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House of Commons

Wednesday 14 January 2009

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—

Power of Information Task Force

1. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to encourage greater consultation with individuals and local communities on shaping public policy and services through its work on the power of information task force. [246511]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Tom Watson): As the web approaches its 20th anniversary, we can all see that the internet is driving changes in expectations about Government, business and social life—changes that large institutions of all kinds have struggled to cope with in the past. However, the fog of uncertainty about how the internet can help us all is starting to lift, and we know that the public expect us to try a lot harder than simply putting online what was once offline. The power of information task force has been finding out about how smarter engagement with the net can lead to new expectations about Government. That will be led and informed by the public.

Derek Wyatt: I am sure that I do not have to tell my hon. Friend how important nationally social networking sites are, but I wonder whether he has pondered how important they are locally, especially for MPs? May I persuade him to think about creating a FTSE 100 of social networking sites that do brilliant things locally? [Interruption.] Perhaps he could also borrow from the e-inclusion awards in Vienna, and create annual awards for e-inclusion in the United Kingdom. [Interruption.]

Mr. Watson: I fear that a few of our analogue representatives on the Conservative Benches are not great enthusiasts for my hon. Friend’s suggestion, but I think that it is a wonderful idea, and I shall consult my Twitter community to see how best we can do what he suggests.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Is the Minister aware of mySociety’s five priorities for how the Government deal with the internet, particularly those concerning
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how the Government can free up data, create large-scale e-consultations, and open up a variety of Departments and public bodies to the internet for constituents to interface with? [Interruption.] Will the Minister listen to those experts, and make sure that their innovative techniques are used to open up government properly?

Mr. Watson: The hon. Lady is somewhat enlightened on this issue, and perhaps we can work together to show some of our colleagues on the Conservative Benches how we can embrace mySociety’s five points. If we are all honest with each other, we can see that the work that mySociety has done to introduce digital tools to make this House more transparent and accountable has improved our work. I read the five-point plan on the mySociety blog last week, and I did not disagree with a word of it. We might not have achieved its aims, but we will certainly work towards them.


2. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What assessment his Department has made of the effect on charities of the economic downturn. [246512]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Mr. Liam Byrne): The Government have been in constant dialogue with the third sector about the impact of the downturn. We will shortly publish an assessment of the effects on the third sector and the action that the Government will soon take to support the sector through the downturn. I can confirm that the package announced by my noble Friend Lord Mandelson will be open to third sector businesses.

Angela Watkinson: The voluntary sector already employs 1.5 million people, and it has the potential to create many more part-time, full-time and voluntary jobs. Will the Minister say why the voluntary sector was not represented at the jobs summit on Monday, and why the Government are ignoring its important potential to create new employment in the downturn?

Mr. Byrne: The House should be clear that the third sector enters this downturn with unprecedented strength because the Government have doubled public income to the sector, taking it from about £5 billion to about £11 billion today. Tax relief alone is now worth £3 billion. In all my conversations on the National Economic Council and elsewhere, I have ensured that third sector interests are represented. That is why the package announced by Lord Mandelson today is open to third sector businesses. In this debate, it is important that we talk about investing in the third sector, rather than cutting. I, for one, was unhappy to see proposals from the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who says that he wants to cut 1 per cent. from the Cabinet Office budget—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We will hear from the right hon. Member for Witney later. I call Jeff Ennis.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that the establishment in Yorkshire last year of the Charity Bank in the North, funded by Yorkshire Forward, is one of the many practical examples of what the Government are doing to sustain charities in this difficult economic downturn?

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Mr. Byrne: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the pre-Budget report confirmed spending totalling nearly £500 million—on top of the £11 billion or so that now goes into the sector—over the next couple of years to help third sector organisations, which are on the front line in helping many communities through the downturn. My hon. Friend will want to know that if we cut £100 million from that budget, we would be cancelling grants for more than 2,000 small local charities, and about 400,000 volunteering opportunities. That is why we will not propose that course of action.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Given the economic downturn and its impact, what steps can the Government take to make people even more aware of the generous tax breaks that are available on donations to charities, which in turn may enable charities to employ people to do even better the work that they do so well?

