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Duchy of Lancaster

Volume 463: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2007

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Social Exclusion (Adults)

Since 1997 social exclusion has fallen, but we need to do more, so we plan to tackle it through a focus on particular groups of people, such as ex-prisoners and those with mental health problems. Just as through “Every child matters” we have seen better local co-ordination for children’s services, so too through our work we will seek better local co-ordination for adults to tackle people’s multiple and complex needs.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and I welcome him to his new Department and his well-deserved promotion. As he knows, I worked in psychiatry, and people with mental illness are extremely difficult to place in the workplace, not least because of the prejudice of some employers. Can he reassure me that he will co-ordinate work through all Government agencies and the CBI to ensure that we get those people back in the workplace, which is not only good for their self-esteem, but is therapeutic, too?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the past 10 years, our recognition of the role of mental health problems in society and the extent to which they affect employment and a range of other issues has increased a great deal. He is right, too, to say that we need to do more work with employers, and that is the focus of the review under way as part of the comprehensive spending review. As part of our employment programmes—this was recently emphasised in the pathways to work programme—we need to ensure that when people on incapacity benefit come to us with a set of problems their mental health problems are recognised. That needs to happen across the board if we are to tackle the problems that my hon. Friend identified.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that at the last reckoning, no fewer than 2,063 young adults in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Milton Keynes suffered social exclusion by virtue of the fact that they were not in education, employment or training? Does he share my particular concern that 1,000 of those 2,063 people were in that position because of untreated speech, language and communication impairments? Will he give an undertaking to work across government to improve massively the quality and earliness of intervention, so that many of the problems that manifest themselves at a later stage, to such disadvantage to our society, can be avoided?

The hon. Gentleman makes his point extremely eloquently, and I know that he takes a personal interest in those issues. He is absolutely right about the importance of treating and addressing special needs issues early. If those needs are not addressed early—he raised the issue of individuals who are not in education, employment or training—they are not solved, and they come back to haunt those people for the rest of their lives. I will endeavour to work across government on those issues, and I am happy, too, to meet him to talk further about those and other issues.

In welcoming my right hon. Friend to his new position, may I ask whether he has seen the proposal from the Opposition about a transferable tax allowance, and—[Interruption.]

Order. It is not for the Minister to discuss the Opposition’s policies. If the hon. Lady had phrased her question better, she might have got away with it.

I congratulate the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and his colleagues on their appointments, and I look forward to many discussions at the Dispatch Box. The new Prime Minister said in the 1990s:

“We will reverse the gap between rich and poor that has affected our society.”

After 10 years in which the right hon. Gentleman had unparalleled powers as Chancellor of the Exchequer, with huge parliamentary majorities, is the Minister proud that today’s report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that

“Britain is moving back towards levels of inequality in wealth and poverty last seen more than 40 years ago”?

Is not what is needed the sort of rigorous analysis undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) in the social justice report last week?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome. Over the past two years, he has tried to make the Conservative party address seriously the issues of social exclusion and social justice. That is an uphill struggle, so he is to be congratulated. On his specific question about inequality—yes, it is a problem in our society, and we should all read and acknowledge the Rowntree report. I would point out, however, that its author, Danny Dorling, said today of the “poorest of the poor” that

“that group had actually reduced in size in the last ten years and it also became less geographically concentrated. And that almost certainly is due to Government policies”.

The hon. Gentleman is right: inequality is a big challenge that we face in our society, but I believe that on the basis of long-term investment—Sure Start and other things that we are doing—we will start to tackle it, and we should all acknowledge that. Finally, a transferable tax allowance will not help to tackle those issues, which is why the Labour party will not adopt that proposal.

Community and Voluntary Organisations

A sustainable local voluntary sector is essential for vibrant communities. The Office of the Third Sector is introducing a new £80 million programme of small grants to support small community and voluntary organisations, and the community assets fund, with an additional £30 million, will make it easier for community groups to take on the management or ownership of assets.

Many small community and voluntary organisations in my constituency would benefit from, for example, an accountancy service that could do the books of several organisations, or from training to help them when they sit on partnership boards, so I welcome the Government’s recognition of that need through the funding that they have given to Capacitybuilders, but I am concerned that the funding does not always reach a very local level. Will my hon. Friend ensure that any future funding for building capacity benefits small organisations and helps them to develop the services that they need at local level?

