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Government: Role of the State

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 2 November 2010


Asked By

My Lords, the big society is about putting more power into people’s hands—a massive transfer from Whitehall to local communities. What we have announced in the spending review will help communities and individuals to take on more responsibility through community empowerment, through opening up opportunities to deliver public services to other organisations, and through social action such as the national citizen service, enabling young people to play a more active role in society.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Is it not absolutely clear from the alarmingly high structural deficit that this Government have inherited and the inevitable reductions in spending after the spending review that the state has become hyperactive and has overreached itself to an unaffordable, unsustainable extent, as it has done before under Labour? Some of us remember 1975-76 and the IMF marching in. Is it not clear that there must be a change of approach and that, among other things, the private and voluntary sectors in their broadest sense must be strongly encouraged and empowered, as my noble friend said, to take up more of the responsibilities currently foisted on the state?

My noble friend makes a valuable point. That is why we are working to open up public services to small businesses, voluntary organisations and social enterprises and to enable those currently in the public sector to spin out from the state through mutualisation. The Government are also providing support for the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors via a £100 million transition fund and the establishment of a big society bank, which will provide new resources of finance.

My Lords, in acknowledging that this Government believe in a less ambitious state, do they, however, accept that it is the irreducible responsibility of the state to do what it can to ensure that the poor and the vulnerable are sheltered from the storm? If they do, how is it consistent with that responsibility to introduce policies that are bound to increase homelessness?

The noble Lord will be aware that this side of the House is very conscious of its responsibilities in government and, indeed, to protect the vulnerable. I acknowledge that this is a difficult time for the country as we take necessary action to reduce the deficit. The voluntary and community sector has always been there for vulnerable people in tough times, and I know that it will be there again. That is why we are looking to support it.

Does my noble friend agree that successive Governments have in fact been reducing the role of the state for years and years by farming out difficult decisions, such as whether there should be a law of privacy or whether prisoners should have votes, to bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights, and farming out virtually all their other powers to the bureaucracy in Brussels? Is it not about time that we went for the repatriation of some of our powers?

We have plenty of opportunity to discuss European matters on other occasions, and it is certainly beyond my brief to comment on my noble friend’s contribution.

My Lords, instead of creating all these new organisations and societies, would it not be better to support existing organisations, such as the citizens advice bureaux, which are suffering a great deal because of the cuts?

We are indeed supporting the citizens advice bureaux and we are hoping to strengthen them under proposals that the Public Bodies Bill will bring forward. The truth of the matter is that there is enormous scope to provide for community action and decision-making at local level. This Government believe in that and are prepared to introduce policies that take it forward.

My Lords, in this age of chronic insecurity, do the Government not recognise that, while assistance to individuals to help localities and sectoral interests is important, we need, above all, strong, central and communally trusted government that is capable of reinstating the security that we lack?

I hope that the way in which this Government have tackled the deficit issue indicates that this is a confident and competent Government. Indeed, that is the leadership which Governments exist to provide, but it is important to stimulate local communities and make them feel empowered so that they, too, have a role to play in the governance of the country.

My Lords, in the light of his earlier responses, will the noble Lord tell us how many new state organisations the Government envisage will be created if the ambitions of the health White Paper are realised?

I am not in a position to answer that question definitively, but I will ask my noble friend, the Minister responsible, to write to the noble Baroness on that issue. However, we do not see the bodies that are being created under the proposals that I have been talking about as state bodies. They will be community governed and community empowered.

My Lords, has not the role of the state many aspects, one of which is to retain our residual sovereignty?

Yes; I suppose each to his own. Government centrally certainly has fundamental responsibilities for the security and stability of the society in which we live. However, the policy direction of the Question was about the devolution to local communities of responsibilities that are not necessarily matters for the security and establishment of the state. I was able to give an affirmative answer to my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy’s request that that is government policy.