Belfast Telegraph

Ulster's voluntary spirit can help us build the Big Society

We are too reliant on the state to solve our problems. Communities and individuals also have a role to play, says Hugo Swire

The Prime Minister has placed building a stronger sense of society - the Big Society - at the heart of the Government's vision for the future in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK.

The Big Society is not a new idea; it encapsulates the best of what people are already doing for themselves and their communities. Through the Big Society we want to encourage people to come together and play their part in providing local solutions to social problems.

Northern Ireland is, in some ways, already ahead of the game compared to other parts of the UK. There is a well-developed tradition of community and charitable organisations here helping to tackle social problems. There are as many as 30,000 people involved in voluntary work; that is something that we can build on for the future.

We are all aware that in the current extremely difficult economic climate we have to find ways of doing more with less. This is about delivering better services for the whole community in Northern Ireland and acknowledging that government alone does not always know best.

We envisage all parts of government promoting social action. This means encouraging more people in local communities to play an active part in society through volunteering and philanthropy. This is already one of Northern Ireland's strengths, but one we can develop.

Creating a society where taking an active role is both expected and rewarded will benefit us all. We must find ways to encourage individuals and organisations to give their time, expertise and money.

We are exploring how businesses might promote Gift Aid donations to help support local voluntary organisations. We have established a task force to recommend specific ideas to reduce bureaucracy and red tape for charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations.

The Government has also given a commitment to create and invest money in a Big Society Bank. This bank, once fully-established, will provide a strong investment market across the UK, giving social-sector organisations access to new sources of finance to help increase their social impact.

Alongside mentoring, employer-led volunteering is also important. We need to encourage more of it. Partnerships between business organisations and the voluntary sector can be enriching for all concerned.

As evidence of our commitment we will ensure that home civil servants - those employed by Westminster, but working here - will have greater opportunities to give their time to the community. We hope others will follow this example.

We will also encourage opening up public services to give charities, social enterprises and co-operatives a greater role in their running. This should make public services more responsive to community need and also offer better value for money.

In Northern Ireland, I know charities have already been successful in winning public service contracts. We intend to work closely with devolved ministers - where responsibility for this mainly lies - to see how this can be developed.

Big Society is about responsibility. It is about businesses and organisations stepping up to the mark and asking what they can do to help solve the social issues in their communities.

It is about individuals feeling that it is right that they take an active role in society for the benefit of all and for government to break down any barriers that may prevent them from doing this.

In the months to come, as we work to pay off the record national deficit we inherited, we will all need to think creatively about how we provide the best for ourselves and our communities.

We have relied too heavily on the state to provide all the answers to our problems. The state does have an important role to play, but every individual, business, charity and faith group has a role to play, too.

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