Skip to main content

The Big Society

Volume 727: debated on Wednesday 11 May 2011

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they propose to encourage people to participate in the Big Society.

My Lords, in view of what I may find time to say later on, I should remind the House that I am a member of Pendle Borough Council. I originally put down this Question for Short Debate what seems quite a long time ago in order to probe the Government and to ask them about community organisers and how those would work, and I will do that in the later part of my speech.

What is the big society and what does it mean? A lot of people ask that question, but not many people seem to know. Is the big society about residents looking after a little park at the end of their street or taking over a swimming pool, or is it about transferring the running of a Jobcentre to a private company? What is it?

I turned to what I thought was perhaps the definitive book on the matter, The Big Society, written by Jesse Norman MP, in the hope that it would be a manual that would tell me what the big society is. The book is an interesting, discursive popular survey of philosophy, economics and sociology that ranges over Plato, Socrates, Adam Smith, Keynes, Edmund Burke, Amartya Sen and, it seems, hundreds of others—a huge kaleidoscope of ideas picked from here, there and everywhere. At one stage, the book asks, “What exactly is the big society?”, but it does not seem to me to answer that question, although I enjoyed reading it. The book is certainly not about the big society as people think about it, which involves local volunteering, perhaps replacing state provision with community provision, competition in public services and so on. Rather, in setting out to deconstruct conventional market economics and centralised systems of state provision, the book arrives at a new sort of postmodern conservatism. At that stage, I realised that, although an interesting book, The Big Society would not be terribly helpful for me as someone who is not particularly interested in redefining conservatism—although, thinking about the Members of the Conservative Party in your Lordships’ House, I wondered just how many of them would give time of day to Jesse Norman’s book. He talks about institutions, competition and enterprise as being at the heart of the big society; I believe that the book is rather confused, but it is an interesting read.

Then I thought that I had better read the other standard tome, which is Phillip Blond’s book Red Tory. His book makes no mention of the phrase “big society”, I think because it was written early last year before the big society became an important term. Again, he has deep insights into the dehumanising consequences both of traditional capitalist structures and of centralised bureaucratic state provision. He comes up with the solution of co-ownership of quite small-scale public sector organisations so as to include both employees and citizens in the control of them. However, again, it is really about trying to redefine the Tory party and what it stands for, which is not really what I am about. I am looking for the big society as put forward by this coalition Government.

I come back to what most people think the big society means: community and neighbourhood empowerment, involving changes in the system to devolve power from the centre to communities and to local government; involving people in what happens in their area, which very often can be done through informal changes to the way in which things work—I certainly have a lot of experience, over my life, of trying to help to achieve that; and opening up public services to competition, charities, social enterprises and the private sector, which gives some of us very serious concerns that the result may be major disruptive changes to the way in which services are provided. What I really want to do is to come back to how the Government propose to stimulate local involvement in local communities, with perhaps local people running local facilities and local services.

That really comes down to the community organisers, which the Government said would be employed, or provided, in different communities in the country. David Cameron talked about a “neighbourhood army” of 500 full-time community organisers—which, at one per constituency, is not a lot; as those of us who have been involved in community work and development and politics over the years will know, that is very thin indeed—who would be backed up by 4,500 part-time volunteers.

Having done some research for this Question for Short Debate, I find that this work has now been put in the hands of an organisation called Locality—which I now know rather more about than I did—which is a sort of third sector quango-type body that does various work and is a federation of about 600 different organisations. In addition, an “Institute of Community Organising”—the ICO—is being set up to oversee the work after 2015. Indeed, there is quite a lot of stuff explaining what that is all about.

An organisation called Urban Forum—of which I had not previously heard—is also involved in this work. A community organisers briefing on the Urban Forum website sets out that:

“According to the Coalition Government community organisers will play an important role in delivering the Big Society by building community spirit, encouraging local community action, increasing the effectiveness of existing community groups, creating new groups and social enterprises and generally empowering communities to tackle the issues that matter to them. The Office of Civil Society has stated that the policy is based on the principles of Saul Alinsky and Paulo Friere”.

So far, so good. Alinksy, of course, is the man behind a lot of similar work in the United States.

