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Cameron: Building a pro-social society

Annual Hinton Lecture to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations

"It is an honour to be invited to give this lecture.

Many of you here will have known Nicholas Hinton, and what a truly exceptional leader he was.

It's Nicholas who we can thank for the development of the former National Council for Social Services into the NCVO.

His work with the Save the Children Fund was ground-breaking. He understood how partnerships can transform the effectiveness of voluntary organisations.

After Save the Children, Nicholas set up and became the first Director of the International Crisis Group. Aimed at conflict resolution around the world, it was a typically ambitious, innovative endeavour.

His tragic death at an early age robbed Britain and the world of a force for good.

And we should all take the opportunity today, at this commemorative lecture, to pledge to do all we can to uphold the values he stood for, and to take forward the work he began.


After my lecture this evening, you will be celebrating the arrival of the NCVO's four thousandth member.

That, in itself, is a remarkable achievement.

But as with each of your three thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine existing members, what is really remarkable is the work they do.

Your newest recruit is an organisation called Nu Choices.

They offer advice, information and support to individuals and family members whose lives have been affected by substance abuse, HIV/AIDS and other sexual health issues.

I had a look at their website, and two things stood out for me.

Nu Choices' vision statement includes the words:

"…our services recognise that the community will have diverse experiences and differences in cultural background; hence our own diversity and experience."

And on each page, there is a clear and inspiring call to arms:

"Together we can make a difference."

What I'd like to do this evening is set out the connection between my core beliefs…

….the work that you all do…

…and what this might mean for the future of the voluntary sector in this country.


There are two beliefs which form the core of my political philosophy.

The first is the belief that if you trust people, they will generally do the right thing.

The more power and responsibility people have over their own lives, the stronger they become, and the stronger society becomes.

This applies in many different contexts.

Trusting a teacher to find the best way to inspire a child about an idea, or to control an unruly class of fourteen year olds.

Trusting a doctor to find the best way of relieving someone's pain and suffering, or to decide which patient's needs should come first.

Trusting businesses to decide how best to grow; how best to create jobs and wealth and opportunity.

But I think it applies with particular force in the work that you do.

The problems you seek to address are the most entrenched. Hard to tackle with a rigid formula or some "best practice" blueprint.

The approaches you use are hard to judge with a box-ticking evaluation or management audit.

Whether you're a large voluntary organisation or small, you work at the human level.

How do you help an eighty-eight year old lady in a cold and lonely flat…

…who's barely able to walk to the shops and often too frightened to do so anyway…

…who needs to navigate the complexity of the benefits system?

How do you help a sixteen year old girl who's never had the love and attention from her parents that she deserved?

How do you make her understand that she's worth something, that she's special…

…and that her value to this world should never be measured by the number of boys she has sex with?

How do you help a dad who's lost his job and with it his self-esteem…

….and who feels disgusted with himself for not being able to provide for his family?

How do you stop him seeking solace in drink and drugs, all the time hating himself more as his life falls apart?

These are people.

Human beings, with human problems: complex, emotional, built up over years.

The desire to help people is the noblest aspect of the human spirit.

It is the spirit which you embody…

…and the least that we as politicians can do is trust you to act on that impulse without excessive control and central direction.

It takes time and patient support to help that eighty-eight year old lady live with dignity, to help that sixteen year-old girl discover her own self-worth, to help that dad turn his life around.

In each case, the way that they will become stronger, and the way that society will become stronger, is through giving them more power and responsibility over their own lives.

You are the ones who put in the time, who give the support, to achieve that outcome.

So we need to trust your judgement and discretion. To give you more power and responsibility.


The second core belief that informs my political philosophy is the conviction that there is not a single challenge we face that isn't best tackled by recognising the simple truth that we are all in this together.

Think of some of the biggest issues around.

Climate change. Poverty. Fighting crime and improving the quality of life.

Too often, people look to government to simply 'deliver' solutions…

…when it is quite clear that government is only one part of the solution.

