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House of Commons

Wednesday 9 December 2009

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked-

Third Sector Recession Action Plan

1. Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the third sector recession action plan. [304978]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Angela E. Smith): The Government recognise the extraordinary role the sector plays in helping vulnerable people through the recession. That is why we have given unprecedented help and support to the sector, both through existing programmes and through the £42.5 million "Real help now" programme, the community action plans and the £16.7 million hardship fund. That money is getting out there right now: the programmes have already provided £32 million-worth of assistance to a total of 1,546 organisations. Evaluations of all our major recession programmes are already under way, and reports will be produced from the middle of next year.

Anne Milton: I wonder whether the Minister is aware that charities helping those with mental health problems, such as Oakleaf Enterprise and the YMCA in my Guildford constituency, are facing a massive downturn in income. Instead of the "laser-targeted" package of help the Government's press release described in February, we have the usual lumbering, bureaucratic, red-tape nightmare so commonly seen from this Government.

Angela E. Smith: I am surprised at the hon. Lady's comments, and if she wants to give me examples, I will be happy to look at them, because we have tried very hard to minimise the amount of red tape. Indeed, on the hardship fund in particular, we have been praised for the swiftness of our assessment of applications. Obviously, we want to ensure that charities and organisations who need help can get it quickly, and it is impressive that £32 million has already gone out to help them.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): For a number of charities that I work with, there is a bit of a mixed picture. Some of the larger ones have seen their giving going up, but those that I call secondary charities-
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those that rely on the bigger charities to give them money-are often struggling the most. For example, I met representatives of SPEAK on Monday, and they are struggling to get money from others charities. What assistance can these programmes provide to help those charities that fund other charities, so that we can make sure that the money flows through the system and that secondary charities are not disenfranchised from these programmes?

Angela E. Smith: We have sought to put in place a range of programmes to help charities and voluntary organisations in a variety of ways. In terms of those organisations to which my hon. Friend refers, may I direct him to the grassroots grants programme, as the often quite small donations given under that programme to bodies delivering services at the grass-roots level can be extremely valuable? Those grants range from £500 to £5,000 and are issued through the Community Development Foundation. I will also ensure that my hon. Friend has information on all the grants and packages of help that are available to help charities of different sizes.

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): The hardship fund, for charities with a turnover above £200,000, is a key part of the action plan, but the recent decision of the Office of the Third Sector to divert into it £750,000 from the campaigning research programme, which is aimed at smaller charities, has caused outcry across the sector. Does the Minister share my concern that the lack of consultation, or even warning, ahead of that decision has not only damaged the charities directly affected, but has shaken the confidence of the sector as a whole in the Government's commitment to the compact and their support for smaller organisations?

Angela E. Smith: Yes, I certainly understand the concerns about the transfer of the money. It is nothing to do with the size of the organisations; rather, it is to do with the purpose of the fund. It was a difficult decision to make, particularly because it is not compact-compliant, which I regret and apologise for. We should consider the purpose of the fund, however. When I was travelling around the country talking to different organisations, what came up time and again was that organisations delivering services on the ground at grass-roots level were being hit by the recession and needed help. We could have spent this £750,000 either on campaigning research or on helping those organisations. While it was a difficult choice, the basic decision was sound. However, I apologise to those who have been affected, and for this isolated breach of the compact.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on the effectiveness with which the hardship fund has been got out to organisations throughout the country, but does she think that the smallest organisations are sufficiently aware of, and therefore taking advantage of, the available help?

Angela E. Smith: I do in some ways, as many organisations have had the help and have been able to make use of it. I think that more can be done, however, and I appeal to all Members to make organisations in their constituencies aware of the grants, support and loans that are available. We want that money to get out to third sector organisations because they are often the
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glue in communities, providing support on the ground to the people who most need it. We must do as much as we can to get that money out to them and to help and support them. May I direct my hon. Friend to the Government-funded National Council for Voluntary Organisations website, "Funding central", which has all the information on grants and support? That is helpful to all organisations.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): When the voluntary and charitable sector is facing horrendous pressure as a result of the Government's recession, how helpful is it for Lord Mandelson to be railroading through the removal of the sector's long-standing exemption on public performance rights? Does the Minister accept that adding at least £20 million in extra cost to voluntary and charitable organisations just now is the last thing that they need, or have the Government just stopped listening?

