The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
Helping more of the most excluded adults to obtain a job as well as a home is a key priority across government through the socially excluded adults public service agreement.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. There is a particular difficulty with people who have chronic psychiatric problems. Will she tell the House what action she is taking to get those individuals back into the workplace and to educate employers about the benefits of employing those people?
My hon. Friend has a long track record of speaking up for that group of people, and I share his view that a home and a job are an important part of getting them back on track. I can offer him some good news. Through pathways to work, we are giving people assistance to manage their condition. We are also helping them through the increasingly successful local employment partnerships, involving more than 100 companies such as M&S, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, which want to see such individuals skilled and ready to work and are prepared to offer them work. In addition, there is the recently announced jobs pledge, through which we will work closely with employers to get about 250,000 of the most disadvantaged people into work.
The Minister will be aware that, since 1997, the number of people living in severe poverty has increased by 600,000, that working-age poverty has increased and that the number of young people not in work or full-time education has risen by 20 per cent. Perhaps we should therefore not be surprised that, last week, the Government decided not to publish their usual annual Opportunity for All report. Instead, they simply slipped out the bare indicators on the Department for Work and Pensions website with as little fanfare as possible. Was last Thursday thought to be a particularly good day to bury bad news?
The figures have been published and they are on the website, which is open and available to everyone. I do not recognise the position that the right hon. Gentleman describes. We have more people in work and in decent homes than ever before; we have lifted 600,000 children out of poverty; and we have seen major increases in income and educational achievement. The whole point about the public service agreement is that it is a Government commitment to go even further.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern. I would like to emphasise something that I know my hon. Friend supports: we are working closely with employers through a particular programme to overcome the stigma that exists and to encourage understanding of such conditions.
Is my hon. Friend aware that people with learning disabilities and those on the autistic spectrum are often the most excluded from employment, yet when they get into the right work, they can be the most loyal and most effective of workers? What more can we do to help that group of people to identify the right employment opportunities and get into work?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is true that those who have been most excluded sometimes have a lot to offer. The challenge for us is not primarily about job opportunities—on any given day, there are some 660,000 vacancies—but the fact that we need to raise the game in skills, training and support that can be tailored to individuals such as those identified by my hon. Friend.
The third sector review published in July set out a vision for how the Government can work in partnership with the sector to support its work in four key areas: building stronger communities, transforming public services, creating social enterprise and speaking up for the people they represent. The office of the third sector is financing that with over £500 million of investment and by working with Government Departments to make it happen.
I am grateful for that answer, but I do not know whether it amounts to policy objectives. I hope that the Minister will join me in congratulating many in the voluntary sector on whom the Government are completely dependent, particularly in respect of delivering their care programme. I am thinking of the Leonard Cheshire homes in my constituency, which do a fantastic job for disabled young people. Will the Minister promise that the Government will not stand in the way of the voluntary sector, but work with it to enable it to continue to deliver the excellent work that it does?
I definitely join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the work of Leonard Cheshire all around the country as well as in her constituency. The third sector review, which has been widely welcomed, including by Leonard Cheshire, is aimed precisely at creating the right environment for the third sector, in recognition of the inspiration that it provides. The Government can help the third sector by providing the right conditions, having the right funding in place and, in particular, providing stability of funding, which is crucial for organisations around the country.
My right hon. Friend will know from his visits to Hammersmith and Fulham that we have a very active third sector, as I was reminded last Friday when I visited our volunteer centre. Under the energetic leadership of Marion Schumann, it is now the biggest in London. What can my right hon. Friend do, however, about the local Tory council? From 1 October it has imposed swingeing cuts on advice to the black, minority and ethnic sector, and from next April it promises cuts in the voluntary sector of up to 26 per cent.
My hon. Friend makes his point in a very eloquent way. I very much enjoyed an Adjournment debate a few months back in which we discussed the situation in Hammersmith and Fulham. The Government can do some things and we are strengthening the framework for local government so that it has better relations with the third sector. The truth is, however, that the ultimate sanction is to vote them out.
The Big Lottery Fund is the primary source of funding for third sector organisations. They campaigned to protect it, and we are protecting all the money going to that sector. The Big Lottery Fund has made that clear and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome it.
The third sector in Tameside in Stockport is increasingly taking over responsibility for providing public services, often using one-off grants or other forms of external funding. What efforts are being made to ensure that sustainable funding regimes are put in place for such organisations, so that community groups can plan with more certainty for the future?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about what happens to third sector organisations. I had the privilege of visiting third sector organisations in Stockport, his neighbouring constituency, where I saw their good work. It is precisely through new objectives that measure the performance of local government in relation to third sector organisations that we hope to make a difference to the stability of funding provided.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will salute and champion the role of the third sector in the delivery of aid to some of the poorest and most disadvantaged children on the planet. This is not a request for public funding: will the Minister simply pay tribute to the extremely important work undertaken by the Schools for Africa project, which is engaged in mobilising the enthusiasm and voluntary initiative of thousands of schoolchildren across the country, in enabling the provision of decent-quality books and equipment to children in the developing world whose opportunities are few and far between?
Let me pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his long-standing championing of the need for the right amounts of overseas development assistance. I think that he would join me in suggesting that it is extremely good that we are on the way to the 0.7 per cent. target, which is an extraordinary achievement for this country. I also want to pay tribute to the voluntary work done to support aid organisations. The non-governmental organisation overseas aid sector distinguishes itself by speaking up for changes in the law and policy, and by campaigning in relation to the developing world, and we also very much want to protect that.