Individuals have the power - and therefore the responsibility - to make a difference…

…as parents, as consumers, as citizens.

Businesses can do so much to make a difference…

…through the products and services they create…

…the way they treat their employees…

….the way they behave in the community…

…and the way they think about their role in society.

And of course voluntary and community organisations can make a difference - often a decisive difference…

…through the human-scale support that I've described.

I believe passionately that we're all in this together: that we have a shared responsibility for our shared future.

This belief is at the heart of my campaign for change within the Conservative Party.

I want my Party to be one that says, loudly and proudly, that there is such a thing as society - it's just not the same thing as the state.

That there's a 'we' in our politics as well as a 'me.'

I want us to bring to the fore the Conservative insight that we're stronger, more successful and more fulfilled…

…as individuals, families and communities…

…when we do things together, not separately.

And so in the years ahead, when developing approaches to the big social, economic and environmental challenges our country and our world faces…

…my instinct will not just be to say: "what can government do about this?"

But to ask: "what can we all do together?"

What can individuals do?

What can businesses do?

And what can voluntary and community organisations do?


This leadership election has provided some fascinating experiences.

As I've travelled around the country on my campaign, I've seen at first hand the issues that people are concerned about.

Unsafe streets, whether on Friday and Saturday nights in the centre of town, or every night in another part of town…

Public services not delivering what they should: from the inadequacy of drug treatment through to the way hospitals treat the dying…

The linked problems that affect so many of our inner city neighbourhoods: family breakdown, chaotic home environments, drugs, poor quality public space…

I've seen the problems, and I've seen the frustration as year after year they remain with us.


But there's something else I've noticed, something else I've heard.

It goes deeper than the physical manifestations of unsafe streets, inadequate public services or inner city deprivation.

In our country today, there's a sense of spiritual poverty, as well as economic poverty.

And this spiritual poverty is not in any sense limited to the economically poor.

You're as likely to find it in the young advertising executive earning £50,000 a year as in her unemployed counterpart living on benefits.

You can see it in the statistics which show that as our society has grown richer, it hasn't grown happier…

…you can see it in the growing lack of civility that people experience in their daily lives…

…and you can see it in a rising tide of isolation and loneliness.

There are no precise scientific studies I can use to back up these observations.

It's something much more human, emotional - and fundamental.

It is people asking themselves that deceptively simple question: "what's it all about?"

What's the point of all this frenetic activity: the gruelling work, the manic shopping, the military planning of a Saturday night out?

It is a growing realisation that there's more to life than money, that the quality of our relationships and the beauty of our surroundings matter too.

But it's also an inability to find an answer to these dilemmas, a sense of powerlessness in the face of the modern world's momentum.

This momentum, of course, is not all in one direction.

There are intriguing and contradictory trends at work in our society's culture and values today.

Just as in some parts of society we observe a sharp decline in respect, in the attention we pay to our immediate neighbours and communities…

…in other parts we see a flowering of compassion and care.

Look at the growth of the ethical consumer; look at our response to the tsunami; look at the support for single issue campaigns like Make Poverty History.

We need to nurture social consciousness and harness it for the benefit not just of people on the other side of the world, but on the other side of the street.

Our challenge must be to harness people's innate sense of duty, compassion and personal responsibility…

…and show that a less deferential society can also be a more decent society…

…that consumerism need not mean selfish individualism.


And that's where you come in.

The voluntary sector offers a bridge between these two shores…

…linking society's problems with people's desire to do something worthwhile and of lasting value.

I've seen so many fantastic examples in the past few weeks, examples which symbolise those two core beliefs I've spoken about: trusting people, and sharing responsibility.

In Manchester, the challenge of binge drinking and city centre disorder is being tackled by an initiative that is the living embodiment of shared responsibility.

The City Centre Safe initiative, now in its fifth year, which has brought together the police, bar owners, public transport and community organisations to think through every aspect of the night-time economy…

…from the messages young people receive in their homes, from their parents and the media…

…to the experience in bars and clubs…

…to the journey home after closing time.

