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18 Jun 2008 : Column 933

Mr. Drew: I thank my right hon. Friend for that information. Does he agree that we could all do much more to use the wealth of buildings in rural areas—principally village halls, churches and other community buildings—for a variety of alternative purposes? Is that what the Government have in mind? If so, how does the programme bring those ideas forward?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend speaks a truth that will be apparent to hon. Members in all parts of the House. We all know of places in our constituencies where there are community assets that we do not feel are being properly used and which we would like to be used properly by the community for the benefit of that community. The intention of the programme is to bring together third sector organisations and local authorities, so that together they can play a role in ensuring that the projects are properly used for the benefit of the community. My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that we need to think how we can ensure that not only the community assets programme but other programmes like it properly benefit rural communities. I can assure him that we will be doing that in relation both to the community assets programme and forthcoming announcements.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): If the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster wishes to ensure the more effective use of community assets, will he please work closely with the one organisation that reaches into every community in the country, namely the Church of England?

Edward Miliband: Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the role that religious groups, including the Church of England, can play in providing proper buildings and facilities for the benefit of the local community.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I very much welcome this programme. It is okay to hand over existing schemes, but what encouragement will my right hon. Friend give to local authorities to hand over surplus buildings to community groups, rather than selling them to balance their books?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We face a big challenge. In a way, part of the intention of the programme is to show local authorities—not just those that are successful in applying, with community organisations, for the programme—what they can do by working with the local community. The process is partly one of culture change, saying to local authorities that they can sell assets at below market prices to local community organisations for the benefit of the local community. My hon. Friend makes an important point about a cultural change that we need to build on.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): To what extent has the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster estimated that the transfer of community assets will be used by voluntary organisations as security to attract further investment?

Edward Miliband: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is that the community assets base can make a big difference to voluntary organisations’ ability to borrow or have much greater security of funding. Some of the best examples around the country are where local authorities are partnering with community
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organisations, and perhaps renting out some space—as in a part of my constituency—which provides not only an asset base for the voluntary organisation but a stream of revenue funding.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted that Gorse Covert in my constituency is one of the schemes that will, I hope, be successful and followed through. Following the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) made about local authorities releasing schools, for example, I have two old schools in my constituency that the local authority has sold on. The community wants to get hold of one of them. Is there a way that a partnership can be formed even though the school has already been sold, so that the community can take that asset? Nothing else will be done with it—it will sit there empty and become derelict. Can my right hon. Friend work through the programme to bring those sorts of partnerships together in the future?

Edward Miliband: I congratulate the people and groups in my hon. Friend’s constituency on successfully getting through the first stage of the community assets programme. He raises a wider and important point about how much further this programme could go. I very much agree that we should work with him to look further into the issues he raised.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that statutory bodies should maximise the social value of an asset, not just its financial value?

Edward Miliband: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Part of the challenge is how to incentivise local authorities and others to understand that they should maximise that value. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) earlier, it is partly a process of culture change. Hopefully, the community assets programme will start to show local authorities just what can be achieved by working with local community groups.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned Pelton Fell in my North Durham constituency. Will he join me in congratulating the community, Councillor Steve Barr and Chester-le-Street district council on their involvement in that project and in the wider redevelopment of Pelton Fell, which shows that local authorities working in the local community can actually make a difference?

Edward Miliband: I certainly will join my hon. Friend in congratulating those he mentioned, who did such a brilliant job in bringing forward the bid for Pelton Fell. I was talking to my hon. Friend the other day about what would be happening in his constituency through the Pelton Fell project. It is a very exciting example of how community assets can be the catalyst for transforming a community.

Pensioner Poverty

8. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What steps the social exclusion task force is taking to assess the effects of pensioner poverty on levels of social exclusion. [211629]

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The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): Pensioner poverty and social exclusion are closely linked, which is why measures such as the pension credit and the winter fuel allowance are so important. Together, the measures taken by this Government have taken 900,000 pensioners out of relative poverty since 1998 and increased the incomes of the poorest 20 per cent. of pensioners by about a third in real terms over that period.