Mr. Byrne: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that tax breaks are now a vital part of the income of third sector organisations. We are very proud of the fact that gift aid has increased from £385 million a year to almost £900 million a year. The pre-Budget report that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor published last year set out a range of new measures that we will investigate to ensure that tax reform in future years helps the third sector in the way that it could. We will continue at every opportunity to promote to individuals the benefits of gift aid because it is now such an important part of third sector income.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): The George Thomas hospice in my constituency—a charity named after one of your predecessors, Mr. Speaker— reports to me that in the downturn individual donations have dropped and corporate giving has been slightly reined in, but that charity shops have increased their income. Does my right hon. Friend believe that that pattern is being repeated across the country?

Mr. Byrne: My hon. Friend raises an important point. The third sector is experiencing different effects and we will take into account the different views when the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), publishes our third sector action plan. We are grateful for about 80 detailed and helpful representations from the sector, and we will reflect on that advice before we publish our action plan in the coming weeks.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Will the Minister stop wittering on about the third sector? May we talk about the voluntary sector? Does he recognise that gift aid will go down for many reasons, not least the fact that the 28p is to be reduced to 25p?

Mr. Byrne: Quite significant arrangements were in place to help make sure that transitional benefits were in place to protect gift aid contributions to the third sector, the voluntary sector and the charitable sector over the period in which different tax rates come into effect. On nomenclature, I will constantly seek to profit from the hon. Gentleman’s advice.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): Many charities, including Rainbows hospice in my constituency, have reported similar patterns of reduced corporate
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and personal giving while the income from charity shops has increased. At this crucial time, it is important that Departments in particular play their full role, with respect not just to hospices—I hope my right hon. Friend will make the case that they should be properly funded by the NHS—but to community and amateur sports clubs, on which some Government policies are having an impact, particularly water charges in some parts of the country. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that bureaucracy and added burdens on community groups in constituencies such as mine and those elsewhere across the country are reduced as quickly as possible?

Mr. Byrne: My hon. Friend underlines the fact that now is the time for sustained investment in the third sector. Different parts of the third sector, the voluntary sector and the charitable sector are experiencing different pressures every day. Many are experiencing an increase in requests for services, and others are confronting challenges in new patterns of voluntary giving. It is surely right to continue to invest in the third sector, the voluntary sector and the charitable sector so that they help us come through the downturn faster and stronger. That is why we will not seek to cut 1 per cent. from the Cabinet Office budget over the next couple of years, as that would weaken the sector, not strengthen it.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Further to the excellent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), which reminded the House of the potential of the voluntary sector to create desperately needed jobs, may I press the Minister to be more explicit about when the long-awaited action plan will be published? Will he confirm that it will contain new investment, new resources and new money for the sector, rather than the repackaging of existing initiatives?

Mr. Byrne: Let me be clear about what the action plan will not contain. It will not contain any proposals to cut 1 per cent. from the third sector budget in the Cabinet Office. Let me remind the House that that would mean cancelling grants to more than 2,000 small local charities across the country and cancelling about 400,000 volunteering opportunities. When the third sector action plan is published, it will contain proposals to strengthen charities, voluntary organisations and third sector organisations because they are on the front line in helping many people and many communities get through the downturn in good shape.

Public Information

3. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): What recent steps the Government have taken to improve online access to public information. [246513]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Tom Watson): The Government are systematically improving access to their services by ensuring that information and services are found through search engines, that there are fewer but higher-quality websites so that users can get to what they need, and that the websites are accessible and more usable.

As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned in her question, the greatest social and economic value is achieved when we open up public
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information. The power of information task force has been working with the Office of Public Sector Information, the Central Office of Information and Government Departments to make public data easier to find, easier to understand and easier to reuse.

Mr. Cunningham: How effective is the Downing street petition website? I am thinking particularly of people’s concerns about Jaguar Land Rover. Is my hon. Friend aware that the C oventry Telegraph, the local evening newspaper, organised a petition on that issue involving 6,000 people? Will the supporters of Jaguar Land Rover be listened to?

Mr. Watson: I commend my hon. Friend for his imaginative question. We welcome the online engagement of citizens and it is heartening to see that the Downing street petition site is being used in such a way; we should also praise the Birmingham Post for leading the petition campaign. The petition site has received 2.2 million unique signatures in the past 12 months alone. The last time I checked the Jaguar Land Rover petition, nearly 7,000 people had used it, and I noticed that my wife was one of them. I give my hon. Friend the commitment that I will raise the issue with the Chancellor and Ministers at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Those who lose their jobs have to find out from Jobcentre Plus about benefits, from the Learning and Skills Council about training opportunities and from Business Link about help in setting up new businesses. Will Ministers ensure that the websites of the three different Departments of State involved are compatible and give information relevant to the local situations? It is no good people in Oxfordshire who apply to Business Link being directed to somewhere in London. A number of us are now organising job clubs and it would be really useful if Government websites helped us to direct our constituents who lose their jobs to accessible information through the web.

