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11 Mar 2010 : Column 165WH—continued

Some people visit others in their own homes. We have a tremendous "live at home" scheme that helps to ensure that people are not so isolated at home and to make certain that they are okay. For example, every Thursday afternoon, people will visit others for a cup of tea. Others will regularly visit people in prison, and then there are people who drive Age Concern buses or staff museums-the list goes on. There has to be some way in which we can recognise these people locally or
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regionally-it will not always be done through the granting of gongs-because they truly make our communities what they are.

Perhaps other hon. Members have experienced, like me, the growing problem that volunteers are beginning to find lots of pressures put on them, including due to considerations of their families and work. For example, if people have to work longer hours and travel further to work, they can devote less time to volunteering than their parents or other family members could. Uniformed organisations and youth clubs, in particular, are coming under real pressure because of people's ability to commit to the time necessary to be involved.

I regret the bureaucracy that has crept into the system. I understand the need for Criminal Records Bureau checks and so on, but they have undoubtedly made a lot of people apprehensive when they have no need to be-I do not mean about the cost-and not only in respect of working with children. Older people in their 70s and 80s who want to visit other people of the same age can become somewhat apprehensive when they are asked what they think about having a CRB check, so they might decide that they do not want to participate. It is terribly sad that we have to think about carrying out a CRB check on an 80-year-old lady who wants to visit somebody else for a cup of tea on a Thursday afternoon.

There is now a fear of litigation, particularly in respect of taking groups of children across Dartmoor on the Ten Tors challenge or for training. That is a cause of great sadness. When I did the Ten Tors back in 1962, there were just a few hundred children involved, but now some 2,000 or 3,000 have the opportunity to participate in the challenge of walking across Dartmoor over a certain period. However, ever fewer people are now prepared to take what they perceive as the risk of looking after children, because they fear litigation and everything else that might be visited upon them. We must recognise the three distinct pressures on volunteering that I have set out and get some balance back into the system.

When I talk about volunteers, I am referring to people who do things off their own bat for no money whatsoever because they want to do it. They are part of a particular sector and they face particular pressures. However, let me mention how the Government can support the charitable sector, to which they provide financial, legislative and administrative support, and perhaps co-operation and co-ordination. That sector is also having difficulties, the most obvious of which, at times of recession, is underfunding. Charities are concerned that the things that they are doing that are going well and are well received might be cut, or that they might receive a smaller grant. They are also concerned that the funding that they raise themselves, such as for air ambulances, will be reduced if people's disposal income falls and the sums that they are able to give to their favourite charity are reduced.

In the current circumstances, we have to recognise that everybody will have to cut their cloth accordingly. Some small yet vital charitable organisations that do valuable work will be hit quite hard. The larger charities, some of which have been mentioned, will probably already have their plan worked out, as they will have done their financial planning and got in place their accountants, professional fundraisers and advertising.
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While those larger charities might suffer a reduction in their overall funding and finances, I fear that we will see a lot more problems at the smaller end, with people desperately trying to keep their organisations going. I hope that the Government recognise that financial support, in one way or another-particularly through local government-is a vital factor in many organisations' ability to operate.

Mr. Cash: I shall be grateful if the hon. Gentleman takes account of a point that I ought to have mentioned. The creation of quangos, with politically appointed members, can lead to discrimination due to the manner in which those so-called voluntary organisations dispense their patronage. Does he agree that it is important that there is a requirement to ensure that they are even-handed?

Mr. Breed: I entirely agree. Many excellent, small charities are beavering away with relatively small sums, but if that money is suddenly withdrawn, for whatever reason, they will find things difficult. I hope that such funding will be part of the totality of any future Government policies.

On the legislative side, may I mention an area that is ripe for thought and consideration? Gift Aid is a fantastic way of getting tax back. However, the system has become too bureaucratic in respect of the different rates, even though the ethos, the principle and everything else is correct. Whatever Government are in power after the next election, I hope that they will look carefully at that-not destroy it, but enhance and improve it so that it becomes less bureaucratic and problematic. A little bit of reform rather than radical surgery is needed to help the process and make it less cumbersome.

