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House of Commons

Wednesday 8 October 2008

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

private business


Ordered ,

Oral Answers to Questions

Duchy of Lancaster

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

Social Inclusion

1. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): How he measures levels of social inclusion in rural areas. [224355]

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Liam Byrne): The Government’s strong rural communities programme sets out our goals for those living in rural areas. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs monitors the outcomes of the programme, and our own public service agreement for socially excluded adults requires all local authorities in rural and urban areas to report on outcomes for particularly disadvantaged groups.

Miss McIntosh: I congratulate the Minister and his ministerial team on their appointments, and look forward very much to working with them. Is he aware that in areas such as the Vale of York and rural north Yorkshire there are pockets of rural deprivation that have worsened over the past 10 years? People suffer from feelings of isolation and have poor access to rural transport because of the fact that Yorkshire is the biggest county in the country. What are his proposals to include them more, especially in the delivery of public services across the board? How will he ensure that rural communities get a bigger share of the public budget, compared with urban areas, than they do at the moment?

Mr. Byrne: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her welcome. I want to make three points in response to her question. First, she and the House will be aware of the
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work that the Government are doing to bring decision making in respect of the development of local areas much closer to local communities. Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has brought together plans for housing and for new jobs under the single integrated strategy, and that gives both rural and urban areas much greater latitude and power to drive economic development. Thirdly, the Housing Corporation has set out ambitious plans to make affordable rural housing more widely available. Obviously, the Cabinet Office will retain a very strong interest in the livelihood of those at the bottom, as that is the indicator that we are particularly tasked to monitor, but giving local areas greater power to bring together economic development plans and making sure that councils are backed by the increases in central Government funding that we are providing are absolutely key to making progress on the issues that she has identified.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): May I also congratulate the Minister on his new role? I wish him every success in it. Although free bus travel has been a huge success in rural areas of Wales, including in my constituency of Ynys Môn, many groups of people, including pensioners, still feel isolated. Will he join me in congratulating citizens advice bureaux on the benefit take-up campaign that they are holding this week? I am supporting it, and I am sure that many other hon. Members will too. Does he agree that local authorities across England and Wales have a greater responsibility to make sure that pensioner groups and individual pensioners are aware of all the benefits to which they are entitled, and that each year they should distribute a list of those entitlements with the council tax forms?

Mr. Byrne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his words of welcome. I should like to extend my congratulations to the citizens advice bureaux in his area on the work that they are doing. Many Labour Members are extremely proud of the work that the Government have done over the past 10 or 11 years to lift hundreds of thousands of pensioners out of both absolute and relative poverty. The changes that we have made to pensions and pension credit are central to that progress, but it is vital for everyone in public life to make sure that as many people as possible know what their benefit rights are.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): In extending my warm congratulations and best wishes to the new Chancellor, may I ask him to give the House his definition of the term “social inclusion”?

Mr. Byrne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words of welcome. In the past three or four days, I have been bombarded with so many definitions that I am going to give him a concise estimate by way of correspondence.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): May I congratulate the Minister on his promotion and his elevation to the Privy Council? It is a pleasure to see such a strong west midlands presence in his ministerial team.

I have been working with the community council in Staffordshire to promote social enterprises and businesses such as community shops and community orchards
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that promote social inclusion. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a useful way forward, and does his Department support social enterprises in that sort of work?

Mr. Byrne: The Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), who is not from the west midlands, will have more to say about that a little later in the time we have been given this morning. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) is absolutely right to say that the energy, enthusiasm, enterprise and innovation that the third sector brings to tackling some of these questions is one of our greatest assets in this country. That is why the Government have done so much over the last 10 or 11 years to back those organisations. We have doubled the amount of Government support to them over the past 10 or 11 years. Increasingly, it will be for local communities to find the best ways of working with those organisations, and that is exactly why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has such ambitious plans for devolving power from Westminster and Whitehall to local areas and an expectation that local authorities will delegate power further to local communities.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): The Minister is quite correct. Although housing, better employment opportunities and transport links are vital for rural areas, does he not agree that education is, too? Will he join me in regretting that one of my local schools, serving a wide rural area, the Church Lawton primary school, is being considered for closure in the dying days of Cheshire county council? Will he join me in asking the county council to look again at the matter?

Mr. Byrne: It is not in my brief so I can but guess the political control of the hon. Lady’s county council.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): They have just told you!

Mr. Byrne: Sometimes, I do not need things written down in front of me, with the support I have behind me.

