of their feeling the need to volunteer. It is a testament to the efforts of the previous Government that they put so much into community cohesion.

I welcome you, Mrs Main, to the Chair. I apologise that I cannot stay for the full debate, because I have to attend another meeting, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that in order to have proper community cohesion, there needs to an adequate amount of funding in working-class estates to provide the projects that are so badly needed? Although we understand that there is a difficulty with funding per se given the economics of the country, to withdraw it or reduce it dramatically knocks confidence. People are left feeling that they might as well have never received it in the first place, because if it is cut in mid-stream, they are left in limbo.

There is much truth in what the hon. Gentleman has said. He comes from an area which has pockets of deprivation and working-class communities that rely on this funding to ensure that they can go ahead with charitable work.

The previous Government more than doubled the amount of money in the third sector, which increased from some £5.5 billion to more than £12 billion. There are now about 62,000 social enterprises in the UK, contributing at least £24 billion to the economy. It has been estimated that social enterprises employ about 800,000 people. At the height of the recession, we used the hardship fund to give £17 million to local charities, for example those working in health and social care, housing support, and education and training.

What we and the Government must be careful of—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has corrected himself, but he has referred to me on several occasions, by saying “you”. I have let it go, but if he were to refrain from using the word “you”, I would be grateful.

I will not do it again. Thank you for pointing that out, Mrs Main.

I am worried that the Government are raising expectations about what the third sector should deliver, but they are about to embark on cuts that will damage the capacity of civil society to deliver. That brings me to the nub of my argument. How can the Government fulfil their big society agenda when they are cutting funding and dismantling the infrastructure within which a big society can flourish? Because the cuts force people into volunteering, as they have no other choice, what we have left is not a big society but a coercive society. That is the kind of society that the miners of Durham found themselves in because the community at large had abrogated its responsibilities, which is what this Government are doing.

I am not the only one saying that about the funding cuts; the charities are too. From what I understand, a recent press release from the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations estimated that the voluntary sector

“will lose more than £1 billion in the 2011-12 financial year and more than £3 billion a year by 2014-15 as councils terminate grants or buy fewer services.”

As the Government try to push their big society programme, the ACEVO warns that:

“if the scale of the spending cuts to councils were passed on to charities the voluntary sector would be ‘decimated’. Charities are already facing pressure from VAT rises and the loss of Gift Aid relief.”

If the charities themselves are saying that, is it not time that the Government listened to what they have to say?

Before we on this side of the Chamber are lectured by the Government on the economy and their belief that they need to cut as deeply as they are cutting because of the deficit, I just want to say that I do not think that we can be lectured on those things any more, especially as the Chancellor gave a three-minute interview on the BBC yesterday in which he blamed the weather for the economy’s problems 24 times. If the Government want to build a big society, they need to re-examine how they are going to fund charities and the third sector.

I have been listening very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has been saying. Surely, however, he will acknowledge that his own party, when it was in power, had identified that it would make £44 billion—I think that was the figure—of savings or cuts. Is he saying to hon. Members today that none of those cuts would have affected the voluntary sector in any way?

We would have done two things. First, we would have made sure that, as far as possible, we did not damage front-line services. Secondly, we would not have raised expectations, as I believe this Government are doing by saying that they will create a big society while at the same time undermining that big society by slashing and burning all the grants and facilities that provide for the third sector. We would not have done that.

We also need the Government to consider what they can do other than providing for charities and the third sector, because the big society involves more than doing just that. For example, one of the issues in my constituency is that some private landlords are neglecting the properties that they own. Those properties were owned by the National Coal Board many years ago. They were then sold off, and people bought them to get on to the property ladder, before selling them on. Private landlords came in and bought them. Now we have a problem, and I believe that, if we are not careful, whole centres of communities will be sucked out and the community spirit will be sucked out too by the behaviour of some of those landlords.

Labour introduced selective licensing schemes, which I am pleased to say the Government have allowed to continue. However, we were also going to introduce a national register for private landlords, which would have meant that you had to register in communities such as mine before you could go on to rent out properties. The Government are not introducing that register. I know that private landlords are not necessarily the Minister’s responsibility, but he has responsibility for the big society. He needs to discuss this issue of private landlords with the Department for Communities and Local Government, because it is ripping the soul out of some of our local communities and needs to be sorted out.

I totally endorse the point that my hon. Friend is making about the lack of registration of landlords and what I think is a lack of consideration by this Government of the need for communities to know who landlords are, so that if problems with rented properties emerge, they can be tackled at local level.

My hon. Friend and I worked together a lot on this issue with Durham county council. Many of those private landlords are absentee landlords, and a lot of them live abroad, so what do they care about what is happening in the villages of Sedgefield or elsewhere in the country? It is an issue that needs to be tackled nationally and, if need be, internationally, too. I say that because if you are not careful what you will have in these areas is not a big society but a non-society, because the community spirit will be taken out of them.

If we really want a big society to flourish, and if we are “all in this together”, we must look internationally to secure a future for our communities that is protected from unstable international financial systems. We need a big society that is not underpinned by abolishing the future jobs fund or the education maintenance allowance, and by the Prime Minister basically reneging on his pledge to send back to the drawing board any Minister who came up with a proposal that affected the front line.

Finally, I want to leave you with this example of the kind of society—

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for bringing this important debate to Westminster Hall. I came along because I was intrigued by the title of the debate, “Community Cohesion”. Obviously I have listened to what you have said. I believe that our Localism Bill very much embeds all the charities and all the volunteers within what we are trying to do, whether it is HealthWatch, the Work programme, community groups or community centres. The big society is everything that you are talking about, just seen from a different viewpoint, and I have people coming to me locally and saying, “Thank goodness we’ve been liberated to go forth and develop what we want, rather than having a top-down state approach.” So I hope that you welcome this way forward.

Order. Both hon. Members have referred to me, by saying “you”. This is not my debate, and I respectfully remind them to try not to say “you”.

