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30 Apr 2007 : Column 1342

I know that other councils, especially the new Tory councils elected last May, have their eyes set on cutting the voluntary sector. Last week, I met a solicitor from Camden Community Law Centre, which is fighting a fierce campaign against the Tory-Liberal council there. I doubt whether the same scale or approach apply—perhaps they do in Croydon—in other local authorities. I do not know why it is happening. We may find out through judicial review or as the campaign against the cuts takes off. It may simply be due to the arrogance and inexperience or political extremism of those running the council.

I found an extraordinary comment—it is a matter of public record—from one of the Conservative councillors about the law centre’s grant. He said:

There is a clue to the reasons for the cuts. It never entered the mind of the little sprog who wrote that that there might be a reason for the law centre to sue the council, but it gives an interesting insight into the totalitarian mindset of the Conservative party under the stewardship of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). If the reasons that I outlined or more overtly political ones are those for the cuts—I suspect that they are—it is a further disgrace.

Most of the cuts have been made to organisations that support the homeless, the unemployed or refugees. They match the cuts in the statutory sector to social housing programmes, community schools and social services. There is a concerted campaign from the Conservative council to remove services from vulnerable people to transform Hammersmith and Fulham into the nightmare, literally care-free borough that its predecessors in fanaticism in Wandsworth and Westminster wrought.

I do not expect my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to fight our local battles for us. The Hammersmith and Fulham voluntary sector funding campaign, which was established last Thursday, will do that ably. It plans to reverse the cuts with the aid of its supporters locally and nationally. I ask my hon. Friend to examine what Tory councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham do to the voluntary sector, and work with voluntary sector organisations locally and nationally to highlight the need for their services, not for the benefit of councils, the Government or even the organisations, but the people—especially the vulnerable people—whom they serve and whom I represent.

10.7 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) on securing the debate. I know that he is a long-standing champion of the voluntary sector in his area, as he showed so eloquently in his speech. He did much to help the sector in Hammersmith and Fulham during his nine years as leader of the council. He is right to say that I had the pleasure last May of meeting some of the local groups in Hammersmith and Fulham at the west London citizens event. It testified to the great diversity and strength of the sector in Hammersmith and Fulham.

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No hon. Member can fail to have sympathy with the case that my hon. Friend makes. He talks about cuts to organisations that represent some of the most disadvantaged people in our society—the homeless, refugees and those urgently in need of access to the law.

The debate goes to the heart of the future of the voluntary sector, not only in Hammersmith and Fulham but everywhere. It does that because it deals with the central fact that local authorities are at the front line of the drive to ensure a thriving and successful voluntary sector.

When it comes to representation and campaigning, the voluntary sector needs a local authority that genuinely listens and understands that a strong democracy comes from a diverse range of voices. When it comes to public services, the sector needs a local authority that understands the potential of the voluntary sector—as in the case of the law centre that my hon. Friend mentioned—but also recognises its responsibilities to provide adequate public funding.

When it comes to building community—again, my hon. Friend spoke eloquently about groups in Hammersmith and Fulham—the third sector needs a local authority that understands its need for small grants to do the vital work that keeps our communities strong.

Above all, we need local authorities that recognise the need for partnership with the local voluntary sector and understand that local authorities such as Hammersmith and Fulham play an irreplaceable role as the democratically elected voice of local people but that the voluntary sector can reach people and places that the public sector on its own cannot reach.

The question at the heart of my hon. Friend’s debate is: how do we secure the strong voluntary sector in Hammersmith and Fulham and what do we learn from his remarks today? I have been round the country as part of our third sector review, talking with local organisations about their relationship with local authorities. We in the House need to be clear that central Government can play an important role, but we also need to understand the role of local politics. I want to talk about those two issues in responding to my hon. Friend.

Central Government need to send clear signals in the framework that they set about the need for partnership. The commitments in the local government White Paper and the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is currently before the House, are, I hope, a major step forward in that regard. There is a new duty on local government to ensure the participation of local citizens. Through that, the voluntary sector will have a greater voice in local strategic partnerships, the forum for policy making in local authorities.

The Government’s ambition is also for some of the key commitments in the compact—the agreement governing the relationship between the public sector and the voluntary sector—to be part of the financial codes for local government. There is a strong expectation that three-year funding, which is being introduced for local government, will be passed on to the voluntary sector. We hope that, as part of the local government performance indicators, there will also be a clear acknowledgement of the role of the local
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voluntary sector. Those commitments are also supported by the compact and, now, by the new commissioner for the compact, an independent body at arm’s length from Government, to encourage best practice. Those are important commitments from the centre of Government, and there are others, but there is an important truth in my hon. Friend’s debate that we should acknowledge. If we are to uphold the role of local government as the voice of local people, the culture change that we want to see will need to come from local government itself or, if the change is not forthcoming, from political change at local level.