In Middlesbrough, you can see the transformational impact of trusting people - placing power and responsibility in the hands of local people, through their directly elected Mayor, Ray Mallon.

I saw his Community Wardens scheme in action, empowering local people to challenge yobs and criminals.

In my own county of Oxfordshire I've seen the fantastic work of the Michael Sobell Hospice working side by side with the local hospital to give dignity to the dying.

In North Tyneside, I met the people who run Re:generate, a social enterprise that creates community activists by going door to door, listening to people's concerns, and setting up businesses and projects to deal with them…

…for example establishing a city farm growing organic vegetables which are then sold in their own local shop.

In East London I met David Robinson, who has created one of Britain's most inspiring community organisations in Community Links. He has also turned his attention to the sense of spiritual poverty that I've talked about…

…by helping to set up a new grass-roots citizens' movement, We Are What We Do.

This brings together individuals, businesses, schools, and community groups to take responsibility for the issues they care about.

The need for such action is explained eloquently in the We Are What We Do manifesto. I'd like to read you an extract from it, since it captures so powerfully the spirit that I think we need to encourage:

"Our parents were eight times more likely to join a community association than we are today. Yet every major consumer poll shows that increasingly we only trust people and institutions that operate at a local or community level.

"Throughout Europe, church attendance has halved since 1970. Yet, there is a pent-up need to express spirituality which sporadically and powerfully manifests itself… in reactions to the deaths of public figures, for example.

"Voting in elections has declined by 20%, and membership of political parties is down by two-thirds. Despite this voter apathy, the UK has recently witnessed its biggest ever street demonstrations, designed to change Government policy on issues as diverse as world debt, fox hunting and the war against Iraq.

"We are feeling things very deeply and then not acting on those feelings. Yet we have never better understood Gandhi's exhortation that "We must be the change we want to see in the world".

"People are, in the end, the sum total of their actions. Or to put it more simply, we are what we do.

"So why aren't we doing it?

"Because many of us perceive a yawning gap between what needs to be done, and what we can personally influence…

"Most of us think that we have to leave the achievement of change to Governments, big business or professional lobbying organisations. Yet we know in our hearts that this is not enough.

"The question is not whether we should act alone, but how we can act together."

Through its best-selling book, Change the World for a Fiver, and its website, We Are What We Do is demonstrating once again that the voluntary sector…

….particularly when it works creatively in partnership, can offer solutions to both specific and general challenges which will never be solved by government alone.


So what should government do?

Put simply, it should create the conditions that enable the voluntary sector to do more.

It has become almost a cliché for politicians to stand in front of audiences like this and emphasise the importance of the voluntary sector.

I see the situation slightly differently.

I don't think that the voluntary sector has an important role to play.

I believe that the voluntary sector has the crucial role to play.

It is a very large part of the answer not just to some of the problems we face, but to all of those problems.

For me, there is a straightforward connection between my two core political beliefs - trusting people and sharing responsibility - the work of the voluntary sector, and my vision for its future.

Two weeks ago, I spoke to the Centre for Policy Studies about how we achieve a stronger economy.

I argued that the aims of Conservative economic policy should be to create wealth and to eliminate poverty, at home and abroad.

And that while economic liberalism is the best way to create wealth, we need a new doctrine - economic empowerment - to eliminate poverty, helping people climb the ladder from poverty to prosperity.

In my remarks on that occasion, I placed particular emphasis on the role of voluntary and community organisations in fulfilling the promise of economic empowerment.

The question for this audience is how we achieve a decent society.

The answer is similar - and the role of the voluntary sector even greater.

Just as to achieve a strong economy, where wealth is created and poverty eliminated, we need a combination of economic liberalism and economic empowerment…

…to achieve a decent society, where we maximise the potential of the voluntary sector, we need a combination of freedom and empowerment.

This is very different from the combination on offer from the Government today.


I share the NCVO's vision for the future of the voluntary and community sector, launched in September this year as the NCVO's Strategic Agenda.