Okay. Thank you for that, Mrs Main.

The hon. Lady might have people coming up to her and saying, “Thank you for us being liberated.” I have people coming up to me and saying that they are scared stiff that their charity will not survive because of the cuts, or that they are scared stiff that they will not be able to work any more for the young people in their village or to look after the elderly, and so on, because of the cuts that they know are coming down the line. So this issue actually cuts both ways, but I am more concerned about those people who are frightened to death about what is going to hit them.

I want to end by relating a true story, which for me encapsulates the big society that is already here. A friend of mine had a couple over from America visiting him a few months ago. The Americans were out with my friend for a meal one evening and one of them was taken ill in the street. So my friend phoned 999 on his mobile and a few minutes later a paramedic turned up, administered to the lady who was ill, made her better, got back on his motorbike and drove away. The Americans were amazed by that. They were amazed that they did not have to pay on the spot and that instead this man just turned up on his motorbike, made sure that the person was made well and drove away, and they did not even know his name. My friend said to me, “If you want an example of a big society that is a big society, when that works.” That is down to the NHS, which I believe is a true testimony to the big society. The NHS makes the story of the good samaritan an everyday occurrence, but I believe that this Government want to dismantle it. The Government might believe in a big society but they will never get it to work, because they do not actually know what it means.

I read with some interest on the Order Paper that there was going to be a debate on “Community Cohesion”, because I wondered what that phrase meant. Usually, the topic that is going to be debated is clear from the Order Paper, and the policy issues that will be considered and the Department that is likely to respond to the debate are usually implied by that. The phrase “community cohesion” does not lend itself to any of that, so I thought, at first, that it might be shorthand for “the big society” and, as I have listened to the comments made by the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) in the debate today, that is, I think, what has so far been intended.

On this side of the Chamber, we have certainly made it clear that the size, scope and role of the Government has reached a point at which it is inhibiting rather than advancing the progressive aims of reducing poverty, fighting inequality and increasing well-being. In short, we do not believe that Government with a capital G has all the answers, and the coalition has made it clear that its alternative to big government is the big society, a society in which we all recognise the responsibilities that we owe to ourselves, our families, the communities in which we find ourselves and the nation as a whole. It is a society with much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility, where people come together to solve problems and to improve life for themselves and their communities, and where the driving dynamic or progress is social responsibility, not state control. I am sure, therefore, that the concept of the big society runs, and will run, consistently through the coalition Government’s programme, which is reflected by the fact that the Minister responding to this debate is responsible for the policy on the big society.

The Government’s plans to reform public services, mend society and rebuild trust in politics are part of the big society agenda. Such plans involve redistributing power from the state to society—from the centre to local communities—giving people the opportunity to take more control of their lives. That is why the Localism Bill is so important, as are similar initiatives. It was heartening to see that so many right hon. and hon. Members wished to speak last week on Second Reading. Some 76 Members put their names forward, which I suspect was a record and which reflects the considerable interest in the localism agenda. It has occurred to me that if the hon. Gentleman wanted to have a crack at the big society, he would have tabled something on that topic at that point, and we would have found on the Order Paper a debate entitled, “The Big Society”.

The phrase “Community Cohesion” should therefore mean something, and as I reflected on that I decided to look it up on Wikipedia, which was not a particularly reassuring experience. The Wikipedia reference to community cohesion starts by proclaiming that

“this article does not cite any references or sources”,

so if there is some great sociological debate going on here, it clearly has not hit Wikipedia. The website then gives a short definition:

“Community cohesion refers to the aspect of togetherness and bonding exhibited by members of a community, the ‘glue’ that holds a community together. This might include features such as a sense of common belonging or cultural similarity.”

I cannot work out why it is necessary for hon. Members to spend an hour and a half considering our sense of common belonging, because it is axiomatic that we have a sense of common belonging.

The phrase is included in some of the Conservative party documentation that I have read on the big society, and community surveys in recent years also talk about community cohesion. The phrase has not just come out of the blue, and the hon. Gentleman’s own party has used it to explain what the big society is all about. My point is not that anyone is against the big society, but that because of the cuts that you are going to bring about, you will ensure that there is no big society.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman has said, but he chose the topic for this debate, and in the substantial briefing prepared by the Library—it runs to pages and pages—the phrase “community cohesion” is, interestingly, mentioned only once.

After giving the brief description that I cited before giving way, Wikipedia recommends that one should also look on the site for terms such as “gemeinschaft and gesellschaft”, “integration”, “multiculturalism”, “social cohesion”, “structural cohesion” and “social solidarity”. On the basis of those associated terms, it struck me that community cohesion is not a policy that would commend itself to many of my hon. Friends, because it is clearly shorthand for state intervention by stealth. If it is not, I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman has not candidly introduced a debate on the big society.

I then recalled, from the recesses of my mind, that there is one statutory reference to community cohesion—just one—which is that the previous Government placed in statute in the Education and Inspections Act 2006 a duty on schools to promote community cohesion, and an obligation on Ofsted to police whether schools were taking sufficient action to promote such cohesion. I do not know about other hon. Members, but in the time that I have been a Member in north Oxfordshire I have found that all the schools in my patch strive hard to play their part in the local community and do not require a tick-box exercise to determine whether they are full members of the community. Indeed, how can a school be isolated from what other parts of the community do? I suspect that every head teacher and governing body in my patch believes that community cohesion is a fundamental part of their ethos. They need neither Ministers to tell them what they should be doing nor Ofsted inspectors to check that they, as schools, are playing their full part in the community.

