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Supporting the UK’s Social Fabric

Volume 687: debated on Monday 11 January 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Leo Docherty.)

I rise to speak about tomorrow’s publication from the think-tank Onward entitled “The Policies of Belonging”, which is part of its “Repairing our social fabric” programme. To avoid any confusion, I am well aware that Onward seeks to develop new ideas for the next generation of centre-right thinkers and leaders. Clearly, that does not include me—at least I hope it does not—and I might therefore be expected to use my time to attack the report and suggest it is part of a right-wing plot to dismantle the social fabric and ensure there is no such thing as society. On the contrary, I am here to welcome this piece of work and to congratulate the project’s supporting partners, which include the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Power to Change and Shelter. This work could well provide the basis for a new cross-party conversation about how we rebuild the social character of the country as we emerge from the pandemic.

It is in that spirit of across-the-aisle co-operation that I have given half my time in this short debate to the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger). The paper he produced last September proposing a new social covenant and tomorrow’s report are thoughtful contributions on how we rebuild our country in the tough years that lie ahead. They both deserve a wide audience across all parties. However, the danger is that we relegate such thinking in preference to economic policy. This remains an historic tendency in both of our political traditions, despite what we know about how people wish to live and what they value, which stretches beyond questions of GDP, utility and economic calculus.

Last year, Onward introduced its UK social fabric index, which measures the relative social strength of every community in Britain, a significant new metric for politicians and public policy makers alike. Its covid-19 community report highlighted resilient local responses to the pandemic over the past 10 months, yet also detailed the limited opportunities for communities to genuinely take back control. The overall argument is quite simple but telling: the social divides that bedevil our country are just as strong as the economic divides. Talk of levelling up, therefore, needs to encompass social as well as economic policy.

A desire to level up communities is not new. It has informed, among others, the community development projects of Harold Wilson, the single regeneration budgets of John Major, and Tony Blair’s new deal for communities. Yet none of those has unlocked the way we level up communities, not least, arguably, because of an overreliance on economic issues. In truth, politicians tend to gravitate towards grant funding issues, job creation schemes and physical infrastructure to foster community. We are most comfortable with that agenda. A more sustainable proposal would be to empower communities to respond themselves and endow them with the resources to do so.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing the debate. I very much agree with what he says. Doe he agree that the charitable sector is a foundational partner in the make-up of the UK and that churches and community groups need help at this time to set up online and effective ways of carrying on their sterling work? While it is great to see some churches running online youth quizzes, for example, for others the technology is simply out of their reach, and they need help to purchase and use it. Does he agree that we should be encouraging churches and community groups to be more involved? Perhaps the Minister can ensure that that happens.

I very much agree, and that is the tenor of much of the report being published tomorrow morning, so I urge the hon. Member to read it. The charitable sector and faith groups have been on the frontline of confronting the pandemic in my community, and I will comment on that in a minute.

All the evidence suggests that citizens want the power and responsibility to revive their communities, so how can that be achieved? The report suggests, first, giving individuals the power to repair their social fabric through civic sabbaticals, youth-serving years, character education and new permanent volunteer schemes; secondly, giving individuals the capital to do so through new tax changes to support individual activities, reform of precarious housing, funds to support new civic leadership and adapting the apprenticeship levy; thirdly, giving communities the power to repair their social fabric with community improvement districts, new community councils, business rate exemptions and the reuse of empty buildings and shops; and fourthly, giving communities the capital to do so, controlled by the community themselves, with new social infrastructure funds, higher education reforms, community land trusts and charitable enterprise zones. The 17 specific policy recommendations are well worth a read tomorrow.

This year could well shape a new cross-party dialogue about rebuilding our communities. As the MP for Dagenham, I feel that 2021 is an important year to have such a debate, as it marks our centenary. Modern Dagenham was literally built or born on 7 November 1921, when the first house on the Becontree estate was completed. Some 27,000 homes containing over 100,000 residents would follow, spread over 2,700 acres or 4 square miles, building the largest council estate in the world—a unique experiment: a state-led cottage community built from nothing. It was Lloyd George making good on his promise made immediately after the armistice to build

“habitations for the heroes who have won the war”.

The first migrants felt like pioneers, moving from east end slums into a muddy and empty wilderness, but a resilient community was created. Indeed, by the 1950s and ’60s, analysts from the Institute of Community Studies—now the Young Foundation—regularly used the estate to extol the virtues of settled extended working-class families, yet the twin effects of deindustrialisation and the right to buy dismantled a once stable community. We became, and still are, the fastest-changing community in the country, driven by the cheapest housing in London.

