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Social Exclusion

Volume 457: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2007

Personalisation is crucial to the effectiveness of public services and tackling social exclusion. We have taken significant steps forward, for example, through direct payments for disabled people and those requiring social services. Personalisation also requires good information and advice to support individuals in deciding what is appropriate to meet their needs, and the Government are taking steps to ensure that that is available.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response. What involvement and assistance are the Government giving to the voluntary community sector to enable it to work with the public services in the state sector to support the most hard to reach individuals?

My hon. Friend is right that we have to work closely with the voluntary community sector, especially to reach people who have, for whatever reason, become excluded from many aspects of our life. We are working closely with the third sector to ensure that it is able to provide services and act in different ways. One of the results emerging from the third sector action plan, which we published last November, is that we will train 2,000 commissioners in the public sector to work effectively with the third sector to provide services in a very personalised way. When people have a real problem, they need someone who will be able to engage with them, and that is often someone in their local community or voluntary organisation.

I am sure that the right hon. Lady’s sentiments are impeccable, but I wish that I could say the same for her language. Can we start putting these things into language that the ordinary people of this country can understand?

I am really not sure to which bit of my language the hon. Gentleman objects. The voluntary and community sector knows what we are talking about and it wants to be involved in designing and delivering services. That is what commissioning means and the sector understands it well. It wants to work with us to ensure that it can play its part in providing real opportunities for the socially excluded.

It is possible that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) was referring to the word “personalisation”. Will my right hon. Friend take great care to ensure that when we speak of personalisation we do not really mean depersonalisation? I remind her that in the tax credits system we have had to bring back case workers—real people—because relying on computers did not provide a satisfactory service for tax credit claimants. Let us ensure that personalisation means that people have the ability to contact real people about their problems in the round.

I understand absolutely what my hon. Friend means. Personalisation does mean that an individual who has a particular challenge—be they a child in care, someone with a disability or an elderly person—is able to have contact with someone who will really address their individual needs. I ask my hon. Friend to look at what is being done by the Department for Education and Skills in relation to schools, where individual tuition will be given to those children who are not making the grade, as it were, in their reading. This whole agenda is aimed at ensuring that we address such problems in a very personal way.

Does the Minister agree that one of the biggest barriers to truly personalised back-to-work support services is the fact that the range of support available to claimants depends too much on which benefit they claim, and not enough on individual needs? In his recent review, David Freud discussed moving towards a single working age benefit. Does she agree that that would help to break down some of those barriers, and make it easier to ensure that the help that people get depends on their needs and not on the benefit that they claim?

That is how the pathways to work scheme operates. It looks much more closely at the individual needs of unemployed people, and addresses those needs accordingly. I was interested to hear that David Freud had returned to the idea of a single benefit. Many previous Governments have considered that possibility and found it very difficult to achieve. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is looking at that option but, regardless of whether we are able to introduce it, we must still achieve much more personalisation. That is especially true of the unemployed, as we must determine—and then overcome—the barriers that prevent a person from getting back to work.

The Minister will be aware of the groundbreaking report on free automated teller machines produced before Christmas and supported by industry, consumer groups and Parliament. In her discussions with local authorities, will she encourage them to try to attain the target of 600 free ATMs in low-income areas, as people who are excluded financially are excluded socially as well?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. The Department is part of a working group being set up by the Treasury, and I assure him that we will pursue the agenda that he and his Committee raised in that very useful report. I promise to keep in touch with him about our progress.

The Minister says that the voluntary sector has a vital role to play in tailoring public services to individual needs, but there is a problem. The Charity Commission has said that the terms offered by the state to voluntary sector providers undermine their financial stability and independence. Only 12 per cent. of charities are being paid the full costs of their services, and only a quarter of them felt able to make decisions without pressure from public sector funders. When will the Government properly trust the voluntary sector to do the job at a local level?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has intervened, as I thought that the way that he voted last week in respect of a Bill designed to increase voluntary sector involvement signalled a change of direction on his part. Perhaps he was not happy at being asked to vote that way, and so is renewing his support for the voluntary sector this week. We have discussed the question of full cost recovery at length with the voluntary and community sectors, and the Charity Commission recognises that there has been significant improvement. The situation is getting better and, with the hon. Gentleman’s support, will continue to do so. However, he had an opportunity to support the voluntary sector last week, and did not take it.