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18 Oct 2007 : Column 1028

I mentioned MPs and their involvement in charities earlier, though last weekend was one of the few in which I did not visit a charity—but Age Concern came to visit me, which was a pleasure. The charities in Rochford and Southend, East tend to be hubbed around RAVS and SAVS—Rochford Association of Voluntary Services and Southend Association of Voluntary Services. I suspect that that is similar to what the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) described within her constituency. Such voluntary service associations can be very useful, particularly in overcoming some of the core problems in the charity sector which have been discussed, including those to do with training, long-term finance, the provision of buildings, core funding and having a degree of continuity over time.

One charity particularly worthy of mention in Southend is the Southend Fund. I mention it not because of the good work it does, but because of its structure. It was initially pump-primed with a sum of about £100,000 by a mayoral fund four or five years ago, and that has subsequently been added to by other mayors and mayoresses of Southend. The principle behind the charity is to make micro-donations to small organisations—particularly those that are, perhaps, associations rather than pure charities. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) referred to this topic. That is a sensible way forward, not least because it reduces bureaucracy. The Southend Fund does not have any full-time staff; the management of the fund—which amounts to about £250,000—is conducted through the Essex Community Foundation. Very effectively and with little administrative cost, it makes a big difference to organisations such as South East Essex Advocacy for Older People, the YMCA locally, the stroke club and hospital radio. The fund has a major impact without having much bureaucracy.

There has also been a debate about whether small or big is good, and whether local or national is good. In his introductory remarks, the Minister for the Cabinet Office said that small was not always best, but I think that local is best. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) suggested that Age Concern bridges those gaps by being a national organisation but with local offices.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) talked about problems to do with funding via the Government and primary care trusts to charities that provide specific functions. I am concerned that the expansion of the PCT in Southend will lead to a decrease in public sector utilisation of local charity provision.

However, I support the idea of a deep relationship between the public sector and the so-called third sector—or, specifically, charities. Charities can be much more effective than the public sector in delivering locally. There is a good example in Southend. The PCT funded “Growing Together”, a garden area where people with mental health problems grow produce and sell it on. That is a very effective project. I would like there to be more such funding, rather than PCTs and central Government trying to get a one-size-fits-all solution for the country or a region.

I have a concern about greater Government funding: I am unsure what the tipping point is. The hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) discussed the funding of charities and whether there is a point when it
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becomes difficult for organisations to be independent of central Government. I think that that tipping point stands at about 50 per cent. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne mentioned charities that are 90 per cent. funded by Government money. That is too high; such a large proportion of Government funding and influence means that there is too much crossover between the charity sector and the public sector. It also leads to me thinking that some of the people I speak to at the local level have, as it were, two hats on—a quasi-private sector hat to do with the provision of services and another one as an independent volunteer.

I recently met a constituent who wanted more interaction with my local authority, and wanted me to assist. He said, “They only want to consult; I want to be involved.” When I asked what was the difference between consultation and involvement, he said, “Three hundred pounds.” The point was that one process constituted a consultation for which he would wear his voluntary sector hat, while the other constituted involvement through the same organisation. I think we should be a little careful about some of these arrangements, especially as they affect the smaller charities in our various areas.

As for large charities, I am worried about the extent to which they are taking on a momentum of their own at national level and becoming somewhat detached from their local organisations. I recently saw the post of director of fundraising and finance for a big and reputable national charity advertised in a newspaper. The salary offered was £80,000. While I recognise the need for professionalism, that is a long way from the fundraising activities of the charity in Southend.

The Minister spoke of getting public servants more involved in charities, and there has also been discussion about providing small blocks of time for people in the private sector to become more involved. Perhaps there could be long-term secondments for both civil servants and private-sector individuals to assist charities with some of their core functions—such as finance—which require a large amount of technical expertise, although it is possible that if they went into the charitable sector for only a short time, they might add much more value than if they remained there for a long period.

I was interested to hear about asset transfers to the third sector from both central and local government. I hope the Government will make it much easier for councils to make such transfers, perhaps consulting the asset books to see what is available. We should also take a good look at ourselves as a nation, and ask why the United Kingdom donates only 0.7 per cent. of gross domestic product while America, for instance, donates an amount closer to 2 per cent. I think that part of the reason is the tax system.