Looking further on the Locality website to find out what was happening, I found that I had to go to something called “Jess Steele’s blog”. There is a lot on her blog. Indeed, the Locality website says:

“Jess is the director of innovation at Locality and leads on the Community Organisers project”.

It seems to me a bit odd that most of the information about what is going on is on someone’s blog. I have a huge printout of the blog, with which I will not detain your Lordships. It is quite entertaining, and a lot of it is arguing with other people in the community development and community organisation sphere about exactly how things should work.

A number of projects that have already been decided include 11 so-called kick-starters, which are based on existing respected community organisations. The interesting thing is how far it will be possible to extend that through existing respected organisations and how far in some areas there might be trouble because there are not suitable organisations to take on the work.

The Government are setting up a new system. Clearly, they are keen on generating new community involvement in the areas concerned, yet I find it strange that the same Government have just closed down, or are in the process of closing down, a system of generating community involvement that was set up and funded by the previous Government. I refer to the systems of neighbourhood management. There was previously a series of neighbourhood management pilots in different parts of the country, mainly in disadvantaged communities, and a separate series of neighbourhood management schemes funded under the housing market renewal scheme. Some of those were good, some were bad and some were very good, but there was a lot of experience there and a lot of involvement by residents, which has simply been discarded.

One Government came in and set up schemes to try to involve residents in their communities and did a lot of good work; another Government have come along and have withdrawn the funding from that. I speak from the experience in my own area of east Lancashire, where most of the neighbourhood management schemes have been completely closed down, although in Pendle we are trying to keep some of them going on a skeleton basis. Nevertheless, systems that exist and which have involved and enthused residents have been closed down. Perhaps in a year’s time one of these community organisers will come along and try to set it all up again. Yet if you have been involved with something and it has closed down, and somebody else comes along and says that they have a different sort of scheme, that is not how to generate enthusiasm and permanent support from residents.

I shall finish with some questions that I want to ask the Minister about community organisers. If she cannot answer them all today, that is fine. I am sure that she will write to me. Are all the areas that will have community organisers what Alinsky in America called poor communities, or will they be spread about everywhere? Can we have the terms of reference of the appointment of the community organisers, particularly the ones who have been appointed already? What do their terms of reference say that they will do and how will they do it? There is a real fear that they are top-down people telling other people what to do. To what extent will they build on existing initiatives and practices where they exist, like the ones that I have been talking about? How are they to be chosen and how are they being chosen? Are the posts being advertised and are people being appointed in a proper manner? What is the relationship between elected councillors going to be? What is the funding going to be? What monitoring evaluation and spread of good practice will there be? If the Minister cannot answer all those questions, that is fine, but I am sure she will write and answer them in due course.

I thank my noble friend Lord Greaves for tabling today’s excellent debate. There are in my view many measures that government can undertake to encourage participation in the big society, so that people can feel more in control over their lives and solve problems they care about closer to home.

First, government can create and signal opportunities for citizens to act. There are many ways to do this, from opening up public services to more flexible and citizen-centric providers, providing rights for citizens to take control over services locally, and making it easier to publicise opportunities to give time, money, and other resources. There is in fact a huge amount of information out there, but it is not always in a form that is tailored to the lives of busy citizens where they live. Technology here can help, as I have been documenting on my blog, and elsewhere.

Secondly, government can remove barriers that get in the way. Sometimes the barriers are simply ones of inertia and a lack of incentives. More can be done, I am sure, to honour and reward citizens, particularly the young and those who are getting involved for the first time, to encourage enduring participation. I also welcome the imminent report from the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, on the bureaucratic barriers that prevent citizens and the voluntary sector from getting involved, many of which need paring back to more reasonable levels.

