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House of Commons

Wednesday 28 October 2009

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

RAF Nimrod MR2 Aircraft XV230


Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked-

Operation Miser

1. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): What assessment she has made of the findings of Sir Ian Johnston's review of the investigation of leaks from the Home Department under Operation Miser which relate to the actions of her Department. [295973]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and for the Olympics, and Paymaster General (Tessa Jowell): I welcome Ian Johnston's report and the wider report published on the same day by Chief Inspector Dennis O'Connor. We have looked very carefully at both reports, and my Department will shortly send new guidance on managing information to Departments and adopt the chief inspector's protocol for future consideration of police involvement in leak investigations, which recognises the high threshold required for police involvement.

Mr. Turner: The police inspectorate's report has savaged the role of the Cabinet Office in calling the Metropolitan police to arrest my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). Will the Minister place the current guidelines and protocol in the Library so that we can review the failings of the existing rules?

Tessa Jowell: Both reports reflect very fairly the state of events that led to the police involvement-a series of leaks, some of which gave rise to concern about national security. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that it is very easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to reach a different judgment. I have made it clear in my answer that the lessons of the O'Connor and Johnston reports will be applied in full, and I will certainly consult the Cabinet Secretary about the release of the information that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

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Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): The Minister says that there was some concern about national security, but Sir Ian Johnston's report makes it absolutely clear that these leaks were only matters of "embarrassment" that were

So why did a Cabinet Office director write to counter-terrorism asserting that there was

from these stories and that

Did the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister or Ministers know about this letter before it was sent, and was there any political pressure on civil servants to shut down those embarrassing stories?

Tessa Jowell: Neither report from Chief Inspector O'Connor nor from Sir Ian Johnston makes any claim that the Cabinet Office exaggerated national security claims; the right hon. Gentleman should be absolutely clear about that. He will also know that there was no ministerial involvement in the decision to involve the police.

Mr. Maude: But the report says explicitly that these were only matters of embarrassment that were not likely to undermine Government effectiveness. On 31 October, the Cabinet Office demanded a scoping exercise that then went into detail about the involvement of "members of the Conservative party". Does the Minister think it right that counter-terrorism officers were misled and used, in effect, to try to intimidate and suppress parliamentary opposition? Given that the Prime Minister himself made his political career as a conduit for a flood of civil service leaks, should he have been arrested when he was a shadow Minister?

Tessa Jowell: Let me deal with the substantive point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I reiterate that neither report drew the conclusion that the Cabinet Office had over-reacted. His judgment is made with the benefit of retrospection and of the two reports having been carried out, as well as with the benefit of hindsight. The important step now is that the recommendations of the report are implemented, as they will be.

Third Sector (Recession)

2. Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): What her most recent assessment is of the effect of the recession on the third sector; and if she will make a statement. [295975]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Angela E. Smith): We recognise that this is a very difficult time for the sector, with some parts experiencing increased demand for their services at the same time as having concerns about their financial situation. That is why the Government have provided a comprehensive package of support for the third sector worth up to £42.5 million. The money is getting out there right now to groups who need it. Thousands of grants have been made, and that is supporting the communities that need it most and providing jobs.

Clive Efford: I welcome my hon. Friend's answer; that will be very welcome news to the voluntary sector. However, many funders of not-for-profit voluntary organisations do not recognise the need to cover their core funding in order to make them sustainable for the
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future. Those organisations want to create income that provides for that. I come across this problem frequently in organisations that I work with in my constituency. Will she encourage funders to bear this in mind in future?

