7 Mar 2007 : Column 1499

7 Mar 2007 : Column 1499

House of Commons

Wednesday 7 March 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Duchy of Lancaster

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Social Exclusion

1. Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): What contribution the personalisation of public services is making to tackling social exclusion. [125518]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Hilary Armstrong): Personalisation is crucial to the effectiveness of public services and tackling social exclusion. We have taken significant steps forward, for example, through direct payments for disabled people and those requiring social services. Personalisation also requires good information and advice to support individuals in deciding what is appropriate to meet their needs, and the Government are taking steps to ensure that that is available.

Mr. Flello: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response. What involvement and assistance are the Government giving to the voluntary community sector to enable it to work with the public services in the state sector to support the most hard to reach individuals?

Hilary Armstrong: My hon. Friend is right that we have to work closely with the voluntary community sector, especially to reach people who have, for whatever reason, become excluded from many aspects of our life. We are working closely with the third sector to ensure that it is able to provide services and act in different ways. One of the results emerging from the third sector action plan, which we published last November, is that we will train 2,000 commissioners in the public sector to work effectively with the third sector to provide services in a very personalised way. When people have a real problem, they need someone who will be able to engage with them, and that is often someone in their local community or voluntary organisation.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I am sure that the right hon. Lady’s sentiments are impeccable, but I wish that I could say the same for her language. Can we start putting these things into language that the ordinary people of this country can understand?

7 Mar 2007 : Column 1500

Hilary Armstrong: I am really not sure to which bit of my language the hon. Gentleman objects. The voluntary and community sector knows what we are talking about and it wants to be involved in designing and delivering services. That is what commissioning means and the sector understands it well. It wants to work with us to ensure that it can play its part in providing real opportunities for the socially excluded.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): It is possible that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) was referring to the word “personalisation”. Will my right hon. Friend take great care to ensure that when we speak of personalisation we do not really mean depersonalisation? I remind her that in the tax credits system we have had to bring back case workers—real people—because relying on computers did not provide a satisfactory service for tax credit claimants. Let us ensure that personalisation means that people have the ability to contact real people about their problems in the round.

Hilary Armstrong: I understand absolutely what my hon. Friend means. Personalisation does mean that an individual who has a particular challenge—be they a child in care, someone with a disability or an elderly person—is able to have contact with someone who will really address their individual needs. I ask my hon. Friend to look at what is being done by the Department for Education and Skills in relation to schools, where individual tuition will be given to those children who are not making the grade, as it were, in their reading. This whole agenda is aimed at ensuring that we address such problems in a very personal way.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): Does the Minister agree that one of the biggest barriers to truly personalised back-to-work support services is the fact that the range of support available to claimants depends too much on which benefit they claim, and not enough on individual needs? In his recent review, David Freud discussed moving towards a single working age benefit. Does she agree that that would help to break down some of those barriers, and make it easier to ensure that the help that people get depends on their needs and not on the benefit that they claim?

Hilary Armstrong: That is how the pathways to work scheme operates. It looks much more closely at the individual needs of unemployed people, and addresses those needs accordingly. I was interested to hear that David Freud had returned to the idea of a single benefit. Many previous Governments have considered that possibility and found it very difficult to achieve. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is looking at that option but, regardless of whether we are able to introduce it, we must still achieve much more personalisation. That is especially true of the unemployed, as we must determine—and then overcome—the barriers that prevent a person from getting back to work.

John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister will be aware of the groundbreaking report on free automated teller machines produced before Christmas and supported by industry, consumer
7 Mar 2007 : Column 1501
groups and Parliament. In her discussions with local authorities, will she encourage them to try to attain the target of 600 free ATMs in low-income areas, as people who are excluded financially are excluded socially as well?

Hilary Armstrong: I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. The Department is part of a working group being set up by the Treasury, and I assure him that we will pursue the agenda that he and his Committee raised in that very useful report. I promise to keep in touch with him about our progress.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): The Minister says that the voluntary sector has a vital role to play in tailoring public services to individual needs, but there is a problem. The Charity Commission has said that the terms offered by the state to voluntary sector providers undermine their financial stability and independence. Only 12 per cent. of charities are being paid the full costs of their services, and only a quarter of them felt able to make decisions without pressure from public sector funders. When will the Government properly trust the voluntary sector to do the job at a local level?

