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Charlotte Atkins: Even if that were true, it would still leave the figure at £650 million, as opposed to £100 million in 1997. Since 2004, more than £350 million has also been invested in the sector to respond to people’s needs through specific programmes. However, I accept the points made earlier that we need to do much more
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about continual core funding—not just start-up funding—for voluntary organisations. For example, as I think the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) mentioned, citizens advice bureaux in particular are having problems—certainly mine in Biddulph is—with not having sufficient core funding. It provides an excellent service and gets money for particular projects, but it still needs its key work force funded to keep the advice centre going.

The voice of the third sector certainly needs to be heard in order to help change our society for the better. The real test of how well the voluntary sector is working is to take a look at a community and judge how much poorer it would be without the voluntary sector. In Staffordshire, Moorlands—a relatively rural constituency—that would involve first sweeping away all the advice agencies that are so important—Age Concern, the CAB, the Biddulph resource and information centre—and getting rid of the wide range of services, such as voluntary transport, support and expertise, within the Staffordshire, Moorlands community and voluntary services office. They all do an amazing job.

However, I want to focus on the Biddulph resource and information centre—BRIC, as it is known. It is run by Sylvia Rushton, Biddulph’s neighbourhood agent, and her volunteers. They provide a friendly drop-in advice and support centre for the most deprived community in my constituency. BRIC also offers a community café, providing a home-cooked, nutritious meal for just £3.25. I met a gentleman there only last week, and it was clearly a lifeline for him; he lives alone, and the staff there not only provide his lunch for him, but they give him a sandwich for his tea as well. BRIC also gives computer access to deprived families and computer training, and it is even moving into the provision of furniture as it responds to the needs of the local community.

Ten miles away in Leek, the Haregate community centre is located on an estate that used to be seen as run-down and rough. That is no longer the case. The local voluntary services have supported residents in running the centre and have helped to develop community pride through such events as local galas, projects to regenerate the recreation ground with equipment, and the planting of shrubs and bulbs, which the community has got involved in. The centre brings the generations together, from the highly successful Sure Start for the early years to music and movement for the over-60s and much more besides.

The Sure Start project, for which I won funding, has transformed lives. I have seen insecure mums with their young children arrive barely having the confidence to turn up. Then they have got involved as volunteers, and before long they start accessing courses and developing skills, which boosts confidence and opens up their prospects. That is good news for the whole family, as aspirations are raised and the children thrive.

Voluntary organisations and charities are central to creating a healthy, vibrant and cohesive society. Two such projects among the many in my constituency are particularly worth a mention. The Honeycomb centre is situated in the delightful village of Longnor. It is a social enterprise and work development centre for people with education disabilities, producing quality garden
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furniture and craft goods. It works in partnership with Leek college, helping to break down barriers to employment by providing real work for disadvantaged young people in Staffordshire, Moorlands. It recently won an environmental quality mark for using locally sourced Peak District national park timber for its bird tables and rustic benches. So successful has it been in supplying schools and businesses with its products that it has needed a £20,000 extension to accommodate its increasing capacity needs.

The Bridlegate project is located at the mill on the River Hamps at Winkhill near Leek. It is a rural project that accepts students to work with farm animals and on conservation and environmental challenges so that they can build self-confidence and skills and move on to mainstream further education, sheltered employment or volunteering placements. Both projects do a remarkable job on a shoestring, and I congratulate both Ken Weston and Kath Riley who run the projects alongside volunteers.

I welcome the focus in the third sector review final report on the sector’s role in campaigning, as it is an important way of providing a voice, particularly to disadvantaged groups. Sometimes it would be much more convenient for local authorities and Government if voluntary organisations did not campaign. They can make life very uncomfortable for elected representatives, but they should not be dismissed as “the usual suspects”. Instead, they should be supported as community champions. Nationally, Every Disabled Child Matters has done an amazing job in raising the profile of disability issues and winning Government support for, among other things, vital family respite care.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Is my hon. Friend’s experience similar to mine in my constituency, which is that that campaigning role brings communities alive? If a good environmental campaign is put together to clean up graffiti or rubbish, or to support the local school, it can bring communities to life.

Charlotte Atkins: Absolutely, because it encourages young and old to get involved—people who otherwise would not necessarily have thought about doing so. There is another project in my constituency that demonstrates how much community support really matters.

Rudyard Sailability has had to campaign just to survive. Its problem is not funding—it raises thousands of pounds every year—but the fact the local authority will not give it planning permission for an essential boat store. It has won a host of awards, and is the Royal Yachting Association’s first ever centre of excellence and education because of its leadership in providing sailing for disabled people at minimal cost. It caters for every disability with its accessible passenger boat, its dragon boats and its electrically powered sailing boats, which can be controlled by a finger or a mouth. At present it caters for some 1,400 people a year, but its provision could easily expand as more and more people hear of its amazing work.

