Liberal Democrat Peers debate ‘active citizenship’

Liberal Democrats this week held a special debate in the House of Lords on ‘active citizenship’.

Lib Dem Peers, who have a wide range of experience in and expertise on the voluntary sector, spoke of the tension between the ‘big society’, envisaged by the Prime Minister, and the need for a state, which ensures the provision of basic services is fair.

Opening for the party, Lord (Robert) MacLennan of Rogart said, “Individuals are citizens and can make massive contributions to the well-being of our community. That follows in the tradition of the Victorians – such as Andrew Carnegie’s endowment of public libraries – but we must recognise that Victorian society was extremely unequal and that only by the creation and recognition of the role of the state have we overcome the problems of inequality, although we still have a long way to go.”

Baroness (Joan) Walmsley spoke of the strong need to retain citizenship education on the curriculum, if young people are to become active citizens. She told Peers that it is “the only curricular subject that encompasses politics, economics and the law and that teaches children about their rights and responsibilities as citizens…In these days when politics is in disrepute, we need to do everything we can to encourage young people to learn enough about politics to be able to make up their own minds and use their vote when the time comes.”

Baroness (Liz) Barker set out the way in which social networking sites like Facebook are now a part of civic society. “Twenty-six million of our compatriots are on Facebook,” she told Peers. “At least 13 million of them use it every day. It is a place where people set up and run campaigns, and they engage and challenge organisations. Social networking is where young peoples’ civic life is conducted. That is good and healthy.” The House of Lords, Baroness Barker added, “should not fear it. We should learn about it, understand it and encourage it.”

Baroness (Julia) Neuberger lamented the possibility that the Department for Communities and Local Government might cancel the present Citizenship Survey, saying it “provides by far the most rigorous, regular and reliable data on citizen engagement-specifically, on volunteering-in England. Both Volunteering England and the Institute for Volunteering Research have told me that they believe it is vital for the volunteering sector.”

Baroness (Margaret) Sharp spoke of the Coalition’s commitment to ensuring people can gain the skills they need throughout their lives. “I congratulate coalition Ministers on the skills strategy, which was published on Tuesday and incorporates a commitment to maintaining some £210 million which is known as the safeguarded adult education budget. It is excellent that this particular budget is being maintained. It gives priority to basic skills and to training for those without qualifications, in recognition of the wider benefits that flow from adult education. We know from all the work that has been done that those who participate in adult education are healthier and happier and live longer than others, and that they are more likely to vote, to volunteer and to participate in society.”

Lord (Dominic) Addington spoke up for the amateur sports sector, which he said, “s one of the most established parts of the big society or voluntary sector that there has ever been. It embodies the idea of doing something for yourself, and then gaining a benefit from something you enjoy doing.”

Lord (Tim) Clement-Jones reminded the House that the idea of active citizenship has its roots in liberal philosophy. He quoted JS Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, which said ‘A people among whom there is no habit of spontaneous action for a collective interest have their faculties only half developed’, and Lord Clement-Jones added “Should we Liberals care that our approach to the concept of the enabling state is now being annexed by Conservative think tankers? I do not believe that we should at all, provided that the limits of the big society are recognised in terms of its not being able to deliver the bulk of the welfare state.”

Lord (Tony) Greaves appealed to the Government to build its ‘big society’ based on what already exists in communities around the country. “My plea to central government is that when you have good things working on the ground, do not throw them away. It takes a long time to build active community structures, but they can be thrown away with the stroke of a pen by a Secretary of State. Please build from what there is on the ground. There is a huge amount of good work and good things happening all over the country, but every time there is a new Government or a new Secretary of State the old is swept out and they start to build again. They call it different names but, in practice, it turns out to be the same thing. When projects are closed down, the people who have been involved become that much more cynical and unwilling to get involved again.”

Lord (John) Shipley highlighted the potential of ‘participatory budgeting’ from local councils to engage citizens in helping their local area. As Leader of Newcastle City Council he had branded it ‘U decide’. “It was launched four years ago by the Newcastle Partnership with £280,000 of neighbourhood renewal cash. ,” Lord Shipley said, “Now in our fifth year, there have been some 20 projects involving 11,000 people with more than £4.5 million of public funding allocated.” He told Peers that some examples from recent projects had include an environmental improvement project in the Lemington area of Newcastle, which involved more than 800, including 400 school pupils, in considering environmental issues, a project to engage the city’s unpaid carers of adults in defining allocating resource to improve their quality of life and a project using police authority funding to build trust and confidence in one of the most deprived and disaffected estates in the city.”

Lord (Paul) Tyler, summing up the debate for the Liberal Democrats, highlighted the role of the Citizens’ Advice Bureau in local communities, “I think that anybody who has had any role in local communities, particularly those who have had a constituency MP responsibility, will know how incredibly important the CAB is. The most recent CAB impact report gives a compelling case study, showing how a simple intervention at a relatively low cost can save the taxpayer thousands of pounds,” he said. Lord Tyler went on to highlight the risk to CAB funding, since Bureaux are, on average, funded to the tune of 43% by local government. The Government he said must “recognise that funding local authorities is not engorging a wicked bureaucracy but sustaining the very groups that are the bedrock not just of a big society but of the fair, active and liberal society that we all want to create.”

Lord Tyler added: “If all the active citizens in our society are the tiles in a mosaic, local government is the glue that holds them together.” In response the Minister responsible,

Lord Taylor, gave some detail on what the Coalition Government would do to support social action. He said the new National Citizen Service (NCS) “would help to build a more cohesive, responsible and engaged society by bringing 16 year-olds from different backgrounds together in a residential and home-based programme of activity and service.” As part of the experience, participants will spend two weeks away from home, to give them the opportunity to develop life skills and resilience. The Minister commended the project as a “a life-enhancing experience for all those engaged in it.” There will be two years of NCS pilots, starting in summer 2011 with 10,000 sixteen year olds, rising to 30,000 in 2012.

The Minister went on to highlight ‘community organiser programme’ being set up by the Coalition to train and support 5,000 people who want to make a difference to their community. “The organisers have a strong understanding of local needs and will catalyse social action through creating and supporting neighbourhood groups”, he said.

He also reassured the House about the impact of the Comprehensive Spending Review on the voluntary sector. The Minister said a transition fund had been announced to provide a £100 million grant over this and the next financial year, funding voluntary and community organisations, charities and social enterprises in England. “This will give them the breathing space that they need to help them manage the transition to a tighter funding environment and take advantage of future opportunities presented by the big society,” he added.

A transcript of the full debate is available at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldhansrd/text/101118-0001.htm#10111864000755

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