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Social Capital

Volume 809: debated on Monday 25 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the report by the Office for National Statistics Social capital in the UK: 2020, published on 20 February 2020, what steps they are taking to rebuild social capital.

My Lords, social capital is the fabric that binds our communities together. Sources, such as the ONS and our Community Life COVID-19 Re-contact Survey, shape the steps that build communities. Covid shows that there is much to build on. The number of people who informally volunteer increased to 47% during the pandemic. This Government were elected to level up the country: our £4 billion levelling-up fund, our £1.5 billion shared prosperity fund and the £1.57 billion culture recovery fund, as well as a raft of other commitments, will help build social capital across communities, as we build back better.

My Lords, the ONS report says that the trend has not been good, and that was before the pandemic. The pandemic has forced us into more remote and flexible hybrid working, and the effect has fallen unevenly across society, increasing inequality. Research suggests that social capital boosts well-being and efficiency by reducing transaction and monitoring costs and building trust, but does this not then call for yet more effort on behalf of the Government? The current effort seems inadequate.

I genuinely disagree with the noble Lord’s last point. He is right that the impact of the pandemic has been uneven and hit the poorest hardest, and young people particularly hard, but I commend to him the Chancellor’s Statement at the spending review, which is a long list of major financial commitments.

Churches and other faith communities bring together a diversity of people across all ages and backgrounds, and thus are often a strong source of social capital, as well as spiritual capital, as we have seen during the pandemic. Will the Minister say what Her Majesty’s Government are doing, both financially and in other ways, to enable local and faith communities to invest in and rebuild their social capital, as we emerge from this pandemic?

The right reverend Prelate makes an important point. My noble friend Lord Greenhalgh has been working hard, in his role as Faith Minister, to bring faith communities together. I am happy to share an obvious example with the House, which is the role that faith groups are playing to support the vaccine rollout, and to manage misinformation and disinformation about the impact of vaccines.

My Lords, while young people have mainly been spared the ravages of disease during the pandemic, they have suffered the economic and social consequences of the pandemic response, which we have had to follow, probably more than anyone else. Does my noble friend agree that we need to rebuild social capital and offer this group hope? Will she endorse the proposal of a funded year to serve, which was offered and suggested by the Repairing our Social Fabric programme at Onward? I declare my interest as the chair of that programme.

I absolutely agree with my noble friend about the impact the pandemic has had on young people. That is one of the reasons that the Chancellor announced a review of youth provision outside schools, which will be reporting in May this year. I thank my noble friend and his colleagues at Onward for providing excellent analysis and research on the year to serve, and I am happy to continue a further conversation with him about that proposal.

Is the Minister aware of small organisations such as Social Echo, which works in Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire? I declare an interest, because I am part of the team that put it together. It has been building on the enormous social kindness that broke out last year and is trying to stitch organisations and businesses together—the estate agent with the homeless organisation, et cetera. They are the backbone on which we have to rebuild the social capital that we are talking about.

I agree with the noble Lord and thank him for his tireless work in this area. I share his recognition of the outpouring of social kindness. Our efforts, in the funding that we have provided the voluntary sector in particular, have predominantly focused on small local organisations, for exactly the reasons that the noble Lord sets out.

My Lords, the fragmentation of society, starkly illustrated by the report, is the consequence of replacing the ethic of public service with that of private profit, of privatisation, outsourcing, austerity, the closure of libraries and youth clubs, ending rent controls and taking measures against collective bargaining, causing the real value of wages to stagnate and poverty for 4 million in working families. I assume that the Minister will confirm that there will be no U-turns on these damaging policies.

The issues that the noble Lord raises are more complicated, as I am sure he knows, than some of the limited examples that he has given. I commend to him the work that the Government are doing, particularly on social impact, the use of the Public Services (Social Value) Act in all government procurement and the emerging hybrid model of profit and purpose.

My Lords, the limited research available during this pandemic suggests that the increase in neighbourly kindness and community activity has been more prevalent in better-off areas. If the Government are intent on levelling up, how much of the levelling-up fund are they proposing to spend on social infrastructure, given that in most of the examples that I can see the Government are rightly dealing with economic disadvantage—that is, infrastructure and economic activity? How are the Government proposing to redress the imbalance in social capital?

The noble Lord is absolutely right; it is not just about what we do and what we spend on but how we do it and who we involve. I point the noble Lord to the shared prosperity fund, on which we will get more detail in the spring, where there is a clear ambition to invest in civic institutions and community-owned assets and give that sense of connection and agency that every community deserves.

My Lords, participation in voluntary organisations can be crucial in the development of social capital. Hearing the stories of communities coming together and volunteers—including those who have never volunteered before—helping their neighbours has been extraordinary. We must not lose all this good will and enthusiasm that we have seen over the last year. Could my noble friend the Minister reassure me that the Government are adapting and innovating fast enough to continue growing our national culture of volunteering?

My noble friend raises a very important point. The Government are absolutely committed to trying to capitalise on the surge of good will that she describes and build a real volunteering legacy. We are developing a new volunteering strategy and, within that, reviewing a number of options, including a volunteering passport, and really trying to understand where the need for volunteers is greatest.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, is also Minister for Loneliness. Does this ONS report signal any adjustment to the Government’s current loneliness strategy, which was set up in memory of Jo Cox MP? If so, can she point to any policy areas that might be adjusted?

I start by saying that it is an enormous honour to be the Minister for Loneliness. My inbox on loneliness is fuller than on any other subject that I am responsible for, and it is something that absolutely touches every one of us. Our strategy will continue predominantly along the same lines; namely, talking about loneliness and the stigma, and making sure that funding goes to organisations that connect people. During the pandemic we have brought together a group of around 70 organisations in our tackling loneliness network that are advising us on particular themes in relation to young people, digital, place and older people.

Sitting suspended.