Sailability attracts trained volunteers from far and wide. It provides not only competitive sailing, but a range of courses for which volunteers can offer their services. The local Tory council, however, would rather
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close it down. It wants Sailability to join forces with the private sailing club further up the lake, where there is no wheelchair access, no hoist and no essential boat store. The promised meeting with the sailing club has not yet materialised, but that is probably because the powers that be would prefer not to deal with the strident voice of one Dennis Priebe, one of the mainstays of Sailability. He spends hours, on his crutches, hauling boats out of the lake and putting them back in the lake. He is a very strident advocate for Sailability, and rightly so.

Sailability will not give up its right to exist without a fight. The council has ordered the demolition of its essential boat store, but we will continue to campaign for its replacement. It is essential to protect Sailability’s expensive electrically controlled boats from both the weather and vandalism. Sailability will not go quietly; too much is at stake. It gives people with profound disabilities the freedom of the beautiful and tranquil Rudyard lake. It creates aspirations among youngsters like Jibreel Arshad, who hopes that one day he will represent his country at the Paralympics. It attracts families who face the 24/7 struggle with disability, because it enables them to go out and have a good time together. That part of Rudyard lake provides a host of different activities for the whole family to enjoy.

The awful experience that Rudyard Sailability has had with the council over recent years raises a real concern about the relationship between the third sector and local councils. We are told that 99 per cent. of local authority areas are now covered by the local Compact—an agreement between Government and the voluntary and community sector to improve their relationship for the benefit of the communities that they serve—but that agreement was not at all obvious in the council’s dealings with Sailability, when it put obstacle after obstacle in Sailability’s way.

I welcome public service agreement 21, produced this month. It states that local authorities

The PSA makes some very positive statements about the role of voluntary organisations in local communities in relation to increasing active citizenship, but that will mean nothing if local authorities do not share the vision. The Department for Communities and Local Government and the Audit Commission must support local authorities properly in that role, and also ensure that that is reflected in performance monitoring to hold them to account.

My local district council has just announced a thorough review of locality working with the Staffordshire Moorlands community and voluntary services organisation. It might be thought that there is nothing sinister about that, but immediately after being elected six months ago, the chair of the council launched an attack on village agents because they were unelected, implying that they were a waste of money and got in the way of the elected representatives.

Village agents and their town equivalents, neighbourhood agents, are employed for just 40 hours a month, for £8.64 an hour, to promote meaningful community engagement and involvement. So successful have they been that between January 2006 and September 2007,
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nearly £570,000 has been brought into local community groups from funding applications directly supported by the work of village agents, community development workers and Staffordshire Moorlands community and voluntary services. In the past six months alone, £136,000 has been brought in. Without such intervention, small community groups in the Staffordshire, Moorlands area would struggle to survive, so are village agents a waste of money? I do not think so.

Recent successes of the village agents project include the transformation of Cheddleton’s derelict bowling green from a run-down, vandalised area into a memorial garden. Ongoing work is co-ordinated by Staffordshire Moorlands CVS’ hard-working Lesley Savage, who has generated bids for well over £50,000 and inspired grassroots community development work to transform the village’s play area.

Another success story is the restoration of the boathouse at Rudyard lake into a museum, by securing funding of £87,000. The community service has also helped to set up a youth forum in Moorside high school, and in doing so has helped to reduce antisocial behaviour in the village of Werrington by some 44 per cent. in just one year.

The work of the town and village-based neighbourhood agents and of the Staffordshire Moorlands CVS development team involves helping communities to set out their priorities. They develop a parish plan, which they then work towards implementing with the statutory agencies. It seems to me that that is real community added value in anyone’s book.

However, voluntary organisations face a common problem that arises when they deal with certain local authorities. Local councillors assert, “We are democratically elected. You have no legitimacy because you are unaccountable, minority interest groups.” It is true that many voluntary organisations promote their own concerns and the interests of particular community groups, but why not? Surely that is not a reason for saying that they should not be heard. They advocate on behalf of disadvantaged groups, provide a voice for certain communities, and bring different and important perspectives to particular issues. They should be welcomed and not dismissed; they have a right to contribute to the debate and they must be heard.

Good local authorities will welcome input from community groups, as the voluntary sector and councils should have the shared objective of promoting and supporting their local communities in their total diversity. However, my experience is that that does not always happen, and certainly not in my constituency. I hope that the Government will be vigilant in ensuring that local authorities work with the third sector and celebrate its role. Otherwise, their commitment to that sector will be regarded as no more than lip service. That is a challenge that we have to face and deal with.