I assumed, therefore, that what we would be having today would be synthetic row about the perfectly sensible decision of Ministers at the Department for Education to remove from Ofsted inspectors the obligation to have regard to community cohesion when carrying out inspections, and about the decision that inspectors should, in future, concentrate on four principal areas, namely the quality of teaching, the effectiveness of leadership, pupils’ behaviour and safety, and pupils’ achievement. That seems an eminently sensible approach. Indeed, and perhaps understandably, head teachers and the teaching unions have long urged that there should be less control from the centre and that they should be trusted more to run their schools and to teach for the benefit of the pupils concerned and not for the benefit of bureaucrats. Those four principal areas of focus for inspection by Ofsted show whether a school is performing effectively, but I am conscious that the people who are opposed to Ministers removing an obligation on Ofsted to have regard to community cohesion, are also having a crack at the policy of free schools being introduced by the Secretary of State for Education and other ministerial colleagues at the Department. I find that hostility to free schools truly bizarre.

This year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Church of England entering the field of education and the formation of the National Society. At that time, the Church of England introduced Church schools into every parish for the purposes of educating local children. It was never intended that they should be faith schools; they were seen as part of the Church of England’s central mission to the local community, and in 1944 Rab Butler was able to introduce his Education Act only because the Church of England was prepared to integrate Church schools into the state system of education.

Then, as now, Roman Catholic and other schools provided diversity, and in recent years that diversity has been extended by the introduction and continuance of academies by the previous Government. Children in Banbury have a choice of going to Banbury school, which is a trust school, North Oxfordshire academy, which as its name suggests is an academy, or Blessed George Napier school, which is a Roman Catholic secondary school with a sixth form. Post 16, they can go to the Oxford and Cherwell Valley further education college. Parents welcome such choice, and head teachers, governing bodies and schools are all, in their different ways, rooted in the local community.

Indeed, the Education Act 1944 makes it clear that as far as is possible, children should be educated in accordance with their parents’ wishes, a concept endorsed fully by Jim Callaghan as Prime Minister in the mid-1970s during his notable speech at Ruskin college on education, in which he made it clear that whatever parents wanted for their children, the state should want for all our children. I thus find it entirely bizarre that the Labour party, which endorsed the academies programme while in government—not just in inner cities but in areas and constituencies such as mine—wants to pull up the drawbridge now that it is in opposition.

Who is it that the Opposition do not trust—head teachers, governing bodies or parents? Occasionally, they seek to show their opposition to free schools by having a crack at faith groups, but faith groups, such as the Church of England, have, as I have said, been running schools in this country very effectively for 200 years. I was fortunate enough to attend a faith school. A couple of months ago, I returned there to take part in a seminar commemorating the life and work of one of the school’s distinguished old boys, Michael Foot. I fail to understand why some in the Labour party wish to pull up the ladder that they and others climbed.

I am pleased that a new free school is proposed in my constituency that will take pupils from age eight through secondary level. RAF Upper Heyford was a United States air force base until the early 1990s. For some years, the base was in limbo while various national house builders who owned the site negotiated the planning process. Heyford Park now has planning permission for 1,000 homes, including the existing 300, and parents there made it clear in a survey that they would like a combined primary and secondary school built at Heyford Park. A Heyford Park parents’ group has grown up as a result of that effort to seek parents’ views, and it in turn has developed into Heyford Park parents’ planning group for a new free school.

I strongly support the initiative. It seems totally in accord with the Government’s policy on free schools and new academies. It also has the benefit of an existing community that will grow over time and from which such a school can be born in terms of parental support and a geographical area. In addition, there is no primary or secondary school in the area whose offering the creation of a Heyford Park academy would challenge, threaten or undermine, as all the existing primary schools nearby are effectively full, obliging many primary school children from the area to travel a considerable distance to Bicester. The creation of the school would allow children to go to school much nearer where they live.

The planning group includes Roy Blatchford, former head teacher of Bicester community college and one of Her Majesty’s inspectors. I am glad to report that the buildings for a school already exist and that there are plenty of grounds and playing space at Upper Heyford dating from when it was an air force base. The developers are willing to commit substantial amounts of money to the new free school.

That project chimes with what we are trying to do to give local people much greater control over their lives. If we are to debate the big society, let us have a debate, but I believe that the localism agenda, which gives people much greater control over their own lives—having regard to the obligations that we all have to ourselves, our families and the communities in which we find ourselves—is the right direction of travel. I am glad that it is this Government’s direction of travel.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this important debate. Like the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), when I saw “Community Cohesion” on the Order Paper, I was confused about what this debate would address. I started preparing for a debate about community cohesion and stopping the radicalisation of young people. Then, fortunately, I received the Library briefing, which made it clear that we would be discussing community cohesion and the big society. I am pleased to discuss that as well—

Order. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the debate is about community cohesion. As the previous speaker felt free to explore the terminology, the hon. Gentleman is free to explore it however he sees fit.

Thank you, Mrs Main. For the purposes of this debate, a discussion of projects to reduce radicalisation among young people might take us off the agenda that other Members intended to debate. Also, the Minister does not have responsibility for that particular aspect of Government policy. I intend to focus on the big society. My borough, the London borough of Sutton, is one of the four lead authorities on the big society, so the issue is close to my heart.

As the hon. Member for Sedgefield said in his opening remarks, it will clearly be harder for the Government and people throughout the country to deliver a big society agenda against the nation’s current financial backdrop. We have the largest budget deficit in the G20. The Government are rightly taking measures to address that, and many organisations will be affected. I intervened on him to point out that his Government accepted that such action would be necessary. I was not aware of any suggestion in his remarks that the voluntary sector, for instance, should be ring-fenced from the budget cuts. I was hoping that he might set out an alternative approach that took into account the fact that we face difficult financial circumstances. However, he did not do so, providing us with a list of things that he did not think the Government should cut rather than an alternative approach to deliver the £44 billion in savings that his Government would have made, if they had been elected on 6 May.

On the big society, I make an unashamed plug for the work being done in the London borough of Sutton. The borough is concentrating on four things. It is developing the Sutton Life centre. It is concentrating on the public transport agenda, particularly smarter travel. It is progressing health provision, GP commissioning and ensuring that local people and the local authority have a bigger say in health provision. Finally—this is the area that I will focus on most—it is developing the Hackbridge vision, which is a grassroots effort. That is what the big society should be about. The community is driving a project to make Hackbridge the most sustainable suburb in the country.