Thirdly, government can also build the underutilised capacity of individuals and organisations to get involved, which it will do through, for example, the big society bank, the growing social investment sector, community organisers, and the Community First endowment scheme. But we cannot assume people will get involved just because government encourages them to do so. Indeed, there is evidence that the more politicised a topic like this becomes, the less people may want to engage with it. With this, I must urge the Opposition in particular to be more responsible. Just as Labour's love of spin-doctoring has eroded at times public trust in politics, the danger of bashing the big society may be that people end up wanting to get involved less, and focus on themselves and not on helping others around them just at the time when as a country we need to pull together. Does the Minister agree that the Opposition at times risk undermining their own ideals for participation in society, whether good or big or blue, and are in reality advocating a selfish society to protect special interests rather than those of the country at large for the longer term?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. In my brief time, I want to make two points. First, the big society has not just been invented. While I understand the thrust of the argument that we must get as many new people to participate as possible, let us not forget that it is just as important to recognise and value those who have been participating in what we now call the big society for many years. I always think, for example, of the 6 million family carers who it seems to me are the absolute epitome of the big society, providing care willingly and with love to their relatives and friends, care which is valued at £87 billion a year—and I understand that figure is about to be reviewed and will come out massively more. Their contribution to the big society is immense and vital and we neglect support for them at our peril. It is good to see that the Law Society report today calls for more recognition of their rights.

We must also continue to recognise the contribution of volunteers. Again, I remind your Lordships that volunteering is a long established fact in the UK. It is worth in excess of £20 billion to the economy every year, has a huge breadth of activity and builds social capital, binding people together in a two-way relationship which benefits the individual and society. But we must beware of thinking of volunteers as cheap labour or that they are cost free. That is my second point. Spending cuts are having a considerable effect on volunteering, at both local and national level, because of not just the fact of the cuts themselves but also the speed at which the cuts are being made. The infrastructure organisations which support volunteers and their contribution to the big society are prepared to change their business models and do things differently, but they cannot do this overnight. Some transition money has been provided by the Government, but nothing like enough, and the danger is that once the support networks for volunteering have disappeared—and many of them are disappearing; we hear horror stories every day—how long will it take to re-establish them, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said? We have to think about the effects of cuts on a community transport scheme, for example. Older people cannot get out to the day centre or to their hospital appointments, which in itself is sad; but think of the longer-term effects on the health and mental well-being of those older people and their carers and the consequent higher costs which will be incurred down the line if we cut things now.

I am delighted to join in this short debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Greaves. I like to think of the big society as an open society, a generous society and a liberal society—a society in which all people have an opportunity to be involved. Often I wonder, especially perhaps in Wales, but also in England, whether we politicise some of our small community and parish councils. Do we need party politics at that first level of government? Could not we encourage people from various local community organisations such as the Scouts, the churches, the young farmers, the Women’s Institute and so on to themselves seek election to community and parish councils? They are the people who know the needs of their own particular localities. “The Vicar of Dibley” may be an ideal situation; we should let Owen, Letitia and Geraldine be round the table at every local parish council.

Secondly, I was sad that the referendum last week decided that people who voted would still be able—just 30 per cent of them—to elect a Member of Parliament, without having that larger involvement that the alternative vote would have given us, when most of the time they would have needed at least 50 per cent of the vote. But I am not worried too much—no, no, no—because people are saying that the reason they are against AV is because they want a more proportional method of election. They want STV. So I look forward to the time when the single transferable vote is presented to this House and the masses of people who said that AV did not give proportionality will join me in the Lobby for a fairer and more representative electoral system.

Finally, we have always been a country that welcomes people to our shores—the most vulnerable and needy, wherever they are from. I hope that the big society will be big not only within the United Kingdom but big, welcoming and compassionate for all who are in need.

My Lords, you cannot make people more altruistic by telling them to be so, and you cannot make them more neighbourly by instructing them to be better neighbours. We tend to learn these things by participation in intermediate institutions, larger than the family, of which churches are a good example but far from the only example. Not long ago, I commissioned 24 street pastors in the city of Norwich, who joined an already large body of volunteers. They are on the streets late at night, well into the early hours, particularly at weekends when many young people are often at risk and some are in danger. They simply offer friendship. They have been appreciated by the police, who value the assistance that they give to the distraught and the disorientated, the lost and the scared.

I use the street pastors to illustrate two important things about participation in the big society. The first is that they already have experience of being part of a body of people seeking both to care for each other and to serve the common good—in their case, of course, within a church. Secondly, they work in teams and with others; they do not operate as atomised individuals.