Hilary Armstrong: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has intervened, as I thought that the way that he voted last week in respect of a Bill designed to increase voluntary sector involvement signalled a change of direction on his part. Perhaps he was not happy at being asked to vote that way, and so is renewing his support for the voluntary sector this week. We have discussed the question of full cost recovery at length with the voluntary and community sectors, and the Charity Commission recognises that there has been significant improvement. The situation is getting better and, with the hon. Gentleman’s support, will continue to do so. However, he had an opportunity to support the voluntary sector last week, and did not take it.

Social Enterprises

2. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to support the work of social enterprises. [125519]

3. Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): What discussions she has had on encouraging participation in co-operatives and social enterprise initiatives. [125520]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): In November 2006, the Government launched a social enterprise action plan to support the work of social enterprises and co-ops, both as ethical businesses in the private sector and as partners delivering public services. Key parts of the plan included a higher profile for social enterprise in the school curriculum, improved advice and finance for social enterprises starting up, and greater access to finance to support their work.

Mary Creagh: The ABLE partnership in my constituency is funded by the green business network, Wakefield primary care trust and the social care charity Turning Point. The partnership is transforming
7 Mar 2007 : Column 1502
100 acres of brownfield site donated by Yorkshire Water into a hazel coppice and a fish farm which, in three years’ time, will produce Wakefield’s first caviar. Will the Minister join me on a visit to the environmentally sustainable transformation achieved by that social partnership, which demonstrates how Wakefield is leading the way in social enterprise?

Edward Miliband: I look forward to joining my hon. Friend in tasting Wakefield caviar; I am sure that it will be a great experience. She is right about the great work that social enterprises do in reaching out to the most excluded people in our society. The key is that the state should continue to fund public services adequately, and not use social enterprises as an excuse to abdicate its responsibility in that regard. In addition, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office said, we support the work of social enterprises in deed as well as in word, and that is why it was so regrettable that the Opposition voted against the Offender Management Bill last week.

Ms Angela C. Smith: Surely local government also has a big role to play in developing social enterprise, so has my hon. Friend considered how best to encourage it to play its full part in that agenda?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Much of the income for the third sector comes from local government. The key thing is culture change on the ground, so that commissioners understand the role that social enterprises can play. We see that in waste and recycling, for example, where we want councils not just to go for the conventional private sector option but to understand the contribution that third sector and social enterprise organisations can make. That is why, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office said, our programme for training 2,000 commissioners is so important, because that will achieve the culture change on the ground that we need.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Coming from Rochdale, I would much rather the Minister used the word “co-operative”. What is he doing to support credit unions? I commend to him the work of the Rochdale credit union, Streetcred, which in the light of the Farepak collapse has in the past few weeks launched a Christmas savings scheme. Does he think that there is a role for such groups in helping people to save?

Edward Miliband: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the role played by credit unions, which I, too, see in my constituency. The Treasury is conducting a review of the co-operative sector, which has been called for over a long period and will include the work of credit unions, to consider how the structure can be reformed to the advantage of co-ops and credit unions. Many of the most successful social enterprises are themselves co-ops, so our general work to support social enterprises will help co-ops, too.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): In my constituency, a number of social enterprises are run by tenants of the Duchy of Lancaster. When will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster embrace her other role as guardian of the tenants and of the land
7 Mar 2007 : Column 1503
she holds on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen and visit those tenants and social enterprises, instead of skulking away in Downing street?

Edward Miliband: Regrettably, I am not in charge of my right hon. Friend’s diary, but I know that she has visited many tenant farmers and others, such as those to whom the hon. Gentleman referred. I am sure that she has heard his request and will give it the consideration that it deserves.

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Slave Trade

11. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): If he will make a statement on progress on plans to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. [125508]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): The House will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister hosted an evening at No. 10 Downing street in January to launch the Government’s package to mark 200 years since Parliament passed legislation—brought in by the Member of Parliament for Hull, William Wilberforce—to outlaw the slave trade in the British empire.

The Government’s approach to the bicentenary has been to encourage and facilitate grass-roots organisations, faith groups, the voluntary sector and local authorities—particularly in the port cities of Liverpool, Bristol, London and Hull, whose histories are so closely linked with this important event—to commemorate the year in a manner appropriate to their own communities. A national service of commemoration will be held in Westminster abbey on 27 March, and the House authorities are arranging for an exhibition to take place in Westminster Hall, to be launched on 23 May.

