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Voluntary Sector

Volume 459: debated on Monday 30 April 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a matter of great concern to my constituents who live in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, and to others, as the voluntary sector organisations there affect many people living in west London. I am pleased to see that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband) is to respond to my speech; he can already count himself a friend of the voluntary sector in Hammersmith and Fulham because, as he will recall, earlier this year he spoke at a well-attended meeting in the assembly hall of Hammersmith town hall. The meeting was called by West London Citizens, an umbrella group for many voluntary and community bodies that does excellent work across west London in raising issues such as the living wage and migrant workers’ rights.

That same assembly hall hosted a rather less happy meeting exactly two weeks ago—a meeting of the ruling Tory cabinet of Hammersmith and Fulham council to decide on future council support for the voluntary sector. On that occasion, about 500 supporters, clients and employees of the voluntary sector had come to oppose swingeing cuts to the financial support that they receive from the council. I should at this point declare several interests. For 15 years, I sat on the management board of the Hammersmith and Fulham community law centre, which has lost £159,000, or 60 per cent. of its grant. Until recently, and for a similar length of time, I was a board member of Broadway, the homeless charity for single people, which has lost 100 per cent. of its grant. I do not say that the fact that I sat on the boards of those bodies is anything to do with the loss of their grants, as a number of other organisations have lost their grant, too, but perhaps it is tangentially relevant.

I will say more about individual organisations in due course, but I am not here to submit special pleading on behalf of one or more organisations. From my 20 years as a member of Hammersmith and Fulham council and my 46 years as a local resident, I know the voluntary sector in the area well. It is overwhelmingly well-motivated and targeted to meet local needs and aspirations, as one would expect, but it is also particularly efficient and effective. Of course, not every organisation merits receipt of public funds in perpetuity, and it is the right of any grant-giving body to review its funding to determine whether money is being well spent. My purpose in requesting this debate is to draw the Government’s attention to the fact that what is happening in Hammersmith and Fulham is not the proper exercise of local democracy, and the implications of that, as an article on page 24 of The Times today suggests, go far beyond Hammersmith and Fulham.

I also want to warn the Minister that the Government’s laudable aim of encouraging and expanding the work of the voluntary sector is being undermined by Tory local authorities, and I want to ask him to express his support for those voluntary sector organisations that are being unjustly driven to the wall. I shall first set out the facts on what is happening in Hammersmith and Fulham to show that, contrary to the council’s propaganda, we are talking about real cuts in the voluntary sector, not redistributions of grant. Secondly, I shall comment on the process by which those cuts have been made, which is both irregular and dishonest. Thirdly, I will highlight some of the disastrous consequences for my constituents of the cuts. Sadly, the fact that the voluntary sector has been savagely cut is no surprise. I raised the matter with the Prime Minister at Question Time last week, only to find that he was aware not only of the problem but of the other £34 million of cuts already under way in the borough. The reputation of the Tories in Hammersmith and Fulham has spread far and wide in the single year since their election. It is known that the borough has fallen into the hands of an unrepresentative, post-Thatcherite rump. What is more surprising is that it has the full backing of the national leadership. Again, today’s edition of The Times, says that

“far from distancing themselves from such councils, modernisers closer to the Conservative leader have embraced the activities of councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham. One said ‘They are very much part of the project’”.

It is to be expected that a council prepared to cut £34 million from statutory services, including home care, mental health provision and services for the homeless, would move on to the voluntary sector. Indeed, the very council services that have been cut are those that work alongside the voluntary sector, supporting vulnerable people in the community.

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not do so, as I have a lot to cover.

Wary of the powerful voice that the voluntary sector exercises, the council has attempted to conceal the scale of the cuts, as well as to enforce the decision quickly and in secret. In 2002, the then Labour-run council set out a four-year programme of funding that aimed to combine security of funding with robust checks on performance, and it worked very well. In the last year of the four, which ended last month, total spending was £4,192,233. The present council says that it will preserve that funding level in the current financial year, but that is an empty boast. First, the sudden announcement of the cuts has forced it to guarantee funding at current levels until 30 September. A new regime then takes over, with a hotch-potch of six-month grants, 18-month grants, extraneous commitments and sums reserved for further review. It is impossible to say what the spend for this year will be, but in any event, it is a red herring. The first year of comparison is, in fact, next year—2007-08—on which the council has not given any guarantees, but it has allocated a notional £3.1 million.