Angela E. Smith: Absolutely. My hon. Friend has a reputation in his constituency for his involvement in the third sector, and the points that he makes are entirely valid. Let me mention some of the things that the Government are doing; I hope that other funders will consider them. Grass-root grants are going directly to smaller organisations-an initiative that has never been taken before, coupled with an endowment process-and that is providing £130 million. That can address the issue of core funding. We also have the community assets programme, providing £30 million across the country for projects involving buildings that are sustainable for the long term. May I direct him also to Communitybuilders, a £70 million programme that was recently opened for applications and has received 1,500 already? That is the kind of programme that the organisations he mentions will benefit from.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): We should be concerned that more than 10,000 charities have ceased operating in the past six months, according to the Charity Commission. After two years of consultation, we are still no clearer about Government plans to make gift aid easier and more effective for charities. Instead, we are now getting signals from private meetings that the Treasury actually wants to scrap tax reliefs for higher rate payers who give to charity. This must be the wrong time to be hiding things from the sector. When will the Government come clean on their plans for the reform of gift aid?

Angela E. Smith: The number of charities has reduced, but from talking to the Charity Commission we find that that is about the cleaning up of the charities list. There are charities that have been on the list for some time but have not been functional, or there may have been mergers.

This Government have a proud record on gift aid, and several changes have been brought in.

Mr. Hurd indicated dissent.

Angela E. Smith: The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but it is absolutely true. A number of changes have been brought in to simplify and improve the system and get more money out to charities. I understand the frustration of some charities that want to see change more quickly, particularly on the issue of higher rates, but the problem is that there is not agreement among the charities themselves about the best way forward. We are in talks with the Treasury about how best to address the matter, but the improvements that this Government have made have increased the amount of gift aid going to charities. The number of donations has more than doubled since 2001, when we first started making changes. I understand the frustrations, but we are working with the Treasury to ensure that there are improvements.

Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend give us any indication of whether voluntary organisations are responding to the Government's
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initiatives to get more people into work by increasing the work that they do, so as to benefit from the programmes that have recently been put in place?

Angela E. Smith: The response to the Government programmes put in place during the recession has been remarkable. I am pleased to say that the anecdotal response that we are getting, particularly on grass-roots grants, is that the forms and application process are easier and simpler than they have ever been before. There is an increased number of volunteers, and we are supporting them through a variety of programmes. The evidence is clear that people who volunteer often find a route into work by gaining skills, confidence and connections with employers.

Charities (Regulatory Burden)

3. Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to reduce the regulatory burden on charities. [295976]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Angela E. Smith): The changes that we have made to charity law and to accounting and reporting thresholds have resulted in savings of thousands of pounds for charities. Departments are cutting red tape for third sector organisations, and further progress will be reported before the end of the year. The Government and the National Audit Office have produced guidance to reduce red tape associated with the £12 billion a year that the sector gets from the Government.

Mr. Taylor: Does the Minister understand that in my constituency, charities are worried about the detailed applications for gift aid, which she has just discussed, the ending of the ring-fencing of Supporting People and particularly the vagueness of the extension of Criminal Records Bureau checks, especially for volunteers dealing with children. The problem is not that the regulations are wrong, it is the application of them that is causing concern.

Angela E. Smith: We have to get the balance right between protection of the public and the regulatory burden that we place on charities. I am very conscious of that, and I have outlined some of the measures that we are undertaking to address the matter. Sir Roger Singleton is currently examining the new vetting and barring system for criminal records checks to ensure that we get the right balance between protection and regulatory burden. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it will be better for charities and volunteers, and that checks for volunteers will be free. I hope that that reassures him that we are getting the balance right and addressing the concerns that he has raised.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I welcome the news that CRB checks will be free for volunteers, but I recognise the importance of removing regulation. Any money that is donated that actually goes to charities rather than being spent on costs is welcome. Can my right hon. Friend give us some suggestion of what the savings to charities will be?

Angela E. Smith: It is difficult to ascertain the exact amount that we are saving for charities, because to do so we would have to examine every single volunteer.
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One problem has been that some charities have paid for the same volunteer to be checked twice. We will examine the matter, but it is difficult to give my hon. Friend an exact figure.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): But can the Minister be very clear on what particular steps the Government are taking to allow charities that receive from generous donors financial aid at this time of recession to use it on good causes, rather than spend the money on the increasing burden of fulfilling administrative and compliance demands?