We learn to value ourselves and others in our families, of course, but we know too many families are broken and unloving. You cannot love your neighbour, as we were told a very long time ago, if you do not love yourself. So we need broadening communities where we learn to value ourselves and others—not only churches, but voluntary groups and societies, uniformed organisations and, indeed, any group not focused simply on itself. Do we do enough to nurture these intermediate institutions? Have we sought to liberate them from unnecessary bureaucracy? Do we truly invest in them? I guess that most of us in this House are inspired to service within such institutions—churches, trade unions, local political parties—and that is where participation in the big society is fed.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Greaves for initiating this debate. I believe the coalition Government have made it quite clear that they see a transition away from a bureaucratic interfering state to involving, engaging and encouraging the active participation of all communities in all spheres of public life—a move away, if you will, from big government to big society. This involves active volunteering —or AV, perhaps, as it should now be known so that it lives on for the noble Lord, Lord Roberts. It is about recognising the crucial role of social enterprise—the voluntary sector, charities and community groups among others—to actively take charge of delivering services, creating opportunities and stimulating economic activity, not by sitting on the periphery but as active participants and, indeed, as leaders of initiatives and projects.

I ask my noble friend the Minister whether she recognises that it is not only about paying lip service to the big society but about empowering individuals, groups and communities through both logistical support and financial empowerment. We are often asked the question: what is the big society? As has been said before, it is not a new concept. It is about recognising and becoming more innovative in supporting the fundamentals of civic participation and, as society evolves, the replacement of technology where manual processes previously existed.

Ultimately when we are asked the question “What is the big society?”, the answer is simply put: it is about you, me and all of us playing our part in active volunteering—AV—be it at a local, regional, national or global level, to demonstrate that we are part of a global community.

My Lords, the Prime Minister’s declaration could lead to an enhancement of British civic society but I hope that his inspiration is neither cavalier nor formulaic; a hopeful declaration is insufficient.

Our society today is shot through with an almost universal materialism and with a veneration of celebrity—for example, with television studio high priests and priestesses such as Messrs Norton and Ross and the ubiquitous Cheryl Cole. However, the positive is that the big society is already in part on the way. Britain has a great army of volunteers who serve others willingly; they seek to give, to help, to serve, to lead, to encourage, to teach, to reassure and to inspire.

We speak as we find. I pay my own tribute as a Flintshire president of our hospital’s League of Friends, of the branch Alzheimer’s Society, of the Neighbourhood Watch, of our arthritis care group and of the history group. It is humbling to see these brilliant volunteers at work. They are wonderful people who are selfless, loyal, able and courteous; they are exemplary, unselfish citizens who put others first. I hope that the Prime Minister’s big society already acknowledges and praises them. This army of voluntarism keeps our complicated civic society show on the road.

Perhaps the Prime Minister’s big society might acknowledge the excellence of the well led voluntary service councils; might engage the undoubted experience of town and community councils; might consult the Salvation Army as well as chapel and church; might interest sixth forms and FE colleges; and might involve Rotary, Lions, golf and cricket clubs, for example. The expertise and idealism are there and ready to be enhanced.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. In the limited time available I shall focus my remarks, first, on why the reaction to the big society by some in the voluntary sector has been rather lukewarm; and, secondly, to call on the Government to show a more sophisticated understanding about the realities of running a charity, big or small, in modern day Britain, particularly the costs associated with volunteering, as has already been mentioned.

In common with many others in the sector, reaction from some of my own colleagues in Relate, where I have a declared interest as chief executive, has often been to say, “Well, we have been part of the big society since 1938, so what is really new here?”. Like so many other charities, volunteering, be it as a fully trained counsellor, a volunteer receptionist or a local trustee, has underpinned much of what we do.

When I knew that I would be speaking in this debate I conducted a quick straw poll of some charity chief executive colleagues in the children and families sector to get their views on what both encourages and hinders volunteering. Many of these charities employ co-ordinators to recruit and train volunteers to ensure that they are properly equipped to work with vulnerable families and children. A number of key points emerged but I shall mention only one today. It costs money to use volunteers effectively; the more volunteers there are, the more supervision and training is required to ensure good and safe outcomes for beneficiaries. A ratio of one paid worker to 10 or 15 volunteers would be quite typical. Other costs include insurance, producing materials, computers and meeting health and safety regulations.