Today, in our centenary year, we are seeking to forge new partnerships to re-establish that sense of community, and we are having some success. Traditionally, the community sector has been weak, but the council has recently worked to change its structures and culture and to work with and support the community in new ways that are more participatory and less paternalistic. Local services have been made less siloed and more friendly and integrated through an initiative labelled “community solutions”. We have invested in London’s first youth zone. BD_Collective has been formed, which is an independent platform for local civil society that now provides the borough’s infrastructure support in terms of civic and social support. We have Participatory City, a £7 million five-year experiment launched in 2017 to foster new forms of community activity. With four shop fronts and a large warehouse, it delivers scores of new community projects among a growing network of over 5,000 local people. We also have Collaborate, supported by Lankelly Chase, which helps to guide the local community on place-based change.

When the pandemic struck, all this came together in an alliance of council, voluntary and faith organisations organised through nine local community hubs, labelled the Barking and Dagenham Citizens Alliance Network, to help the most vulnerable. Approaching 6,000 families have been helped with food, medicines, prescriptions, referrals and advice. Just days ago, it was announced that borough community organisations are set to benefit from a new endowment fund transferred by the council to a place-based charity called Barking and Dagenham Giving—the first authority in London to permanently endow such a fund in support of local community groups—with an additional investment of over £800,000, to be topped up annually.

In Dagenham’s centenary year, major new initiatives are helping to rebuild our social fabric, but the Government need to do more to help us. The social fabric of Britain frayed after years of neglect. The ties that bind us together are in urgent need of repair. The best way to honour our collective sacrifice over the past 10 months would be to endow communities with the resources to foster a more civic culture. The agenda published tomorrow by Onward to repair our social fabric is a major step in that regard. As we enter—hopefully—our final lockdown, we should resolve to repair the social fabric on which we all rely. There would be no better monument to the hardship and heartache of the past year. I now give some time for the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger).

I am pleased to be able contribute to this important debate and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) for securing it. I am a great admirer of him, his work and his world view, which I find I largely share. I think of him as a great conservative, despite what he just said, and am pleased to be working with him on the Onward panel. I join him in endorsing the report that is to be published tomorrow and congratulate the team who have put it together.

This is a topical and important debate, and not just because what we call social fabric is a “nice to have” that everybody agrees with—we all like village halls, Girl Guides and so on. This agenda is profoundly important to the future of our country, partly for the obvious reason that what people want above all else is strong communities—we derive huge value personally from the strength of our neighbourhoods—but, more profoundly, this debate matters because what we call social fabric is in fact the foundation of our prosperity.

The House has just spent the afternoon debating global Britain; I am not sure that this topic was discussed, but the source of our prosperity as a country and, indeed, our offer to the world is in our local communities. We became the world’s first industrial power because we had a culture that enables co-operation, shared values and the moral sentiments that underpin free markets. These are possible only because people trust each other. The country is made up of the communities within it, and our responsibility as politicians is to strengthen our communities and strengthen the foundations of our national prosperity.

The hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham spoke about his constituency in east London, which is obviously a place quite different from Devizes—he said that it began in 1921; we trace our origins to 4,000 BC, when the first prehistoric Neolithic structures were erected in my bit of Wiltshire—but actually there are many similarities. We, too, have entrenched social challenges: rural poverty and social isolation are particularly vicious because they are often hidden. Also like Dagenham, however, we have tremendous organisations and there is a very strong community that is responding to the challenges. I pay particular tribute to Community First and the Wiltshire Community Foundation, which I am privileged to work with.

Devizes is a place where people take responsibility for themselves and for their neighbours, as we are seeing now in the rush to get people vaccinated. On Friday, I spoke to three long-established family businesses in the constituency: T. H. White agricultural engineers, Gaiger Brothers builders and the brewers Wadworth. All three are suffering—naturally, as businesses are during this crisis—but all volunteered to help to put out the word among their workers, and in some cases paid their employees to help drive people to vaccination centres in the weeks and months ahead.