There are allusions in the report to ongoing commitments, further reviews of services and, indeed, to a secret stash of cash known as the fast-track fund, but there are no figures, which means that mainstream voluntary sector funding is set to fall by over a quarter—or over £1 million—this year. Moreover, that is not the full extent of the cuts. Separate provision has been made for top-up relief—the 80 per cent. relief from business rates that charities receive. Under current arrangements, they are entitled to the additional 20 per cent., 75 per cent. of which is paid by the local authority and 25 per cent. by the Government. The director of the Voluntary Sector Resource Agency, Penelope Harrison, wrote to the council on 10 April—needless to say, she has not received a reply—querying why the money is going to be cut and mentioning, inter alia, that as a result of the 75 per cent. cut, charities will lose the 25 per cent. that the Government provide, too. The answer is quite simple—it costs the council some £411,000. In addition, it intends to cut discretionary relief worth £28,000 for non-profit-making organisations that are not charities.

The report that passed those provisions on 19 March said that that money would be safeguarded. It said that the expected savings resulting from cuts to the top-up relief

“are likely to be in the order of £300,000 to £400,000,”

It said that that money would be recycled into the voluntary sector grants budget, but I received an e-mail from the grants section on Friday, which said that

“approximately £250,000 will be recycled back into voluntary sector grants. Additional savings of approximately £100,000 will be a saving to the General Fund from 2008/09.”

At least I have achieved the first open admission of a genuine cut of £100,000, but my belief is that, at present, the amount of cuts the council intend to make is nearer £1 million over the cycle.

There are other cuts in prospect. Gleefully, the current report that was considered two weeks ago notes that a review of council premises occupied by the voluntary community sector and the levels of rent subsidy will shortly commence, and there is to be a review of in-kind support to the voluntary community sector, assessing the use of seconded staff, the availability of officer advice, and access to the council’s payroll service. Those reviews could produce an increase in support, although that is unlikely. From every possible angle and through every possible device, the voluntary sector in Hammersmith and Fulham is being targeted for swingeing cuts by the Conservative council.

I am grateful. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the actual amount of money being given to the voluntary sector is increasing by 2 per cent. this year? Moneys are merely being re-arranged, with 16 new organisations being given extra money. Is he suggesting that new money being given to Standing Together Against Domestic Violence and to the Zimbabwe Women’s Network, two of the 16 groups, should not be given out?

There is always a danger in coming to the Chamber inadequately briefed to do others’ bidding. The hon. Gentleman has warned me of that on other occasions. Perhaps because his conscience pricks him occasionally because his own council is also making swingeing cuts in public services, he feels the need to stand up for a council such as Hammersmith and Fulham. I offer him this piece of advice: just don’t go there. If he reads my speech tomorrow, he will see that I have already dealt in some detail with the points that he makes. Perhaps he wanted to get his intervention in earlier and had not corrected it at the appropriate time.

I accept that we may disagree on the exact figures. That is deliberate. The process is deliberately obfuscatory, but there is no disagreement that the process itself is a disgrace, a hole in the corner, dishonest, shifty, lacking all transparency. There was a year during which the proposals could have been brought forward. The Conservatives say that there have been public meetings of a general kind. They have asked the voluntary organisations to apply again for their grants. That ended in the council sending the voluntary organisations the top half of a piece of paper and asking them to confirm factual details. They omitted the rather more vital bottom half, which had the recommendation of how much money the organisations were to receive.

Then, suddenly, out of the blue, a bombshell dropped. On 2 April this year, at the beginning of Easter week, the council sent out papers which for some organisations meant the end of 20 or 30 years of service to the community. Some never received those papers and did not know until they were told by word of mouth that their grants were being cut. Some received them on the Wednesday or Thursday before Good Friday. If they wished to object, they had to ask for a deputation by Tuesday 10 April, one or two working days later. Amazingly, six organisations did object. Others tried, but fell foul of bureaucratic rules.

The meeting to make the final decision on the cuts was held on Monday 16 April, exactly two weeks ago. Such, however, was the strength of feeling that despite the short notice, about 500 people met outside the town hall for speeches, and inside they listened while deputations from the Law Centre, Hammersmith Community Transport, the Voluntary Sector Resource Agency and others were allowed a bare 5 minutes to justify their continued existence. Not one Conservative councillor asked a question in respect of the report. Labour councillors, not members of the one-party committee making the decision, were heckled when they tried to ask questions and prevented from asking questions of the deputations, despite provision in the standing orders for them to do so.