The Hackbridge project has already got off to a good start. Members might be aware of a residential development called BedZED, which has been widely covered in many colour supplements in recent years. BedZED has received visitors from all over the world. When I catch the train that goes through Hackbridge, I often see visitors from every country in the world getting off at Hackbridge and going to visit the development. It will form the core around which the rest of the initiatives will be developed. The community, local authority and developers are all working successfully to develop the concept. I am sure that renewable energy plants will be delivered there. The local landfill site is already putting energy back into the grid using turbines. That is exactly what the big society is about—a grassroots movement to develop a community sustainably and with the support of local people.

I will mention a couple of exemplars. When the local authority identified the need for a children’s centre on the site of Amy Johnson primary school, the borough could offer only limited cash to the school. It said to the school, “We have £180,000 that we’re going to spend on developing this.” The school governors came back and said, “Give us the money and we’ll do it.” The local authority said, “Okay, but we will not give you £1 more than £180,000.” The school governors and parents went away and designed a project that ended up with 40% more floor space than what the local authority was going to offer. It was also designed to their specification and delivered within the £180,000 envelope. In addition to the voluntary contribution from the school governors, the school caretaker, who had worked in the building trade, took on a lot of the project management. That is a good example of what can be done in big society terms.

Another initiative is the Wandle Trust, which has taken over responsibility for maintaining the River Wandle from the Environment Agency. It is involving many more volunteers than the Environment Agency could ever hope to. Another example is Gaynesford Lodge, which provides day care for senior citizens. It is looking at setting up a social enterprise to take on responsibility for providing that service, and I hope that it will receive advice from the Government to help it to do that.

Earlier this week, I was at an event where the Federation of Bangladeshi Caterers talked about the role that its businesses can play in the big society. That might involve providing training or business mentoring to young people. Its members are therefore keen to get engaged.

I carry out an electronic poll once a month, sending out e-mails to about 6,000 constituents. One of those straw polls was about the big society, and I am pleased to say that 53% of the people who responded said that they would want to get actively involved in big society projects. There is, therefore, a real desire to get involved.

Let me read a couple of comments from people who responded to the poll. Sarah said:

“I believe this is a good opportunity for the community to work together for the common good of all.”

John said:

“It is easy to be cynical about Government and see this as a middle class gimmick but we all need to feel more connected to each other...Let’s get on and test it.”

Explaining why she collected litter in her road and the surrounding area, Margaret said:

“If more people did this we would have pride back in where we live. It is not taking jobs from people it is simply helping us to help ourselves.”

In the London borough of Sutton, at least, there is a strong desire to engage—people are not cynical.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will tell us which rules and regulations that apply to the Government, local government, the police and the NHS will be changed to facilitate the big society process. For me and my constituents, that process is about helping people get involved. Currently, they are being prevented from doing so, because a few obstacles have been thrown in their way. Those obstacles are not really necessary and can easily be removed. I accept that the Localism Bill, which the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) has mentioned, is part of that process, but I hope that the Minister and his officials are identifying some of the obstacles. I also hope that he will be able to tell us—if not now, perhaps as things develop—exactly what bonfire of regulations and rules will take place to enable people to engage in the big society in the way in which they are keen to.

I thank you, Mrs Main, and the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) for giving me the opportunity to speak in this important debate.

We all accept that community cohesion is a wide-ranging notion. We all want to live in a community where we feel safe from crime, where we give our children a good education and where everyone comes together at times of need to help those who need help most.

When I was first selected as the prospective MP for Hexham, and we first started talking about the big society and community cohesion, individuals in the 1,100 square miles that I am lucky enough to represent said, “But we already have this. We do this already.” However, they would then add a “but” and talk about the obstacles that prevented them from going forward and being freed up to do things. I will attempt to identify those individual problems, although I do not particularly seek to criticise previous Governments. None the less, it is clear that there is much in the big society agenda that we can take forward and use as an asset.

There have been accusations—in The Times on Monday, for example—that the big society is not being implemented in the way in which everybody would like, but, in my respectful submission, that is not right. Although the big society is there to a degree, and it comes to the forefront in times of crisis, the coalition has managed to make it an individual, overriding aim. Apart from wiping out the deficit, which clearly must be done, we want to decentralise government. Effectively, we are enablers; we are trying to take government back to the people, who are in charge. I can give multiple examples of that, but that is surely all about trying to give power back to the people with whom it fundamentally rests.

It follows from that vein of thought that it is up to individuals actively to transform community cohesion from being big only in times of need, as it was perhaps in the past, to being something that exists at all times. People need to be aware of it at all stages. I implore my colleagues to get behind this initiative, if they have not done so already.

I want to make an unashamed plug at this point. On 11 February, more than 100 individuals will get together in Hexham to see how we can take community cohesion forward. The event is not sponsored by anybody individually, although I am paying the bill. We are bringing together all manner of people—representatives of different faiths, councillors and housing representatives —to look at the opportunities. I will come to that in a bit more detail, but I just wanted to give the context in which we are working.

Ever since I have had the honour of representing Hexham, we have tried to support many big society initiatives, with the aim of creating more community cohesion. I want to list 10 things that we are doing. First, we have an internship programme in the constituency office to which everybody contributes. We have had 35 young people, which is an awful lot in seven months. They have been aged from 16 to 22, and 10 of them have already completed the programme. A further 30 young people have signed up for the internship programme for 2011.

Secondly, the volunteers and I help to run our MP’s charity quiz nights. We go to local pubs around the constituency raising money for charities. We have worked for Help the Heroes and a local charity, Tynedale Activities for Special Children.