We need to trust in the spontaneous energies of communities, as I have described, but we also need to recognise that activity of that sort does not just happen. If we want more of it, especially in more disadvantaged places, we need to take action and the Government have a responsibility. Let us recognise what has happened over recent decades. As the Onward research demonstrates, our social fabric has grown threadbare over recent decades. Since 2000, a quarter of all pubs throughout the country have closed, and a quarter of all post offices and a fifth of all libraries have shut their doors. Partly that is because of how we all now work, shop and socialise—the changes in our economy and our society—and partly it is because of funding cuts, especially since 2010. I want to acknowledge that: I recognise that austerity fell most harshly on local government, which then cut non-statutory services the most. Youth services, which I worked in during those years, fell away particularly sharply—some estimates suggest that 70% of funding for youth services was cut in the 2010s. So what do we do? Well, we do need more public funding. I particularly welcome the investments that the Government have made. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been committed to youth services. During the pandemic, in the first lockdown last year, there was £750 million of emergency funding for civil society and for charities.

I pay tribute to the work that the Minister for Civil Society, Baroness Barran, and the Ministers in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are doing to support the charity sector. I would, of course, welcome more funding. I have called very specifically for a new endowment funded from dormant assets, which are potentially worth many billions of pounds, to finance social infrastructure and community projects. I also hope that the new levelling-up fund, announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor at the spending review in November, will live up to its billing and help support the infrastructure of everyday life, which means, in my view, not just trains and broadband, vital as those things are, but also the libraries, the youth clubs and the social enterprises that bind places together. In fact, broadband is a big part of the social fabric. I hope that we can do a deal with tech firms to get our communities properly connected. I see a major role for libraries in particular as the hubs of digitally connected local communities.

Finally, on money, I welcome the kickstart scheme that the Government have announced. Along with Onward and other colleagues, I hope that we can adapt that scheme, perhaps combining it with the National Citizen Service, to create a more ambitious project that funds young people, especially those who have suffered with all the disruption to education during this crisis, and those who will suffer from the downturn in the labour market in the months ahead. We need to fund those young people to work on social and environmental projects in their communities.

To finish, whatever we do with public money, there is something more important that we need to get right: the question of power—who is making the decisions about how money is spent and how services are organised locally. We are one of the most centralised countries in the developed world. To my mind, taking back control was not just about Brussels. If all we do now is bring power back to Westminster, as we have done, we will have failed the people of this country. That, Madam Deputy Speaker, is why I think the social fabric agenda is so significant: we need to put the power to determine what happens locally in the hands of local people. The Onward report makes a number of recommendations along those lines and I made some in my report last year. We are in the midst of a great constitutional change: the restoration of power to the UK. We need to restore power to the communities, too.

I welcome this debate. I thank my friend, the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham for what he called this cross-party conversation. I hope that we can go beyond that. The battle for politics should be over this agenda. We should be fighting in this place about who owns the community agenda, and I think that my party has a very good claim to that.

May I start by thanking the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) for securing this important debate and for getting such great cross-party consensus on the importance of this topic? It might not be of any help to his election leaflets if I say that he is a great champion of the centre right, as is Onward, but I think that we can all agree that, whether it is centre right or centre left, this is a vital topic for us all to be discussing.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about a participatory rather than a paternalistic way of having this conversation. That is an absolutely key focus for this Government, and I know that it is an absolutely key focus for my noble Friend, Baroness Barran, whose ministerial brief this is; it is an honour to speak on it in the Commons. That strong social fabric is absolutely vital to the health and well-being of our society and of our economy. That is why it is not only this cross-party commitment that is important; it has also been an extraordinary spectacle over the past year to see the importance of that fabric as communities have come together as they have been tested like never before. It is more important than ever that we pay close attention to those ties that bind us, that we pay close attention to the way that they have been, as the hon. Gentleman described, stretched, and that we pay close attention to the fundamental infrastructure that makes those links possible. Whether it is little platoons or whether it is the big society—whatever we want to call it—they are essential to our response both to the pandemic and to our future.

We know that many people across the whole country are concerned about a growing lack of belonging, about that sense that things ain’t what they used to be—whatever that might be. This report from Onward on the state of our social fabric does make for stark reading, as the hon. Gentleman said. It provides evidence of a long-term decline in the social fabric and it adds to a growing base of evidence for a link between weak social fabric and higher levels of deprivation.