After the six deputations had put their case very effectively, Halima Ismael of the Horn of Africa Group went up to the microphone. The Horn of Africa Group is an organisation for Somalians and other east African people in west London. It has been in existence for 20 years and is recognised as a beacon of expertise and advice, counselling and services to the east African community. Given the large numbers of refugees who have come over the past few years, there has never been a greater need for its services. It is to lose all £55,000 of its grant.

Ms Ismael was sneeringly told that as one of the signatories to her deputation was not an elector of the borough she would not be allowed to speak, and that if she was that concerned, she would have got it right.

It being Ten o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]

On cue, having heard enough, the Conservative councillors, as they had on every occasion when challenged by their constituents, rose as one, left the meeting, and then, we are told, with no further discussion ratified all the cuts that they had proposed in secret. There is nothing in the papers that were before the council to rank one voluntary group against another. There is nothing to justify the percentage of the cuts. There was no consultation on the proposals with the groups or with the wider community. In 20 years in local government, I have never seen a process conducted with less openness or propriety.

I have said enough on the process; I shall say a few short words on the cuts. I mentioned Hammersmith and Fulham Community Law Centre. It is a body with a national reputation that employs 12 highly qualified solicitors who offer expert, professional legal advice. It is the only organisation in the borough that does so. That is my opinion and that of many others, including the shadow Attorney-General, who many years ago sat on the board of the law centre and is, I believe, an admirer of its work. It was set up in 1979 and its primary role is to serve the local community. I note that in the last calendar year it dealt with more than 1,900 housing cases, almost 2,300 immigration cases, and a substantial number of employment, welfare benefit, asylum support and many other miscellaneous cases.

It goes beyond that, however. The law centre has been the occasion of many significant legal decisions in this country and often involves representation up to the House of Lords and the European Court. Many well-known cases have gone to those courts as a consequence of local cases that have started in Hammersmith and Fulham. It is the repository of an irreplaceable degree of expertise and experience, and yet it is to have its budget cut by 60 per cent. It is also the bedrock for the community in Hammersmith and Fulham. It provides training and advice to other voluntary sector groups and it may well be being targeted for cuts for exactly that reason.

I have mentioned the Horn of Africa group, and numerous other refugee organisations have also been targeted for cuts: the Iraqi Association and the Kurdish Association are both losing 100 per cent. of their grant. The Third Age Foundation, which helps older people who are unemployed back into work, is losing 100 per cent. of its grant. I hosted a successful reception for that body on the Terrace a few months ago, and the Opposition pensions spokesman came and spoke in praise of the organisation and its work. Organisations that support the community, such as the Hammersmith community transport project and Caring for Carers, are also losing 100 per cent. of their grant. Only two months ago, I noticed the latter organisation in a glossy photograph in the local council propaganda sheet with the mayor saying what a wonderful job it was doing. It is an extraordinary act of not only belligerence but hypocrisy that now all those organisations are to lose all their grant, and many others, particularly the advice centre, are to lose some of their grant. Given the overheads that we all know that voluntary sector organisations work to, that will make it almost impossible for them to survive.

I know that other councils, especially the new Tory councils elected last May, have their eyes set on cutting the voluntary sector. Last week, I met a solicitor from Camden Community Law Centre, which is fighting a fierce campaign against the Tory-Liberal council there. I doubt whether the same scale or approach apply—perhaps they do in Croydon—in other local authorities. I do not know why it is happening. We may find out through judicial review or as the campaign against the cuts takes off. It may simply be due to the arrogance and inexperience or political extremism of those running the council.

I found an extraordinary comment—it is a matter of public record—from one of the Conservative councillors about the law centre’s grant. He said:

“The absurd situation has been allowed to develop where taxpayers fund the Law Centre who act on behalf of ‘clients’ who are actually taking the council to court. We are paying the people who are suing us!”

There is a clue to the reasons for the cuts. It never entered the mind of the little sprog who wrote that that there might be a reason for the law centre to sue the council, but it gives an interesting insight into the totalitarian mindset of the Conservative party under the stewardship of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). If the reasons that I outlined or more overtly political ones are those for the cuts—I suspect that they are—it is a further disgrace.