Several Members on both sides of the House have mentioned gift aid. It seems sensible to treat all money received by a charity as money that could be subject to gift aid—as having come from earned income rather than other forms of income, and thus subject to tax relief. That would be a bold deregulatory move; it would also be a bold move in that it would give money to charities that our citizens are already endorsing by donating to them, rather than the money being taken in taxation and redistributed either to the general public purse or in the third sector specifically.

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Members have referred to lottery funding and concern about the Olympics. I believe that the lottery will become increasingly discredited if we stretch lottery money further and further into provision of public services, and I hope the Minister will state clearly where that development will stop. I also know that many organisations do not support gambling of any kind. Methodist churches, for instance, have problems because nowadays most funding seems to come from lotteries.

I mentioned earlier that I had been a member of the Committee considering the Charities Bill. The Minister in the Committee was very helpful in resolving issues related to trustees, but a number of concerns were expressed about the public benefit test and private schools. We were unable to convince the Minister in the Committee of the merits of our case in relation to private schools, but I can tell the Minister who is here now that there is still concern, despite extensive consultation with the Charity Commission. In Southend, certainly, schools are concerned about the level of provision. Some are concerned about over-provision in the community—which is not necessarily a bad thing—and some about the opposite, but many are simply talking about the legislation and what they should be doing. That is not the point of the operation: they should be getting on with things, in a clearly defined way.

I am especially passionate about charities involved in the international sector. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) mentioned ActionAid and Ethiopia. After a visit to that country, I know that the charity does some fantastic work.

We need to do an awful lot more in the third world, and to raise charities’ profile in this country so that it is acceptable for people to donate money. I went to a Methodist church last week, and found that it had a very interesting system. Young children went around and collected money for the third world, but only 80 per cent. of the donations were used to that end. The remaining 20 per cent. was devoted to UK charities, and that seemed a sensible way of overcoming the argument that we should look after people in this country as well as sending money overseas.

Finally, without becoming over party political, I want to enter the fray in respect of political campaigning. I do not approach this matter from a legislative perspective, but I was interested in what the hon. Member for Lewes said about Tibet. He described how an organisation had effectively split into two parts, one to campaign and the other to provide relief. Personally, I should be happy to donate money to both groups, but the hon. Gentleman was using that as an example of how it is inefficient to set up two organisations.

However, I believe that charities would receive more money if that model were adopted more widely. Certainly I should be prepared to donate to a broader group of charities if it were. For example, if I put money into an AIDS charity, I would prefer all of it to be used to provide retroviral drugs; I would not want it to be used to pay for a glossy leaflet, which would simply end up back on my desk, saying that the Government should do more. There is a case that the Government should do more about AIDS, and also a case that that argument should be funded via charities—but personally, I would not want to fund that.

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3.57 pm

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): I also welcome the report on the role of the third sector in social and economic regeneration. I believe that it may be the first 10-year plan to be brought forward in this area, and the fact that it has happened so quickly is very impressive.

Swindon has a thriving and innovative third sector, comprising both local and national charities, and social enterprises. Like many other hon. Members, I want to use local examples to illustrate the richness of the third sector and to describe its successes and the challenges that it faces. The 10-year vision articulated in the report provides local government and national Government with an invaluable opportunity to strengthen the sector and to ensure that it is truly knitted into the fabric of our society, rather than seen as an option or an add-on, as it sometimes is.

Our vibrant Swindon economy provides an ideal British base for many international companies, such as Zurich, Motorola and MAN ERF, which makes articulated trucks. We are also home to Nationwide, the biggest building society and mutual society in the world. Only this week, representatives of that company came to the House of Commons to launch its road safety campaign, “Cats Eyes for Kids”. On Sunday, it sponsored the Swindon half-marathon, which in turn raised money for our local Prospect hospice. Nationwide is an excellent local firm that provides local help for local charities. We in Swindon also make the Civic, Honda’s latest success story, and Swindon Pressings supplies the bodywork for the Mini.