Mr. Mackay: Just why in the last financial year for which records are available have 300,000 more pensioners been found in households on low income? How does that help social exclusion?

Edward Miliband: The figures did go up, which is disappointing, but the figures fluctuate from year to year. What I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is that pensioner poverty has gone down, as I said in my answer, by 900,000 since this Government came to power. Why? It has gone down because of the pension credit, which was opposed by the Conservative party; it has gone down because of the minimum income guarantee, which was opposed by the Conservative party; it has gone down because of the winter fuel allowance, which was opposed by the Conservative party. It is only this Government who can take forward plans to keep tackling pensioner poverty in this country.


9. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet representatives of charities to discuss funding. [211630]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Phil Hope): I regularly meet third sector organisations to discuss a range of issues, including funding. Just a couple of weeks ago, I met sector representatives at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations sustainable funding projects annual gathering, and later today I will address similar issues at the annual Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations funding road show. The Government are committed to a thriving third sector and we now have unprecedented levels of funding and support in place. Public funding for the third sector has more than doubled in real terms from less than £5 billion in 1997 to more than £10 billion in 2004-05.

Mr. Bellingham: Has the Minister seen today’s report stating that the current economic downturn could add another £2.5 billion to the 2012 Olympics budget, taking it to a staggering four times above the original estimate? Does he agree that that will lead to a very damaging diversion of the Big Lottery Fund from the charitable sector to the Olympics?

Phil Hope: No, the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. This Government have preserved the third sector’s proportion of funding from the Big Lottery Fund. Indeed, it is the Conservative party that proposes to take £200 million away from voluntary organisations. This Government can be proud of their record in supporting the third sector with an unprecedented level of funding, which will make a huge difference to third sector organisations up and down the country.

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Community Facilities

10. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): What steps he is taking to give third sector organisations greater involvement in the management of the community buildings and facilities they use. [211631]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave to Question 1.

Mr. Marsden: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that schools, and their extended use, are a key part of community assets? Does he also agree that a lack of flexibility in the rental and the restrictive covenants is sometimes placed on schools by local authorities? Will he consider the value of his Department issuing guidance to local authorities, particularly in respect of the extended hours use of schools, so that community organisations can be better involved?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the range of community assets in this country, which could be used better for the benefit of the wider community. We will certainly endeavour to take up that issue with the Department concerned. The other thing I would say to him is that sometimes the restrictions are in place because of Charity Commission rules. It is also important to note that in recent years the Charity Commission has shown flexibility about how those rules mean that local assets can be used for the benefit of local people.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [211606] Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 18 June.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the families and friends of Lance Corporal James Bateman and Private Jeff Doherty from the Parachute Regiment, who were killed in Afghanistan last week, and to the families and friends of four members of our armed forces whose tragic deaths took place yesterday and have been announced this morning. They were undertaking the most difficult missions in the most dangerous of countries. Our thoughts are with our forces and their families, not just now but at all times.

Our troops are second to none, the best in the world. They are on the noblest of missions. They are fighting for freedom for the Afghans in their own country, and for the world in protecting us from terrorism. This House and this country are proud of them all.

This morning, I had meetings with colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

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Mr. Illsley: I am sure that the whole House will want to be associated with my right hon. Friend’s comments.

While I very much welcome the Government’s recent announcement on free swimming for the over-60s and, eventually, for children, is my right hon. Friend aware that many leisure trusts and sports centres throughout the country face retrospective VAT bills on concessionary leisure passes? Any extension of that facility will mean an increased tax burden. Will he look again at the issue of VAT and sports centres to prevent a worthwhile policy from being undermined by the unforeseen tax consequences?

The Prime Minister: A few days ago, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced £140 million to boost sport and fitness. That included free swimming for the over-60s and a challenge fund to encourage local authorities to offer free swimming to under-16s. That never happened for all the years that the Conservatives were in government.