Most of the cuts have been made to organisations that support the homeless, the unemployed or refugees. They match the cuts in the statutory sector to social housing programmes, community schools and social services. There is a concerted campaign from the Conservative council to remove services from vulnerable people to transform Hammersmith and Fulham into the nightmare, literally care-free borough that its predecessors in fanaticism in Wandsworth and Westminster wrought.

I do not expect my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to fight our local battles for us. The Hammersmith and Fulham voluntary sector funding campaign, which was established last Thursday, will do that ably. It plans to reverse the cuts with the aid of its supporters locally and nationally. I ask my hon. Friend to examine what Tory councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham do to the voluntary sector, and work with voluntary sector organisations locally and nationally to highlight the need for their services, not for the benefit of councils, the Government or even the organisations, but the people—especially the vulnerable people—whom they serve and whom I represent.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) on securing the debate. I know that he is a long-standing champion of the voluntary sector in his area, as he showed so eloquently in his speech. He did much to help the sector in Hammersmith and Fulham during his nine years as leader of the council. He is right to say that I had the pleasure last May of meeting some of the local groups in Hammersmith and Fulham at the west London citizens event. It testified to the great diversity and strength of the sector in Hammersmith and Fulham.

No hon. Member can fail to have sympathy with the case that my hon. Friend makes. He talks about cuts to organisations that represent some of the most disadvantaged people in our society—the homeless, refugees and those urgently in need of access to the law.

The debate goes to the heart of the future of the voluntary sector, not only in Hammersmith and Fulham but everywhere. It does that because it deals with the central fact that local authorities are at the front line of the drive to ensure a thriving and successful voluntary sector.

When it comes to representation and campaigning, the voluntary sector needs a local authority that genuinely listens and understands that a strong democracy comes from a diverse range of voices. When it comes to public services, the sector needs a local authority that understands the potential of the voluntary sector—as in the case of the law centre that my hon. Friend mentioned—but also recognises its responsibilities to provide adequate public funding.

When it comes to building community—again, my hon. Friend spoke eloquently about groups in Hammersmith and Fulham—the third sector needs a local authority that understands its need for small grants to do the vital work that keeps our communities strong.

Above all, we need local authorities that recognise the need for partnership with the local voluntary sector and understand that local authorities such as Hammersmith and Fulham play an irreplaceable role as the democratically elected voice of local people but that the voluntary sector can reach people and places that the public sector on its own cannot reach.

The question at the heart of my hon. Friend’s debate is: how do we secure the strong voluntary sector in Hammersmith and Fulham and what do we learn from his remarks today? I have been round the country as part of our third sector review, talking with local organisations about their relationship with local authorities. We in the House need to be clear that central Government can play an important role, but we also need to understand the role of local politics. I want to talk about those two issues in responding to my hon. Friend.

Central Government need to send clear signals in the framework that they set about the need for partnership. The commitments in the local government White Paper and the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is currently before the House, are, I hope, a major step forward in that regard. There is a new duty on local government to ensure the participation of local citizens. Through that, the voluntary sector will have a greater voice in local strategic partnerships, the forum for policy making in local authorities.

The Government’s ambition is also for some of the key commitments in the compact—the agreement governing the relationship between the public sector and the voluntary sector—to be part of the financial codes for local government. There is a strong expectation that three-year funding, which is being introduced for local government, will be passed on to the voluntary sector. We hope that, as part of the local government performance indicators, there will also be a clear acknowledgement of the role of the local voluntary sector. Those commitments are also supported by the compact and, now, by the new commissioner for the compact, an independent body at arm’s length from Government, to encourage best practice. Those are important commitments from the centre of Government, and there are others, but there is an important truth in my hon. Friend’s debate that we should acknowledge. If we are to uphold the role of local government as the voice of local people, the culture change that we want to see will need to come from local government itself or, if the change is not forthcoming, from political change at local level.

That brings me to some specific observations about Hammersmith and Fulham and to my hon. Friend’s suggestions about the way forward. Five points stand out from my hon. Friend’s remarks. First, he is right to suggest that the voluntary sector should never be seen as a soft touch for cuts in funding. The cuts in funding that he described hit some of the most vulnerable groups in Hammersmith and Fulham. We should be under no illusions: it will often be the most vulnerable members of the community who will suffer from cuts in funding. He outlined in detail the disadvantaged groups that will suffer from the significant overall cut that, I understand, is planned for next year in Hammersmith and Fulham.