But I believe that to achieve that vision, government must stop telling the voluntary sector what to do and must stop trying to audit its every move.

Instead of top-down direction, we need bottom-up trust.

There are four priorities.

First, government needs to recognise when to let go. The public sector has to let the voluntary sector take wings and soar.

It has to say to the youth club teaching kids excluded from school…

…the drug rehab with the best record of helping people straighten out their lives…

…or the faith-based charity providing healthy living advice...

Our record is lousy; yours is great - so you should be in charge.

Today, far from the government letting go, we're moving in the opposite direction.

Kaleidoscope is a fantastic drug rehab centre in Kingston. Its state of the art detox unit often stands around unused because of the failure of statutory bodies to commission from the voluntary sector.

Second, we need more fairness in the system.

Today, the terms on which the social sector has to compete for the right to offer services are just not fair.

When applying for contracts in the public sector, private firms can recover their costs, but voluntary and community organisations can't.

Bidders from the social sector have to disclose every last penny of their budgets while public sector bidders have no equivalent requirement.

And the individuals making purchasing decisions in the public sector are often also responsible for providing services.

This is not a level playing field. It has to change.

Third, government needs to trust the voluntary sector more

Today, when the public sector invites voluntary organisations to bid for contracts, there are far too many strings attached. There's simply not enough trust in your judgement and discretion.

We need to build more flexibility into the system, giving community organisations the freedom to take risks and to innovate.

And to see failures as learning opportunities, not always as evidence of incompetence or fraud.

Fourth, we need more long-term thinking.

Short-term contracts make it hard for a proper job to be done and proper lessons to be learned. It's no use trying to create the impression of national activity by funding short-term pilot projects in a handful of locations, without giving the projects proper time to develop.

You can't address long-term problems with short-term approaches.

Letting go; more fairness; more trust; more long-term thinking.

If we act on these four priorities, we can enable the voluntary sector to deliver its true potential.

And we should look at applying successful lessons from the private sector.

In the economic sphere, "enterprise zones" encouraged business development by exempting firms from a whole range of taxes, charges and regulations.

We should do the same in the social arena, setting up Social Action Zones where the voluntary sector can benefit from a lighter regulatory regime, for example concerning the rules applying to volunteers' benefit claims.

All these changes involve the government choosing to let go. And I think we need a Conservative government to do it.

Letting go is hard for Labour to do, as the left has always been insufficiently aware of the limitations of government.

But equally, we Conservatives have to overcome our tendency to be limited in our aspirations for government.


So as well as giving the voluntary sector more freedom, we need to develop a new agenda for empowering voluntary action.

I don't view the voluntary sector in a purely instrumental way, as just another means of delivering public services.

I have a much broader vision of voluntary action as a means of providing support to and worthwhile activity for the most marginalised individuals and communities.

But the best voluntary bodies offer opportunities for people of all ages, in all walks of life and in every economic and social group to make a contribution to society…

…helping to fill the spiritual need which I spoke about earlier.

We hear a lot about anti-social behaviour these days.

I want us to focus more on pro-social behaviour.

I want to see a national revival of responsibility: the responsibility of parents for their children; of people for their neighbours and communities; of all of us for each other.

This is not about who can run which services more efficiently, it's not about targets and management structures.

It's about attitude and behaviour; it's about rediscovering our common purpose; our sense of duty; our passion to work together.

In an age of social fragmentation, where individuals and communities are often turning inwards to themselves, not outwards to each other, I believe that working together for the common good is the way to create a new and inspiring sense of national identity.

To bring Britain together, and to make Britain better.

So my final challenge to all of you is to ask what we as politicians can do to empower you to lead this move to a pro-social society.

What more can be done to encourage individuals, businesses and voluntary organisations to play their fullest part in making this country a better and more civilised place to live?

Winston Churchill said to Franklin Roosevelt during World War Two: give us the tools, and we will finish the job.

Well, if you tell me what tools you need, I'll give them to you - so we can finish the job together."

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