Thirdly, we are committed to an annual Christmas social action project. Lots of people have such projects, but I want to give some idea of the extent of ours. I have a spare office—it is meant to be my surgery office—but I had to move out of it, because so many people contributed presents. The project mushroomed and acquired a wonderful life of its own. We sent those presents to Support Our Soldiers and collected care packages for our serving troops. The response in the community was wonderful. Almost more interestingly, the two regiments involved—one is 39 Regiment Royal Artillery—wrote to tell us what an amazing contribution that we had made. One individual even wrote just before Christmas, but sadly passed away. We saw the impact on the people we were trying to help on a regular basis.

There is also our social action programme, which has ideas for youth training, job clubs and producing community guides. There is not, for example, in the wonderful, wild world of Northumberland, a universal guide to its best parts, so we are producing one ourselves. We managed to persuade the tourist board to give us what it uses, such as photographs, and we shall integrate all those things into our programme, so that during the weekend all the individuals who are trying to set up bed and breakfast or support for organisations will be supported by us.

We also have volunteers who support nature projects such as tree and bulb planting, and community allotment days throughout the constituency. I am not at all green-fingered, but I am becoming better by the minute and have, delightfully, been offered the vice-presidency of the Prudhoe allotments, a welcome activity for destressing on a wet weekend.

There are small projects, but there are also very big ones. One is in the village of Humshaugh, which has a village shop. It lost its post office, which is a problem faced by every constituency. In Humshaugh, with the post office having gone and the shop struggling, the villagers faced closure, because they had no money to go on with. So the community rallied round and enlisted the support of a wealth of individuals. I use the word “wealth” because everyone involved—60-odd people—gives their time for free. It is an amazing example of a shop that closed, then reopened and is progressing. There was a contribution by a business man who prefers to remain nameless, but everyone else was involved. People thought that that was so good that they were a bit upset about the pub. The Crown Inn, Humshaugh, had not gone into receivership but it was not far off, so the villagers took it over as well.

I want to discuss broadband. Everyone knows that there are efforts to take it forward. I am lucky in that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), whose constituency neighbours mine, has money and funding for the Eden Valley project, which is a very successful and good project. It is just over the border—I wish it was with us, but such is life, and we must get on with it. We have gone to see what is happening, and we are trying to dovetail with what it is doing. Kielder forest and the Northumberland national park cover huge areas, with probably the largest forest in the country. We have no broadband or mobile phone coverage, and we have a problem with making progress, so we work with a host of different providers. How are they helping us? We have worked on the concept, of which the Minister will be aware, that there are alternatives, and we are considering how we can use Northumbrian Water, which is a substantial, FTSE 100 company. One might consider it and think, “How can you help? You are a very wealthy company.” In reality it is telling us that it is possible that it can provide pre-existing sewers and the like, and that we can use them to make alternative provision. There are other good examples to assist us, and I am hopeful that as the Eden Valley project expands, we shall be able to do more.

Ninthly, I want to talk about planning, which is a huge issue in every constituency. You have got individual people, on a regular basis—

I apologise, Mrs Main.

Hon. Members have individual problems with planning, and they are struggling, but that can be addressed. The Localism Bill will be of huge import, and it will be a huge success in the effort to free up the ongoing planning crisis. I urge hon. Members to get behind it. The Bill is a large one, and we could talk about it for hours, as we saw last week. All the things that I am discussing are about enabling people to do things. I keep coming back to that, because with such enablement we can take good ideas forward. Instead of a system that requires five or six different referrals to go through the Leader programme or other One North East programmes and get a result, things should be much quicker, simpler and faster. I hope that they will be.

I want to finish by talking about the Tynedale big society summit, which will be held in just over two weeks’ time. There will be representatives from business, faith groups, voluntary organisations, local politicians, health and housing, and environmental groups to help people with local government. I hope that the key players in expanding and enabling the big society will come together across Tynedale with the intention of sharing best practice and past successes, and developing a local framework that will help organisations and volunteers to play a strong role in delivering the ideas behind the big society. Participants will be able to question a range of guests on the opportunities ahead for the third sector to play a central role in the procurement and delivery of services.

There will also be specific examples of project-based best practice shared between the various sectors, in which local groups have made a difference to their communities, as well as group discussions on a plan of action taking forward ideas of further co-operation between those existing groups and volunteers. Best of all, the whole day will be staffed—aside from being paid for by my good self—by local volunteers who are interns. The sandwiches will be provided by a start-up company that wants to expand. The essence of what we are trying to do is there.

I could talk about the effect when previous councils, who suffered the blame for unpopular decisions, blamed Whitehall in the face of local anger. Things have developed to the point where very few people seem prepared to accept responsibility for a mistake or for unpopular decisions, whether right or wrong. That has even been transmitted to the social level. We live in a democracy where it is important to feel that someone can have their say, if they want their view to be heard.

We need to consider the glue that binds us together. On a national level, it can be a range of things, such as sport, conflict or even a general election. Those things bring us together, but often in different or separate camps. There are few instances where we are all unequivocally united on one side. We may be divided over the fighting in Afghanistan, but we are united in supporting our troops and doing our bit to ensure that they are supported. It is that sense of shared investment, a shared contribution and a shared goal that brings us together into a cohesive community not only nationally but locally. With the investments and projects that I have described, and with us as enablers, we can and should take that forward.

I came to listen to the debate and perhaps make an intervention, but I thought that what I had to say might go on too long and you might ask me to sit down, Mrs Main. Therefore I thought I might say something near the end of the debate if there were time.

When I saw the title, “Community Cohesion”, I thought, “What an admirable debate.” Is that not what everyone, on both sides of the House, is looking at in order to see how we can work in our communities? Is that not what MPs do? We try to figure out the solutions to problems and work together. We have to work within the set budget to take that forward, but, at the same time, I have found in my local community a desire to explore the capabilities of individuals and communities, and I have felt a bubbling up from the ground for people to take control of what they are doing.