Angela E. Smith: We are very conscious of the administrative burden on charities. One thing that we have been doing is supplying grants through the modernisation programme so that charities can look at working with other charities and organisations, perhaps by sharing back-room functions, collaborating or merging. That frees up more money to be spent on the objectives of the charity itself. That is one way that we are able to help. I will be happy to give the hon. Gentleman further information and to look at the particular charities in which he is interested.

Bogus Charitable Collections

4. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): What steps she plans to take to tackle the practice of bogus charitable clothes collections. [295977]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Angela E. Smith): I am absolutely appalled that any organisation would try and con people into thinking that it is a charity in order to collect goods from the public that are intended to be sold to raise funds for a charity's important work. I can tell my hon. Friend that in 2007, the Government, through the Office of the Third Sector, co-ordinated a Give with Care campaign to increase awareness of bogus clothing collections, and we are planning further such public campaigns in the coming months. We will also continue to encourage enforcement of the legislation.

Jeff Ennis: I thank the Minister for her reply, but two of my constituents, Mr. Dale Rutter and Mr. Mike Hyde, from Sprotbrough in Doncaster my constituency, who do charity collections on behalf of Cancer Research UK, informed me at a recent surgery that the number of bogus charity clothes collection operators working in south Yorkshire is very much on the increase because of the credit crunch. Will the Minister agree to meet me and my constituents to discuss this very important issue in greater detail?

Angela E. Smith: Of course I am happy to meet my hon. Friend, who has a record of campaigning on this issue. I would direct his constituents to look at the campaign that we have been running and the small print on the sacks that are delivered to people's homes to encourage them to donate, because sometimes there is more helpful information there. I would also suggest that if people want to donate, they might want to go to the charity shop directly. That may be a better way of ensuring that bogus collectors do not get the gifts that are intended for charities.

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Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Would the Minister like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Salvation Army, which is one of the leading clothes collectors and recyclers in the country, and whose depot in Kettering is one of the largest clothes recycling depots in the United Kingdom?

Angela E. Smith: I am always pleased to congratulate a charity that is doing good work. The public can be assured that if a sack comes through their door to collect clothes for the Salvation Army, it is totally genuine.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I think I am right in saying that a case of that sort was taken to court by the local authority in Cardiff recently, resulting in a fine of £750. Perhaps that ought to have been higher, but will my right hon. Friend encourage local authorities and magistrates to use their existing powers to the full to drive these cancerous companies out of business, and to allow the public confidence that what they give goes where it is intended?

Angela E. Smith: My right hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. I congratulate Cardiff council on taking that prosecution. A £750 fine is significant for those who are involved in such illegal activities, and I will certainly talk to my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to see how we can work together to encourage local authorities to enforce their current powers.

List of Ministerial Responsibilities

5. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What the cost to her Department was of the (a) production and (b) distribution of the most recent list of ministerial responsibilities. [295978]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and for the Olympics, and Paymaster General (Tessa Jowell): The list of ministerial responsibilities is produced in-house in the Cabinet Office, the costs of which are met from within the existing Cabinet Office budget. They are not, I am afraid, separately identifiable.

Mr. Bone: The Cabinet Office booklet helpfully ranks Cabinet Ministers in order of importance-No. 1 being the Prime Minister, No. 2 being the Leader- [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. One would have thought that the hon. Gentleman's colleagues would want to listen to his question and that it would be courteous to do so.

Mr. Bone: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Back to the ranking of the Cabinet: No. 1 is the Prime Minister, No. 2 is the Leader of the Commons and No. 3 is the Lord Mandelson, who is more important than the Chancellor, the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, the Justice Secretary and the Defence Secretary. In fact, the Defence Secretary is listed as the third least important- [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am waiting for the question mark and I have not heard it.

Hon. Members: Answer!

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