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Community and Voluntary Organisations

Volume 463: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2007

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.