If truth be told, the number of schools in rural areas that have closed over the last 10 years is much smaller than it used to be. Overall, because of the changes we have made over the past 10 or 11 years, education is delivering on average better results in rural schools. Obviously, I shall be happy to look into the case the hon. Lady has brought to my attention and I will consult colleagues in the Government before I write to her.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I add my voice of congratulation to the new ministerial team, and commiserate with the new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on assuming that grandest of office at the very moment it is demoted from the Cabinet.

The new index of deprivation produced for the Government by Oxford university reports that almost 50 per cent. of neighbourhoods across England have markedly deteriorated over the past four years on the measure of geographical deprivation, which is what
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happens when communities are stripped of key local services. Post offices are of course the most devastating loss. More than a quarter of the network has been lost and now we are warned that thousands more will be forced to close if the Post Office loses its contract for the card account. As the Government dither, communities live with uncertainty. Given the impact on social exclusion, what is the Cabinet Office view on the future of the crucial card account, and when on earth will we get a decision?

Mr. Byrne: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his rapid rise through the ranks of his colleagues. He joins a strong Front-Bench team.

If the hon. Gentleman spent a little longer looking at some of the evidence from up and down the country, he would see that people living in both rural and urban areas where there is deprivation have actually become better off over the past few years. That has not happened by accident; it is because of the extra investment that has gone into connecting people with jobs and into education and cutting crime. He brought up the example of Post Office accounts—a subject that has been debated at some length in these parliamentary questions over the past few months. He knows that about £150 million a year in subsidy goes from the Government into the post office network, so perhaps he or one of his colleagues would confirm today whether that policy is supported on the Opposition Benches. I think he would accept that £3.5 million a week in subsidy is not sustainable and that we need to make changes, but making sure that 95 per cent. of the population in both urban and rural areas live within 3 miles of a post office is perhaps an acceptable compromise.

Voluntary Sector

2. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions he has had with Treasury Ministers on support for those working in the voluntary sector; and if he will make a statement. [224356]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Mr. Liam Byrne): I intend to meet Treasury Ministers regularly to discuss a range of issues that affect the third sector.

David Taylor: The current economic downturn disproportionately hurts charities and voluntary organisations in terms of costs, income and staffing. Will the new Minister press Treasury colleagues to introduce early measures to help the third sector, especially in reforming gift aid allowance and approved mileage allowance payments, and so demonstrate to unpaid volunteers the Government’s commitment to help them and not just the exorbitantly rewarded City bankers who fund the Conservative party and who have so recklessly gambled with all our futures?

Mr. Byrne: Many hon. Members represent constituencies that are made substantially better by the work of volunteers and volunteering organisations. The truth is that the voluntary sector enters the current economic circumstances in much more robust health because of the fact that this Government have doubled, from £5 billion to £10 billion, our support for the sector over the past 10 or 11 years. Gift aid is one of the most substantial contributions
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that we have made to that new strength: it is now worth approximately £850 million a year in assistance to the voluntary sector. I am not sure that I shall be able to persuade the Treasury overnight to be any more generous—it made substantial contributions in the transitional allowances given in the last Budget. The key is that we understand what happens to giving and volunteering in the new economic conditions, which is why it is so important that we now have up and running—from 1 October—a new research centre on philanthropy, which is supported by the Government. That will allow us to make decisions based on evidence rather than anecdote.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): One of the delights of the Chancellor’s new post is that he will be able to distribute money from the Duchy of Lancaster funds to voluntary organisations and charities. There is a pot of money there—after the events of the past few days, we hope that it is still there. Will he do all he can to promote that fund, so that we can develop the voluntary sector within the County Palatine?

Mr. Byrne: I am extremely grateful for that advice. I now know where to look for advice on where that money is and what it should be spent on in the years to come.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Over the summer, almost all the volunteer advisers at York CAB resigned over differences they had with the management of the bureau. John Stoker, a former chief charity commissioner, has been asked to review what went wrong. Will the Minister look at the review when it is published, to see what lessons can be learned from it, so that people are encouraged to volunteer?

Mr. Byrne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for championing this matter and bringing it to the attention of Ministers and the House. Although I cannot comment on individual details, I welcome Mr. Stoker’s involvement and hope that his review will lead to a satisfactory resolution.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I, too, join in welcoming the new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to his post. As he will be well aware, the economic recession will put many new demands on voluntary services dealing with those who are financially damaged by the economic turmoil. Will he make sure that the voice of the voluntary sector is heard in the new National Economic Council? At present, voluntary institutions are both losing volunteers and donations and facing increased demands. Will he get behind efforts to ensure that funding does not dry up in this critical period?