Councils can reclaim any VAT incurred providing free swimming lessons to under-16s or over-60s. Paid swimming lessons provided by local authorities are exempt from VAT and local authorities do not charge VAT on most block bookings by clubs or schools for sporting activities, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to look at any other aspect of the issue that he wants to raise.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance Corporal James Bateman and Private Jeff Doherty of 2 Para, who were killed on Thursday, and of course in honouring the memory of the four soldiers killed yesterday. When people ask us why we are sending our young men and women to fight and possibly die in the heat and dust of Afghanistan, let us be absolutely united in saying that their fight is our fight. This is a fight against terrorism and extremism—not just in Afghanistan—that affects the safety of our streets and our way of life too.

On the one hand, there are more roadside and suicide bombs in Helmand province; on the other, there are reports today of Taliban activity in Kandahar province, where Britain also has substantial commitments. Will the Prime Minister give his latest assessment of what is unfolding in southern Afghanistan?

The Prime Minister: Last week, I talked to the House about how the operations in Afghanistan were changing. On Monday, the Secretary of State for Defence announced to the House of Commons additional troops that we are sending to Afghanistan. The fact is that we have made great progress against the Taliban and the fact is also that their tactics have changed considerably. They are no longer fighting as an army; they are fighting as an insurgency. That is why we are seeing mines, roadside bombs and, indeed, suicide bombs. We are seeing Iraqi-style tactics practised by the Taliban in Afghanistan. That is why we are reordering the way our forces work in Afghanistan and why also we are taking new equipment to Afghanistan, as was announced by the Defence Secretary on Monday. I believe that we are well equipped in Afghanistan and will be better equipped in the months to come to deal with this new problem.

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That being said, I think that we are also making progress on economic and social development in Afghanistan, trying to give more powers to local people to run their own affairs and trying to persuade the central Government to tackle corruption, and of course to tackle the drugs trade with greater rigor and with greater determination.

So our strategy in Afghanistan is to deal with the insurgency. It is to make it possible for Afghan soldiers and the police to be trained by British and other forces, and to use the support of the 40 other countries that are working with us in Afghanistan and the 80 countries that have supported us in the new plan for Afghan national development. The strategy is more and more that Afghans will take responsibility for their own affairs.

Mr. Cameron: I am very grateful for that answer. Obviously, the Prime Minister is absolutely right to say that this is a counter-insurgency campaign. Does not all the evidence of the past show that in order to defeat a counter-insurgency campaign we need complete unity of command? At the moment we have the NATO-led ISAF command and the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom command, and there is always a risk of their pulling in different directions. As the Prime Minister knows, I have raised this matter many times before. I know how aware of it he is and that he is trying to ensure that we get it right for the future. Can he tell us what progress is being made in turning them into one single, unified command?

The Prime Minister: We are working very closely on that. The right hon. Gentleman will have seen on Monday the further announcement made by the Secretary of State about the command in future years. I think, however, that the biggest challenge we face is to link military and civilian action. That is why I have been trying to persuade the Germans to take a bigger role in the training of police. They have now increased the number of police trainers available in Afghanistan. We want a corrupt-free police who are capable of doing their job. That is why in Paris last Monday there was huge international support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and the need to give people in Afghanistan a stake in the future—to move them away from the drugs trade, to have successful agriculture, to build the dam that will increase the irrigation that is necessary, and to build local businesses not just in Kabul but around the country.

I stress to the right hon. Gentleman that changes are being made to the military command, which have been announced, but we must also back up the civilian effort, which is the key to giving Afghan people a stake in their future. The soldiers who died and the members of our armed forces who have given their lives gave their lives with great professionalism and courage. As all the House is saying, they have died for a noble cause, and the freedoms that we have in Britain are in no small part due to the fact that we have taken on the Taliban in Afghanistan and refused to allow them to break the democracy of Afghanistan.

Mr. Cameron: I am grateful for that answer. The Prime Minister says that changes are being made and I hope that we can have a regular update on how the unified command will be brought about and when, and on how we can see progress on that.

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