Contracts for third sector companies and charities have been mentioned. I wholeheartedly concur with the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) about the ability of relatively small organisations to bid for work in rural areas. Their local knowledge will often enable them to do such work, if they are given a little bit of help and support and if the size of the contract is commensurate with their ability to fulfil it.

I often feel that whenever we spend money-whether our own or Government money-the closer the decision is taken to where it is spent, the better the value for money. The further away the decision is taken, the less value is obtained. With much more local decision making, and an ability to support a larger number of smaller local groups to undertake some work, we would get better value for money. We would maintain the fabric of the third sector by giving it the ability to compete properly and undertake such work.

Professionals and amateurs have been mentioned, and there is a story that we must never forget: the Titanic was built and designed by professionals, and the Ark was made by an amateur called Noah. Sometimes we forget that professionalism does not always reside many miles away with a large company.

I also want to mention education and encouragement. Recently, I was greatly encouraged by receiving e-mails from some young people who wanted to join with other young people to do something locally in a charitable context. Whether that is part of the curriculum now, or whether it has suddenly sprung up, there seems to be
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a real opportunity to encourage young people to get more involved in the voluntary sector. Whatever happens after the next election, I hope that we can continue to educate young people to become more involved in their communities through opportunities to volunteer, because the side benefits that they will get from that are incalculable.

I was chairman of the Prince's Trust volunteers in my area for about five years when it was first set up. Groups of 16 to 24-year-olds from all sorts of different backgrounds joined together for team building, and that had a massive effect on people who would not normally mix together. They were certainly not the sort of people who would go down the pub together and have a drink, because they came from different backgrounds, but they got the opportunity to understand each other. People from poorer areas mixed with those from more affluent areas, who perhaps had well-paid jobs, and the individuals learned a lot from each other. The unfortunate thing about the volunteers, however, was that it became difficult for younger people to be released for reasonable periods of time so that they could engage in the scheme. That gives us a valuable lesson, and I think that the process should be reformed.

I said that I have been involved in Treasury matters, and the issue of remutualisation has already been touched on. Although the previous Government enabled the mutual societies to become plcs and ultimately banks, they did not necessarily drive that. Subsequently, the financial sector began to see that lots of small building societies were beginning to come together and merge. Although we had had 400, 500 or 600-or even 700 or 800-building societies, it rapidly became clear that 90 per cent. of the business of building societies was being carried out by five of them. That was a significantly different situation, and the great shame, as much as anything else, was that competition was destroyed. There must be a return to a broader operation of the financial sector. The plcs and huge multinational banks that we now have are not necessarily the gold standard, and there must be room for modern mutuals to come back and be encouraged. Perhaps there needs to be greater emphasis on some of the credit unions. I would prefer them to be slightly bigger and to be called community banks, as that would be a far more sensible name. They would be another way of providing a variety of competition in the financial sector.

There must be some thought as to how modern mutuals can be encouraged under a new legislative framework, and become more involved in the smaller end so that we again have a good spectrum. There has been a flight towards size, and although it might have been thought that fewer but larger banks would be easier to regulate, the obvious examples from recent years give the lie to that. We would have been better off by having a much wider range of financial organisations, rather than relying on a small number of large banks.

There are all sorts of potential opportunities for modern mutuals. Football clubs were mentioned, and there is an opportunity for professional clubs that do not want to go down the plc route to begin to develop as a modern mutual so that supporters both near and far can be involved in their club and provide some measure of financial stability. By reducing the mutual sector in all sorts of spheres and making plcs a sort of gold
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standard, we have lost an awful lot. We need to try and find ways of re-energising the mutual sector.

Finally, as I said at the beginning of my speech, we need to find ways to recognise the amazing work that is done in a voluntary capacity by so many people. Not everybody can get an honour in the new year, but surely we could begin to have a more organised way of recognising genuine service over long periods of time for particular communities. That is what people often like-a little bit of recognition. They have never been paid and have given huge amounts of their time and effort, and sometimes of their own money. We must find a way of rewarding that with some recognition.

