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The Big Society

Volume 577: debated on Wednesday 12 March 2014

I hope that the hon. Lady will join me in celebrating the fact that volunteering has risen since 2010 after years of decline, and that almost 2,000 young people in Bristol and the immediate surrounding area will have the opportunity to take part in the National Citizen Service this year.

I am sure that the Government are embarrassed by the fact that food banks have now become by far the most visible sign of the big society in action and have now, de facto, become part of the welfare system. Jobcentres are being told to signpost them, rather than refer people to them, in order to mask their connection with benefit sanctions and delays. Is this a sign of the success of the big society: food banks feeding the starving because of the failures of the welfare system’s safety net?

Food banks are an impressive civil society response to a need that, as the hon. Lady knows, emerged before the last general election. We have supported a number of them through our social action fund. I hope that she agrees that they are not a long-term solution to the complex issue of food poverty. There are no simple answers, despite what Opposition Members claim, but a large part of the solution is a recovering economy and the long-overdue reform of the welfare system, and that is what we are delivering.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best example of the big society is people power, and that the best example of people power is an in/out referendum on the EU, which those on the Opposition Benches oppose?

I wholly support my hon. Friend. He is a great champion of the big society and is entirely right that a large pillar of that is giving more power to the people. As we have learned today, there is only one party that will give people the power to make that important choice.

The Archbishop of Westminster, Civil Exchange and the Centre for Social Justice have all delivered damning verdicts on the Government’s big society recently. They have shown that people are being thrown on to charity, because the state has failed; that there are three times as many charities in affluent neighbourhoods as in deprived ones; and that while volunteering is thriving, it is not in the places where it is needed most. Was it the intention of the big society that some would swim while others would sink?

In fact, the excellent Centre for Social Justice report actually highlighted how much progress this Government have made in doing what we said we would do, which is transferring power to people, opening up public services so that more and more organisations can come in to help us to deliver better services, and encouraging social action. As I said, giving in this country has remained constant since 2010 and volunteering has risen, which I hope the hon. Lady would welcome.