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Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

To report progress and ask leave to sit again. — [Kev i n Brennan.]

Committee report progress; to sit again tomorrow.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),

Disabled Persons

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),

Energy policy for Europe

Question agreed to.


Bicycle Security

9.44 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): We all know how important it is to encourage people to use public transport and to cycle, for health and environmental reasons, and how important it is to tackle crime prevention by all possible means. I am therefore pleased to present a petition that promotes those aims and facilitates their achievement. I am most grateful to Lisa Gilliham and all the petitioners—there are a few hundred of them—for showing that they care enough to do something about those issues. The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Voluntary Sector

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn .—[Liz Blackman.]

9.46 pm

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a matter of great concern to my constituents who live in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, and to others, as the voluntary sector organisations there affect many people living in west London. I am pleased to see that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband) is to respond to my speech; he can already count himself a friend of the voluntary sector in Hammersmith and Fulham because, as he will recall, earlier this year he spoke at a well-attended meeting in the assembly hall of Hammersmith town hall. The meeting was called by West London Citizens, an umbrella group for many voluntary and community bodies that does excellent work across west London in raising issues such as the living wage and migrant workers’ rights.

That same assembly hall hosted a rather less happy meeting exactly two weeks ago—a meeting of the ruling Tory cabinet of Hammersmith and Fulham council to decide on future council support for the voluntary sector. On that occasion, about 500 supporters, clients and employees of the voluntary sector had come to oppose swingeing cuts to the financial support that they receive from the council. I should at this point declare several interests. For 15 years, I sat on the management board of the Hammersmith and Fulham community law centre, which has lost £159,000, or 60 per cent. of its grant. Until recently, and for a similar length of time, I was a board member of Broadway, the homeless charity for single people, which has lost 100 per cent. of its grant. I do not say that the fact that I sat on the boards of those bodies is anything to do with the loss of their grants, as a number of other organisations have lost their grant, too, but perhaps it is tangentially relevant.

I will say more about individual organisations in due course, but I am not here to submit special pleading on behalf of one or more organisations. From my 20 years as a member of Hammersmith and Fulham council and my 46 years as a local resident, I know the voluntary sector in the area well. It is overwhelmingly well-motivated and targeted to meet local needs and aspirations, as one would expect, but it is also particularly efficient and effective. Of course, not every organisation merits receipt of public funds in perpetuity, and it is the right of any grant-giving body to review its funding to determine whether money is being well spent. My purpose in requesting this debate is to draw the Government’s attention to the fact that what is happening in Hammersmith and Fulham is not the proper exercise of local democracy, and the implications of that, as an article on page 24 of The Times today suggests, go far beyond Hammersmith and Fulham.

I also want to warn the Minister that the Government’s laudable aim of encouraging and expanding the work of the voluntary sector is being undermined by Tory local authorities, and I want to ask him to express his support for those voluntary sector organisations that
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are being unjustly driven to the wall. I shall first set out the facts on what is happening in Hammersmith and Fulham to show that, contrary to the council’s propaganda, we are talking about real cuts in the voluntary sector, not redistributions of grant. Secondly, I shall comment on the process by which those cuts have been made, which is both irregular and dishonest. Thirdly, I will highlight some of the disastrous consequences for my constituents of the cuts. Sadly, the fact that the voluntary sector has been savagely cut is no surprise. I raised the matter with the Prime Minister at Question Time last week, only to find that he was aware not only of the problem but of the other £34 million of cuts already under way in the borough. The reputation of the Tories in Hammersmith and Fulham has spread far and wide in the single year since their election. It is known that the borough has fallen into the hands of an unrepresentative, post-Thatcherite rump. What is more surprising is that it has the full backing of the national leadership. Again, today’s edition of The Times, says that

It is to be expected that a council prepared to cut £34 million from statutory services, including home care, mental health provision and services for the homeless, would move on to the voluntary sector. Indeed, the very council services that have been cut are those that work alongside the voluntary sector, supporting vulnerable people in the community.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Slaughter: If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not do so, as I have a lot to cover.