Expenses need to be reimbursed if volunteering is to be socially inclusive. If this is not recognised, we are in danger of turning the clock back to the 1950s when virtually all volunteers were middle-aged, middle-class women not participating in paid employment. That is not in any way to denigrate their enormous contribution; it is simply to say that in this year we need people who are prepared to volunteer from all walks of life if the services provided by charities are to look and feel representative of the communities they serve.

My Lords, I am an enthusiastic supporter of the big society concept. I would like, in the limited time available to me, to talk about the role of the charitable sector, which is dear to my heart. In my contribution to the Second Reading of the Charities Bill last week, I was keen to stress how charities are a useful barometer of the degree of social cohesion. The Bill will make a contribution to the big society by making charity law simpler to understand and navigate, which will reduce the existing complexities that serve to discourage participation. I await with eager anticipation the publication tomorrow of the Giving White Paper, which promises to focus on supporting the giving of time and money.

We should all work towards providing adequate recognition of the contribution of many civil society organisations. They do not exist to seek awards, but we should all be pleased that the big society awards are highlighting the achievements of those undertaking important work and, by raising the profile, encouraging wider participation.

Most charities appeal to people’s good nature and generosity by asking for donations of money and time. There needs to be an alternative to government provision in addressing problems in our society. The Government are correct in prioritising the big society as a means of providing that alternative. The British people are famous for their generosity and our record on charitable giving is impressive when compared internationally. People need to be enabled to use the vehicle of the charitable sector to volunteer their time, energy and resources for the good of all. We should all think about taking responsibility for everyone else's welfare interests: that is the big society. The success of this initiative will not rest entirely on the activities of the Government but requires participation from everyone. We must enable the big society to flourish. This is about empowerment and enabling charities to make a bigger contribution. It is about individuals answering that human instinct to work together.

The noble Lord, Lord Wei, may be surprised that some of us in this Opposition have, over the years, tried to welcome ideas that bring a little hope—wherever they come from—and the big society has the potential to do this. Yet hope for better things needs reason while exaggerated expectations bring only disappointment. Encouraging the big society should reflect this balance.

Is it just a matter of competition in delivering good public services, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and other noble Lords have suggested? No: we are beginning to see competition between two or three large providers squeezing out the small charity or the local provider, which acts as a discouragement to the big society idea. In practice, measures will have to be devised on a sector-by-sector basis. The altruism that was mentioned by the right reverend Prelate has worked in health, where the NHS, the charities and the research organisations have all worked together because health does not differentiate between people. It has not worked in education because so much depends on the background of the individual student; all the longitudinal studies indicate that. On drug treatment, competition between the public and the private sector has shown that both do well, so each sector has to be considered separately.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, that to encourage people to participate a range of financial instruments is needed that meets the needs and ideals of the big society. Perhaps some of the ingenuity of the City could be directed towards harnessing this. The idea of the big society may end up like the third way or stakeholder engagement or it may just end up with volunteers running public libraries, but it is worth a try.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for securing this debate. There is no better feeling than going to sleep at night knowing that you have done something unconditionally to make life better for your fellow human beings. While volunteering is lacking in many communities the concept of the big society, implemented inclusively, is a way to encourage those who perhaps had never thought about social action.

I believe it is young people who will play a vital role in building a better society because of their energy, instinctive optimism and compassion. I visit schools to speak to children and young people about caring for each other and about the philosophy of contentment and real happiness. It never ceases to amaze me how, through their schools and clubs, they do tremendous fundraising and charitable work. It is clear to see that they get a huge amount of pride and satisfaction out of it. Once given the opportunity to do something constructive, they instinctively embrace the concept of the big society. This therefore needs to be encouraged so that society does not lose out on this rich resource.

Many adults who want to play their part by volunteering their time and expertise to inspire and motivate children and young people are often hampered by the cumbersome and expensive system of CRB checking. However, there are those who fear that if the CRB checks are relaxed it will endanger vulnerable children. Abusers are within the school gates as well as outside. How is the Minister proposing to improve the CRB checking system while making it more robust, effective and less costly? I am an advocate of extended learning, teaching youngsters basic life skills as well as how society works. What measures are being put in place in the national curriculum to ensure that young people are fully aware of their responsibility to society?

