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Big Society

Volume 540: debated on Wednesday 8 February 2012

Our objectives are to build social capital by transferring powers to communities, opening up public services and encouraging more social action.

Last year, the Prime Minister included community empowerment among his three big society aims, but this year the Communities Secretary has already been forced to write to the Conservative leader of Nottingham county council following reports of disproportionate cuts to the voluntary sector. Can the Minister tell me exactly how this Tory council’s decision to cut voluntary sector funding by a huge 34% will empower communities in our county?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has written in extremely uncompromising and tough terms to the county council in question, reminding it that there is statutory guidance, and that the proportion by which the voluntary and community sector is cut should be the same as the proportion by which the council’s own budgets are cut. I am delighted to pay tribute, unusually, to the hon. Lady’s own council, which, despite coming from a different political party from mine, has actually followed that rule, cutting both by roughly similar proportions.

The Public Administration Committee report on the big society described it as lacking clarity and leadership and ways of measuring progress. Why does the Minister think this cross-party group is so critical of the big society idea?

As a matter of fact, the Committee’s report is an admirable work that brings out extremely clearly the value of our big society agenda and urges us to push it further and faster, and we agree with that. Actually, the evidence clearly shows that it is on the ground that people will measure success. When they see more free schools educating their children better, mutuals delivering better health care, and communities taking charge of their own neighbourhood planning and making their environment better, then we will know it is a success.

The shadow spokesman on London and the Olympics said that the big society “should be Labour territory”. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that the whole point of the big society is that it is not just for Labour but for everyone?

Yes, I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend, and I should like to pray in aid the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who said that the big society is

“something that the Labour party should instinctively understand as part of its own DNA”.

The former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), told the Labour party:

“We shouldn’t be afraid of the Big Society; we should claim it for our own”.

I hope this can bring the whole House together.

If my right hon. Friend wants to see the big society at work, may I suggest that he look at the snow in winter clearance initiatives of East Riding and North Lincolnshire councils? They have devolved money down to local communities, enabling them last weekend to sort out snow clearance in their own way, as they wished.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is a classic example of what I see in my own constituency, in many other rural constituencies up and down the country and increasingly in the suburbs. People are taking charge and making sure that they get what they actually need delivered locally, by people who understand the local circumstances, and in many cases much more cheaply than was previously possible from the centre.

Given what is really happening, the objectives for the big society would appear to be huge funding and job cuts across the third sector, charities walking away from the Work programme and health service mutuals not getting health service contracts. Given the lack of influence that Cabinet Office Ministers clearly have across the rest of Whitehall, is the Cabinet Office not now merely the place where the emperor’s new clothes get spun?

Unfortunately, what the hon. Gentleman fails to reckon with is that not only this Government but any Government currently trying to run the United Kingdom would be faced with the need to clear up the fiscal mess that he and his colleagues left this country in, and that certainly entails cuts. We are very clear about that, and as matter of fact his own leader is now beginning to be clearer about that—although we are still not clear how clear he is. The fact is, therefore, that the voluntary and community sector does suffer some reduction in funding, but we are determined to create vast new opportunities for that sector, so it can compete to provide public services effectively and for the sake of the taxpayer.