All those local companies not only fulfil their responsibilities to the national and international communities through corporate social responsibility programmes, but support our third sector through financial help and workplace giving schemes. They also enable their employees to take part in local volunteering. Their activities truly strengthen our local community—as covered in a key section of the report.

As a contrast to our economic success, however, Swindon also has two of the most deprived estates in the country and, as in any town, some individuals and families live in poverty. Health inequalities mean that life expectancy on those estates is as much as 10 years lower than in neighbouring wealthier areas. While our school and college results have improved over the past 10 years, sadly there are those who do not have the high skills required by Swindon’s international IT and top management companies. Others are out of work for a variety of other reasons. We are an asylum dispersal centre, and local support for asylum seekers is extremely limited. Drug and alcohol abuse exists in Swindon, as it does in any similar conurbation. We absorb the homeless from surrounding market towns because our third sector makes provision for the homeless, including the young homeless.

I have given a thumbnail sketch of Swindon, because it demonstrates not only its local capacity, but our locality’s absolute need for vibrant third sector involvement. Such involvement is not a desirable option, but a necessity, and is not to take the place of the state, but to work alongside it.

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Of course, the third sector is ideally placed to provide innovative solutions and tailored local provision. It can move quicker than central and local government. It attracts to its work force, and as volunteers, many gifted and dedicated people who are highly motivated to make their community a better place. By concentrating solely on a single issue or sector, it can see more clearly what needs to be done. I was thus pleasantly surprised by the report’s emphasis on the importance of the third sector’s role in campaigning and providing a voice, especially to disadvantaged groups. I was pleased about the new funding to promote community participation and the significant sums to back that up.

There is a difference between political and party political. I hope that the capacity building that the Minister has announced will cover local councils and councillors, because I believe that my local council does not have the political maturity to cope with the third sector campaigning or showing dissent. I worry about councils withdrawing funding from organisations that they see as not agreeing with them or having the cheek—as it is perhaps perceived in some cases—to campaign against a council decision. I have lost count of the number of local charities and not-for-profit organisations that have come to me with tales of woe about money being withdrawn, but asked me not to do anything in public because the council had warned them that my intervention would lead to the withdrawal of funds. That is extremely sad and disappointing.

Several hon. Members have mentioned gift aid, but I want to talk about something slightly different: this year’s 20th anniversary of payroll giving in the UK. Payroll giving is the most efficient way in which higher rate taxpayers can give to charity, yet only 2 per cent. of UK workers give in that way. Alongside the actions that come out of the third sector report, I hope that Ministers will campaign to promote payroll giving, because it has so much potential to bring the private sector closer to the third sector. In my experience, companies that promote payroll giving go on to promote volunteering and company funding of local third sector activities.

Payroll giving is a simple, tax-efficient scheme that allows employees to give to any charity that they choose through a deduction straight from their gross pay. It takes just half an hour for a company to fill in the two forms required to implement the scheme. There is no tax for the charity to claim back, because the deduction is automatic. Through organisations such as Workplace Giving UK, a higher rate taxpayer can give £25 to charity every month at a cost of only £15. The same donation made through gift aid would result in the charity losing £5.77 through tax.

“The Business of Giving”, a report by the Giving Campaign, found that 96 per cent. of companies with payroll giving in place thought that a good employer should offer such a scheme. Some 83 per cent. said that it was simple for staff to join the scheme and 79 per cent. said that it was easy to run. Other findings were that payroll giving improved company image, staff morale, and staff recruitment and retention. Research by Oxfam and YouGov found that a third of British employees would give an average of £9.60 a month through their salary if they knew how to do it. That
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equates to an annual total of nearly £1 billion. Surely we can help to release some of those funds. I invite hon. Members to join in with workplace giving, because we can donate through our payroll scheme.

James Duddridge: As the hon. Lady knows, I had the privilege of visiting her constituency this summer, and at an event I sat next to the leader of her local council. I am sure that, despite the political divide, he would be distraught if applications were not supported simply because there was a Labour MP. I was about to say that applicants should not be further disadvantaged, but I will try not to be party political. Will the hon. Lady assure the House that she will write to the leader of her local council about the allegations, giving as much detail as she can, so that the council can follow the matter through and make sure that the problem that she describes does not happen? It would be completely unacceptable if it did.