Wary of the powerful voice that the voluntary sector exercises, the council has attempted to conceal the scale of the cuts, as well as to enforce the decision quickly and in secret. In 2002, the then Labour-run council set out a four-year programme of funding that aimed to combine security of funding with robust checks on performance, and it worked very well. In the last year of the four, which ended last month, total spending was £4,192,233. The present council says that it will preserve that funding level in the current financial year, but that is an empty boast. First, the sudden announcement of the cuts has forced it to guarantee funding at current levels until 30 September. A new regime then takes over, with a hotch-potch of six-month grants, 18-month grants, extraneous commitments and sums reserved for further review. It is impossible to say what the spend for this year will be, but in any event, it is a red herring. The first year of comparison is, in fact, next year—2007-08—on which the council has not given any guarantees, but it has allocated a notional £3.1 million.

There are allusions in the report to ongoing commitments, further reviews of services and, indeed, to a secret stash of cash known as the fast-track fund, but there are no figures, which means that mainstream voluntary sector funding is set to fall by over a quarter—or over £1 million—this year. Moreover, that is not the full extent of the cuts. Separate provision has been made for top-up relief—the 80 per cent. relief
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from business rates that charities receive. Under current arrangements, they are entitled to the additional 20 per cent., 75 per cent. of which is paid by the local authority and 25 per cent. by the Government. The director of the Voluntary Sector Resource Agency, Penelope Harrison, wrote to the council on 10 April—needless to say, she has not received a reply—querying why the money is going to be cut and mentioning, inter alia, that as a result of the 75 per cent. cut, charities will lose the 25 per cent. that the Government provide, too. The answer is quite simple—it costs the council some £411,000. In addition, it intends to cut discretionary relief worth £28,000 for non-profit-making organisations that are not charities.

The report that passed those provisions on 19 March said that that money would be safeguarded. It said that the expected savings resulting from cuts to the top-up relief

It said that that money would be recycled into the voluntary sector grants budget, but I received an e-mail from the grants section on Friday, which said that

At least I have achieved the first open admission of a genuine cut of £100,000, but my belief is that, at present, the amount of cuts the council intend to make is nearer £1 million over the cycle.

There are other cuts in prospect. Gleefully, the current report that was considered two weeks ago notes that a review of council premises occupied by the voluntary community sector and the levels of rent subsidy will shortly commence, and there is to be a review of in-kind support to the voluntary community sector, assessing the use of seconded staff, the availability of officer advice, and access to the council’s payroll service. Those reviews could produce an increase in support, although that is unlikely. From every possible angle and through every possible device, the voluntary sector in Hammersmith and Fulham is being targeted for swingeing cuts by the Conservative council.

Mr. Pelling: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Slaughter: As the hon. Gentleman has been patient, I shall briefly give way.

Mr. Pelling: I am grateful. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the actual amount of money being given to the voluntary sector is increasing by 2 per cent. this year? Moneys are merely being re-arranged, with 16 new organisations being given extra money. Is he suggesting that new money being given to Standing Together Against Domestic Violence and to the Zimbabwe Women’s Network, two of the 16 groups, should not be given out?

Mr. Slaughter: There is always a danger in coming to the Chamber inadequately briefed to do others’ bidding. The hon. Gentleman has warned me of that on other occasions. Perhaps because his conscience pricks him occasionally because his own council is also making swingeing cuts in public services, he feels the
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need to stand up for a council such as Hammersmith and Fulham. I offer him this piece of advice: just don’t go there. If he reads my speech tomorrow, he will see that I have already dealt in some detail with the points that he makes. Perhaps he wanted to get his intervention in earlier and had not corrected it at the appropriate time.

I accept that we may disagree on the exact figures. That is deliberate. The process is deliberately obfuscatory, but there is no disagreement that the process itself is a disgrace, a hole in the corner, dishonest, shifty, lacking all transparency. There was a year during which the proposals could have been brought forward. The Conservatives say that there have been public meetings of a general kind. They have asked the voluntary organisations to apply again for their grants. That ended in the council sending the voluntary organisations the top half of a piece of paper and asking them to confirm factual details. They omitted the rather more vital bottom half, which had the recommendation of how much money the organisations were to receive.