Secondly, the voluntary sector draws its strength from its diversity. In our approach to the funding of the sector, we in central Government are trying to respect and encourage that diversity. At local level, the local government White Paper urged a continuation of grants as well as contracts. That is especially important for the smallest organisations, particularly those representing the most marginalised groups. The local compact drawn up by Hammersmith and Fulham provides a commitment to what should be possible. All partners agree to

“take account of the diverse nature of the voluntary and community sector and use a variety of methods to encourage socially excluded groups to participate.”

That is why we are all concerned to hear about the cuts for the smallest organisations that my hon. Friend outlined, such as the 100 per cent. cut in funding to the horn of Africa group, the 100 per cent. cut in funding to the domestic violence intervention centre or the 100 per cent. cut in funding to the senior citizens creative arts and lunch club.

Thirdly, it is essential both that central Government and local government do not use the role of the voluntary sector as a way of providing public services on the cheap and that they provide funds on time, taking account of the full costs that organisations face. The cuts to Hammersmith and Fulham law centre that my hon. Friend described are obviously of concern, since I know that law centres round the country do great work for those who have least access to legal representation.

Fourthly, as the compact makes clear, it is important that all decisions are transparent, which, in a way, is what is most concerning about the remarks that my hon. Friend made and the issues to which he has drawn attention. Reasons for decisions need to be clearly explained. There should be ample opportunity to discuss decisions in advance and, where appropriate, for those decisions to reflect arguments that are made. My hon. Friend suggested that that had not happened, which is obviously a significant matter of regret.

I draw my hon. Friend’s attention in that context to an organisation called the Public Law Project, which has taken action against another council, precisely over the form of consultation that took place. The law centre will take its own view on whether it should take action against the council, but I would draw his attention to the case that I have described and the work of the Public Law Project.

Fifthly, it is crucial that public authorities respect the voluntary sector organisations’ desire to combine campaigning and advocacy with public service provision. Because of this, some public authorities might find themselves funding organisations that sometimes campaign against them or challenge them, but that is part of how important social change happens. Many of the changes of the past 10 years would not have happened without voluntary sector campaigning. It is fundamental to what the sector does. I see the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) nodding in agreement.

I welcome the new statements from the chair of the Charity Commission which clarify the right of charities to pursue advocacy and campaigning. The national compact states that the Government must

“recognise and support the independence of the sector, including its right within the law to campaign, to comment on Government policy, and to challenge that policy, irrespective of any funding relationship that might exist.”

As I understand it, the compact drawn up by Hammersmith and Fulham borough partnership included an identical commitment. Ceasing to fund an organisation because it has helped to represent people against the council would therefore certainly not comply with the terms of the compact.

My suggestion would be that the law centre take up the issue with the compact advocacy programme, which is operated independently from the Government by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. It can advise on using the compact to improve relations with central and local government, and make representations to public bodies on behalf of voluntary sector groups.

My hon. Friend has highlighted the important wider issue of the right of organisations to campaign and advocate. I will draw the attention of the new commissioner for the compact, John Stoker, to all the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. I am obviously disappointed, as all Members of this House should be, to hear of the issues in Hammersmith and Fulham—not just the cuts to important projects but the apparent questioning of the right to advocacy and campaigning.

In the end, the real solution to the problems described by my hon. Friend involves politics and the collective ability of individual organisations and political parties to make change happen. But it also requires the right council leadership that will listen to and understand the role of a thriving voluntary sector and see the need to make it a priority. This is partly about how we view the relationship between the voluntary sector and the state. Do we see the sector as a replacement for the state, funded from private income rather than taxpayers’ money? Or do we understand that partnership means the state putting its money where its mouth is?

I am proud of the fact that central Government funding for the voluntary sector has seen a 96 per cent. real-terms increase since 1997. My hon. Friend has drawn our attention to a range of important issues tonight, but one in particular stands out. It is easy to make promises in opposition, but much harder to hold to them in practice. It is easy to have photo opportunities and warm words, but much harder to do the long hard slog of enabling people to build a thriving voluntary sector.

I would say to the Opposition that we are watching the situation, not only in Hammersmith and Fulham but elsewhere. If the trends that my hon. Friend has highlighted continue, it will be a clear sign that warm words and commitments to the voluntary sector are simply not being honoured in practice. I am sure that the people of Hammersmith and Fulham will be grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing our attention to the issues he has raised tonight. I am sure that the voluntary sector in the borough will be particularly grateful, and I hope that it will make its voice heard and be able to thrive in the years to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Ten o’clock.