Anne Snelgrove: I am glad to hear that. I have already raised the issue in private. I think that the leader of the council, Councillor Bluh, would be horrified if applications were not supported for the reasons that I set out, but unfortunately other members of his party would not necessarily be as horrified. I have taken up that issue and a number of others. It makes me extremely angry that charities and not-for-profit organisations still come to me with that problem. I will not release those charities’ names as a matter of honour, in case they are punished further. They have asked me not to give their names, and I cannot do anything about that unless they give me permission to name them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will use his influence with the other people in his party.

To return to payroll giving, one company that knows about the benefits of the scheme is Barclays, which has an office and branches in my constituency, and which celebrates 20 years of payroll giving next month. They work in partnership with the charity Leonard Cheshire on its “ready to start” programme for disabled entrepreneurs. Disabled clients receive equipment, training and support, and are matched with a mentor from Barclays. It is an excellent scheme, and at the end of September Swindon became the 27th place in which it has been rolled out.

At the launch, I was inspired by two different things: first, by the enthusiasm of the “Barclays buddies” for the task that they were about to start; and secondly by the description that Liz, a wheelchair user, gave of her business start-up, which was made possible by the “ready to start” business mentoring scheme. Liz now runs a part-time business, offering bed and breakfast to fellow disabled people in her bungalow in Poole. The business is so successful that she has bookings for all but two weeks this year. The business not only allows Liz to be defined by her abilities, rather than her disability, but increases her income and provides her with more independence. Leonard Cheshire’s 60 years of experience in working with disabled people, plus Barclays’s business expertise, means that they are ideal partners to deliver that important scheme. They are also delivering on an important aspect of Government policy, which is to help people on disability and incapacity benefits back to work.

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There are many examples of companies in my constituency that give a strong lead on volunteering and supporting the third sector. I apologise to them for not being able to mention them all. However, as I said before, there are difficulties, and I want to raise the case of a charity that collapsed recently through the local council’s lack of support—I am sorry to say that, because I know that the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) will be cross to hear it. There was a good local youth service called Youth Information Swindon, which closed in September this year despite almost universal praise for its work with disaffected and hard-to-reach young people. I give hon. Members my word of honour that I raised the matter in private with the leader and chief executive of the local council as recently as about four weeks ago.

YIS provided support and training for young people aged 14 to 25, many of whom faced social exclusion, and many of whom were not in education, employment or training. Funding initially came from the borough council, as the council felt that it was important to have information and support services for young people in the centre of the town—and good on them for thinking that. However, in March this year, the council decided not to renew the service level agreement. Without the council’s support, it was difficult, if not impossible, for the charity to secure enough funding from other bodies to remain sustainable. The charity collapsed in August. I reflect on the sudden pulling of funding, and I welcome the three-year pledge in the report. I hope that the Minister will press councils to take that up as well.

As well as having a drop-in centre in the town, YIS carried out a wide range of outreach work. It ran anger management and “Get Confident” courses for young people that have been praised not just in Swindon, but elsewhere. YIS also ran various workshops that engaged those difficult to reach young people. The young people involved often faced a complex range of social disadvantage and they were given the opportunity to engage in activities in a supportive environment. YIS received many referrals from the probation service, the youth offending team, the youth service and schools and colleges.

Smaller groups like YIS often do not have the funds to employ fundraisers. It is almost impossible to deliver the work of the organisation and secure enough funds to remain sustainable. Greater financial support is desperately needed for community based organisations so that they can continue with their important work. The collapse of YIS leaves us poorer as a community. Now that the people who ran YIS are dispersed throughout the community, it will not be possible to rejuvenate it.

I know that time is pressing, but I want to mention briefly another issue in my town: asylum seekers. We have the Harbour project, which nestles in the shelter of a church in the centre of Swindon. It truly provides a safe harbour for the many people whom it helps. It has been in existence for seven years and an almost incredible number of visits are made to the drop-in centre—3,800 in the year to April 2007, compared with 829 in the same period to April 2003. Those visits are made by people from more than 60 countries across the world, representing many languages and faith groups. There is virtually nothing else for asylum seekers between Reading and Bristol.

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