Then, suddenly, out of the blue, a bombshell dropped. On 2 April this year, at the beginning of Easter week, the council sent out papers which for some organisations meant the end of 20 or 30 years of service to the community. Some never received those papers and did not know until they were told by word of mouth that their grants were being cut. Some received them on the Wednesday or Thursday before Good Friday. If they wished to object, they had to ask for a deputation by Tuesday 10 April, one or two working days later. Amazingly, six organisations did object. Others tried, but fell foul of bureaucratic rules.

The meeting to make the final decision on the cuts was held on Monday 16 April, exactly two weeks ago. Such, however, was the strength of feeling that despite the short notice, about 500 people met outside the town hall for speeches, and inside they listened while deputations from the Law Centre, Hammersmith Community Transport, the Voluntary Sector Resource Agency and others were allowed a bare 5 minutes to justify their continued existence. Not one Conservative councillor asked a question in respect of the report. Labour councillors, not members of the one-party committee making the decision, were heckled when they tried to ask questions and prevented from asking questions of the deputations, despite provision in the standing orders for them to do so.

After the six deputations had put their case very effectively, Halima Ismael of the Horn of Africa Group went up to the microphone. The Horn of Africa Group is an organisation for Somalians and other east African people in west London. It has been in existence for 20 years and is recognised as a beacon of expertise and advice, counselling and services to the east African community. Given the large numbers of refugees who have come over the past few years, there has never been a greater need for its services. It is to lose all £55,000 of its grant.

Ms Ismael was sneeringly told that as one of the signatories to her deputation was not an elector of the borough she would not be allowed to speak, and that if she was that concerned, she would have got it right.

It being Ten o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Liz Blackman.]

Mr. Slaughter: On cue, having heard enough, the Conservative councillors, as they had on every occasion when challenged by their constituents, rose as one, left the meeting, and then, we are told, with no further discussion ratified all the cuts that they had proposed in secret. There is nothing in the papers that were before the council to rank one voluntary group against another. There is nothing to justify the percentage of the cuts. There was no consultation on the proposals with the groups or with the wider community. In 20 years in local government, I have never seen a process conducted with less openness or propriety.

I have said enough on the process; I shall say a few short words on the cuts. I mentioned Hammersmith and Fulham Community Law Centre. It is a body with a national reputation that employs 12 highly qualified solicitors who offer expert, professional legal advice. It is the only organisation in the borough that does so. That is my opinion and that of many others, including the shadow Attorney-General, who many years ago sat on the board of the law centre and is, I believe, an admirer of its work. It was set up in 1979 and its primary role is to serve the local community. I note that in the last calendar year it dealt with more than 1,900 housing cases, almost 2,300 immigration cases, and a substantial number of employment, welfare benefit, asylum support and many other miscellaneous cases.

It goes beyond that, however. The law centre has been the occasion of many significant legal decisions in this country and often involves representation up to the House of Lords and the European Court. Many well-known cases have gone to those courts as a consequence of local cases that have started in Hammersmith and Fulham. It is the repository of an irreplaceable degree of expertise and experience, and yet it is to have its budget cut by 60 per cent. It is also the bedrock for the community in Hammersmith and Fulham. It provides training and advice to other voluntary sector groups and it may well be being targeted for cuts for exactly that reason.

I have mentioned the Horn of Africa group, and numerous other refugee organisations have also been targeted for cuts: the Iraqi Association and the Kurdish Association are both losing 100 per cent. of their grant. The Third Age Foundation, which helps older people who are unemployed back into work, is losing 100 per cent. of its grant. I hosted a successful reception for that body on the Terrace a few months ago, and the Opposition pensions spokesman came and spoke in praise of the organisation and its work. Organisations that support the community, such as the Hammersmith community transport project and Caring for Carers, are also losing 100 per cent. of their grant. Only two months ago, I noticed the latter organisation in a glossy photograph in the local council propaganda sheet with the mayor saying what a wonderful job it was doing. It is an extraordinary act of not only belligerence but hypocrisy that now all those organisations are to lose all their grant, and many others, particularly the advice centre, are to lose some of their grant. Given the overheads that we all know that voluntary sector organisations work to, that will make it almost impossible for them to survive.

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