Mr. Watson: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point; a lot of thought and work is going on in that area. I point him to the Directgov site, which in recent months has been improving how we support people seeking work and how we get them back into the jobs market when, sadly, they lose their jobs. The Government are doing a lot of work on how we can provide public sector vacancies in an accessible form. We will make announcements on that later this year.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): What is the Government’s policy on archiving online information? I have found that some of the most interesting material that I want to get hold of has been archived and is inaccessible.

Mr. Watson: My hon. Friend raises an important point. In fact, we do not have access to the first ever Government website, which came out in 1994; the technology to track it down is not available. It was, of course, the website of a previous Government. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the website rationalisation programme will have closed some 1,500 websites by 2011. The National Archives are taking the lead on that, so that important information that my hon. Friend and future generations need to find will be accessible for generations to come.

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Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): It is great to see the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster here, filling a gap in his schedule between his cappuccino and his soup. Yesterday, he published a White Paper that made much of the aim, shared by everyone, of removing barriers to opportunity for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Why, then, are half of all civil service vacancies published only on a secret website accessible only to existing civil servants? Is that not exactly the sort of barrier to opportunity that should be swept away? Is it not a modern-day closed shop?

Mr. Watson: Yes, the right hon. Gentleman is right: internal vacancies are naturally advertised internally to colleagues, but we are doing a lot of work on this and I very much hope that civil service jobs will get a wider audience in weeks and months to come.

Mr. Maude: Is not the real reason for keeping this information secret from the public the fact that there is now a proliferation of public sector—state sector—jobs? Just this week, the Cabinet Office alone is recruiting for a chief psychologist, a Downing street butler and a change manager. Is not the solution to the recession caused by Labour not a change manager but a change of Government?

Mr. Watson: No, none of that is right. We have the smallest civil service since the second world war, and we are targeting £5 billion of efficiency savings. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right about the specific question. We do need to improve how people access vacancies for civil service jobs, and I hope to announce more measures on that in months to come.

Social Enterprise

4. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): What steps he is taking to support the growth of social enterprise. [246514]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Kevin Brennan): Following the social enterprise action plan, Government support for social enterprise has never been greater. Many Departments are adopting social enterprise. For example, the Department of Health has committed £100 million to a social enterprise investment fund, the Department for Communities and Local Government has created a social enterprise unit, and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Ministry of Justice are engaging in new social enterprise projects. I can also confirm what my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office said earlier—that social enterprises and businesses owned by charities can use the small firms loan guarantee and benefit from additional measures announced by the Business Secretary this morning.

Chris Ruane: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Yesterday, I met my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and this afternoon I will meet the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions— [ Interruption ]—to discuss the important role that social enterprise can play in creating jobs, opportunity and, most importantly, social mobility in deprived neighbourhoods. What role is my hon. Friend and his Department playing in co-ordinating the response from all Departments on social enterprises in deprived neighbourhoods?

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Kevin Brennan: I think that our Front-Bench team is an exemplar of social mobility. I praise my hon. Friend because, although the Opposition mock him slightly for his activities as a local Member in meeting those Ministers, in a way he himself acts, as do many Members, as a sort of social entrepreneur in bringing people together to do things for his constituency. Such enterprises are more likely to emerge in deprived areas as a communal way of tackling entrenched social problems. Working closely with the Office of the Third Sector, leading Whitehall Departments such as the Department of Health, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Children, Schools and Families now have dedicated social enterprise teams and funds to allocate to viable social enterprises to deliver public services, often in the most deprived areas.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Will the Minister work to ensure that local government supports social enterprises? In particular, will he look at the example of Conservative-led Newark and Sherwood district council, which not only closed the local leisure centre at Rainworth, but whose help in taking those swimming baths forward as a social enterprise has been next to nothing?

Kevin Brennan: I am sorry to hear about the circumstances involving my hon. Friend’s local council. Of course, social enterprise can be a very effective way of delivering public services, as Greenwich Leisure has shown in London in taking over many local leisure services. I hope that his local council will look again at the potential for social enterprise to deliver such services.

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