Big society may be two small words that mean a huge amount to different people, but when the idea was introduced, the people of Wirral West grasped it. When shops closed on the high street, they came together and asked, “What can we do?” They did not want to see that in their little villages and towns, of which they are very proud. Art shops and places for children and families may have opened, but when people saw council-owned pieces of land, such as allotment areas, they wanted to expand on that and have some more, so that their sons could go there with their dads—and mums with their daughters—to understand what a root vegetable is and what fruit and vegetables are, rather than buy them from a supermarket. All those things were bubbling and building up.

There were also asset transfers. The local community centre was not doing so well, so people living in the area thought, “We know what’s best,” and they have taken it on board and are working together. Even bigger schemes started to bubble up, too. They asked whether first-time buyers could afford local housing and thought about what they were going to do about social housing. They are now looking to develop a plot of land that will be affordable for first-time buyers, and an eco-environment, which we would desperately like in our area.

We are all looking for community cohesion, which is why, when I read an article in The Observer last week which cited ideas on the Labour big society, based on local loyalties, family and common good, I thought that that was not so far removed from the Conservative big society. My example of the allotment is about the family, and my example of the community centre is about the common good for the local area, which is also the case with affordable housing.

The big society must be explored by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and we have to work within the set budget. That is why I welcome the Conservative party’s proposals for a £50 million community first fund and a £10 million voluntary match fund, as well as the piloting of the national citizen service and the £100 million transition fund. All those things must come together.

I am delighted to hear about community cohesion, which is something that we are all trying to achieve, and I will be delighted to hear from the Minister not just about what else we are going to do that will work in places such as Wirral West, but about what would be an enabler in places such as Sedgefield, which may have very different needs.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. We have had an interesting and wide-ranging debate. I shall begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this important debate. His description of the community he serves is familiar to me. We are both very fortunate and privileged to serve as MPs for ex-mining communities. He is right to point out that, over many years, these communities have often been denied the tools to improve their areas, notwithstanding their ability and desire to do so. He was also right to remind us of the centrality of mutualism and co-operatives to the development of communities and, indeed, to the Labour party itself. Moreover, he was right to question whether the Government’s agenda is more than self-help.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made a number of interesting points about the role of the state. I say to him that, if Labour went too far in using the state as a way of improving communities, I hope that he would accept that this Government could be going too far in dismantling the state, particularly the welfare state. He might also want to consider the impact of that on disadvantaged areas in particular. He was right, however, to applaud the Localism Bill, which includes some useful elements and has created high aspirations for what it could deliver in my constituency. I hope that the Government will deliver on their rhetoric for my constituents.

As we might have expected, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) started off by blaming Labour for the world’s ills, but I hope that he would accept that Labour set out a clear plan to reduce the deficit. We said that we would do it more slowly and carefully than this Government.

If the plan was set out in such detail, will the hon. Lady clarify what its impact would have been on the voluntary sector and its capacity to deliver the sort of things under discussion?

As I said, we set out clearly how we would reduce the deficit more slowly. The amount of money that we would have reduced would, therefore, have been less, so there would not have been these huge, up-front cuts affecting local government. Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman outlined vividly one of the points that I wish to make—the voluntary sector and the big society were not invented by this Government. Much wonderful community and voluntary activity is already taking place, as he demonstrated so eloquently by talking about what is happening in his own constituency.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) outlined the obstacles that may prevent voluntary activity, but he gave little recognition to the fact that some individuals are more able than others to undertake such activity. Perhaps the atlas and geography of volunteering need to be taken into consideration. Nevertheless, I pay tribute to the many volunteers in his constituency and to the wonderful work that is taking place, as I do to the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), who has pointed out that much is already happening in her constituency and that the Government could do more to enable further activity to take place.

On the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield, he was absolutely correct to focus on what is undermining the big society, rather than to question the principles that underpin the idea of encouraging more volunteering, supporting community organisation and development, and giving a new impetus to social enterprise, co-operatives and mutuals. It would be churlish for us to do that. In government, Labour more than doubled the amount of money provided to the charitable sector, and we encouraged more volunteering. Organisations such as V did wonders to improve the number and range of volunteering activities available to young people, and that is just one example. The outcome of Labour’s support for the sector was greatly to increase the number of those involved in volunteering, and to expand the role of the sector in delivering services.

Surely, therefore, it is a matter of great disappointment that recent data from the citizenship survey for April to September 2010 show that 24% of people volunteered formally at least once a month, which is a lower level than that which existed previously and, perhaps, a surprise given the emphasis placed on volunteering by this Government. We should not, however, be at all surprised that, this week, we began to see questions in the media about whether the cuts might be choking the sector and impeding the development of the big society. All MPs are now becoming aware of how cuts to funding are impacting on not just the voluntary sector in their constituencies, but on smaller charities and agencies that undertake highly valuable work in all of our communities.

As if things on the funding front were not bad enough, it is interesting to note that Phillip Blond—one of the architects of the big society—is quoted in the press this week as having to argue that the big society is not in crisis. Of course, as soon as he tries to defend the big society, we immediately think that it must be in crisis and that his comments suggest that there is trouble.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield has so eloquently pointed out, Labour knows the value of supporting community development. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) did much at the Department for Communities and Local Government to put community empowerment on the agenda, but I sometimes wonder if the current Government understand the support that some communities and sections of communities need for that.

We know that levels of volunteering vary hugely across the country, yet it is the areas that have the lowest levels of volunteering—the poorest areas—that are suffering most from the public spending cuts. Those are the areas where most needs to be done. The deprived inner-city areas of London and the northern cities are experiencing the most drastic cuts, which undoubtedly will be passed on to the voluntary sector. If we are faced with huge cuts to services and funding, the Government will have to redouble their efforts if they are to succeed in developing more enterprise and mutuals in those circumstances. The big society bank has been put forward as a means of achieving that, but there are big questions about the delay in its implementation and whether it will have enough resources to do its job.