That brings me to some specific observations about Hammersmith and Fulham and to my hon. Friend’s suggestions about the way forward. Five points stand out from my hon. Friend’s remarks. First, he is right to suggest that the voluntary sector should never be seen as a soft touch for cuts in funding. The cuts in funding that he described hit some of the most vulnerable groups in Hammersmith and Fulham. We should be under no illusions: it will often be the most vulnerable members of the community who will suffer from cuts in funding. He outlined in detail the disadvantaged groups that will suffer from the significant overall cut that, I understand, is planned for next year in Hammersmith and Fulham.

Secondly, the voluntary sector draws its strength from its diversity. In our approach to the funding of the sector, we in central Government are trying to respect and encourage that diversity. At local level, the local government White Paper urged a continuation of grants as well as contracts. That is especially important for the smallest organisations, particularly those representing the most marginalised groups. The local compact drawn up by Hammersmith and Fulham provides a commitment to what should be possible. All partners agree to

That is why we are all concerned to hear about the cuts for the smallest organisations that my hon. Friend outlined, such as the 100 per cent. cut in funding to the horn of Africa group, the 100 per cent. cut in funding to the domestic violence intervention centre or the 100 per cent. cut in funding to the senior citizens creative arts and lunch club.

Thirdly, it is essential both that central Government and local government do not use the role of the voluntary sector as a way of providing public services on the cheap and that they provide funds on time, taking account of the full costs that organisations face. The cuts to Hammersmith and Fulham law centre that my hon. Friend described are obviously of concern, since I know that law centres round the country do great work for those who have least access to legal representation.

Fourthly, as the compact makes clear, it is important that all decisions are transparent, which, in a way, is what is most concerning about the remarks that my hon. Friend made and the issues to which he has drawn attention. Reasons for decisions need to be clearly explained. There should be ample opportunity to discuss decisions in advance and, where appropriate, for those decisions to reflect arguments that are made.
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My hon. Friend suggested that that had not happened, which is obviously a significant matter of regret.

I draw my hon. Friend’s attention in that context to an organisation called the Public Law Project, which has taken action against another council, precisely over the form of consultation that took place. The law centre will take its own view on whether it should take action against the council, but I would draw his attention to the case that I have described and the work of the Public Law Project.

Fifthly, it is crucial that public authorities respect the voluntary sector organisations’ desire to combine campaigning and advocacy with public service provision. Because of this, some public authorities might find themselves funding organisations that sometimes campaign against them or challenge them, but that is part of how important social change happens. Many of the changes of the past 10 years would not have happened without voluntary sector campaigning. It is fundamental to what the sector does. I see the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) nodding in agreement.

I welcome the new statements from the chair of the Charity Commission which clarify the right of charities to pursue advocacy and campaigning. The national compact states that the Government must

As I understand it, the compact drawn up by Hammersmith and Fulham borough partnership included an identical commitment. Ceasing to fund an organisation because it has helped to represent people against the council would therefore certainly not comply with the terms of the compact.

My suggestion would be that the law centre take up the issue with the compact advocacy programme, which is operated independently from the Government by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. It can advise on using the compact to improve relations with central and local government, and make representations to public bodies on behalf of voluntary sector groups.

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My hon. Friend has highlighted the important wider issue of the right of organisations to campaign and advocate. I will draw the attention of the new commissioner for the compact, John Stoker, to all the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. I am obviously disappointed, as all Members of this House should be, to hear of the issues in Hammersmith and Fulham—not just the cuts to important projects but the apparent questioning of the right to advocacy and campaigning.

In the end, the real solution to the problems described by my hon. Friend involves politics and the collective ability of individual organisations and political parties to make change happen. But it also requires the right council leadership that will listen to and understand the role of a thriving voluntary sector and see the need to make it a priority. This is partly about how we view the relationship between the voluntary sector and the state. Do we see the sector as a replacement for the state, funded from private income rather than taxpayers’ money? Or do we understand that partnership means the state putting its money where its mouth is?

I am proud of the fact that central Government funding for the voluntary sector has seen a 96 per cent. real-terms increase since 1997. My hon. Friend has drawn our attention to a range of important issues tonight, but one in particular stands out. It is easy to make promises in opposition, but much harder to hold to them in practice. It is easy to have photo opportunities and warm words, but much harder to do the long hard slog of enabling people to build a thriving voluntary sector.

I would say to the Opposition that we are watching the situation, not only in Hammersmith and Fulham but elsewhere. If the trends that my hon. Friend has highlighted continue, it will be a clear sign that warm words and commitments to the voluntary sector are simply not being honoured in practice. I am sure that the people of Hammersmith and Fulham will be grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing our attention to the issues he has raised tonight. I am sure that the voluntary sector in the borough will be particularly grateful, and I hope that it will make its voice heard and be able to thrive in the years to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Ten o’clock.

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