First, I commend my hon. Friend for the work that she does in championing the voluntary sector in her constituency. She is right. The £33 million ChangeUp funding programme, which funds local infrastructure organisations, allocates those funds. Allocations are made by an independent body called Capacitybuilders, and it is local consortiums that identify the local priorities. That is under review, and I will draw my hon. Friend’s concerns to their attention. I emphasise that we want to get financial help to the very small volunteer-led community groups as well, and the £80 million over four years in the new small grants programme will start to be allocated this financial year. Grants, from £250 up to £5,000, will be allocated to the smallest front-line community groups that make such a difference to the lives of our constituents.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Voluntary Action Swindon on its 75th anniversary? It is good to hear what he said about small organisations. Will he give his full consideration to the request from the chief executive, Chris Lau, that the bidding process be made as simple as possible for small charities, which want and deserve access equal to that of larger charities to commissioning funds and the system?

Many congratulations to Voluntary Action Swindon: 75 years must be close to a track record in this country! My hon. Friend is right to highlight that concern, which is one reason why we have created a national programme for third sector commissioning. This is a training programme for some 2,000 staff who commission public services across the country; half of them will be from local councils. The purpose is to spread best practice in commissioning arrangements, which will deliver better results for third sector providers and, most importantly of all, for the people whom those third sector organisations serve.

Does the Minister accept that small community organisations face two problems? One is the tendency of funding agencies to want to fund projects rather than providing core funding, so the key officials and employees who work for those small organisations are not funded. The other is the difficulty that small organisations have with often complex and time-consuming form filling, which is not guaranteed to provide any funding at the end of the process. What are the Government doing about those two issues?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight those concerns, which have been brought to our attention. That is why we have undertaken the third sector review. We will shortly publish our report on the proposals there. Measures such as three-year funding, for example, will be of great benefit to many voluntary and community groups, ensuring that instead of annual bidding rounds, three-year funding grants and contracts are entered into. That gives local organisations some security, and also means that they do not need to go through the bureaucracy of completing application forms every year. We can be pleased with the measures that the Government have taken. There is always more that can be done, but I hope that the third sector will see the benefits in the very near future.

The Minister will know that small community organisations rely heavily on volunteers. He will also know that yesterday Capacitybuilders, an organisation in receipt of £150 million of taxpayers’ funds, which is a Government agency, has scrapped its separate dedicated programme to encourage and help voluntary organisations. Does the Minister approve of that decision, has he consulted the new volunteering tsar, Baroness Neuberger, and does it have her support?

The hon. Gentleman has got his facts wrong. Capacitybuilders has done no such thing as scrapping that programme, but is looking at ways to organise itself better. It is an independent body making decisions to ensure that it can serve and meet the needs of organisations and those who recruit and deploy volunteers to best effect. I am delighted to say that in another place Baroness Neuberger is leading the Government’s work on ensuring that we can engage volunteers in public services, not only for the benefit of users of those services but for the benefits that undertaking voluntary activity can have for people who work in those public services. I am greatly looking forward to her work and her energy in championing that cause.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the chaos caused in my constituency when Tory-controlled Dudley council cut all funding to youth organisations. I am glad to say that it has seen the error of its ways, and the announcement of further funding is excellent. However, continuity of funding is important. Will my hon. Friend agree to come to visit two organisations, the What? Centre and KIDS Orchard Partnership, which now have service level agreements but are worried about the continuity of their funding?

My hon. Friend, too, champions the voluntary sector loud and clear in her constituency, and it is great that she is drawing my attention to two successful projects in which she has taken a personal interest. I would be delighted to come to her constituency when I can, to see the great work that they do. She is absolutely right to say that local voluntary organisations rely on continuity of funding. That is not helped when a political party makes one set of announcements supporting the voluntary sector but then, at local level, councillors in that same political party decide to cut budgets to try to deliver public services on the cheap. That is something that Labour Members reject—and I only hope that the same signal will go out loud and clear from the Conservative Benches.

