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Parallel to that is another development, to which the Minister devoted a little time. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to find it a bit sinister. It is the orchestrated campaign, which occupies several pages in the review, to widen significantly the ability of charities
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to undertake campaigning, both political and otherwise. The Minister tried, in a very unsophisticated way for someone whose intelligence and integrity I respect, to make out that our approach is that charities should not do any campaigning at all. That is absolute nonsense. We think that the law as it stands is very sensible. It allows campaigning if it is an ancillary activity. The Minister is suggesting that it should be allowed to be the dominant— [ Interruption. ] Well, he pretty much did suggest that. We will check Hansard, but my recollection is that he did say that. He ruled out campaigning as the exclusive activity of a charity, but he did not rule out its being the dominant activity. That would change the law, because the case law clearly says that charities can campaign, but not to the extent that that is their dominant activity. This is well-trammelled territory. The Charity Commission, no doubt completely spontaneously, has revised its guidance twice already, in a way that it says will broaden the scope for such campaigning. It is currently consulting—again, no doubt completely spontaneously—on a third such redraft.

The review published by the Minister quotes a report of Baroness Helena Kennedy’s advisory committee. By a curious circularity, that report quotes the Minister himself, who said:

that is, the third sector’s—“campaigning role”.

That quotation was not quite accurate, as diligent research by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) managed to elucidate. There were no dots appearing to show an excision in the quotation, but what the Minister actually said was:

I consider myself to be a progressive politician, and I consider my party to be a progressive party, but I wonder whether that is what the Minister had in mind when he used the phrase “progressive politicians”. Perhaps he would care to help me out on this. He is maintaining an uncharacteristic silence.

This is a curious development. In the review, all of it was presented in the most anodyne way. However, it should be clear that the proposal is enormously controversial, for two reasons. First, political and party funding, and therefore campaigning, is the subject of continuing discussion between the parties under Sir Hayden Phillips’ chairmanship. We read in this Monday’s edition of The Independent of the Government’s intention to introduce unilaterally legislation that would restrict what political parties can spend on political campaigning, out of money that has been raised voluntarily from the public. This would inhibit the ability of political parties to engage in political campaigning, which is what they exist to do; it is their raison d’ĂȘtre. Incidentally, it was interesting that we read about that proposal in the newspapers—so much for the Prime Minister’s much-vaunted undertaking that there would be no spin and briefing in newspapers, and that any proposals would be announced in the House of Commons, rather than spun in the newspapers.

We know that the proposal arises from the Labour Party’s own financial difficulties; but none the less, that sort of proposal has enormous general implications for a democracy. At the same time as the Government are
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planning to restrict what parties can do by way of political campaigning, they are also explicitly planning to expand what charities can do by way of political campaigning. It may be completely coincidental that both of those things are going on at the same time, but it is a remarkable coincidence.

Norman Baker: I am trying to establish in my own mind where the Conservative party is on this issue, and I have a genuine question about it. For example, in the case of hunting—a partisan issue that is largely associated with one party or another in the mind of the public—does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals should have been free to campaign against it?

Mr. Maude: It was, it is and it did. I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making. We are not seeking to change the law.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Phil Hope): Nor are we.

Mr. Maude: With respect, we can see what the Government are seeking to do, as the Charity Commission revises its guidance for a third time in a way explicitly designed to widen the scope for charities to engage in campaigning. That is very explicit. On the one hand, this amazingly joined-up Government have a proposal to limit what political parties can do with regard to their primary purpose, which is political campaigning, while on the other hand they are explicitly seeking to expand charities’ capacity to engage in political campaigning—having already massively expanded what sitting Members of Parliament can spend out of taxpayers’ money on promoting themselves. That is an extraordinarily partisan way to carry on with major implications for our democracy.

However, there is a much wider and more powerful reason why the Government would be wise to abandon that course. To go down that path would be to imperil further the independence that should be such an important characteristic of the public’s perception of what makes a charity special. Public support for charities through donations has already stalled. We believe that it would be devastating for the whole sector, especially the majority in the sector, who have no desire to campaign at all, merely to provide services— [ Interruption. ] I totally appreciate that no one is going to be compelled to campaign as a result of what the Government are proposing. My concern is for the majority in the charitable sector, who want to get on with the job of providing charitable services to those who need them. I am concerned that their ability to do so will be damaged because their perceived independence and high public purpose will be constrained if it becomes possible for campaigning to be the dominant part of what a charity does. I urge the Government not to go down that path, because in doing so they could do immense damage.

It is good that we are having this debate, and it is good that we have not totally broken out into violent agreement on all subjects. There is much in the review, as there was in our own study, that repays further consideration. I hope that the strong difference we have on this issue will not get in the way of our working together sensibly to get what everyone should want: a
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third sector that is vibrant, vigorous, diverse, genuinely independent, and able to provide services that people in so many parts of our country desperately need.

