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Social Policy Debate - House of Lords

Wednesday 16th June 2010

To call attention to the role of partnerships between government and civil society in shaping social policy; and to move for papers. Moved by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, I must begin with an apology to your Lordships for the fact that an inflexible diary means that I must infringe the convention of this House by not being able to guarantee that I shall be here at the end of this debate. I am truly sorry for that, but I wish to be here to support my right reverend brother and to congratulate him on securing this significant debate, and I am eager to hear the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wei.

As has already been said, this is a timely debate. We are at a point where a debate about the nature of citizenship is perhaps more important than it has been for a century or more. To engage in such a debate about the nature of citizenship is also, and inevitably, to open the door to a deeper debate, that is no less necessary, about the very nature of how we define the human person. We have begun to learn that being a citizen is not simply a matter of being an abstract or passive possessor of certain claims or rights. A citizen is not simply someone who votes. A citizen is someone who exercises active political virtue.

The state does not, of course, make people virtuous, but it would be a great mistake to deduce from that axiom that the state therefore has no interest in the business of virtue. The state protects us from acts that outrage human dignity. The state is able to conduct its business on the assumption that citizens will know their business. Rights in the law are there to safeguard dignity, but that dignity does not look after itself. The state and the law need something more than statutory enactment alone to give substance to how we regard one another and to what is owed to one another. The state requires communities in which human beings are taken seriously in certain ways. At the very simplest level, as we have already been reminded, that grows out of the mutual recognition within manageable communities and within relations and transactions that my neighbour's interests are comparable to my own. It grows out of that most basic of all social institutions: promise keeping. At its fullest, it grows out of a sense of the depth and multidimensionality of the human person, which takes me back to my opening point about how discussion of citizenship opens out into discussion of the human person.

If all that sounds very abstract, let me illustrate with a story from my experience. During my time working in the Church in Wales, I was privileged to be a witness to and, on one or two occasions, involved in the life of a community in the Rhondda valley called Penrhys. It was probably the most deprived of the many deprived council estates in the Rhondda. It was a community scarred by third-generation unemployment and by the general sense that it was the place where people who had been forgotten by every imaginable statutory authority had been left to rot.

John Morgans, Moderator of the United Reformed Church in Wales, retired from his post of ecclesiastical leadership to go and live on the Penrhys estate with his family. Over a couple of decades he built up a unique and extraordinary partnership on the Penrhys estate: Penrhys New Perspectives. During that time the partnership which he created was able to engage in a programme to create 100 new small businesses. It was able to open an effective health centre on an estate which hitherto had had none. It was able to work with the grain of a community which hardly knew it was a community until someone was there with a level of commitment and patience that enabled people to see themselves afresh.

The difference that was made in that context had everything to do with the patience that John Morgans and his associates showed, because it takes time to discover that you are a community. One of the greatest difficulties which we have faced in this area in the past couple of decades has, of course, very often been a regime of funding for projects in such contexts that has been experienced as brutally short term. I would like to leave with your Lordships, and especially with the Minister, the question of whether that should be reviewed as a matter of urgency as we move forward.

It is not only about funding regimes and short-termism; it is precisely about the presence of certain people in certain small communities who allow the wider community to see themselves afresh and to feel that they are being taken seriously. John Morgans was able to do what he did in Penrhys because people trusted him and because he understood their language and because he was seen as someone who had no sectional interest to pursue in that community, but was able and free to broker the interests of all those involved. That is of course where the role of many communities of faith comes into this question, not least the role of the established church, which has that long-term, non-negotiable commitment to presence in local communities. It is one of those institutions which is not going to go away-perhaps, in many of our contexts, the only one.

Healthy citizenship grows out of a sense that your voice is worth hearing. You will discover that your voice is worth hearing when you are listened to. You are listened to most effectively-most transformingly-in those local contexts about which we have already heard so much. We have been reminded from both sides of your Lordships' House of the folly of any mythology which supposes that central government can dictate to local priorities and stifle them and rob them of their vitality. We are interested in a citizenship that is more than passive. It is about more than what is due to me, but is about what I positively want, and not simply what I want for myself but what I recognise as wanted by my neighbours; a citizenship which recognises that my happiness is involved with the happiness of my neighbour. I was very pleased indeed to hear the quotation from the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, about neighbourliness as a factor in this situation.

So the partnership which we are beginning to talk about here is to do with a shared discernment of what we want together, of the happiness which we recognise is bound up with the happiness of one another. It is not, I need hardly remind your Lordships, the state's business to define happiness. But neither is happiness simply a private issue of a set of individual satisfactions.

In supporting the coalitions of shared interest at the local level, the state discovers substance in the idea of human dignity, and it educates people to a wider and wider view of what solidarity and shared human happiness are about. Out of the kinds of partnership we have begun to discuss this afternoon there emerges that wider sense of common interest both nationally and internationally-not the least of our concerns at the moment-which enables people to see themselves not only as activists in one local community, not only even as citizens of one particular nation, but as people who take responsibility and share responsibility for human welfare on the widest front. Just as importantly, effective partnership builds the skills that are needed for brokering and forwarding that process. It is a process which has its own feedback to learn locally in partnership and in community. What it is to define shared interest and common happiness is also to find the skills you need to keep it alive.

In conclusion, I want to quote from the words of the sociologist, Richard Sennett, who is an exponent, it is perhaps worth saying, of what some would still refer to as associational socialism, which might be rather different from the centralist socialism that has been spoken of already. In his book, The Culture of the New Capitalism, he writes that,

  • "a good polity is one in which all citizens believe they are bound together in a common project".

That he distinguishes from what he refers to as the "iron cage of solidarity", a solidarity which leaves no room for intention, action, transformation and, as I referred to earlier, that depth and multidimensionality of human persons without which no society-local, national or international-can hope for any health.

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