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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper): I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing the debate on this important issue, and taking the opportunity to talk about something that I know is important to his constituents and the work that they have done on community websites, but which also affects community groups throughout the country.
I am aware of the work that has been done by the Twickenham community portal in uniting its community online and providing a public platform for local people to express their views on a range of issues. I agree that community websites can play a powerful role in supporting local groups; providing information and opportunities for community action, often very rapidly in response either to concerns or to opportunities; giving people more chance to exercise advocacy and leadership through alternative ways of communicating; and even encouraging participation in the democratic process. Government and councils have a role in supporting all kinds of community activity, including online activity.
Although there are many successful community websites, the provision of online information and services by community groups varies greatly. Some have considerable capacity, innovation and enthusiasm, while others have very little capacity, skills or expertise in using online information or methods of communication. We are therefore providing support and resources to make it possible for more councils to support community groups in that way. We are doing so through a number of projects, which I want briefly to outline in addressing the key points that the hon. Gentleman made.
Community information is one of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister e-government priority outcomes for 2005. The Department is supporting councils to deliver integrated information about services for the community, which may include services delivered by local partnerships. We also need to do more in terms of community groups. The environment and community online residents e-servicesENCOREnational project is working towards improving access for citizens to local environment and community-related services.
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Funding is also being provided for the development of a software application that local authorities can install if they want to do so, so that local community groups can create and maintain their own websites using the application. Its aim is to enhance the ability to find information about services published online by community and voluntary organisations, as well as by parish councils, many of which currently experience difficulties and technical and infrastructural problems in extending knowledge to local users.
The local authority websites, or LAWs, project has also developed community engagement modules, which include software requirements, system architecture documents and code and installation instructions. The Department is also supporting an organisation called mySociety.org, which is working in partnership with West Sussex county council to build tools and applications to enable people to organise community activities. One such project is PledgeBank, whose primary aim is to facilitate community action by local people, promoting civic participation and strengthening engagement. We are also working with the National Association of Local Councils to improve the capacity of parish councils to have effective websites.
In addition to supporting community groups, the Government are also working on wider projects. Some of the work is done by the Home Office. One Home Office-backed project is Future-builders, a £125 million investment fund project run by a voluntary and community sector consortium. The project is designed to assist voluntary and community organisations and social enterprises in their public service work, and to help them modernise their operations, including improvements to websites and e-services.
Finally, GuideStar UK, which is an independent charity, has proposed to construct a common base of information about the finances, operations, activities and effectiveness of all charities and not-for-profit organisations operating in the UK. That will take the form of a free-to-access website serving a range of customers, including charities, funders, policy makers, media and researchers.
The hon. Gentleman referred to funding difficulties and asked whether there was potential to improve access to advertising revenues for community websites. There is always a funding issue in respect of community and voluntary groups, and it is often debated at a local and
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national level. That is why funds are available so that local authorities can provide support to local community and voluntary organisations for a wide range of activities, including websites where that seems appropriate.
The hon. Gentleman raised the interesting issue of more access to advertising revenue, and I will raise it with the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), who works in that area. The hon. Gentleman obviously recognises that local councils and local government must ensure that they get value from their advertising budgets, the purpose of which is to reach particular audiences for recruitment or other purposes. Local authorities must ensure that they get good value out of that budget.
The hon. Gentleman also raised some wider issues about potential conflicts of interest between different kinds of websites and different ways of communicating. A thriving local civic society and local community organisations that can work with local authorities on a wide range of issues are of huge benefit to local authorities, particularly in areas in which there are regeneration projects, but also in areas in which there are local environmental projects and so on. I do not see that there must be a conflict of interest between local councils and voluntary groups on such issues, and that relationship can be very positive.
The hon. Gentleman compared the current situation with the regulations covering the broadcast media, but it is probably beyond my scope as an ODPM Minister to respond to his concern, except to say that he raised some interesting points for future debate.
Finally, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that websites and the internet can be huge resources for voluntary and community groups, but in the end, websites are just facilitators for activities, events or projects organised by local community groups. Websites are an important modern tool, and the ODPM agrees that they should be available to community groups across the country, which is why we have supported a wide range of infrastructure tools and other help for local community groups, and why we will continue to do so.