Mary Creagh: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I am sure that he will join me in congratulating the regional Trades Union Congress for Yorkshire and the Humber, which is holding a conference on 23 March to mark the abolition of slavery. Our right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has signed the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, but does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that this opportunity is the best time for us to ratify the convention and give protection to the 4,000 women and children who have been trafficked into this country for sexual slavery?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the role of the Yorkshire conference organised by the TUC. It is most appropriate and reflects the fact that 200 years ago other people, such as workers in various Yorkshire towns and other parts of the UK, were campaigning to get rid of that terrible trade. It gives us the opportunity to remember in our commemorations many other people who played a part in getting rid of slavery—a
7 Mar 2007 : Column 1504
terrible trade of human trafficking. I hope that not only will we sign the convention, as the Prime Minister said, but that we will discuss how it is to be implemented. The important part is ratification; indeed, this afternoon I am meeting the Home Secretary—my mate—to discuss that.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that William Wilberforce—about whom I wrote a short life history and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) is about to produce a magisterial work—was in fact the Member for Yorkshire, not Hull, at the time of the abolition? Does he agree that the most fitting parliamentary memorial would be to erect a statue to William Wilberforce within the parliamentary precincts?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I agree very much with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. There are a number of groups looking at various statues that could be erected to people who were involved in the campaign. I will be encouraging that. As for the writing of the article or booklet, by himself and indeed by the—I was going to say the Leader of the Opposition; I should be careful—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), I will attend the launch of the book in Hull to commemorate that event. I am looking forward to that. I can assure him that I will not put in a bill of £16,000 to attend.

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that young people often know how to celebrate most effectively and with an international perspective? Does he agree that the fact that a group in Hull known as Freedom Road has produced a three-track CD to mark Wilberforce, the proceeds of which will be used to bring a blind choir from Sierra Leone to Hull to sing with Freedom Road, truly marks this as an international celebration?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is important that young people are involved in the commemoration. Indeed, we are organising a debate that could probably take place in the House—if the authorities agree—involving young people from various parts of the Commonwealth, who will discuss not only the commemoration of the abolition of slavery, but the whole issue of the human trafficking that is going on today. The activities of Hull in twinning with Freetown, and the schools that are involved—that is called class-to-class connection—form an important part of that. When I visited Sierra Leone only a few weeks ago, I saw the important role played by the British Council in encouraging schools and local authorities to come together. That would be a worthwhile legacy to come out of the commemorations this year.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): May I express the strong support of the Opposition for the commemoration by local authorities, schools, trade unions and the Government, in the bipartisan spirit of the bicentenary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade? Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that it is a time to remember the terrible crimes and unspeakable
7 Mar 2007 : Column 1505
inhumanity of the Atlantic slave trade, but also to note that it was the early development in Britain of a free Parliament, a free press and a public conscience that allowed our country to lead the way among European nations in removing that scourge from the earth?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I could not agree more with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. On my recent visits to Ghana and Sierra Leone, I found it interesting to see those two independent Commonwealth countries commemorating, not only in Ghana the 50th anniversary of independence, but a piece of what could be said to be colonial legislation passed by this Parliament 200 years ago to abolish the slave trade. I very much agree with what he says and we shall do all that we can to see that the commemorations extend further than this country. I am glad that he also said that it was a wider level of support in the community that brought the abolition about, but Mr. Wilberforce was the man who was effective in bringing the legislation to the House.

Mr. Hague: Would not the best monument to the efforts of 200 years ago be a cross-party resolve to confront the traffickers involved in modern human trafficking, in its new and wicked form? We welcomed and called for the Government’s announcement that they will ratify the Council of Europe’s convention on trafficking in human beings. Will the Deputy Prime Minister say whether the Government have any plans to strengthen the protection of victims through safe houses and special helplines, as advocated by my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary? Will he establish with the Home Secretary a UK border police force, without which the war against traffickers cannot be won?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Again, I agree with an awful lot of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I am having a meeting with the Home Secretary later this afternoon to look at exactly what we have to do to implement and ratify the Council of Europe’s convention. That is important. Some of the measures that the right hon. Gentleman has referred to are being actively considered by the Home Office and, as he knows, it is about to announce its action plan to meet some of the requirements. Hopefully, the House will then be able to debate the proposals involved. We have already made some proposals in regard to housing, which is indeed one of the recommendations of the Council of Europe’s convention.

Next Section Index Home Page