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11 Mar 2010 : Column 144WH—continued

I want to say two things about the mutual and co-operative model and its potential, to which the Minister has already alluded; as a Labour and Co-operative party MP, it would be surprising if I did not do so. The financial sector has come through a climate in which the mutual banks and building societies have survived, while other models were damaged. Although support for the co-operative sector is very strong among Labour Members, an appreciation of the model has spread throughout the House. It is always welcome to see an idea that might have appeared radical in the past becoming
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mainstream and embedded. Not surprisingly, I think that the co-operative movement will always stay closest to the Labour movement, which understands it well, but cross-party agreement on the value of the sector is not to be despised. I hope that we will hear positive messages from the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) when he makes his speech.

In the run-up to the last comprehensive spending review, I carried out a study for the Treasury and Cabinet Office that demonstrated the enormous potential of co-operative models. I hope that that is not gathering too much dust and that it is still checked regularly by the Cabinet Office to determine whether that potential is being fully utilised. In recent years, we have heard suggestions about how things that are important to many people can benefit from the experience of co-operative governance-if I may put it in those terms. Supporter ownership of football clubs has particular salience when we see some of the stories going around. Until now, second-rank clubs might have been taking that route, but it would not be surprising if we saw some of the most high-profile clubs going down that avenue in future.

The Minister referred to the strength of credit unions. As small community-based unions-they are sometimes a little fragile-become bigger and turn into organisations with a greater capacity to offer loans and reasonable financial arrangements to some of the poorer people in society, as well as people in general, such as employees of local authorities and others, they have tremendous potential.

When we were carrying out the study to which I referred, we went with Treasury officials to look at the situation in Plymouth. The advantages of a critical mass of organisations working on a co-operative and community model were striking, because of the way in which they reinforced and supported each other. In that sense, it is important for the Government, and the Minister and her team, to nurture the development of co-operative and community-based models in an area, because people can start to learn from each other and develop greater professionalism. Innovative voluntary sector models can sometimes be a little fragile. It can be a lonely life for those "charismatic nuts", as they used to be called, who start to develop new models to respond to community needs.

Some of the lessons to be learned by the public sector from the co-operative and governance models of the past are striking. I refer particularly to our visit to Homerton hospital in Hackney, which is right at the heart of one of the most deprived communities in the country. I was particularly struck by the way in which the chief executive, the director of nursing and the clinical director talked about how much closer they felt to the community that they served as a result of a wide range of members of the local community engaging in the foundation trust. We should be innovative so that we are open to the public sector learning lessons from community-based and co-operative models.

Another particularly attractive model is community ownership of wind energy. I have made the point to Ministers with responsibility for energy that if the implementation of wind energy is done to a community from outside, there are often objections and people say,
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"Not in my backyard." However, the model changes if the community owns the model. In Awel Amman Tawe, we saw members of a group promoting community energy sitting outside their local authority's planning offices with placards that said not, "Go away wind energy", but, "Give us our wind turbines". In fact, they failed with the local authority, but won their case on appeal, such was the strength of local support. There is a different situation when a community feels that it is in charge and able to take things forward, rather than that people from outside it are doing things to them.

Another model that has enormous potential, and that could also receive great cross-party support, relates to the future of British Waterways. I was a waterways Minister, so I am conscious of the financial investment necessary to deal with the backlog of repairs. There has been significant investment over the past 10 years, and the UK now has a less fragile and vulnerable waterways system. Significant developments to the waterways have included an extension of the network and interesting investments from the Heritage Lottery Fund and elsewhere, which have been productive.

People love water and the waterways, but the importance of the canal system goes beyond that. It has social and economic benefits, through the tourism and leisure industry, and environmental benefits as a green link into the centres of our greatest cities as a result of our industrial heritage. Many people are very passionate about the waterways sector and want it to thrive. The chair of the all-party group on waterways, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton), has said that he intends to spend more time with his canal boat after he leaves this place, in which he has been a passionate advocate for the waterways.

