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House of Commons

Wednesday 12 December 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Duchy of Lancaster

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Third Sector

1. Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the contribution of the third sector to the development of social policy; and if he will make a statement. [173050]

St. Theodore’s church—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister must answer the hon. Lady’s main question before she puts a supplementary question to him.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): Through its 160,000 charities, 55,000 social enterprises and 20 million volunteers, the third sector makes an enormous contribution to our society. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope)—who is responsible for the third sector—will announce today that the Community Development Foundation is to run a new £130 million grass-roots grants programme to improve funding for the smallest organisations that are the lifeblood of our local communities, and I hope that it will be welcomed throughout the House.

Mr. Speaker: Now. St Theodore’s church?

Mrs. Moon: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I spoke too soon because I am so excited about the fact that, in my constituency, the Mothers’ Union has just celebrated its 85th birthday in St Theodore’s church. It has completed 85 years of championing social change and progress, helping young people to develop alternatives to temptations in the world of drugs and alcohol, offering parenting skills, teaching numeracy and literacy and, now, providing parental support for prisoners in my local prison. Does my right hon. Friend agree that organisations such as the Mothers’ Union are essential to social change and progress in this country?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We all need diversions from temptation, and it is very important that the Mothers’ Union is providing them. My hon. Friend also makes a serious point about the diversity of the activities in which third-sector organisations engage, helping people in innumerable different ways. We want to find ways of encouraging that. Governments
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do not create the dynamism that comes from organisations such as the Mothers’ Union, but they can help, and that is the point of the small-grants programme that we have announced today.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): I think that everyone will praise the contribution made by the voluntary sector in all parts of society in the United Kingdom, but there is an increasing problem in that the population is growing older, and younger and middle-aged people are not volunteering at all. How do the Government propose to surmount that difficulty?

Edward Miliband: I know that the hon. Lady takes a close interest in voluntary sector issues, and she is right to say that we need to do what we can to encourage young people to volunteer. That is the point of the arm’s length organisation v, funded but not run by Government, which is creating new volunteering opportunities for young people all over the country. It has created 200,000 so far, and is on the way to creating a million.

As the hon. Lady says, we need to encourage that culture of volunteering among both young people and middle-aged people, among whom I count myself. She will be pleased to learn that v is doing that, and I hope that it will be doing some work in her constituency.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that those in the voluntary sector have been pioneers in developing policy and helping the Government to do so? I think especially of the hospice movement. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the work of George Thomas hospice in my constituency, which of course is named after a former Speaker?

Edward Miliband: I too congratulate the hospice on its work in my hon. Friend’s constituency. She has made an interesting point about the way in which the voluntary sector can add to the great work done by the public services—in this case, the national health service. There is always a need to ensure that it does not replace public spending, and the Government’s approach is that it is not an excuse for them not to fund public services properly; but throughout the country, in many different ways, voluntary organisations add to the work that the public services do.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): The Minister is trying to hustle the Charity Commission into allowing the establishment of charities whose main activity is political campaigning. The Smith Institute, a registered charity, recently issued a publication that stated

[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Labour Members make my point for me. Does the Minister think that political statements of that kind enhance or undermine public confidence in charities?

Edward Miliband: I have never been a hustler, and I am not about to start now. The question of individual charities is for the Charity Commission and not for me.

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Campaigning by voluntary sector organisations is a live issue between those on the Front Benches. Our position is clear: we believe that third-sector organisations should be able to campaign for changes in the law in support of their charitable objectives. They have told us that the guidance is unclear, which is why we are pleased that the Charity Commission is rewriting its guidance.

I find it sad that the hon. Gentleman is, in a way, engaged in a personal crusade to return to the position taken by the Conservative party in the 1980s—one of hostility to campaigning by the voluntary sector. We want never to return to those days, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see reason.

Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): I would like to hustle the Minister straight away. He mentioned the £130 million grass-roots grant. How can charitable organisations in my constituency, such as cricket and rugby clubs and the hospice movement, apply for that? To ensure that there is dynamism, will the application process be free of significant bureaucracy?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend raises a big challenge for Government, and it is important that we meet it. Let me briefly say something about the way the scheme will operate. The money will be distributed by the Community Development Foundation, not centrally to local organisations in his constituency, but to local partner organisations who know the circumstances on the ground. We hope that by the middle of next year, when those partners have been chosen, organisations such as those in my hon. Friend’s constituency will be able to apply for the money. I hesitate to say this, but we will make good on this promise: there should be as light a touch as possible in the application process, because that approach is incredibly important for the smallest organisations in the country.

Cross-departmental Co-ordination

2. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): How he measures the performance of his Department in co-ordinating the Government’s programme across departments. [173051]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Gillian Merron): The Department’s performance is measured in a number of ways, which include tracking progress against the Department’s new public service agreements on adult exclusion and service transformation, the Department’s strategic objectives and the programme of capability reviews across government.

Mr. Bone: With the Government’s programme in disarray, the Treasury staggering from crisis to crisis, the Home Office not fit for purpose and the Ministry of Defence not doing its job, if this were a football club would not the manager be getting the sack?

Hon. Members: It is Sven.

Gillian Merron: I am delighted to receive such an appropriate question from such an appropriate Member, but I am afraid that I cannot agree with his description of the Government. I can assure him and the whole
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House that we have stretching targets. We are not satisfied with where we are, but what I recognise are the statistics and results for people, such as on child poverty—600,000 have been lifted out of poverty—and the fact that millions of people are benefiting from new tax credits and benefits to support children, and that children are doing better in education than they have done for many a year. I assure the House that through Ministers and Departments working together and through the work of Cabinet and Cabinet Committees and the delivery unit, we have a robust system to check constantly our progress on how we are delivering. For the first time, this Government have brought in a rigorous process of capabilities reviews to check and address Departments’ capacities to deliver. I hope the hon. Gentleman will support such moves.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): One of the Cabinet Office’s key responsibilities across government is information security. In June, it received the Coleman review of Government information assurance, which stated in clear terms that

Will the Minister tell us which Minister in the Cabinet Office read that report and what steps were taken in response to it?

