Bishop of Derby speaks about importance to democracy of charities, trade unions and civil society

Derby 191115cOn 8th September 2016 Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town led a debate in the Lords: “That this House takes note of the role that charities, trade unions and civil society groupings play in a democracy, including the provision of advice and information to government, and of the case for regulating lobbying activities, including those undertaken by business and private interests.”

The Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Dr Alistair Redfern contributed to the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, I, too, want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and I want, in the nicest possible way, to take for granted what she said, because it was very important and I agree with it absolutely. I want to invite us to look at the last three words, “in a democracy”, as a very important context for this discussion and debate, not least for the role of charities, trade unions and civil society.

Democracy works through two very important elements. One, of course, is the offer of ideas and suggestions about what to do to best order society. It is about answers to problems. The lobbying industry and the contribution that charities make to that, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, and others have shown, is very important—

“From our experience, here is the answer to this kind of question”.

However, democracy also requires space for those answers to be debated and other options to be looked at, which is the role of a body like Parliament. I want to invite us to recognise that, in our culture, there is an enormous deficit of spaces for lobbied answers to be examined and alternatives explored in a mature and participatory way. Not least that is because a lot of our media offer answers from pretty entrenched ideological positions, and therefore stoke up the lobbying side of democracy rather than provide space for genuine debate and the looking at alternatives.

From my own experience, I can testify to the hunger people have to participate in debate and discussion and not just swallow ready-made packages from whoever is putting up the answer. In the city of Derby a couple of years ago, I set up a commission for the city, and in eight public meetings hundreds of people came to look at education, unemployment, policing and various things. From that has come all kinds of on-going work, where people got engaged in our city about what citizens, charities, the local authority and others can do in these areas to better improve the quality of life. There were no smart answers; there was an invitation to engage in a process of asking the questions and exploring options and partial solutions. With MPs in our county, I regularly organise summits on things like immigration, refugees and slavery and invite citizens to come, from all kinds of persuasions, and look at the options and not just the answers.

Some of your Lordships may think that, of course, I stand for a Church that is always criticised for not having any answers on anything at all and is always prevaricating on the big questions. But if you are to be a broad church, which a democracy needs to value, you have to take seriously a variety of experiences and aspirations, and create a space for them to feel that they have been taken seriously. In a way, that is what my Church tries to do, and I think good politics needs to operate like that, too.

I want to point to three areas that the Minister might like to comment on that might allow us to take seriously the needs of our democracy, which I think at the moment is overloaded with answers but provides very little space to discuss questions and a variety of possibilities which people would be drawn into to participate.

The first area is the potential of trade unions, which the noble Baroness referred to in her opening speech and about which we have heard a couple of other mentions. Trade unions can easily be caricatured as lobbying machines for particular things. In fact, we know from their history and their present practice, as the noble Baroness just said, that they have enormous skill and wisdom in inviting people—in the contexts of work, their communities and broader life—to engage from the micro to the macro. That is a very precious part of our democratic ecology. We need to foster an attitude towards trade unions and what they can bring that is positive and encouraging. There is too much negativity based on a narrow view of what trade unions are about. It will be interesting to hear what the Government think about the potential of trade unions to grow this skill they have to enable ordinary people with ordinary experiences to participate in looking at the questions and not just the answers.

The second area that I invite the Minister to comment on, if we want to take seriously the health of democracy, is that, quite rightly and commendably, the Government are always conducting reviews and consultations, often online. I suggest that these reviews and consultations could be not just a platform for lobbyists to chuck in all the answers but designed for a more participatory exploration by citizens of what options there might be and how new ideas might emerge from the collision of some of the pre-packaged solutions. A great deal of creative work could be done in this whole culture of review and consultation that the Government rightly spearhead to engage citizens in the democratic process and not just indicate that they need to choose between one answer and another.

Finally, I am sure that the Minister will comment on not underestimating the value of churches, civil society and charitable spaces, where actually, as other noble Lords have said, volunteers have passion and commitment and want to explore options not just for particular sectors but for the well-being of the whole of society.

I think that democracy is in danger of being distorted by an oversupply of answers. I hope that this Motion can also be interpreted, therefore, as looking at some of the potential sites and sources to recognise that, besides answers, we must value the importance of questions.


Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen (Con) (Minister) [extract]…Before I finish, I want to highlight the positive relationship between charities, wider civil society, trade unions and Government. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby mentioned this. Joined-up thinking is so important and the round-table discussions that he started in Derby are interesting. This is often the way forward. They get people together. It may not be with a specific charity, but it gets them thinking about how we might help people in their various neighbourhoods.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab): [extract]..I think that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby said that these charities are a precious part of our democratic ecology. To continue their work they need a relationship with the Government which is not where it is at the moment. At present, they feel that the Government want to tie them up in anti-advocacy clauses and prevent them lobbying. That surely is not good for any of us.

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