4.46 pm

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I am still reeling from the shock, as I think I have just listened to a predictably excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that contained no mention of the European Court of Human Rights. I suspect that he will correct that. It was an excellent and passionate speech that reinforced the point made by all speakers in different ways, which is that in this place we do not talk enough about the value of independent civil society to our sense of national wellbeing. The hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) was entirely right-Members of Parliament are uniquely placed to articulate that point, because we know from our day-to-day work that what we call the third sector is often the glue that holds our communities together. If I think about what would happen if volunteers did not turn up to the Ruislip scouts group, the churches, the Northwood police station or the Michael Sobell hospice, I get a sense of what we would lose, and it is something vital. I am also conscious that I represent a relatively lucky community where that glue is strong. As most of us know, there are too many parts of the country where that glue is weak and needs strengthening.

We must think collectively about how to tackle the stubborn social problems that carry such a big financial and, more importantly, human cost. Whether we like the broken society narrative or not, we are all aware that the problems out there are stubborn and expensive. Most of us recognise from our day-to-day work that if we are looking for solutions, the first place to start is often the voluntary sector and what are frequently small organisations that are that much closer to the people whom we are trying to help, and which enjoy a different relationship of trust and therefore a greater capacity to make an impact.

I am sure that we all have our favourite organisations. I am continually inspired by a social enterprise on the edge of my constituency called Blue Sky, which is the only company in the country where someone has to have a criminal record to work there. It does extraordinary work in helping prisoners to work, under contract to Hillingdon council, so that they can prove to a future employer that they can be trusted. It is a critical stepping stone on the journey off the reoffending cycle. That solution works and could be replicated elsewhere if other local authorities contracted on the same model. At the moment, an important political consensus is being developed that we need to try to create more space to allow those kinds of organisations to do their magic.

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Political consensus is important, too, in the role that the Government have to play in helping to support the sector and unlock its potential-again, an expression used by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West-to help more people and to improve more lives. I suggest that that is why we are here. In their role of supporting the sector, we believe that the Government should focus on three questions.

The first is about what we are doing to make it easier to run a charity, a social enterprise or a voluntary organisation. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) was entirely right. We believe that, over time, we have allowed an increasingly dense thicket of regulation, bureaucracy and hidden costs to grow for those organisations. The risk is that that will stifle much of the innovation and creativity that we want; it will turn off exactly the sort of people we want to turn on. It is complicated, because a lot of that stuff is there for understandably good reasons, but we have lost sight of the cumulative effect on the sector. We are determined to thin that thicket. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall was right, too, to highlight Gift Aid as a place to start. It is undeniably an excessively bureaucratic process. The burden of that administration falls on charities, with a disproportionate part falling on smaller charities, which are struggling.

The second question for the Government is what we are doing to get more resources, both time and money, into the sector. The time bit is crucial. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) were eloquent on that question. I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman's analysis when he spoke of the potential for more employee-led volunteering, and the need to engage more businesses by structuring their role and inspiring their people to give more time.

What excites me in talking to that community is that more and more businesses see that it is not about public relations or ticking a box on corporate social responsibility. They are doing it because they can see that it is absolutely in their commercial interests to do so; it is about developing their most important assets, which are human. Barclays, KPMG and the people leading on this see that clearly. The challenge is to inspire other business leaders. I shall return to the issue of money later.

The third question, on which I shall focus, is: what are we and the Government doing to make it easier for the organisations in that sector to do business with the state? I have been shadow spokesman for just over a year, and everything that I have heard suggests that too often it is a bureaucratic nightmare. To give a specific example, the excellent report by the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, which we were encouraged to read for the debate and which the Minister mentioned, deals with the Supporting People programme. The report brings to light a substantial problem-how difficult it is to get the relationship right consistently across the country. The programme is aimed at vulnerable people, and, as the report makes clear, the third sector has a central role in delivery. However, the report shows how difficult it is get it right and make the relationship work.

What comes through-this is the main point that I wish to make-is how complex we have made that environment. The report gives a picture of different practices in different local authorities and Departments,
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of programmes that one minute are ring-fenced and the next not ring-fenced, of new initiatives that have to be pieced in and made coherent, of new apparatus for decision making, of new local area agreements, local strategic partnerships and regional layers, and of changes being made to the assessment regime. We may convince ourselves that things are moving things in the right direction, devolving power and everything else that we sign up to on a cross-party basis, but I wonder whether we have thought enough about what it means to the environment in which people have to work.