Gillian Merron: That question was put to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and was answered yesterday, but let me reassure the House that trust in our systems is of course absolutely paramount. The report referred to was indeed a useful contribution to the national information assurance strategy, which was published on 27 June. I also assure the House that we constantly review our whole strategy. Technology moves on, and the Cabinet Secretary will conduct a review that will report shortly on data handling in Departments and agencies—and may I suggest that we could usefully turn to that?

Mr. Maude: I think that we can take it from that answer that no Minister read that important report. Does not the fact that just months later half of the country’s personal data were lost because of atrocious information security systems—in a department cobbled together by the Treasury when the Minister for the Cabinet Office was a key adviser in the Treasury—show a shocking lack of grip and competence, and should not the Minister for the Cabinet Office be spending less time writing manifestos for bottled elections and more time running the Department he is paid by the taxpayer to run?

Gillian Merron: I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman feels that way. I have described to the House what is a robust and rigorous system. Of course, no Government could give the assurance that in every case everything will turn out right. If the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that his Government could have done that, I would be interested to hear that. We should be looking forward. The Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Secretary to conduct a thorough review across government and all the Departments and agencies that handle data. That report will be published shortly. Parliament will be well advised of it, and I
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think the right hon. Gentleman would be well advised to await the outcome of that review—to look forward rather than back.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Should not the Cabinet Office be rather more effective and proactive across government in reducing the Government’s overall carbon footprint? Is the Minister aware of last week’s National Audit Office report, which showed that performance against Government targets for reducing carbon emissions is poor and that electricity consumption has rocketed? Is it not time that we had a little less greenwash from the Cabinet Office and a bit more effectiveness, so that it puts its own green house in order?

Gillian Merron: It might help if I were to remind the House that we are the first Government to publish a climate change Bill, and I hope that we will be given full support on that. It would also be useful if we were to remind ourselves that the Cabinet Office’s role is to support Cabinet and Cabinet committees—that includes a range of issues—to co-ordinate emergency and crisis response, and to strengthen the civil service’s capability. We are talking about the National Audit Office, so perhaps I could do no better than to quote its recent report about the Cabinet Office. The report said that in helping to meet targets on the Government’s programme of priorities, the Cabinet Office has

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that.

Social Exclusion

3. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on Government policy on families at risk of social exclusion. [173052]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): Following work with eight Departments, early in the new year we will publish the second part of the families at risk review. Its starting point is that investment in families, which has seen child poverty fall by 600,000, must be backed up by better services, including those for adults. So we will work with local authorities to ensure that whether it is in relation to health, housing or criminal justice, the needs and interests of the family as a whole are better recognised.

Mr. Love: As the Minister has mentioned, over the past 10 years we have taken 600,000 children out of poverty. However, we face major difficulties in delivering on our targets for 2010 and 2020. What more can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that we reach those targets in the time scales envisaged?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend rightly says that we have made important progress since 1997—taking 600,000 children out of relative poverty at a time when incomes are growing is an important achievement—but we have a lot further to go. We need to do three things. First, we need to continue to raise the incomes of people in poverty. Secondly, we must do more to encourage people in poverty to go into work—the announcements by my right hon. Friend the Secretary
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of State for Work and Pensions are designed to do that, including for single parents. Thirdly, we need to improve services. The children’s plan, which was published yesterday, and the measures that we will take in January to help families at risk will all contribute to that. We have a strategy to carry on tackling child poverty and to build on the progress that we have made.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The lack of decent social housing for vulnerable groups and families at risk of social exclusion is a particularly poignant problem at this time of year. What will the Minister do to ensure improved co-ordination between all Departments so that we can deliver better on that problem?

Edward Miliband: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the issue of substandard housing is important. I believe I am right in saying that, since 1997, 1 million children have been taken out of substandard housing through the investment that we have made. I hope that he will support our plans to build 3 million homes over the coming years. I am afraid that some councils—obviously this is not a party political point—oppose those measures. I hope that he will join us in pledging to build 3 million homes over the coming years.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Many thousands of low-income families in this country do not have cars and live in isolated communities where there is poor public transport. They have some access to financial services through post offices, but they will no longer have that access in the months to come. Will the Minister have a word with his ministerial equivalent in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, particularly in respect of tightening up the framework on closures where the post office is the only shop in the village? Such closures will plunge thousands of families into social exclusion.

Edward Miliband: The consultation on local post offices is ongoing, and I know that we subsidise those offices to the tune of some £150 million a year. The other point that my hon. Friend makes is about the quality of bus services needed to get people to where they want to go. The Local Transport Bill is so important because it will improve bus services significantly outside London.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Are not some of the families most at risk from social exclusion those who have to deal daily with the Child Support Agency and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on tax credits? This is not a political point, but is there anything that the Minister can do to improve the bureaucratic performance, especially of HMRC, so that families that are already hard pressed financially do not also have to suffer the stress of grappling with that faceless bureaucracy week in, week out, which only adds to their many difficulties?

Edward Miliband: There is always more to be done to improve the performance of departments such as the CSA and HMRC in delivering a good service. All of us see that in our local surgeries. The CSA is being reformed, and tax credits have helped millions of
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families, but that is no excuse for bad administration. We need to do more to improve matters, and that is what is going to happen.

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