I see in my own constituency—in Boston, in particular—levels of deprivation but intense levels of social pride. That sense is something that we can all build on. It has been highlighted by the Onward report and by the one nation report on “Connecting Communities” from my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell), and we need to do more on that. Deprived areas are not lacking in pride or community spirit; they are often the places with the most community spirit. We need greater investment in the community infrastructure and the institutions that may help those places to address the economic challenges they face, because the two go together.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) said, the Government have committed to levelling up all regions of the United Kingdom. A major part of that commitment must be creating jobs and investment in infrastructure as it is commonly understood, but we must also invest in the kind of social infrastructure that sits beneath it. Social fabric is about more than levelling up, and we will not level up if we simply address the economic challenges the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham mentioned. We must also recognise—and the Government do recognise—that exploring and recognising the role that building strong communities plays is an essential part of that agenda.

The £4 billion levelling-up fund will help. It will invest in

“the infrastructure of everyday life”,

as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has put it. It is not just transport and jobs, but community infrastructure, local arts, culture and libraries that make a real difference to people and that Members across the House are passionate about. That is why the Government are seeking, through this course of action, to use all the levers available, rather than simply building infrastructure, be it broadband, roads or rail. That will ensure that people can access the network and institutions that let them connect in every possible sense, rather than simply improving infrastructure connectivity. Those two things together will address the economic inequalities we all want to see tackled.

Supporting change within those communities has not traditionally been seen as the space for Government to act, nor has it traditionally been seen as the space for a Conservative Government to act, but my Department has long focused on enriching lives, whether through sport, the arts or participation in the community at local and national level. We all want to create the conditions for civil society to thrive in order to support volunteering and local giving.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes mentioned the role of tech firms in that. As we move to an increasingly digital world, the role of technology is hugely important. I have worked to encourage the Googles and Facebooks of this world to work more with charities and local businesses. Just as they have done some successful work with schools, there is more that they could do in this area, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said.

It is important to say that the Government’s response to the pandemic provides an example of how we have worked to enable civil society and communities to take a lead. The Government have worked hard to enable civil society to identify those challenges, to use its experience and, crucially, to fill the gaps. For instance, the £750 million support package that focused on enabling smaller and local charities and social enterprises to maintain and enhance services for those affected by the crisis saw large numbers of people working within their communities. It facilitated that sort of work to achieve more than would otherwise have been possible. It is important to recognise where the Government have done the right things. I hope that that is easier to do in the environment of cross-party consensus that we have seen this evening.

It is essential that we work to ensure that this potential is realised for the long term in every part of the country. Last summer, when my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes developed the proposals to sustain the community response to covid-19, one area he looked at was volunteering. We hear that many people want to volunteer but they face challenges in getting involved, and Government can help to address those barriers. They can enable us to sustain the community spirit. His recommendation of a volunteer passport, for instance, is one of the things that we are looking at closely. It represents one of a range of possible measures that will contribute to the strengthening of social fabric.

The hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham also mentioned place-based charities. It is important to pay tribute to the role of community foundations up and down the country—my own in Lincolnshire does remarkable work—and to note the recent announcements that we have made about the future use of dormant assets, which can make a real difference, building on what is already there.

As I said, we have seen huge progress in the use of digital technology to enable volunteering as a result of the pandemic. The NHS volunteer responders is just one example; they have supported 130,000 vulnerable people since they were mobilised last April, so we know that it can be done. We have heard great examples in Devizes, and up and down the country, of people seeing in the vaccination drive yet another way in which volunteers can be harnessed, in the various “cabs for jabs” schemes that have already been established. My Department will continue to aid this effort and others, updating the public guidance to make sure that people can volunteer safely, because, of course, that is now more important than ever. Sustaining that strong, resilient volunteering system must be a legacy of this challenging period. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes for his report to the Prime Minister, and we will carefully consider the recommendations as we respond in due course.

This is a subject that, as the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham knows, we could talk about at great length, but the reason why we should have cause to be optimistic in these extraordinary times is that we have seen the possibilities that can be achieved, and we have seen, not just through those NHS responders, what more can be done. It has been a pleasure to have the opportunity to respond to this debate. Strengthening the social fabric will continue to be a vital task for the Government. Responding to the Onward report will be an interesting and long-term project as well.

It is slightly too early to say happy birthday to Dagenham as we approach the centenary in November, but I will do so none the less. I do not know whether we can say happy sixth millennium to Devizes, but we should throw that in. Either way, whether a place is 100 years old or 6,000 years old, it is vital now that as a community we use the opportunities, be they technology or community, to level up and work from the bottom up, as I think the hon. Gentleman said. As we recover from the present crisis, it is vital that we build the stronger, fairer country that, across the House, we have seen a clear consensus for this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.