Mr. Cash: May I make a small suggestion? There was a time when the friendly societies and mutuals had a similar problem, which resulted from their 19th- century origins. The Friendly Societies Acts and the Companies Acts then dealt with the various circumstances that arose. If we were to have a voluntary societies Act or a third sector Act, that could, without increasing bureaucratisation, simply provide a template against which most others could be judged. That could be a way to help make things simpler and more transparent.

Mr. Hurd: That suggestion is an interesting idea, and the main point made by my hon. Friend is something that I am trying to reinforce. We ought to be in the business of making things simpler, but we are making them really hard.

Mr. Breed: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. One simple way of doing that would be to ensure that there is a sense of proportionality. The problem is that we sometimes have exactly the same rules for Oxfam as for a tiny organisation in a small town. We need a sense of proportionality about the way in which charities are administered and controlled.

Mr. Hurd: I agree. The starting point is a determination that the role of the Government should be to make things simpler.

The report shows how complex the environment is, and how difficult it is for that relationship to work. It is a relationship between two people trying to do something simple and sensible-one person wishing to buy a service and the other wishing to sell or deliver a service. Both of them should be united in their purpose, as it is all about trying to deliver a better outcome to those we are trying to help. The environment in which this simple human transaction is taking place is unbelievably complex.

The problem is that the environment is about to change for the worse. We all know about the state of public finances in our constituencies, and that the funding market for local authorities has been difficult for the past four or five years, but it is about to get even harder, as the authorities know. My local authority of Hillingdon has been very effective in squeezing out efficiencies for the past three or four years-it was recently ranked as the most efficient council in London-but it is now in an environment in which it will have to do the same again. It has reached the point of saying that it cannot necessarily go on as before. It has squeezed the lemon. It almost has to start with a blank sheet of paper and think about what it has to deliver and to open its mind to doing things differently. If that is happening elsewhere, it will present a tremendous opportunity for the third sector, but also a risk and a challenge.

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Tom Levitt: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will return to the question of how to make life easier for these organisations. There is nothing easier than setting up a "Just Giving" webpage, as the Gift Aid is then easily sorted out. I have not heard the hon. Gentleman suggest that charity law needs to be changed, or that the health and safety regime should be relaxed. Neither the hon. Gentleman nor the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) have suggested changing the CRB rules on the grounds of the requirement for some checks. Will the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) be a little more specific about what changes he would make, bearing in mind that he also complains that things are different in different areas, which suggests that centralisation of the regulations is not necessarily the problem?

Mr. Hurd: I have mentioned Gift Aid, but there are specific considerations relating to making the process easier.

The most important point is that there needs to be a serious step back. We need to consider what has happened over the last 20 years as a result of increasing regulation and bureaucracy. We need to look at it in the round, because it is complex, and much of that stuff is there for a reason. There has been some progress in reducing the time associated with making CRB applications, but there is a lot of frustration about the need for multiple applications. There is a desire for things such as a passporting scheme to be considered. However, I want to talk about making things easier, the relationship between the state and the organisations, which want to step up and help to deliver services, and the frustrations that those organisations face.

The report is interesting because of the themes that it brings up. It illustrates some things that seem to be going wrong, and it is frank about some of the difficulties that the Government face-government is hard. There is clearly a lot of effort on giving clearer guidance to local authority commissioners about things such as EU procurement laws and all the excuses that can be used.

The Department is clear that there is still a serious problem at grassroots level. The guidance is still not clear enough and there is a big problem with helping commissioners to differentiate between value and cost. If that argument is won, there is a need to help with the measurement of value. The Minister knows that there is a lot of debate about measuring value, but the simple point is that finding money, whether public or private, will be more demanding when we want to measure value and impacts. The Government can play a role by working with the sector to find mechanisms to help commissioners to identify and quantify impact and value, and that will help in an environment in which the natural human tendency will always be driven by cost. If we believe that there is a distinction between value and cost, the people who are trying to make the process work will need some help from us.

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