Big Society Forum

Speaking at a meeting of the Conservative Party's 'Big Society Forum' last night, JLC Trustee Gerald Ronson CBE highlighted the need for an effective partnership between Government and the voluntary sector to deliver the 'Big Society' agenda. He also told the audience of Government Ministers and Civil Society leaders that the recent budget proposals to cap tax relief on charitable donations was a "giant step backwards" and called upon Chancellor George Osborne to present an alternative proposal. The full speech is here:

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very happy to have been invited here today to share my views on The Big Society initiative and philanthropy. I am fiercely apolitical, but I’ve agreed to sit on the panel because I passionately believe this Forum can make a difference.

I am proud that the Jewish Leadership Council of which I am a Trustee is a founder member of this forum

My starting position is that ‘giving’ and being part of what is described as ‘The Big Society’ is not just about writing a cheque – it is also about ‘doing’.

I personally spend around 20% of my working week on my charitable commitments; and, that’s if you exclude my work for Heron as I have bequeathed all my interests in Heron to The Gerald Ronson Foundation. So, in effect, for much of my working week, I am really a charity worker.

I have always been involved in charity. Over the last 50 years, I have raised over £120 million and personally given away over £50 million. It comes down to a sense of responsibility and family ethics. It is about leading from the front and to do so, you have to be a good giver to be a good asker.

I believe that if you have been blessed with the ability to build a successful business or to be successful in your chosen career, you have a duty to help those in a less fortunate position.

But just writing a cheque is like taking an aspirin when you have a tumour – it may relieve the pain for a moment but does nothing to cure the cause. Those cheques do need to be written but they need to be supported by people with vision, passion and expertise to help find a solution to the root cause.

Government needs to show leadership and have a concrete plan. Great Britain should be a country where people are encouraged to better themselves and where good work can be recognised on its own merits.

Instead the nation seems to be united by a sense of alienation through a lack of hope, education or training.

This is where I think the Big Society can help. One part of it is encouraging more giving to help others – people personally helping others, instead of relying on Government to always step in when those less fortunate need a helping hand. After all, at the heart of the Big Society idea is the importance of individual’s contribution to society, coupled with the recognition that communities themselves understand their own needs better than Government and should, where possible, try to respond to those needs themselves. The job of Government is to deliver the resources and supportive legislation that enables communities to take charge of their own destinies.

One of the largest Big Society Projects – the National Citizenship Service – gives young people a start in life, with self-esteem, and self-respect. It is incredible what happens to a person when they discover they have a talent – not everyone can win the X Factor but we will always need young people with real, solid, practical life experience.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at education. We have to invest more in education; it underpins our success as a country. For those who are successful, it is about educating them about what they can do to make a difference and the duty they have to do so.

These are not just hollow words from me – I have put my money where my mouth is and have been involved  in developing 10 schools over the last 30 years. In fact, every day, over 10,000 children go to schools I have helped to fund and build in the UK and overseas.

My focus is also always on community based charities. One of the initiatives that I am most proud of is the Community Security Trust, the charity I created in 1994 following decades of Jewish communal self defence. CST’s remit is to help protect Britain’s Jewish community from external threats of bigotry, anti-Semitism and terrorism. Every year we provide thousands of people with physical security, training and advice and assist the victims of anti-Semitism as well as monitoring anti-Semitic activities and incidents. We also represent British Jewry to Police, Government and media on anti-Semitism and security. CST is a highly successful organisation that benefits from over 3,000 volunteers that come from every walk of life and cross the religious divides of our Community - many of whom don’t have money to donate but  contribute with volunteering in their local community – it allows everyone to give in the way they can and, as a result, is now cited as an example of excellence by the police, Government etc.

Other current projects of mine are the JCOSS faith school in Barnet and the building of the new facilities for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama – it is all about helping the under-privileged – I’m not in the business of helping the over privileged as they are more than capable of helping themselves.

Several of the charities I have mentioned are Jewish charities  focused and rooted in our own community. This is not to say that ‘Jews are somehow special’, rather to make the point that Jews believe in an enterprise culture and self-achievement – but crucially, they also believe in community and mutual social responsibility; and it’s a responsibility that treats recipients with respect, rather than as some kind of dependency culture that carries an implicit threat against those doing very well for themselves. At the heart of the Jewish approach to community is the notion that every individual has a duty to their fellow. It is this ideal that led our community to develop and build strong institutions, give charity and volunteer. At the JLC we published a policy paper welcomed by the P.M. and Eric Pickles which expands upon this approach.

It’s about providing leadership and treating these charitable related issues with the same diligence as you would your business activities – something that I have spent a lifetime doing.

And it’s not just me. All the Ronsons spend a huge amount of time on charitable causes – the wider Big Society if you want to call it that. My wife, Gail, is one of the most active people I know, devoting huge amounts of her time, talent and energy to working with a wide range of charities from Jewish Care to the Royal Opera House. We have also brought up our four daughters to give their time and resources too. One example is the mentoring scheme that Lisa is helping to spearhead to give talented people the opportunity to experience business by working alongside some of the country’s leading executives. Another project she is involved with is TrainE TradeE that helps people to train for roles in companies and to place them. If you want to know more, don’t hesitate to let me know and I’ll put you in touch.

Nicole at Great Ormond Street hospital helping funding of the Telemetry unit and the new school for Epilepsy in Lingfield, Surrey and Hayley, my youngest daughter assisting funding at the Action for Stammering Children centre in Camden and Treehouse a specialist charity helping autistic children. Amanda, lives in Israel, but is involved with a number of local charities there.

However, I know that as philanthropists we must be careful with our approach - the country appears to be creating a culture of entitlement that needs to be replaced with responsibility. We can’t just push everything back to Government. We need to create a society where everyone has an opportunity with no barrier for class, race or background.

We all have the capacity to influence the kind of society that we live in.

Now is the time to change the language of leadership from one of despondency to one of opportunity and to put the Great back into Britain.

However, I do have one word of warning: for initiatives such as The Big Society to be truly successful, Government needs to engage with the people in the front line of delivering the solutions – leading philanthropists and charity organisations. Like you, when I first became involved with the Forum recently I was asked if I had any feedback – if I felt there were any blocks to the expansion of the Big Society agenda. Well this is my feedback: The Chancellor’s announcement in the recent Budget to cap tax relief claimed on donations was a giant step in the wrong direction; his subsequent decision to undertake a formal consultation is welcome but I hope that he will listen and take advice as  even the debate itself will damage charities. My own view is that we cannot claim we’re trying to get people to give more, and take less, whilst at the same time stemming the flow of financial support - the oil in our engines if you like. So I’m pleased George has announced a consultation. Like many of you, I’ll be watching progress in this area with intense interest, and hope that an alternative proposal will emerge.

I want to see a Britain in which each of us truly feels responsible for one another, a Britain where we support one another, and all work together to build a strong country rooted in strong communities. To me, that is a truly Big Society.

So to all of you here who are thinking of doing more, I cannot recommend enough rolling your sleeves up and giving some of your time and experience to a cause that you think you can benefit; there is no better feeling. As Albert Einstein said: “The value of a man resides in what he gives and not in what he is capable of receiving".