As well as flagging up what is happening with the levels of volunteering, the citizenship survey is important in other regards. It shows that 86% of adults in England were satisfied with their local area as a place to live, that 85% thought their community was cohesive and that 64% were not worried about being a victim of crime. That is hardly evidence of the broken Britain that the Government feel has to be fixed by an army of volunteers. That is not to say that volunteering is not important; quite the opposite, it suggests that much of what the Government say they want to create already exists in communities up and down the country. We saw many examples of that this afternoon. If they are to do more, they need support in terms of finances, resources and infrastructure, at least in a number of areas that face multiple and complex problems and have social needs. Social action can be a key feature in turning communities around, but it is not the only ingredient that is necessary.

I hope that the Minister will say what support he intends to give to groups and agencies suffering cuts beyond the inadequate transition fund and, crucially, how his community organiser programme will work with existing organisations. Perhaps he could answer the question posed in yesterday’s leader in The Times on why the Government still have to develop any signature policies or to bring examples of what the big society means. The Times was also useful for letting us know that the Minister has written to ask what ideas Conservative MPs have to make the big society a success. We will await the answers with interest. In the meantime, it is important to do what we can to support community and voluntary organisations and to develop social enterprises and mutuals, not least as a means of employment in our poorest communities. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister how he intends to achieve that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, for the first time. We have had an excellent, wide-ranging debate and you have chaired it very firmly. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on not just securing the debate, but battling flu so valiantly and presenting a sincere picture of his concerns for his constituency.

I have picked out three things that I would like to respond to directly. First, I shall discuss the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that the Government do not really know what big society means—he talked about fresh air in that context. I would also like to address his valid concern about cuts to the voluntary community sector, which was picked up by his colleague who represents the beautiful city of Durham, the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods). I would then like to deal with the issue of landlords and how their practices risk unsettling, dividing and undermining communities.

Out of courtesy, if I could address the specific issue first, I will undertake to write to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government on the issue of a national register. That subject is not my direct responsibility and I am sure that there are lots of complexities underlying his suggestion, so I will write to the Minister for Housing and Local Government to alert him to the concern expressed in this debate. I have discussed the matter with a colleague who represents a seat in Cornwall. That is a long way from Sedgefield, but it has exactly the same problem the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That area adopted the grass-roots solution of personal advocacy. Basically, the community was fed up with the situation, so it got together and lobbied directly the people causing the problem and forced a change in policy. I do not know how applicable that is in Sedgefield, but there are examples around the country where that problem has been tackled by grass-roots action—a very big society response. I will write directly to the Minister on his behalf.

I will not take an intervention at this point because I want to move on from that issue.

I shall address the hon. Gentleman’s main concerns about what the big society is, what the Government are trying to achieve and what we mean by it. If he wants to look at the record tomorrow, he will see that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) articulated the matter as well as anyone, when he talked about trying to promote a greater culture of social responsibility. The idea is not fresh air because, as the hon. Member for City of Durham and various hon. Members pointed out, a lot of wonderful activity is going on in constituencies across the country, where people are working together and giving up time to try to find better ways of doing things, supporting initiatives and getting things going.

The Government want to throw a bigger spotlight on that activity to try to make it easier for people to do more such things and be more ambitious. The matter should not be divisive. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) put the argument beautifully. We should all be encouraging such things. I shall put the matter simply: it is about trying to encourage more people to get involved. There is no point pretending that all is rosy in the garden, as I think both Labour Members were saying when they cited the citizenship survey. We know that the country faces enormous challenges and that there are very stubborn, expensive social problems. It seems absolutely ridiculous to continue pretending that the state, people here or in Whitehall or even local authority chief executives somehow have all the solutions.

From my constituency, I know that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of the value that residents—constituents—can bring to the idea in terms of tapping into the talent, expertise, experience, ideas, networks and skills that are out there in communities. The big society is about trying to get more people involved and engaged in traditional volunteering or in that hugely important valuable work that we all know about from our constituencies. It is about providing the opportunity to give time to help improve someone else’s life. The value of that is two-way. Of course, we want to encourage more of that, but it is by no means the whole story. The big society is also about trying to get more people involved in shaping the future of communities, in the decisions that really matter and in trying to save things if things need to be saved, such as post offices, pubs, shops or whatever. It is about trying to combat the voice that I hear from constituents who say, “It’s not worth getting involved because it’s not as if we can change anything.” That is what we want to change.

The big society goes beyond that into the reform of public services and trying to open those up and get the people who pay for them and use them more involved in them. Again, in my constituency, I get a sense that people are becoming increasingly resentful of just taking what they are given and feeling that matters are being dealt with in a very detached way. Yes, this is about encouraging more volunteering, but it is also about getting people more involved at a local level in shaping the public services that they use. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) used the powerful expression “giving the power back,” which I liked. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was entirely right: that is what people want; they would like to get more involved. The citizenship survey showed that, and we are trying to make it easier.

There is a specific, proactive, big role for Government. There is no point in pretending that suddenly Government will disappear. The Government will play a hugely important part in all our lives, whatever the scale of the spending cuts. However, when it comes to making it easier for people to get involved and making the case for that more compelling, the Government are absolutely committed and on track, and will be delivering through three strands of action.

The first strand is about transferring real power to communities. That is now moving from words to realities. The specific measure has been mentioned—the Localism Bill. I am very pleased about and encouraged by the welcome that it has received, not least from the hon. Member for City of Durham. It is raising expectations. I think that that is right. People are excited about it, which suggests that its time has come. It is a huge piece of legislation, with lots of new rights and opportunities. However, there is more to the issue than just legislation.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington challenged me to be more specific about what we are doing to get out of the way. He was entirely right. If he listens to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, he will get the sense that that is a Secretary of State who wants to do exactly that. He wants to change the whole nature of his Department so that it works for citizens.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that our approach is to send this message to communities: “Tell us what is getting in the way and we will work to see what we can do to remove it.” There is a specific barrier-busting service, of which he may be aware. That flows from a very powerful piece of legislation called the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which I took through Parliament as a private Member’s Bill. Already, communities are responding to this invitation: “Tell us what’s getting in the way and we will see whether we can remove it, but give us the specifics.” The new website was launched a few weeks ago, and I think that more than 50 proposals have come in already. That is on top of the 300 different proposals that we had for the first wave under the Sustainable Communities Act. These things are community driven, so there is a real determination on our part to get out of the way.