Also, what is being done for the many young people from minority communities who feel alienated and excluded from society, and do not feel the incentive or desire to participate in the national citizen services? Meanwhile, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, where the benefit culture is generational and the concept of contributing to society is difficult for them to grasp, need positive role models to give them inspiration and aspiration. Once again, what is being done to encourage more social action in deprived areas among those who have taken to a life reliant on the state and a drug and gang culture?

My Lords, making the big society happen is all about effecting a behavioural and cultural shift for individuals within communities. It is about extending the concept and values of volunteering and self-help from societies and geographical areas where they are working to those where they are not. It is a movement or bandwagon—a shift in societal thinking based not on being dictated to by government, local or national, but on being persuaded that an ethos to help in our neighbourhood, naturally ingrained in most of us, should come alive where it is dormant. Communication is the answer. A recent survey highlighted the fact that half the adult population currently volunteer but as many as 11 million people would do so if only they were asked. How best to knock on the door of the Englishman's castle?

The efforts of 5,000 selected local community organisers or champions over the next four years will build and galvanise teams and ignite a sense of belonging in the community. It is encouraging that, last year, 76 per cent of people felt that they belonged to a society, compared to 70 per cent in 2003. Individuals can be persuaded by example. The nature and number of successfully burgeoning projects must be broadcast regularly and nationally to create interest, develop momentum, increase the energy and encourage copycat activities. Is there such a plan?

Finally, healthy competition within and between communities can be a powerfully persuasive tool for volunteering. The Government’s awards, notably for new and creative local projects, increase teamwork and pride resulting from local activity. The recent royal wedding street parties are a prime example of how people have lowered their drawbridges and come out to meet, talk and engage in their communities—in some cases, for the first time. Let such social interaction and communication be developed into community action by locally designated leaders.

My Lords, I am pleased to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Wei, that I and many others on this side are passionate believers in civil society. Whatever the big society is, at the very least it must depend upon people giving voluntarily of their own time. We can agree on that much. I believe in civil society because I believe that the ties that bind our country and our people together are not in fact big threads woven by the state but are made up of lots of tiny, overlapping threads. Those are woven out of the individual encounters we have with people around us, especially people unlike us.

I spent a number of years in the voluntary sector, most recently running the British Refugee Council. When I arrived there, we had 400 paid staff but even more volunteers. Yet people do not volunteer by accident. As the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, pointed out so eloquently, the support required to get volunteers in more than pays itself back. I watched people arriving in this country who had been welcomed in, having been traumatised and in many cases tortured by their own states. They were moved almost to tears by the fact that individual British people would give of their time to come in to teach them English, to mentor them, to help them take up a career and to integrate. So moved were they that they would almost always go on to volunteer in turn, passing that down the generations. What we are doing there is not only reaching out to each other but creating and reinforcing a set of values which make our country what it is. We also create the next generation of volunteers.

I am delighted to hear that the Government want to invest in community organisers. Four thousand sounds a wonderfully impressive number. Yet what is the point in investing solely in new ones if we are, in practice, taking funding away from the hundreds of thousands of people out there who are involved in charities and who got there through the support of the Government? I am trying really hard not to make a cheap political point out of this but I have spoken to so many people in charities, as I know other noble Lords have, who are seeing the programmes that they have built up over years falling apart. It took so long to develop those volunteers and pull them together that it would take them years, if not generations, to rebuild them.

I urge the Minister to think carefully and to reassure people on all sides of this House, who I think share those worries in one way or another. How can we make sure that the values of the big society and of civil society are embraced not only by new people coming in? We should show how grateful we are, and how much we care and are thankful, to all those who have been doing this for generations.

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for securing this debate. I agree with much that has been said and shall be brief in my own contribution.

My great fear about this big society idea is that the support will not be there in sufficient scale or purpose to alleviate problems or to help people to participate. That is why the previous Labour Administration made supporting the voluntary sector a key priority, including doubling funding to the sector over 13 years. We did not have some Victorian notion of philanthropy or think that village fetes would resolve the challenging problems faced by communities today.