We have an opportunity, as highlighted by British Waterways in "Setting a new course", which was published in November 2009, to take the waterways into a third sector model. I describe that as a sort of National Trust for the waterways that would preserve the benefit of the waterways, just as the benefit of our national parks and areas of outstanding beauty is preserved. The model could continue to do what British Waterways has done well over recent years-exploiting the land associated with the canals for economic development or, in some cases, housing-and it could certainly realise benefits for the finances of British Waterways.

A third sector model would give people an opportunity to engage with the waterways in the way in which volunteers engage with the National Trust. In a sense, the waterways belong to the British public because they are publically owned, but, with a third sector organisation like the National Trust, there would be a greater sense that the ownership was personal, so people would be more engaged and able to work more productively as volunteers. It would be possible to develop a form of accountability to the wider public, which would be beneficial to the community and to the waterways in particular. I hope-and I think that this is suggested by exchanges in the Chamber, and questions that Labour and Opposition Members have put to Ministers- that that is an idea whose time has come. I commend it to the Minister as an opportunity that, without partisanship but with positive engagement from Ministers in different Departments, could be carried forward and become productive.

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I want to comment on the way in which we provide information to our citizens. I was very pleased to hear what the Minister said about the work of Citizens Advice. I have been involved with it for many years and am honorary president of my local citizens advice bureau in Cardiff. I am also pleased that the service is increasingly working with others, such as the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, to avoid duplicating activities, and to use expertise so as best to target the people who need help.

Most recently there has been work with StartHere, which is an innovative approach to make it easier for people who need information to get it, including those without the technical expertise to search for it on the internet. I encourage Ministers to think further about how StartHere can be used to enhance the public service. I am pleased to say that recent meetings with Ministers in several Departments have encouraged me to think-some five years after some of us sat around in the imaginatively named PSX(E) Cabinet Sub-Committee, which looked at the use of IT within Government, and Ministers started to get excited about the fact that the model makes it easier for people to get information-that several Departments are seeing the benefits of such an approach. Indeed, I have a meeting this afternoon with the Department of Health to talk about that, and I had a meeting with a Work and Pensions Minister a few days ago. In particular, my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who has responsibility for carrying forward broadband Britain policies, has placed a great deal of value on the ease with which people can use StartHere to get information that they need.

An evaluation project early last year that looked at the use of StartHere in association with a number of citizens advice bureaux, as well as a couple of prisons in London, demonstrated enormous value in opening up access in such a way. At a time when those who are digitally literate can gain much information from the internet, we need to be careful that those who lack such expertise can get access. An example from the project was the fact that prisoners who were given the opportunity to go online, or to use a kiosk with StartHere loaded, went to StartHere, because of its simplicity. It is highly complementary to directgov, and co-ordination among Ministers is needed to build on what has happened already. For instance, the Ministry of Defence, through the Royal British Legion, is making use of StartHere in relation to the families of service personnel. I have already referred to Citizens Advice and to the use of the system in prisons. The idea needs to be seized for the benefit of the public whom we serve.

I want to underline the contribution made through volunteering. I have chaired a group on employee volunteering for Volunteering England over the past couple of years. The extent to which employer-assisted volunteering has started to develop is striking. As I was coming back to the issue after a 10-year gap, I was impressed by the way in which personnel departments and people involved with corporate social responsibility in some of our largest companies had seized on the importance of volunteering. There was a time when employer-assisted volunteering meant identifying a community centre and going to paint the same room again, as an exercise for a team from the company. Companies have now gone well past that rather naive approach to volunteering towards a sophisticated
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approach in which they understand that giving people the opportunity to volunteer enhances their skills and abilities, and what they bring into the company. That is therefore a win-win situation for the company, the community and the individual.

I pay tribute to the Government for their work on encouraging such activity, including the relevant commission work that has been done in the past couple of years, and to Volunteering England and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, which give leadership on volunteering, for the fact that volunteering is not standing still. In the 21st century, volunteering is as modern and important as ever. It is also an activity and contribution to society that is being positively and imaginatively developed in the 21st century. The Government have a part to play in providing active support, and it is particularly important to start with young people. Organisations such as the Prince's Trust do a tremendous job of engaging young people, as do many youth organisations such as the Scouts. They do a terrific job by encouraging responsibility and contributions by young people. However, we can never do too much to promote the appreciation of volunteering by Government and society, and to encourage the development of models for the future.