There has been a very positive environment for voluntary and community organisations over the past 10 years. In the next 10 years, we must consolidate and embed the policy changes that we have introduced, to ensure that they result in genuine and lasting improvements in practice.

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2.38 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): It is a great privilege to speak in this review of the third sector. I promise the House that in my brief contribution, I shall not stray into anything that could be deemed to be partisan. I am sure that I shall be pulled up if I do.

The UK’s charitable sector is one of this country’s great successes. All of us, wherever we are from, have the right to be deeply proud of it. There is something very British about charities, which do a fabulous job. As the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) so eloquently made clear, they give people an opportunity to engage with their local communities, and they also provide an opportunity for people to engage with the wider world.

I shall not detain the House, but I want to relate a brief family anecdote. My young son was recently part of a team of 196 people who took part in the great north run. Being nine years old, he ran only the two-mile stretch, but the aim of the group as a whole was to raise money for something called Vicky’s Water Project, in memory of 28-year old Vicky Buchanan, who, tragically, was killed last year. They were running collectively to raise money on behalf of ActionAid to support the creation of several clean water projects in Ethiopia, which will save many thousands of lives over the next 50 or 100 years. Between them, the young people—actually, they were not all young; some were as old as 76—raised £403,000. People ask how they can go beyond their community to play their part as global citizens to help the wider world, so it is fantastic that we have charities such as ActionAid and Christian Aid that enable such things to happen.

Locally in Broxbourne, we have the good charity Millennium Volunteers. If I am not mistaken, I think that the Government had something to do with setting it up. I get involved in many of its projects, and it does fabulous work throughout my constituency all year round. We also have Groundwork. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands talked about getting businesses involved in charity, and Groundwork brings together businesses for team-building days and puts them out in the community doing good work in deprived areas, which is to be hugely welcomed. The charitable sector is a great success story for this country, and I hope that it has a long, prosperous and bright future ahead of it.

I question some of the figures relating to volunteers. Like all hon. Members in the Chamber, I spend a lot of time visiting local charities and attending their annual general meetings. It seems to me that the same people often carry out similar roles for different charities, and double or triple up their roles. People who lead charities say that over the past 10 or 20 years, as people have become busier or had different calls on their time, it has become more difficult to recruit volunteers. I hope that Ministers and our Front Benchers—and we in Parliament collectively—can address that situation and ensure that volunteering remains something that people want to do.

The Public Administration Committee, of which I am a member, has been examining the delivery of services in the public sector by charities. I understand why the Government would like to involve charities in the delivery of public sector services because it might represent an attractive new model of delivery. No
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doubt many charities are already doing an excellent job of delivering public services, and those that will be brought into the fold will also do so. However, I would like to focus on some possible downsides. This is not a criticism, but a genuine set of concerns.

There is a danger that a form of corporatisation or nationalisation of charities will rob them of the very essence of what makes them so special. A number of charities, many of which are doing a fantastic job, receive more than 90 per cent. of their income stream from local or national Government. The excellent charity Turning Point readily admitted to the Select Committee that 95 per cent. of its funding came from the Government. One must thus question whether it is still a charity, or whether it has more of the characteristics of a corporate organisation. Such concerns are legitimate because the Charity Commission discovered through research last year that 40 per cent. of charities delivering public sector services did not have a complaints procedure. That is worrying and needs to be addressed, because I know that companies delivering services to the public sector must have a complaints procedure so that people can escalate and feed back their concerns.

I am troubled and slightly concerned that large national charities, with their economies of scale, can squeeze out good local providers that are very much in tune with the needs of their local communities. That is particularly true for the charities in my constituency that deal with alcohol and drug abuse. We have two very good niche charities, Chrysalis and Vale House. They take very different approaches to managing substance abuse, but both provide an excellent service. My concern centres on the fact that when contracts to deal with, say, substance abuse are tendered on a countywide basis, small charities do not have the scope, coverage or expertise to bid for them.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Has my hon. Friend noticed that since primary care trusts got even bigger, there has been a move away from funding micro-organisations? For example, in Southend, the primary care trust used to be contiguous with the borough boundaries, and there was very good cross-working. Now that the PCT is larger, there is a disinclination to commission work from small voluntary organisations and charities.

Mr. Walker: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and I am certainly beginning to come across that problem in Hertfordshire. We have gone from having multiple PCTs to a single PCT, and a number of smaller charities are having their funding cut. It is a concern that large charities win contracts, and as a result squeeze out well-established local providers, who provide a service that is focused on and tailored to the local community. That is not a criticism of large charities and national organisations that provide services, because I am sure that they do a very good job, but we have to make sure that we create a space in which both kinds of organisation can exist.

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