Angela E. Smith: It is not a case of the Government not listening, and I should also correct the right hon. Gentleman because it is not the Government's recession; as he may be aware, this has been an international recession, affecting countries across the world. I share concerns about the impact that charges from PPL and PRS could have on charitable and voluntary organisations; indeed, I met them to express those concerns on behalf of the sector. They are now working together to consider a plan to minimise that impact, and I urge all third sector organisations to contact PPL and PRS to ensure that it is minimised. The exemption was long-standing, and I believe that Britain is one of the last countries in Europe to lose it. I share the concern about the impact of this, and we must work with the entire third sector-the charities and the voluntary organisations-to do what we can to minimise it.

Mr. Maude: Part of the Government's much-vaunted recession action plan was an £8 million volunteer brokerage scheme, which was intended to create 40,000 volunteering opportunities. Has not that much-criticised scheme turned out to be a flop, with only 2,500 opportunities actually being created? Given that leaders in the sector have criticised the scheme as

has the Minister yet got the message that this sort of headline-catching initiative with rigid top-down targets is the problem, not the solution?

Angela E. Smith: It is probably too early to make such an assessment as to success or failure. An increasing number of people are going into placements; this process was slow to start and we are seeing some improvement now. It is important to have targets, because they create an ambition to ensure that we get as many people into placements as possible. For example, in August, 930 people on jobseeker's allowance took up placements on this scheme-that is important and it is success.

Social Inclusion

2. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of her Department's actions to promote social inclusion in Yorkshire. [304979]

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The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Angela E. Smith): The social exclusion task force co-ordinates and monitors progress on tackling social exclusion across England. I am aware that in Yorkshire and the Humber a wide range of measures are in place to support more vulnerable adults into homes and jobs. I am also very pleased that Barnsley, Bradford and Rotherham are all sites for the "Inspiring Communities" programme, which will help to raise the aspirations of young people in deprived areas. May I also tell my hon. Friend that when I visited the York Council for Voluntary Service, I was very impressed by its commitment to promoting social inclusion?

Hugh Bayley: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for visiting the CVS. Since York Credit Union opened three years ago, it has done an excellent job in helping people to get out of debt, but we still face a serious problem with door-to-door loan sharks. I am holding a credit agreement offered to one of my constituents, where the annual percentage rate of interest was 2,639,385.9 per cent. I am not making that figure up; it is written here in black and white. Will she speak to her colleagues in the Treasury and press for legislation to put to an end this kind of usury?

Hon. Members: Hear, Hear.

Angela E. Smith: As we can hear, the whole House is horrified by such an extortionate interest rate. We all share concerns about this, because it is often those on the lowest incomes who end up paying the highest prices because of the high cost of borrowing. I can tell my hon. Friend that the Office of Fair Trading is examining the issue and it issued an interim report yesterday. A final report will be available in the spring and the Government will consider its recommendations. As he has done, may I commend the work of credit unions, which provide a way of helping those who are financially excluded?

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Although I endorse what the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) has just said, may I ask the Minister to acquire a copy of "The Complete Plain Words" by Sir Ernest Gowers, so that she can start talking in English and get rid of terms such as "social inclusion", "social exclusion" and "third sector", and all this gobbledegook, which separates the very people we are trying to help from this place?

Angela E. Smith: That is the first time I have ever been accused of talking gobbledegook; I think that people understand terms such as "socially included" and "socially excluded", and find them helpful. I have some sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says about the term "third sector" and if he could come up with a better one, that would be helpful. In some ways, I regard the "third sector"-the wider charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprise-as pretty much the first sector.

People with Disabilities

3. Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): What recent assessment she has made of levels of access to voluntary activities for people with disabilities; and if she will make a statement. [304980]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Ms Dawn Butler): The latest volunteering figures from the Government's citizenship survey show that in England 32 per cent. of disabled people volunteered at least once in 2008-09. In order to ensure that more disabled people are able to access volunteering programmes, the Office of the Third Sector is piloting a £2 million volunteering fund in England, which will pay for adjustments and support for disabled volunteers. The fund opened for applications on 16 November.

