Earlier this month I was delighted to visit Liverpool Hope University with the Prime Minister and several ministerial colleagues. At a highly successful event that gathered those from the churches, charities, business and beyond we set out a fresh vision for Britain’s civil society. For too long, we said, those with the best ideas, striking energy and the most innovative responses to social and other needs have either not been taken seriously enough, or have been held back by rules decreed by well-meaning Whitehall departments that often make no sense on the ground.
A couple of days earlier I had had a very positive meeting with the Archbishop of Westminster, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi where we had touched upon many of the same themes. Britain’s faith communities deserve to be valued, but valued in a way that lets them get on with being who they are rather than tells them into which bureaucratic box they should fit.
I say this because since becoming the Minister for Decentralisation I have been struck by how much help is at my disposal to get the job done with the most effect. My civil servants work hard to get papers to me on time and in an orderly fashion. When they come up against blockages they are briefed to address them, or find a way through them so as not to hold things back. Together we are focused on making sure the changes to which the Government is committed do take place. But while all of this helps makes my work easier it has not been lost on me that so many charities, social enterprises and churches right across the country do not have access to the same kind of assistance.
To redress this balance in Liverpool we announced that we would be turning Government upside down. Instead of the civil service only being focused upwards on providing advice to Ministers we are driving energy downwards and outwards to put those skills at the service of communities nationwide. In fact I have established a “barrier-busting” team whose sole purpose will be to help those who want to step up to the challenge of civic action to get the right backing when they come up against insurmountable blockages at the local level.
Over the next fortnight I am taking this further. In several parts of the country I am holding a series of round-tables specifically to learn from the experiences of local churches, Jewish charities and other social enterprises that have got so much done in the face of so many obstacles. In the autumn we will take this further still when we announce plans for a new localism bill that will really extend our vision of decentralising power – not just to local authorities but into the hands of individuals and neighbourhoods too. I hope that many will see this bill as the principle of subsidiarity in practice as it will seek to ensure that decisions are made at the most appropriate level – and especially closest to people in their own localities.
This radical new approach goes right to the heart of the Coalition Government’s agenda. We do not believe that local neighbourhoods should have to dance to the tune of far-away decisions. We are sure that local charity and school leaders know best, and that they could do more if they were not being forced to chase competing national targets posted to them from faceless government offices. In opposition the Conservative Party took this agenda seriously by encouraging its parliamentary candidates to get involved in social action themselves. Iain Duncan Smith, former Conservative leader and Catholic, also undertook outstanding work to identify the rise of broken communities whose fabric needs to be rewoven.
Meanwhile, a few decades earlier the nascent Tory Reform Group, Friends of the Earth and the Low Pay Unit all gathered in a building purchased especially to act as a community and civic action hub by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. From there sprang the life-long contribution of anti-poverty specialist Frank Field MP, not to mention parts of the anti-homelessness movement in which the churches subsequently played a crucial role. The press at the time dubbed that building “the alternative civil service”. Now we are in Government social action, information sharing, and pro-active support for social innovators will increasingly be at the heart of all that the formal civil service do. What was once “alternative” is being made mainstream as part of what we see as the vital task of building a society which is stronger, fairer and comprised of energetic and exciting institutions who run their own affairs.
As we go about these tasks I am convinced that churches and other faith communities will be among those who have the most to contribute. Globally the Catholic Church has established self-funding social enterprise schools open to all which have had dramatic impacts on reducing truanting. Many Church workers actively choose to make their contributions in some of the world’s poorest neighbourhoods. Internationally the Caritas development agencies help increase access to, for example, micro-credit to help farmers and entrepreneurs among the poor to build their livelihoods. In the Third World I have myself spent time visiting projects run by Christian NGOs which are working to reduce environmental degradation. Like so many in our own country these people of faith just get on with making a difference, by being the change they want to see. They do not ask permission of far away government departments but, all the same, are often held back by those department’s inflexibility. They may need bureaucracy-busting help too.
New times will, of course, give us all new challenges. Among these will be the question as to the best ways for Churches and others to take advantage of the future. The Fairtrade movement emerged from an Anglican theological college in the North- East and the campaign to end street homelessness from charities founded by Catholics and others. Some of the most innovative philanthropy in the world is led by Jewish private charitable foundations. I would be delighted to hear from those in the faith communities who want to pioneer the next generation of responses to need and not least those who want to replicate some of the innovative approaches tested in other international settings or in neighbourhoods far from London.
In meeting Archbishop Nichols, Dr Williams and Lord Sacks we began a conversation that I hope will flourish over the months to come. In Liverpool we created a context in which those from every community can begin to think afresh about what might be possible in our times. And at Liverpool Hope University David Cameron set out the radical principles behind those first steps. The churches and other faith communities are now at the heart of the conversation about our future. In times that require new approaches what more can we do to help?
The Rt Hon Greg Clark is Minister for Decentralisation and MP for Tunbridge Wells