1.36 pm

Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): I would like to begin by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope). Both have a long-standing commitment to the voluntary sector and are true champions of volunteering.

As hon. Members have said, voluntary organisations and community associations play a central role in the areas that make up the quality of our lives. Volunteers come in all shapes and sizes. They are young people with lots of energy and enthusiasm, and they are retired people who have a lifetime of experience and knowledge to pass on to those in need. It is significant that employee volunteering is growing, as employers, such as the Bank of America in my constituency, realise the benefits of volunteering to the personal development of their staff.

I was doing some research in the Library yesterday, and I came across a report by the Institute for Volunteering Research, which estimates that 22 million people throughout Britain are involved in volunteering. That ranges from neighbourly acts of kindness to people devoting their whole lives to the service of others. The strength of the voluntary sector in Chester and throughout Cheshire is immense. I have a report by Cheshire Councils for Voluntary Service, which was commissioned by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and it is called “the hidden power”. It describes the extent and the value of local voluntary and charity groups throughout Cheshire. It is estimated that there are 2,900 voluntary and community associations throughout the six districts of Cheshire, spending £113 million, which is quite staggering. They involve 70,000 volunteers, and reach out to 1 million people. That is just one county.

The extent of volunteering is vast and encompasses many people who are engaged in the health and social care sector, whom we value so much. I also pay tribute to all the young people who volunteer. In my city, hundreds of students at the university are involved in mentoring schemes and do much valuable work. We must also acknowledge the groups who support conservation and environmental projects, and all those, including faith groups, who came together under the umbrella of Make Poverty History to campaign for alleviating poverty in developing countries.

We do not always give credit where it is due to the people who spend all their spare time running amateur sports clubs and arts organisations. We also often overlook those who serve our community by working as magistrates, school governors, special constables and Army reservists.

As someone who has long been involved in voluntary work, I could probably speak for hours, but I know that many other Members want to contribute to the debate. I shall therefore focus my comments on what I consider to be perhaps the third sector’s greatest strength: its ability to reach people who are so often beyond the reach of the traditional public services.

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Before I was elected to the House in 1997, I worked for Mind, the mental health charity that helps give a voice to people with mental health problems and learning difficulties. I recall how challenging life was in the 1880s— [Laughter.] It certainly was challenging then, but I meant to say the 1980s and the 1990s—for those who had spent years in long-stay psychiatric hospitals and how difficult it was for them to cope with life in the community. In those days, the provision of community care and support services was patchy to say the least. As well as spending much time trying to get the public services—the health service, local authorities and housing providers—to work in partnership, I also spent an inordinate amount of time going round with the begging bowl, trying to ensure that the organisation for which I worked could continue its good work in the next financial year.

No one has mentioned it yet, but one of the great achievements of our Government in the past 10 years is the supporting people programme, which now helps more than 1 million vulnerable people each year attain or maintain independence through providing housing-related support services. T. S. Eliot wrote:

If one does not have a roof over one’s head, everything in life—finding a job, enjoying good health, maintaining relationships—is more difficult. The undoubted success of the supporting people programme is built on the efforts of the voluntary sector, especially housing associations.

The Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Trust, which provides mental health services across the Wirral and Cheshire, is committed to developing closer links with voluntary groups, which provide a wide range of therapies and social activities such as shopping expeditions for service users.

Hon. Members will know that mental illness accounts for 40 per cent. of all incapacity benefit claimants. Voluntary organisations such as CHAPTER, which works in Chester and Ellesmere Port in collaboration with the mental health trust, make a huge contribution to helping people with mental health problems get back into employment. The reason for their success is that, again unlike many public sector providers, those voluntary organisations can tailor their support services to meet a person’s individual needs.

I want to focus on voluntary work that has transformed the lives of those who live in our more deprived neighbourhoods through involvement in neighbourhood management regeneration programmes. The key to the success of those programmes is having local people—the volunteers—in the driving seat. The community activists and volunteers live in the area and know what the priorities are. They also know the problems, and the solutions that would be best for their communities. Let me give two local examples.

In the Lache estate in my constituency, 20 volunteers, who are all local residents, sit on the neighbourhood management board. They are actively involved in making all the decisions about allocating the £1.8 million of Government funding. They have established a youth forum to ensure that young people’s concerns are heard and acted on. The volunteers are also turning a disused piece of land into a community allotment and running a fruit and veg co-op. One of their most
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exciting activities is being trained by one or two professionals to run a community radio station. That will not only showcase all the individual talent on the estate but provide information for everyone who lives there.