We have only to look at the stark differences between our regions to see how the big society idea is already unravelling as the unfair distribution of government cuts hits those areas where the needs are greater, such as in the north-east of England, where 62 per cent of voluntary organisations have already seen a decrease in their funding. In my own region of Yorkshire, 26,000 voluntary sector jobs are threatened. Does the Minister agree with me that public sector investment is vital to the health of voluntary organisations, and that without it there cannot be meaningful participation in the big society?

People in the voluntary sector are trying to deal with budget cuts, of course they are, but organisations in the north cannot turn to big corporate or high-value donors to make up the gap as London-based organisations can. For example, over £40 million-worth of donations were made in London in 2009-10 compared with only £6 million in the north-east.

Participating in the big society is clearly not for the many but for those few who are fortunate enough to live in affluent areas. I argue that it is not so much a big society as the “less society”—fewer voluntary organisations to carry out vital work, less government interest in supporting local communities, less funding for community activists and, yes, less participation.

The Government have stated that fairness is at the heart of their policy. However, they are creating a policy that is not only unfair but runs the risk of deepening social inequalities, particularly in the north of the country. Therefore, while I agree that the big society objectives are positive, I believe that an overreliance on philanthropy to provide resources for social action will result in unfairness in the long term. I look forward to hearing how the Minister will address these and the other many important issues, particularly regarding volunteering, that have been raised in this important debate.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for contributing to this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for initiating the debate and providing an opportunity for an interesting, wide-ranging and at times challenging discussion.

The big society is about a volunteering, social action, philanthropic approach to life, but it is also about the opening up of public services to local control and the devolution of power from Whitehall to local communities. Listening to the contributions today, I have found that it is clear that the principles and ideas behind the big society have been alive and kicking in the House for many years. Almost everyone in this Chamber has been involved in some form of charitable and voluntary work, and in many cases noble Lords have been driving the social action debate.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, makes an important point, and I acknowledge the work already being done. My noble friend Lord Wei stressed earlier that the big society should go beyond party lines, and I support that. I welcome the comments made by my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno in support of that. I hope that he forgives me for not engaging with him again on all the debates around AV.

I visited an excellent example of the big society in action in east London: the Bromley by Bow Centre, created by the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, back in 1984. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich is right to highlight the work of street pastors, whom I have had the privilege of hearing first-hand in three separate cities.

The noble Lord, Lord Jones, paid tribute to the volunteers at the League of Friends at Deeside Community Hospital, to Flintshire Neighbourhood Watch, to Flintshire Alzheimer’s Society and to the Flintshire arthritis care group. He paid tribute to those volunteers, and I pay tribute to him as president of all those organisations and a trustee of many others.

Today many noble Lords have raised the issue of funding. My noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon is right to say that financial support must be alongside empowerment. As I have said before in this House, it is undoubtedly unfortunate that we have to deliver the big society against the backdrop of the financial circumstances that we find ourselves in.

I do not treat the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, as a cheap political point. I accept what she says, but I hope she accepts that my comment that the coalition Government inherited the worst peacetime deficit ever is also not a political statement but a fact.

I assure noble Lords that the big society is not a cover for cuts. Rather, it is a positive agenda, developed long before the financial crisis. It was, as David Cameron said in his Hugo Young lecture in 2009, an answer to why the growth of public spending had failed to bring about the kind of social progress that we all wanted to see. I do not accept the idea that the big society depends only on more and more public spending. It is simply a way of making things better where state intervention and increased public spending have failed.

The big society can be realised only when people, organisations and community groups get involved. Without participation, there is no big society. It is therefore essential that the Government work to both encourage and enable participation. We are doing this by encouraging social action, providing the right funds to support community work, making it easier to volunteer and shifting powers from Whitehall to local people. I shall take each of those in turn.

First, we are encouraging people to take part in social action by putting in place a number of key programmes. Some 11,000 16 and 17 year-old school leavers will participate this summer in the national citizen service. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Benjamin will welcome that. They will gain a unique experience, learning about community action in a supportive and engaging environment. Some 5,000 community organisers will also catalyse and support community action in local neighbourhoods.