The second strand is about public service reform: opening up the public services to new providers, including, specifically, the voluntary and community sector; bringing those services closer to the people who use them; and liberating people who are in the front line delivering the services. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury talked passionately about schools. He will know from his experience with local heads about their desire to be liberated. Specifically in relation to public service reform, a White Paper, which I think will be published next month, will set out our stall on that and explain exactly how we intend to go about it.

The third strand is about social action—trying to inspire people and make it easier for them to give time and money to get things done locally to help people. Again, the words are now being backed up by actions. The Cabinet Office has published a Green Paper on giving, which will lead to a White Paper. We seek fresh ideas on what Government can do with partners—the charitable sector and business—to make it easier for people to give time and money.

We have announced the pilots of the next phase of the national citizen service. Again, that is a powerful, positive programme, which is designed to connect young people with their ability to make a contribution to their communities. I think that one of the biggest pilots, involving 1,000 young people, is taking place on the edge of the constituency of the hon. Member for Sedgefield. I urge him to engage with it, because I have seen that that programme can be very powerful in lifting the aspirations and confidence of young people.

The hon. Member for City of Durham rightly challenged me on this important point: the big society must be open to all. We all know that some communities are in a stronger position than others to take advantage of it. I represent a relatively affluent, suburban constituency on the edge of London, a long way from Sedgefield. My communities are well networked, strong and ambitious and, I think, will respond quickly to that agenda, but other communities will need some help.

The Government are determined to be proactive in encouraging, supporting and helping those communities to help themselves. That is one of the driving forces behind our community organiser and community first programmes, which we will be announcing more details of soon. The aim will be to establish, in those communities, people who can bring people together, organise communities and start building networks—people who have the confidence to start getting people together to get things done. With that will be a neighbourhood grant programme. Again, that will be targeted on the most disadvantaged areas, where the social capital is lowest. It will put money into the hands of neighbourhood groups to help them to develop and deliver on their own plans. The hon. Member for City of Durham mentioned the big society bank. That is wholly designed to make it easier for social entrepreneurs—people who want to take a bit of a risk to get things happening and who want to do things differently in those areas—to access capital.

The Government are doing things, but things are also beginning to happen in communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury was very modest about his pioneering work on developing job clubs in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham is getting a big society initiative going in his constituency. In my constituency, I am convening people in exactly the same way—in one ward, people are concerned about the future and feel that they need to come together and think about a neighbourhood plan for the area. I am facilitating that.

Last week I was in Halifax, where groups of people from the public sector—different stakeholders—were gathered round a table, talking about partnership in a way that they never had before, because they felt that that was possible and they were being encouraged to do it. One could sense that they were not going to go back to the bad old ways of sitting in their silos and just pursuing their individual targets and budgets. Something is happening and changing out there, and it needs to, because we have to find better ways of doing things.

I shall spend the time left to me on dealing with the very important issue of cuts to the voluntary and community sector, which is an emotive issue for many hon. Members. I have written to every Member of Parliament, inviting them to bring in representatives of their voluntary and community sector to talk to me about that, and many have taken up the invitation.

Of course, the voluntary and community sector is hugely important to this project, because of its ability to support and mobilise people, but it is not—we should be frank about this—the whole story. Business has a hugely important part to play, as do citizens and residents groups and as do Government. Charities are not a proxy for community, but they are a hugely important partner in the process.

There is a very difficult issue, which we should not underestimate, in relation to managing the transition. However, we need to be honest about this. Unfortunately, the sector cannot be immune from the cuts. The nation is spending £120 million a day in interest and borrowing £1 for every £4 that we spend. That is not sustainable. We have to reduce public spending on a scale that means that, unfortunately, the sector cannot be immune. That would have been a reality confronted by the Labour Government, exactly as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington emphasised, so there are cuts and there will continue to be cuts.

I would rather not, because I would like to finish this important point. The numbers being bandied around are entirely speculative. The Government are monitoring the situation closely, at central and local government level, because we are concerned that the process should be managed properly. We established a transition fund, which has now closed. That process was well run. From the Prime Minister down, we have sent a strong steer to local authority leaders that we do not expect them to take the easy option of making cuts to the voluntary and community sector before they have taken the opportunity to pursue their own efficiencies. Many councils, such as Reading and Wiltshire, which I heard about today, are increasing the amount of funding that they are giving to the voluntary and community sector. We are continuing to invest in the training of commissioners. We have reviewed and updated the compact, which is the framework that steers the relationship. The Office for Civil Society is continuing to invest to support and strengthen the sector.

We have three priorities. We ask ourselves, “What are we doing to make it easier to run a charity or voluntary sector organisation?” We are continuing to invest in infrastructure to support the sector. We are examining the red tape and regulation that get in the way. There are reviews across Government in respect of the Criminal Records Bureau and health and safety. Again, we are trying to get out of the way where we can. We are actively examining ways of getting more resources into the sector. The giving Green Paper is about trying to stimulate more charitable giving. The social investment bank—the big society bank—is about trying to grow a new market of social investment. We are reviewing everything that we can to try to make it easier for charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises to deliver more public services.

The transition that we have to manage is very difficult, but we are trying to help the sector to work towards a future in which it can be a very active player in the big society, delivering more public services, helping to give people a voice at local level, and benefiting from the extra time and money that we hope people will give. The Government are absolutely determined to make it easier for people to get involved, to live in even better connected communities and to feel part of something bigger.