Mr. Flello: To pick up on the point that the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) made earlier, does my hon. Friend agree that, if the community group, which is doing some fantastic work, decides that it wants to raise its area’s profile and run a campaign, it should not be constantly looking over its shoulder to ensure that it is not contravening regulations on campaigning? Surely it should just be able to get on with it.

Christine Russell: I agree absolutely. Such groups are the best advocates of what is needed in local communities.

Another example from my constituency is the Blacon estate. Community activists there have played the pivotal role in the success of the neighbourhood management pathfinder, which has been acknowledged as one of the best in the country. The residents have become so empowered and skilled that they are overseeing an ambitious master plan to provide a new centre for the estate—new shops, new community facilities, improved open space and employment opportunities. I was a local councillor for nearly 20 years, and I know that, for far too long, the public sector adopted the “we know best” attitude. However, cultures and attitudes are changing. Now that many of our regeneration programmes are starting to wind down, we must ensure that the local area agreements that are established to continue the good work acknowledge and use the skills and experiences that community activists and voluntary organisations have built up.

As other hon. Members have said—many have left the Chamber—we must ensure that, as we move further down the commissioning path, the large national organisations do not squeeze the smaller, perhaps more localised, specialised voluntary organisations out of the bidding process.

Briefly, I want to mention the valuable contribution that social enterprises and credit unions make. I see my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) on the Bench behind me. I remember being in the Chamber about 12 months ago when she was making an impassioned plea on behalf of her constituents who were facing the prospect of a miserable Christmas after the collapse of the Farepak Christmas trading scheme. In my constituency—and, I suspect, in many others—the local credit union played a vital role in reaching out to those people who had lost all their savings.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most powerful things about the third sector is its capacity to be flexible? I well remember that in Bridgend the credit union was especially helpful in reaching out to meet the needs of Farepak victims, with a voluntary sector housing association giving them a direct grant of cash. That allowed the credit union to take them on as new members without a record of credit history, which enabled them to take out
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a loan and give a good Christmas for their families. Not one of those new applicants to the credit union defaulted on their loan, and the money is now used to expand financial advice to the most vulnerable people in my constituency. That flexibility is the real power behind the third sector.

Christine Russell: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I have seen in Chester how the credit union can reach out in a flexible way to all those people who are excluded from our financial services sector.

Anne Snelgrove: My hon. Friend has been generous in mentioning my campaign on Farepak, which continues to this day. The credit union in my constituency has also played an important role, but the £5,000 that we needed to underwrite the loans to Farepak customers was itself underwritten by three companies in my constituency, which provides a different model from the Bridgend model. We often underestimate the impact that local companies have on the voluntary sector and on volunteering, underpinning local charities and not-for-profit companies.

Christine Russell: Yes. To continue the point, I want to put in a plea to local authorities regarding small social enterprises. When local authorities plan redevelopment schemes, they all too often overlook the fact that small social enterprises are often displaced by new developments. I am thinking of the little companies in my constituency that were literally under the arches. One can now find high-class stabling for the racehorses in Chester and, as happens in other cities, the space under the arches has been used for smart cafés and bistros. Local authorities are good at saying, “Yes, we need to allocate sites for affordable housing”—well, perhaps not all local authorities, but my local authority has been quite good at doing so—but affordable units for small social enterprises are also important. My other point about local authorities is that they need to have flexible planning policies. Too often they turn down applications for socially beneficial businesses to go into units, saying, “Oh, this is a retail unit, so you can’t change the use to a launderette”, or something like that.

Finally, I want to put in a good word for the 7,000 charity shops throughout Britain, which are run by an army of volunteers and raise more than £500,000 a year for the third sector. It sounds as though I am having a jibe against local politicians, but too often we hear them saying, “Oh, this is terrible! The increasing presence of charity shops is a sign of economic decline.” I say to that, “Rubbish! It is a sign of how robust the third sector and voluntary organisations are.” Not only do charity shops raise a lot of money for the third sector; they also raise awareness of the charity. I am sure that a number of hon. Members present will have received the same invitation from Barnardo’s that I have. They will find me behind the counter in my local branch of Barnardo’s on “Make a Difference Day”, which I believe is 27 October.

The voluntary sector has gone from strength to strength over the past 10 years, but there are still too many people in our affluent society who feel marginalised and
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isolated. We need a clear vision for the future. One vision that I should like to offer is to use the example of the children’s centres that have been rolled out across our communities. They have done an immensely important job of bringing together under one roof all those public services and voluntary organisations that care for, help and support children and their families. As we move further into the 21st century, I would like every community to have a volunteers centre. I am not talking about spending lots of money on bricks and mortar—we could use the village hall, the church hall or the school that has closed down. However, we need a place where all the volunteers can share resources, meet and network. That would be a good model for the future.

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