My noble friend Lord Greaves has asked a number of questions. I hope that I can answer some of them. He asked about remuneration for community organisers. The 500 senior organisers that he referred to will receive a bursary of £20,000 for the first year. He raised a number of other questions regarding terms of reference, how they will build on work done before and what relationship they will have with councillors. I hope that he will bear with me; I will try to answer some of those questions in correspondence to him.

The Giving Green Paper that was published in December, which has been referred to again in this debate, sought feedback on new and innovative ideas to further encourage social action. It resulted in some highly positive feedback. For example, the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, the national charity that provides a voice for over 160,000 small charities and community groups, said:

“We find much to commend in the Green Paper, in particular in its emphasis on creating an environment for social action, giving and volunteering. We recognise that the government’s role in social action is limited, but believe that there is a vitally significant role for government in helping to create this environment”.

This feedback is supporting the development of a White Paper that will provide a framework for work to develop social action.

Secondly, the Government are introducing new funds to encourage participation. The community first fund will encourage more social action in neighbourhoods with significant deprivation and low social capital. The fund will include a £30 million neighbourhood match fund and a £50 million endowment match challenge to create sustainable sources of funding for neighbourhood projects. The big society bank will help to grow a market in social investment, bringing new funding into the sector and help people access capital to fund their projects. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, is right to say that the ingenuity of the City should also be harnessed, and I am optimistic that the big society bank could be a vehicle to do just that.

Thirdly, the Government are encouraging people to take part in their local communities by making it easier to volunteer, and I welcome the perceptive points made by my noble friend Lady Tyler of Enfield. My noble friend Lord Hodgson has been leading a red tape task force, looking at how to remove barriers to those wishing to become actively involved in their communities. He will publish his report next week.

We have also reviewed the criminal records, vetting and barring regimes. The Protection of Freedoms Bill proposes changes that will reduce unnecessary bureaucratic burden for organisations working with volunteers. My noble friend Lady Benjamin raises an important issue on protection. I will make sure that I write to her with more details on the specific points that have been raised.

In preparation for the royal wedding, the Government reduced bureaucracy to enable people across Britain to celebrate together. It was a moment when the nation came together. We scrapped central guidance on road closures and replaced the complicated bureaucracy of forms and risk assessments with a simple checklist. We estimate that well over 5,000 street parties took place around the UK that weekend, including the one that I attended, which the Prime Minister hosted in Downing Street.

The Government are leading by example and encouraging civil servants to volunteer more. We are turning the Civil Service into the civic service by giving special leave for volunteering. One civil servant who took up this opportunity at a local cemetery said, “These days are all about giving back to the community. I am over the moon to chip in where I am needed”.

It is also essential that inspirational examples of good practice are highlighted. My noble friend Lord Younger made the very important point that we should encourage copycat behavioural change. I refer to one statistic that was given in evidence at one of the big society seminars by J Mohan, who said that a civic core exists in Britain, which is currently responsible for the majority of giving and volunteering. Thirty-one per cent of the adult population provides 90 per cent of volunteer hours, 80 per cent of charitable giving and 70 per cent of civic participation. We must increase that percentage from 31 per cent.

We have also created the big society awards. Later this week I will attend a reception hosted by the Prime Minister in Downing Street to celebrate the winners, and to encourage and highlight those who are doing good work. We also continue to support the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. It is essential that we empower communities so that those inspired to do more have the ability to make a real difference. New powers contained in the Localism Bill will give local communities the tools to grow the big society. These include the introduction of powers to allow communities to take over the running of local facilities and give them the right to bid to take over local state-run services.

In conclusion, I say that this debate was just not long enough. So much more could have been added by all noble Lords around the House. I hope I have highlighted in response some of the key measures that the Government are putting in place to encourage people to participate in the big society. Through this we can create a country in which people are able to take an active part in their communities, play their part in solving the social issues that their communities face and improve the quality of life for all. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, being, like me, from Yorkshire, will accept this phrase; in Yorkshire we define it simply as doing your bit or mucking in. I thank all noble Lords again for their contributions to this extremely important debate, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for initiating it this evening.

Sitting suspended.