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House of Commons

Wednesday 18 June 2008

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—

Community Resources

1. Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): What support his Department is giving to third sector organisations seeking greater involvement in the management of community resources. [211621]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): Following more than 100 eligible bids, the £30 million community assets programme has been provisionally allocated to 38 projects where third sector organisations will take on under-used assets from local authorities and refurbish and develop them for the benefit of local people. I congratulate everyone involved in the successful bids on their outstanding work, and I look forward to that progress being built on in the forthcoming community empowerment White Paper.

Anne Snelgrove: The university of Bath has sadly pulled out of Swindon, leaving a wonderful campus building at its Oakfield site in my constituency. Many local people believe that it should be turned over to the community as one of its assets. What advice will my right hon. Friend give to local groups and the local authority to enable them to achieve that?

Edward Miliband: This may be one of a number of requests that we receive this morning about local projects. I pay tribute to the organisations that my hon. Friend referred to and suggest that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), who has responsibility for the third sector, meets her to talk about the different funding streams that are available. The £30 million community assets fund has obviously been allocated, and we hope to build on it in the community empowerment White Paper, but a number of other funds, loans and grants are available. As I said, I suggest that my hon. Friend the Minister meets my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) to see whether more can be done.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): May I once again appeal to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to drop the ghastly phrase “third
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sector”? We are talking about volunteers and the voluntary sector. Can we not just stick to plain English?

Edward Miliband: I fear that this is becoming a long-running discussion between the hon. Gentleman and me. I feel like saying, “Answers on a postcard, please, for a term other than ‘third sector’.” As the hon. Gentleman knows, the sector itself has tended to use the term and, as in all things, it is important that the sector owns the way in which it is described. I was at a reception last night held by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and it is moving towards the term “civil society”. I do not know whether that would please the hon. Gentleman any more, but I am sure that we will hear about it in future questions.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Communities are going to have to play an increasingly important part in meeting the Government’s renewable energy targets. In Germany and other continental parts of the European Union, communities have priority access to their grid as generators of their own sustainable energy. In the UK, there is no such priority access and communities can wait for 10 years before they are granted access to the system. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster look at the rules that Ofgem applies to deliver priority access to third sector partners in this renewable energy future?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend is an expert on environmental issues, and we have talked about that issue in the past. He has found an ingenious way of bringing in the issue of feed-in tariffs. Right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government are looking at the matter, and I hope that they will address, and that he will draw to their attention, the issue of community ownership to which he refers.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree with the party manifesto at the previous election that stated:

If he does, will he encourage his colleagues throughout the Government to allow voluntary organisations to take over the running of schools in order to provide a better service to the community?

Edward Miliband: I do agree with our manifesto in all respects. We are dealing with a question precisely about giving community organisations the opportunity to take over buildings from local authorities, in partnership with local authorities. We understand the need for a partnership involving Government funding and community organisations; we do not think it credible to say that voluntary sector organisations can solve the problem all on their own.

Mr. Maude: I am sure that the Minister will have recognised that that quotation was from the Co-operative party’s manifesto at the previous election, of which his colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), is a member. What justification can the Minister provide for the refusal to give parent co-operatives the right to the opportunity to run schools for the good of the community? Given that it is the Conservatives who are now making
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real proposals for co-operatives and other voluntary organisations to manage key community resources, such as schools, will the right hon. Gentleman help to create a cross-party consensus by belatedly supporting the co-operatives that so generously support his hon. Friend?

Edward Miliband: The Co-operative movement not only started on this side of the House, but will be best furthered on this side of the House. As for the right hon. Gentleman’s point about voluntary sector organisations, if we look at the academies programme, the voluntary sector—in many different respects—is involved in schools; and if we think about the trust schools programme that the Government are taking forward, the voluntary sector is involved in that, too. We really will not take any lectures from the right hon. Gentleman about the co-operative movement.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend would be most welcome to come to Plymouth to look at the Co-operative trust school that we are pioneering, along with others in the country. May I say how excited people in Devonport are about the transfer of the Devonport guildhall through the community assets trust programme, but also how disappointed the Plymouth community partnership and Groundwork Trust were that they did not succeed in the great competition for transfer? They were told that that had something to do with not having enough community support, which seems peculiar given that they are the support structure for the community and third sector in Plymouth. Could I discuss that issue with him outside this Chamber—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady must understand that other Members want to come in with supplementaries.

Edward Miliband: Let me pay tribute to all the work that is being done in Plymouth. It is good that the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) is being educated about the role of the Co-op in the trust school that my hon. Friend refers to. I feared that we would have not only successful bidders for the community assets programme but some unsuccessful bidders. If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will suggest that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office follows this up with her and talks about some of the other funding that might be available.

Civil Servants (Social Networks)

2. Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): What progress has been made on providing guidance to civil servants on social networking and blogging in the course of their official duties. [211622]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Tom Watson): No sector of society is immune from the explosion in the use of social media communication tools. In our response to the report “The Power of Information”, the Cabinet Office has today issued a simple set of principles that will help to guide civil servants to speak with an authoritative voice with online communities. I will ensure that the guidelines are placed in the Library. Our next challenge for the power of information taskforce is to develop more detailed guidelines to encourage civil servants to take the first steps to engage with online social networks.

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Mr. Anderson: The Minister will surely agree that the youth culture of today has moved on somewhat from the days when he and I thought that we were going to be Britain’s answer to “The Blues Brothers”— [ Laughter. ] It is true. Will he give an assurance that this is not just about giving people guidelines but ensuring that he has among his staff civil servants who are not just technically but culturally aware of the needs of young people, who use this medium more and more?

Mr. Watson: My hon. Friend has given away our guilty secret about “The Blues Brothers”. I am not going to go there.

