Baron Rennard of Wavertree is looking a little tired. "I’m sorry if I don’t sound as lucid as usual," he says as he pulls up a chair in his Fielden House office, a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament.
"I’ve been in the chamber all night for the electoral reform debate. I managed to sneak out for a quick snooze in my office chair, but then I was straight back in."
The night before, members of the House of Lords had been scrutinising the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which contains the government’s plans for a referendum on the alternative vote electoral system and a cut in the number of constituencies.
The Liberal Democrat peer pours a strong coffee, sips it and perks up. He says electoral reform is one of his big interests because it is an important way of getting people to take an active interest in the issues that affect their local area.
He believes the same is true of the voluntary sector’s work, which is why he agreed to chair the Commission on the Big Society, set up by Acevo, the umbrella body for chief executives.
"People need to feel that they don’t have to wait to be asked to get involved in their local communities," he says. "We need to make sure there’s no reticence about setting out to do things. That’s what the big society is all about."
Big society support
Rennard says the commission’s approach is broadly supportive of the big society agenda. "I recognise that some people, even those in government, are cynical about the idea," he says.
"It was not a very effective election message because people didn’t understand it. But I think it will work in government. I’m personally impressed by the sincerity of many Conservatives who say the big society is what they would have wanted, regardless of public spending levels."
The commission’s 13 members include the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, the Conservative MP Nick Boles and Phil Collins, the former speechwriter for Tony Blair, who writes for The Times newspaper. They will spend the next two months travelling around the country to meet local voluntary groups and councillors, and will produce a report in the spring.
"We’ve all agreed that our role is to recommend practical steps that the government, councils, civil society groups and businesses can take to make the big society a reality," says Rennard.
Asked what those steps might be, Rennard says it’s too soon for specifics, but he says the commission is likely to stress the importance of charities and community groups providing evidence of the impact of their work.
"All cases that require taxpayers’ money are having to be made very effectively," he says. "One question for the commission is how we can help organisations to measure the savings from the work they do and argue that they offer long-term savings."
Rennard says he is aware that many charities are struggling as they lose local authority funding, but he is optimistic that this trend will be reversed in the long term.
"There are a lot of avenues for some voluntary groups to actually increase their funding by winning more contracts for service delivery," he says.
Rennard says the commission has a frantic few months ahead as it squeezes in as many evidence-gathering sessions as possible and puts its report together quickly.
And then he has to dash off. He’s due back in the House of Lords, where the electoral reform debate rumbles on.