Mr. Byrne: The third sector will of course have a voice on the National Economic Council: that voice will be mine. I shall be supported in that work by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan). It is extremely important that we understand exactly what extra demands are being made on the voluntary and third sector in slower economic conditions, and that across Government we understand whether there are lines of funding, such as Futurebuilders, that can be directed in a helpful way. I am glad to be able to tell the
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House that my hon. Friend lost no time in getting together yesterday with about 45 organisations to begin that very conversation.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): As I am sure the Chancellor knows, a quarter of all volunteers work in the sports sector. The Treasury has introduced the CASC scheme, which allows community amateur sports clubs to get tax relief, but there is a campaign to get junior subscriptions exempted from tax and to improve the position in relation to the tax system. Will he use his office to put pressure on the Treasury to introduce some of those measures as soon as possible, to encourage as many volunteers as possible and to encourage young people in particular to get involved in volunteering?

Mr. Byrne: My hon. Friend is a tireless advocate of the sporting sector and of young people. We want to make a number of changes to cut red tape and make the business of administration much easier for the third sector. If I may, I shall spend more time with him in the coming months to make sure that we implement the package that was put together for the last Budget as fast as we can.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): I join in congratulating the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and his colleagues on their appointment, and we look forward to working together to establish common ground wherever we can. On that front, does he share my concern about the fact that v, which the Government set up to channel more than £100 million of public money into stimulating volunteering among young people, is currently commissioning an evaluation of its effectiveness? As the Government’s last volunteering initiative, the Experience Corps, had to be scaled back after an independent assessment of its effectiveness, does he agree that a rigorous independent assessment of v’s effectiveness is needed?

Mr. Byrne: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s welcome, and I look forward to working with him. I suspect that there is common ground between us; it is important that we find it and do our very best to champion causes. In an evaluation of any programme, when efficiencies can be made, it is important that we find that out, so I am more than happy to consider the points that he makes and to explore what there is in them. Of course, if there is room to ensure shared evaluation of projects, that is absolutely what we must ensure.

Mr. Maude: In the Minister’s conversations with the Treasury, will he raise the case of the Catz Club, which accepted that it illegally made donations to the Labour party? Catz Club was dependent on loans from the Cabinet Office quango Futurebuilders to stay afloat. When he has had a chance to look into the issue, will he tell us what role was played by Margaret McDonagh, the former general secretary of the Labour party, who is a director of the Catz Club, and by Amanda Delew, a former Labour party fundraiser who is now the fundraiser for the Catz Club? Can he tell us why the Futurebuilders website has removed all reference to its funding of Catz Club? [Interruption.]

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Mr. Byrne rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster answers, let me say that there is too much private conversation in the Chamber. It is unfair to those hon. Members who are here to listen to these questions and answers.

Mr. Byrne: I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) for bringing that case to my attention. He will know, first, that political parties’ members of staff are entitled to go on and do other things and, secondly, that charitable organisations are regulated by the Charity Commission, rather than by me. However, now that he has brought the case to my attention, I will of course do what I can to review it and to correspond with him.

3. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Government programmes to encourage voluntary work. [224357]

4. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Government programmes to encourage voluntary work. [224358]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Kevin Brennan): A range of Government programmes has encouraged and supported volunteering. The statistics from the 2007-08 citizenship survey show that the proportion of people who volunteered at least once in the past 12 months remains high, at 73 per cent. of all adults.

Mr. David Jones: As a fellow Welsh Member, may I be the first Conservative Member to congratulate the Minister on his preferment? On 7 May this year, his predecessor told the House that the youth volunteering charity, v, had secured pledges of £32 million in match funding from the private sector. A check on the charity’s website this morning revealed that the pledges had not increased; the sum was still £32 million. Is the House to infer from that that the charity is having difficulty securing match funding from the private sector, and what assurances can he give the House that it will meet its target of £45 million?

Kevin Brennan: The direct answer is no, it does not mean that v has stopped raising money. Indeed, it is due to report its latest figures shortly. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman looks forward to that. I also remind him that the £32 million is matched by public funds, so there is £64 million of extra money coming in to help create wonderful youth volunteering opportunities that would otherwise not have existed.

Mr. Mackay: I wish the Minister well in coping with the members of the west midlands mafia on either side of him. I put it to him that, at this time of economic downturn, we have never needed the voluntary sector more. There will be huge responsibilities on his and his colleagues’ shoulders to deliver on promises that were not properly fulfilled by their predecessors.

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