There are an incredibly large number of digital pioneers across the civil service—young people who may be junior in status—and one of my jobs is to try to join them all up so that they can enlighten their older counterparts in more senior positions.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Does the guidance to which the Minister refers extend to giving civil servants advice on sending sensitive material to Ministers, and do Ministers have responsibility for checking what they receive?

Mr. Watson: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the guidelines cover civil servants and that no top secret documents will be placed on Facebook.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Have any civil servants been reprimanded or disciplined for blogging?

Mr. Watson: Not for blogging per se, but civil servants must of course adhere to the civil service code online as well as offline.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): The Minister will be well aware that an early alert that senior civil servants were wandering home with key documents without authorisation appeared on the blog “Civil Serf”. Will he confirm that in his guidelines he will not kneecap whistleblowers? Will he give us an assurance that the civil service will not sign up to the national staff dismissal register, which would allow the organisation to blacklist people on the mere suspicion that their conduct might not be attractive?

Mr. Watson: Let me assure the hon. Lady that the challenge for the power of information taskforce is to get our civil servants to engage in online communities in an appropriate manner. Clearly, one of the things that underpins our hard-working public servants is the notion of common sense, and I hope that they will apply that in their online activities as much as their offline activities.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): There is no point in issuing new guidance to civil servants when even Ministers do not follow the existing guidance. In a week when confidential information has been left on trains and on laptops, is the Minister aware that he is responsible not only for creating the rules but enforcing them? When will he stop blaming officials and start laying down the law to his fellow Ministers?

Mr. Watson: The hon. Gentleman well knows that the theft of the laptop from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is the subject of a
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police investigation, but a crime was committed; the laptop was stolen from an alarmed office. He is also aware that there are a number of reviews, and a lot of work has been done across government on information insurance. Underpinning that is the notion that we need enhanced transparency, increased monitoring, improved guidance and better, possibly mandatory, training.

Social Exclusion

3. Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): What steps he is taking to support socially excluded families. [211624]

5. Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): What steps he is taking to support families vulnerable to social exclusion. [211626]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Phil Hope): As we all know, the experience of multiple problems such as poor mental and physical health, homelessness or substance misuse can have a corrosive effect on the life chances of children and adult family members. The social exclusion task force’s families-at-risk review has helped to identify a specific set of innovative services that can make a real difference and improve the lives of vulnerable families. That is being embedded at local level through a new £16 million family pathfinder programme in 15 areas of the country.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for that response, and I am sure he agrees that the family pathfinder project in my constituency is doing a wonderful job in its support for vulnerable families. What discussions is he having with ministerial colleagues about using such projects in a more co-ordinated way to reduce inequality as a means of tackling social exclusion?

Phil Hope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the family pathfinder project in her area will target some of the 100 most vulnerable families. We need to ensure that local services are joined up so that families who are in contact with social services, the education system and the probation system find that those services are working together and understand the family as a whole and how it can be helped. My role in promoting that message across the Government is to work with ministerial colleagues in other Departments to ensure that that basic message of “Think Family” informs all of our policies.

Helen Southworth: The project in my constituency that will provide intensive support to vulnerable families is run by the Children’s Society. The voluntary sector is often a key partner—a trusted friend for people who are really at risk—but it does not have the funding available to mainstream such projects. Will my hon. Friend ensure that there is good and effective evaluation, and that what works in these projects gets mainstream funding so that people continue to benefit?

Phil Hope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She mentions one particular organisation that works with families, and the voluntary sector is extremely good at using a holistic approach—taking a look at the whole family and dealing with the multiple problems that
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families often experience. Working in that way, such organisations can achieve much more than individual agencies can achieve alone. In Warrington, where I know that my hon. Friend works hard to support those third sector organisations, there will be additional help and a new approach. As we learn the lessons about how those interventions can make such a difference, we want to mainstream them, as she says, into the front-line practice of all public services so that the most vulnerable families get the help they need at the right time and in the best possible way.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): May I just correct what the Minister for the Cabinet Office said earlier? The Co-op was formed in Rochdale and is not the preserve of one party in this House.

Has the Parliamentary Secretary had any discussions with the Home Office about the plight of women with no recourse to public funds? Often, they are victims of domestic violence, and because they are often from the Indian sub-continent they are not entitled to any funds. At the moment, there are quite a number of them in a desperate plight.

Phil Hope: I am happy to look into the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, either from a Labour party perspective or a Co-operative party perspective—speaking as a Labour and Co-operative Member. A range of services is provided to reach out to the families most at risk, which work with them in a holistic way, considering the whole family. That process ensures that we examine the impact of issues such as substance misuse or domestic violence, not only on the individual concerned but on other family members, particularly children, who are often unrecognised victims of what is going on in a family.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): But is it not a serious form of social exclusion to deny elderly people access to a post office? Will the Government please intervene in the proposed closure of Underwood post office in Plympton, where there is no bus service to the nearest alternative? Or is it now Government policy that pensioners should be able to afford a taxi?

Phil Hope: I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman, if he has not heard already, that the Government are putting £1.8 billion of subsidy into maintaining the rural post office network and other networks. The Opposition, who are running campaigns locally, have failed to make any commitment whatever to maintaining that level of subsidy to ensure that older people in rural areas can access postal services. [Official Report, 23 June 2008, Vol. 478, c. 2MC.]

Community Assets Programme

4. Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): How he plans to assess the effectiveness of the community assets programme in rural areas. [211625]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): Of the 38 projects being funded through the community assets programme, some are in rural areas, such as the Pelton Fell community resource centre in north Durham and the Wigton market hall project. The evaluation will look at projects from a range of areas, including rural communities, and will report in 2010.

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