Finally, I encourage the Minister and the Government to take forward-and indeed accelerate-the work of the Compact. That concept was suggested by the commission on the future of the voluntary sector in England, which was chaired by Professor Nicholas Deakin in the late 1990s. It was also a recommendation in "Building the Future Together", a document for which I had responsibility for the Labour party, and that the Minister had a significant role in writing. The concept is that there is no equality of arms, so to speak, between Government and its institutions, and the voluntary sector, so there is a need for the relationship to be mediated and overseen in some way.

There have been positive developments over the past 10 years since the Compact was brought in, such as the appointment of a commissioner for the Compact. However, more needs to be done to bed that in effectively and to develop a methodology that ensures that consideration of the voluntary sector is balanced properly with the pressures for value for money that the Office of Government Commerce and the Treasury promote for every Department and agency.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his speech. He makes an important point about the Compact. He might be aware that the Minister herself recently transferred funds that were committed to charities, without any consultation, and admitted to the House of Commons that she was in breach of the Compact. Does the right hon. Gentleman regret that decision, and what powers would he like the commission for the Compact to have had in that context?

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. If decisions are taken in breach of the Compact, it is important that that should be acknowledged, and it is also important that, over time, the issue becomes better understood in Government. Given my ministerial experience, I must say that sometimes a point is reached at which decisions must be taken and when, contemplating the alternatives, one thinks, "I wouldn't have started
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from here." I must say that I have some sympathy for Ministers who find themselves in a corner, without even knowing the particular circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman refers. It is important for Ministers to be willing to admit to any failure to adhere to the Compact. Over time, that needs to become more embedded in the system so that Government Departments know what they have to do. One problem I encountered with a Government Department was when officials insisted that they were talking about funding when they were actually talking about a contractual arrangement with the sector. They are not giving largesse, but procuring a service from the sector, and, in those circumstances, they should treat the sector with the same respect that they would give a private company or a corporation.

The hon. Gentleman's intervention allows me to say that while the Government have taken us in the right direction, the principles of the Compact and the ways in which it is enforced need to be developed over time. As I was saying before his intervention, there will always be a tension between taking on big contracts to conserve money-we have seen that with the Department for Work and Pensions-and taking on small contracts, which smaller voluntary organisations can contract into. That is not very different from the pleas that we hear from small businesses. When I was Minister with responsibility for rural affairs, I heard a lot about contracts being too big for smaller companies to be able to bid into. There is a real challenge for the Government to get things right in terms of value for money, which of course must be a massively important consideration. Moreover, they must recognise that voluntary organisations, and small, local community-based organisations, can provide value for money if the circumstances are right. There are some Government Departments that understand that and some that still do not, which is why the Compact, as a way of mediating across Government Departments, is extremely important.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Does he also agree that one of the problems of small service providers from the third sector trying to meet a large contract is that the time for tendering is often so short that they do not have time to work with other groups to put in place the consortium that is necessary to meet the requirements of that contract?

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Again, there is a tension between expediency and the delay that can occur in getting arrangements out so that people can seek to make a contribution. He is right that that needs to be brought into the equation. It is a question not just of value for money and the importance of financial constraints, especially in straitened times, but of getting the balance right. The voluntary sector-and the third sector generally-should be seen as having a specific and beneficial contribution to make, and systems should be designed to get the best out of them. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak is likely to make some comments on precisely those issues in his contribution. Rather than going further into them now, I will leave them for him to develop. I think that we are saying the same thing about the importance of developing
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the right systems and ensuring that they are thoroughly embedded in both central and local government for the future.

I very much welcome the debate, as we rarely get the opportunity to speak about the voluntary sector as such. It is significant, however, that the voluntary sector gets referred to in departmental debates going right across the Government these days. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister's introduction to the debate. As has been the case on many previous occasions, I hope that our debate will demonstrate cross-party support for the future development of the third sector and innovative approaches to making the most of its contribution.

