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Big Society: Church of England

Volume 727: debated on Thursday 12 May 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to work with the Church of England in further developing the Big Society.

My Lords, the Government are actively working with faith community leaders in order to create the big society. The Secretary of State and my noble friend Lady Warsi have discussed these matters with the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester and other senior church figures, and more meetings are planned. Faith communities including the Church of England have been a focus for philanthropic activity for centuries, and my department will continue to work with them.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. Would she agree that the Church of England is particularly well placed geographically, because it has a presence in every community and also because its Christian values have long rested on caring for our neighbours and those in the community who most need help?

My Lords, I can certainly agree with what the noble Baroness has said. The Church of England is well placed because, as she says, it has—I was going to say fingers in every pie—tentacles in every part. The Question is about the Church of England, but I emphasise that we work happily not only with the church but indeed with all faith communities.

Will the Minister acknowledge how much damage her party did to the big society when it promoted the demutualisation of building societies and mutual societies, which were the very origins of the big society?

My Lords, we pass on in time, and the big society is something that we all now understand. [Laughter]

I am truly astonished at that response from the Opposition. Do they not understand that the big society is based on communities, on the value of the work that people do for other people and on neighbourliness? I do not understand why they are laughing.

My Lords, as county youth services have diminished, the number of youth workers employed by the Church of England has increased considerably. Faced with inflation, reductions in gift aid and the other challenges to charitable giving faced by the voluntary sector, what steps will the Government take to help the Church of England develop further the community provision so essential to building the big society?

My Lords, as I am sure the right reverend Prelate knows, the near neighbours exercise is currently under way, for which my department is providing over £5 million to the Church of England’s initiative, part of which is to ensure that people are trained, to ensure that there are interactions between faith communities and to help the big society in action.

My Lords, can the Minister now answer properly the question of my noble friend Lord Tomlinson by indicating whether she and the Government are indeed in favour of the mutual approach to which he referred?

My Lords, there is always value in mutualisation in various areas. I am not going to comment on the question that was raised; I have replied to it as I can. The relationships between people in local communities are invaluable.

My Lords, can the Minister do everything she can to encourage an end to the practice whereby local authorities refuse to give grants and support to organisations which have a religious dimension or conviction? This means that many organisations which do great charitable work are unable to get the support of local authorities, something which seems completely at variance with the big society agenda.

My Lords, my department has been working closely not only with the Church of England but also with other faith societies to ensure that the work that they do in local areas is understood and supported. Where contributions and grants are made from local authorities, we would expect them to be given to faith organisations and the Church of England for the work that they do, and in line with that. We would not expect local authorities not to do so just because it was the Church of England.

My Lords, the Minister has mentioned the value of what we do for others. Can she give us the Government’s reaction to today’s announcement that the value of the work of unpaid carers in the big society has been re-estimated from £87 billion to £119 billion every year?

My Lords, I understand fully the interest of the noble Baroness opposite. She has been working in this field for a long time. My response is that I would not be surprised. The amount of voluntary work and caring in this country is enormous. We all recognise that many people are looking after members of their family full time, largely unpaid and unrecognised. The first thing we have got to do is recognise what they do, and I would not underestimate the value of their contribution. What the noble Baroness says is correct.

My Lords, first, I declare an interest as an executive councillor in the London Borough of Sutton, which is one of the Government’s three vanguard communities for the big society. What steps are the Government taking to remove regulatory burdens at both national and EU level to enable local authorities to provide practical support in facilitating faith-based and other community organisations to deliver services and grow community spirit?

My Lords, unless there are regulations standing in the way of that, we would want to look at it very carefully and see what is stopping that work. I am not aware of either the Church of England or any other faith community being debarred from helping people in the work that they need to do. I pay tribute to the work of those organisations and their presence in the community, and express the appreciation of the people who rely upon them.

Does the Minister agree that the beginnings of implementing the kind of society that the big society envisages are in everyone recognising their responsibilities to other people in that society—

Does the Minister also agree that those interested in promoting the big society must recognise their responsibilities to others, and that this includes faith organisations as well as other elements in civil society?

My Lords, as I indicated, the big society is all about people helping others in local areas, neighbourliness, philanthropy, practical help and recognising that each of us owes a responsibility to others in the course of our lives.