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Community Life

Volume 752: debated on Thursday 27 February 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is being done to mitigate the social and cultural consequences of the weakening of community life in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, community life is not weakening. Strong communities are shaping their own destiny across England, and we are supporting people in their efforts. The Government’s localist approach, for example, gives more power to communities and local councils, and communities are seizing the opportunities offered. One of our flagship programmes is the National Citizen Service. This year, 90,000 young people will deliver a community project through this service.

I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Is it not the case, however, that one of the key factors in what is clearly a declining community vitality in this country, is the ever increasing volume of legislation pouring forth from this place, which tends to undermine and confuse the ordinary citizen, and is still running at the rate, after repeals, of about 10,000 pages of new statute law every year? That is more than I have been able to discover in any country in western Europe.

My Lords, the Government are fully committed to removing unnecessary bureaucracy. Speaking specifically about DCLG, since 2010 it has enacted legislation which has, as I have already said, empowered citizens and local communities. The Localism Act 2011 is a good example. In January of this year, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced that the Government have indeed met the Red Tape Challenge target to find 3,000 regulations to scrap and improve. Already more than 800 of the reforms have been implemented.

My Lords, will the noble Lord tell the House how the big society is doing these days? We have not heard very much about it for the past couple of years. Will he give us an update? If the big society is prospering, the noble Lord’s question is redundant.

The big society—and society as a whole—is alive, well and kicking. We need only look around the country to see 5,000 community organisers trained in 2015; Community First; the Centre for Social Action; the Dementia Friends campaign; the Innovation in Giving Fund; the Citizen Service; and indeed the Big Society Awards, with more than 100 winners already announced. The big society is very much alive. Look around your local community and you will see it.

My Lords, much as I appreciate and applaud the national citizenship scheme, is it not time for the Government to encourage all young people to undergo community service and to qualify for a citizenship ceremony before they enter the adult world?

My noble friend raises an interesting point. It is important to ensure that the opportunities that are available to young people are shown to them. If we look at the take-up of the National Citizen Service, when it was launched in 2011, there were 8,500 young people involved. In the current year, there are 90,000. Next year, it will go up to 120,000. The estimates are that by 2016, 150,000 young people will be part of the National Citizen Service. It shows that when a scheme works for the country and it works for young people, there is a take-up. This scheme reflects that.

Would the Minister agree that encouraging village shops is an excellent way of strengthening community life in the United Kingdom? I declare an interest as the owner of the Ewelme village store.

As someone who worked in local government for 10 years as a local councillor, I totally agree with those sentiments. The vitality of local businesses at a local level is something that this Government fully support and encourage.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in welcoming this morning’s announcement by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government that the Near Neighbours scheme—a very successful collaboration between faith groups and government—is being extended for a further two years? Does he also agree that the scheme is an excellent example of strengthening social cohesion in ways that are sensitive to local dynamics, and that it could serve as a model for communities up and down the United Kingdom?

The right reverend Prelate is of course right to raise the issue of the Near Neighbours scheme. It is a successful scheme in which the Church of England works with local communities, and it shows how communities and wider faith groups can come together. My noble friend who is sitting to my right famously said, “This Government does do God”. We work with people of all faiths across the country to ensure that communities are vibrant and working well together.

My Lords, if we believe that rights should be matched by responsibilities, should we not elevate, alongside the expectation that those of working age who are reasonably able to do so should be in gainful employment, a second expectation that those who can reasonably do so should commit themselves to a pattern of caring activity or some other activities useful to the community, on the basis that we do not want to live in a neoliberal society of atomised individuals but in a society founded on an older and better principle: namely, that we are members one of another?

Those are sentiments with which I totally agree. Perhaps I may give a very local example. I referred earlier to my time as a local councillor. I am delighted this week that, through an initiative which this Government have enabled, the community right to bid for community assets, Wimbledon Park Hall, which was shut by a local council, has just been revived. The local community, through local residents and the Wimbledon Park Residents Association, is working with the private sector to ensure that a community asset which was of and by the community will now function for the community.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister join me in praising those people from all round the country who have gone to help farmers and others during this time of flooding?

My noble friend, as ever, raises a very important and valid point. I am sure that the sentiment that she expressed resonates with us all. It is a tribute to how, at a time of need in our great country, community spirit works well and is alive.