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Greg Clark: Responsibility, power and resources – three things to give people control over their lives

In a speech to the Conservative Women's Organisation, Shadow Minister for Charities, Social Enterprise and Volunteering, Greg Clark said:

"Ladies and gentlemen, when I first received my invitation to speak here today I wasn't planning to say very much.

For which I make no apology.

I'm new to this role.

In fact, the role is new as well.

One specifically designed by David Cameron to focus exclusively on charities, social enterprise and volunteering.

That's why I wanted to spend an initial period listening rather than talking.

But, ladies and gentlemen, I've been provoked.

Provoked by a speech from Hilary Armstrong, the Chancellor of the Duchy Lancaster.

This is what she said to an NCVO breakfast briefing last Wednesday:

"…we are a government focussed upon the needs of service users, yet 100% committed to the public service ethos. You will have all heard echoes of our approach from the Conservative Party in recent months - in fact I'm sure many of you have been stalked by David Cameron in his bid to win over the sector. But whereas we see partnership, Mr Cameron sees an opportunity to relinquish responsibility to society's most disadvantaged - another chance to 'roll back the state'."

Let's take this apart line by line.

First of all:

"we are a government focussed upon the needs of service users, yet 100% committed to the public service ethos."

Surely being focused on the needs of service users should be what a public service ethos is all about.

So why the word "yet"?

It tells you something about Labour's public service ethos that they contrast it with the needs of service users.

Then we have this:

"You will have all heard echoes of our approach from the Conservative Party in recent months…"

In 2001, I was Director of Policy for the Conservative Party.

I approved the Party's Civil Society Manifesto - the first time a major political party dedicated a manifesto to the voluntary sector.

It contained several proposals including the idea of an Office of Civil Society - designed to bring together Whitehall responsibility for the voluntary sector under one roof.

Five years later the Government sets up an Office of the Third Sector - designed to do exactly the same thing.

And yet the Minister thinks that it is the Conservative Party echoing the Government.

Well, I guess echoes can be confusing.

So let me be clear, when the Government talks about the importance of the voluntary sector; the independence of the sector; and its contribution to our public services, it is they who are echoing our themes.

We have lead, they have followed - and yet Hilary Armstrong accuses David Cameron of "stalking" the leaders of the voluntary sector.

I'm not quite sure how to respond to that particular allegation.

As far as I'm aware the police haven't received any complaints.

But if Stuart Etherington spots an intruder in his garden, he can relax; it's only the Leader of the Opposition.

Now for the final instalment of Hilary Armstrong's outburst:

"…whereas we see partnership, Mr Cameron sees an opportunity to relinquish responsibility to society's most disadvantaged - another chance to 'roll back the state'."

On the 15 May, Ed Miliband - a minister in Ms Armstrong's department - said that "partnership is over-used word."

He's not wrong there.

This Government just loves partnership.

Sadly, the role it has in mind for the voluntary sector is that of junior partner.

Hence the Government's preferred term for the voluntary sector:

Third sector.

Which should give you a good idea of Labour's sense of priorities.

In my eyes, the third sector is the first sector.

Wherever there is a need, charities are there first - doing what the public sector can't do and what the private sector won't do.

Where does the Government imagine the public services came from?

Where they created out of nothing in 1948?

No, they were formed from the proud philanthropic institutions that pulled this country into the modern age.

So why would we want to roll back the public services, when we know what rolled them forward in the first place?

On the contrary we want to see the public services reinvigorated with their original animating spirit.

Because as the current Chancellor has amply demonstrated money alone will not do the trick.

But Ms Armstrong is right about one thing:

Mr Cameron does indeed see an "opportunity to relinquish responsibility to society's most disadvantaged."

And not only responsibility.

We want to relinquish power to society's most disadvantaged.

We want to relinquish resources to society's most disadvantaged.

Responsibility, power and resources - three things to give people control over their lives.

Of course that does not mean that we should relinquish responsibility for society's most disadvantaged.

That is an entirely different proposition - something that Hilary Armstrong's speechwriter might like to reflect on.

Relinquishing responsibility to people, while retaining responsibility for people, is what David Cameron means by shared responsibility.

And this is where our approach to the voluntary sector differs so much from Labour's.

With shared responsibility, individuals and communities will have the opportunity to work with those service providers that can best meet their particular needs.

It is a deeply personal approach and a local one too. One in which voluntary organisations of all shapes and sizes can contribute.

Much, if not most, of the money may still come from the centre, but it will come without strings.

The primary axis of accountability will be between the service user and the service provider - a welfare system based on face-to-face relationships not faceless bureaucracy.

Or for that matter two-faced politics.

Because when it comes to charity, social enterprise and all those good things, it is all too easy to speak the language of consensus and platitude.

But it won't be what you hear from me.

Where there is genuine agreement I will of course do what I can to work with the Government, but where important issues are at stake - and they are - I will speak out."

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