Early Years Intervention

21. What steps he plans to take to promote early intervention in support of social exclusion policy; and if he will make a statement. (149814)

Early intervention is key to tackling social exclusion and is a guiding principle for the social exclusion action plan, which proposes a range of ways to offer help and support during a child’s early years, such as the family nurse partnership pilot schemes.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her new post. Could she tell the House what she is doing to ensure that the very successful Sure Start programmes reach out to the families who are most socially excluded but may well not attend a Sure Start centre, so that those parents and their children are supported and the children are given the best possible start in life?

My hon. Friend is correct to raise that point. I thank her for her kind comments to me in my new role. She is a tremendous supporter of Sure Start, which is indeed about making life better for children, families and communities. However, we know that we could do more. That is why I welcome the recently published families at risk review, which talks about how public services can be better organised so that we can better service the small but significant number of families whose problems cannot be dealt with in isolation. I look forward to my hon. Friend’s support in doing that.

Has the Minister had discussions with Ministers from the Department for Children, Schools and Families to see how resources can be channelled through schools that have been proactive in this respect, such as George Pindar community school in Eastfield, which is tackling the problem of social exclusion on a whole-family basis?

The school that the hon. Gentleman mentions is a clear example of the kind of good work that we want to see. I have heard the Department for Children, Schools and Families referred to as the “Every child matters” Department. That explains the importance of our work in ensuring that every child, no matter what their background or circumstances, will have support to be healthy and safe and to prosper. Schools are absolutely integral to that.

Royal Prerogative

22. To what extent he expects his responsibilities to the Queen for the general administration of the Duchy of Lancaster to be affected by the proposed changes to the royal prerogative. (149815)

The reform of the royal prerogative is designed to make the Executive more accountable to Parliament in important decisions such as going to war and making treaties. Since the appointment of a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster raises no such issues, we do not currently propose change in this area.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that courteous and informative response, but I was wondering whether he is the Minister for the Cabinet Office or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. If it is the latter, why, at the start of the 21st century, do we require a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster? If it is the former, will the right hon. Gentleman please ensure that the Table Office has a list of his responsibilities, and those of other Ministers, so that I and other colleagues do not have to dream up questions on the chancellorship and the royal prerogative for his Question Time?

The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that I have both titles: Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. As to his suggested reform of the role of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, it is a personal prerogative of Her Majesty, but I can pass on his representations to the Prime Minister. My responsibilities cover the span of those of the Cabinet Office, such as social exclusion, the third sector, civil service reform, e-government and a range of other matters. As for his question about the Table Office, I am sure that that is not within my area of responsibility.

Third Sector

23. What assessment he has made of recent progress towards meeting the Government's objectives for joint working with the third sector. (149816)

The third sector and the Government are working more effectively than ever before on a range of shared interests, including creating stronger communities, better public services, a stronger social enterprise sector and a more active civil society. Government funding to the sector has more than doubled since 1997 from £5 billion to £10 billion.

Many third sector organisations in my constituency complain that insecurity about funding is impeding their ability to deliver cost-effective, high-quality public services. They welcome the funds for capacity building and pump-priming, but often their funds run out before they have delivered what they want to achieve. What plans does my hon. Friend have to move away from short-term funding to more long-term service level agreements?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the fact that Portsmouth was a pathfinder in looking at the kind of barriers that confront voluntary organisations, and in developing an action plan to overcome them. That way of working is now being rolled out throughout the south-east, so I congratulate Portsmouth on that. My hon. Friend puts her finger on an important issue concerning duration of funding. The present Prime Minister made a specific commitment in the 2006 pre-Budget report to ensure that three-year funding will become the norm rather than the exception for voluntary organisations. I am working closely with my ministerial colleagues throughout the Government to ensure that that is the case at every level—national, regional and local.

I have a new Sure Start centre and two new children’s centres—[Hon. Members: “Good news!”] That is good news, but the problem lies with the funding. It has been withdrawn from the voluntary organisation that used to provide the very services that are now being provided by Sure Start and the children’s centre. Services have closed down and been switched from voluntary status to the state. Is that what the Government intended?

I guess that what the Government did not intend, when they gave extra funding to support children and families, was that the local Conservative county council in Northamptonshire would then go ahead and cut services for young people there.

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that although his party’s Front Benchers may say one thing about support for the third sector, I suggest that he goes back to the Conservative leadership of his local council to ensure that it delivers better services to support the third sector in his area.