3.14 pm

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley, and to speak yet again alongside my old friend the Minister. We joined the all-party group on the voluntary sector in 1997, and we both became Home Office Parliamentary Private Secretaries at the same time. Whereas she has gone on to stellar things since then, I am fulfilling the role of sweeper. Nevertheless, it is a great pleasure to have this opportunity to contribute to the debate and to speak after my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), who came to my constituency in 1994-even before I first came to this place-to work with me on voluntary sector organisations.

One of the cheap tricks that we have in the House is to stand up in such a debate and reel off a list of worthy organisations in our constituency. I will not sink to those levels, mainly because I did so the last time that we debated this issue, so it is all on the record anyway. The other thing that we do is to pop into Westminster Hall, make an intervention and disappear again. We have already seen an example of that this afternoon. I will not give the hon. Gentleman the pleasure of naming him for the record.

One gets an idea of the importance of this sector from the fact that there are roughly 250 registered charities in every constituency in the country. On average, almost 100 social enterprises operate in every constituency, and I wonder how many there would have been 10 years ago. About three quarters of our constituents take part in voluntary activity at some time or other every year.

The third sector potentially includes everyone and can benefit everyone. Those benefits come from not just the outcomes but the act of being involved in the inputs as well. Taking part in a voluntary activity in a third sector organisation is very much part of what being a member of society is all about, and it is what makes communities work. When we talk about the third sector, we are talking about not just individual volunteers, voluntary organisations, community groups, co-ops-as my right hon. Friend mentioned-social enterprises or any of the not-for-profit sector, but the whole range of things together. Given the values that they espouse and the benefits that they bring, all of that is part of a concerted movement of communities to engage in democracy. It is the way in which people can change things and the way in which communities can influence the services, environment and atmosphere of the very places in which they live. As I said in the debate on the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill,
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this is about acknowledging that democracy is something that is 24/7-it does not happen only at election time-and that we should therefore hold it dear, not just in the party political way but in how communities work.

So much has changed over the past 10 years. My right hon. Friend talked about the funding. Some £11 billion has gone from the Government into the sector in one form or another, but that money is not going into a black hole. It is creating opportunities, procuring services and delivering socially beneficial outcomes. The money that the Government give, added to the support given to charities through the taxation system, is still only a part of how those organisations are funded. The very act of giving-the volunteering of one's wealth, as well as one's time-is part of the whole process of engagement about which we are talking.

Qualitative changes have also taken place within the wider sector, however. Not only is there more money than previously, but some third sector organisations operate far more professionally and the forms that they take and the activities in which they engage are more varied. That professionalism is no bad thing, and the creation of some larger, super third sector organisations would have been no bad thing either, because they would not block the emergence of small community organisations, which are being generated all the time. How many community organisations form as a result of local residents' campaigns and then become formal organisations, lobbying politicians and even, after a time, delivering the very services for which the residents campaigned? There is room for both the large and the small in the third sector.

I think that we have seen this new relationship, which has generated so much of the funding, because the third sector's benefits have been recognised through the commissioning of services. When we set up the Compact in, I think, 1999-I was there at the launch-we set out a memorandum of understanding between the public sector generally and the third sector and voluntary sector organisations. Given the growth in commissioning over the years, that understanding has changed and professionalism has come in, and it has therefore been necessary to refresh the Compact. I very much welcome the refreshed Compact. Indeed, the whole third sector has welcomed it. It was produced in December 2009 and has aspects relating to formal partnerships and the commissioning of relationships between public sector and third sector bodies.

Why might a public sector body want to take on a third sector organisation as a partner? In this age, when we look for quality services, a third sector organisation can provide local knowledge and information, and respond to local needs. For example, it can provide time, which public sector organisations often find themselves stretched to provide, to personalise services in social care. Of course, although I would never, and we should never, regard the third sector as the cheap option, it cannot be denied that there is cost-effectiveness-ways of spending money better but not necessarily spending less-in using third sector partners and delivering on a common cause. That has been recognised by local and central Government, as evidenced by the refreshed Compact.

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