Mr. Tom Clarke: On the subject of diversity, may I be the first to congratulate my hon. Friend on being the first black woman ever to have spoken from the Dispatch Box? May I encourage her and her colleagues to work with excellent organisations such as Mencap and People First to ensure that people with learning disabilities are given the opportunity to play a full part in voluntary activity, which is both in their interests and the greater interest of society?

Ms Butler: I thank my right hon. Friend for his warm words and kind remarks. It is indeed a pleasure to be standing here at the Dispatch Box. I, too, would like to congratulate my right hon. Friend on receiving a disability champion award yesterday. The Cabinet Office is looking at ensuring that disabled people-those with learning difficulties-are totally included in the packages that we are providing, such as the £17.5 million Improving Reach programme. There have been successful bids for people with learning difficulties, such as those from Mind associations. These groups receive the award funding through Office of the Third Sector programmes, including v, grassroots grants, Futurebuilders and targeted support funds.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I obviously endorse the remarks of the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) about the new Minister and wish her well, albeit that it will perhaps be for a relatively short time? Will the Minister accept that for disabled people-whether they are mentally or physically disabled-to be able to participate in voluntary activities is critical to their quality of life. Is she concerned that at the present time, with the recession that we are experiencing, this group of people is suffering-they are unable to indulge in all the worthwhile activities that would make their lives profitable and well?

Ms Butler: I again thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. The Office of the Third Sector is building a platform to ensure that people with disabilities participate fully and are considered to be the same as able-bodied people. The scheme that has been put in place, although it is a pilot, will be reviewed in 2011. If it is successful, it will be rolled out nationally.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Does the Minister agree that an important aspect of such work would be efforts to promote among younger people the concept of people with disabilities being more able to get involved in a range of voluntary activities, thereby helping the wider community, particularly across the demographics?

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Ms Butler: The hon. Gentleman raises a valid point. Indeed, through programmes such as v and YouthNet, the Office of the Third Sector is ensuring that young people are not only working with and for, but are engaged with, people with disabilities-both those with learning disabilities and those with other disabilities-to ensure that they can play a full and active part in society.

Social Exclusion

4. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families on the establishment of a national assessment centre for early intervention policies to reduce social exclusion; and if she will make a statement. [304981]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Angela E. Smith): First, I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on, and commitment to, this issue. I am aware that a number of places, including Nottingham, have developed early intervention policies to tackle social problems. It is important that the impact of individual policies is assessed. Officials from the Cabinet Office and the DCSF have discussed the best way of addressing this, including the role of a centre for excellence in outcomes.

Mr. Allen: There are now lots of green shoots of early intervention in the UK-not just in Nottingham but in Manchester, Glasgow, London and south Wales. I hope that my right hon. Friend will ensure that all those ideas are pulled together so that lots of local authorities that wish to embark on an early intervention programme have a strong, central evidence base from which to draw, rather than replicating individual projects. I hope that she will put her weight behind a national policy assessment centre.

Angela E. Smith: Yes. I know that my hon. Friend has raised this issue with the Prime Minister, too. There is no doubt that as more authorities get involved with early intervention it is very important that they can share best practice and understand what works best to get value for money. Departments will be discussing how best to achieve this, including the role that can be played by such a centre of excellence in outcomes.

Information Commissioner

5. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): What steps she is taking to ensure that material held by her Department which is requested by the Information Commissioner is provided promptly to the Commissioner. [304982]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Angela E. Smith): The Cabinet Office aims to respond to requests from the Information Commissioner for material required for an investigation in a timely fashion.

Mr. Prentice: I am not really happy with that answer. I want to know who is responsible for the grotesque delays in responding to my freedom of information request regarding Lord Ashcroft. Is it the Cabinet Office that is dragging its feet, or is it the Information Commissioner who is being dilatory and totally useless?

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Angela E. Smith: I might not be able to answer that question in the way that my hon. Friend has invited me to, but I can tell him that the Information Commissioner has not issued an information notice regarding any request that he has made to the Cabinet Office.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): What follow-up does the Minister do with other Departments? I have just waited a year and a half to get an answer to an information request from the Department for Transport, and even now it has not been answered fully. Does she think that is too long to wait, or is that the sort of time line that I should expect?

Angela E. Smith: Freedom of information matters are dealt with by the Ministry of Justice, so I will draw the hon. Lady's concerns to the attention of ministerial colleagues at MOJ and ask them to take note of what she says.

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