My right hon. Friend might not be aware that I was on the management committee of my local citizens advice bureau in the early 1990s, when the CAB and other organisations were condemned by Conservative Ministers for behaving in ways that were deemed to be political. There was an assumption that those organisations could not campaign to get the law changed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that was political correctness gone mad? Does he also agree that this Government’s policy towards the third sector should involve no such restriction on campaigning?
My hon. Friend has a distinguished record in championing the rights of the third sector. I did not know about his history of involvement in his local CAB, but he makes a profoundly important point. We had an illuminating debate on the matter last Thursday. While the third sector review champions the right of voluntary organisations to speak up, campaign, draw on their experience and say how they want policy to change, it is becoming increasingly clear to third sector organisations around the country that the Conservative party has great doubts about that.
The Minister has correctly said that the growth of the third sector, which is welcome, must not replace adequate funding of public services by Government. At the Lewes Victoria hospital in my constituency, however, the league of friends increasingly spends money not on fripperies but on essential medical equipment. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the third sector does not engage in work that the public sector should do, and that we do not effectively have postcode funding based on the strength of the third sector?
I do not know about the local example raised by the hon. Gentleman. I point out to him, however, that the health service budget has increased in the past 10 years from about £30 billion to more than £100 billion. Historically, volunteers have played an important role in relation to the health service, without, as far as possible, substituting for what paid members of staff do. At a local London hospital I had the privilege of meeting volunteers who add to what paid staff can do, and I agree with him that that must be the objective.
In the third sector review published in July the Government stated that they could
“see no objection—legal or other—to a charity pursuing”
“wholly or mainly through political activities”.
In last Thursday’s debate I asked the Minister if it was his view that a charity should be allowed to devote 100 per cent. of its resources to campaigning politically, to which he replied:
“No, that is not my view.”—[Official Report, 18 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 989.]
Will the Minister therefore clarify what is the view of the Government? Should a charity be allowed to pursue its purposes wholly through political activities—yes or no?
In this we are guided by the Charity Commission. If the hon. Gentleman had done his homework, he would have read the April 2007 Charity Commission document on the matter. Question 11 asks about a small charity that might for a temporary period devote all its resources to campaigning. The Charity Commission view is that that is all right, and that is my view, too. However, it goes on to say that if in the long term that becomes the sole activity of an organisation, then that is not acceptable. It is becoming increasingly clear that while we want to protect the independent voice of charities, the Opposition want to go back to the 1980s—
If the voluntary sector is to be more successful in bidding for public services, is it not the case that it must improve its bidding, its marketing of itself and demonstrate its track record, and also that it must have more robust forms of governance and clearer lines of accountability to its stakeholders? What are the Government doing to enable it to capacity build in those regards, so that it can have a better track record in winning public service contracts?
Again, my hon. Friend makes an important point. The investment that we are making through Capacitybuilders in this spending review is precisely about building up the capacity of third sector organisations, so that they have the skills to be able to supply public services and fulfil contracts. Also, the Futurebuilders programme is investing in public services. The third sector accepts its responsibility to demonstrate the accountability my hon. Friend talks about, and to have the necessary skills and expertise.
Is the Minister not aware that the voluntary sector in this country is often assisted financially by local authorities, and that that is money well spent? Is he not further aware that many local authorities—not least Cheshire county council and Macclesfield borough council in my constituency—are under-resourced and do not have the opportunity or ability to help voluntary organisations such as the Crossroads association in Macclesfield, of which I am patron? They want to do more, but they do not have the money. Will the Government ensure that local authorities are adequately resourced?
The hon. Gentleman is a long-serving and distinguished Member of this House, but it sounds as if he is making a request that goes beyond my remit: that we should spend a lot more public money on local authorities. I shall pass on his thoughts to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I point out to him that how much local authorities prioritise the work that they do with the third sector is a matter for their discretion. Many local authorities have a distinguished record, and I urge others to follow their example.
Small community organisations are an essential part of a strong local voluntary sector—indeed, they are a key part of a strong and thriving community—and support for their work is a Government priority. The office of the third sector has created the £30 million community assets fund, which will help community groups to take on the ownership and management of assets. It is also introducing a new £80 million programme of small grants for small community and voluntary organisations and a £50 million programme of endowment grants to help local foundations to provide an enduring source of funding.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. In Hove and Portslade in my constituency, the Sussex multiple sclerosis treatment centre, a charitable organisation set up and run entirely by MS sufferers, was charged VAT on its building work to enlarge its centre. We were eventually able to get the VAT written off, but does my hon. Friend agree that it would be of particular benefit to all charitable organisations if there was VAT exemption for such third sector organisations?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on achieving the write-off. In any application for a local authority grant to pay for refurbishment or repairs, third sector organisations are very much encouraged to include the costs of VAT, so that every such organisation gets the full cost recovery from grants of that kind. On the wider question, there is a generous package of tax relief and tax exemptions for charities, but broader questions about VAT are a matter for the Treasury. I shall bring her point to the attention of my Treasury colleagues.
Areas in my constituency rank in the top 10 per cent. of deprived communities. Last Friday, I discussed one particular project that is seeking funding both to develop volunteers to help others and to help alleviate deprivation in Skelmersdale by increasing access to advice and skills by way of information and communications technology facilities. How will the Government’s investment in the third sector help such organisations?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her excellent work as a champion of voluntary organisations in her constituency. Through Capacitybuilders, the Government are providing some £85 million-worth of investment over the next three years to local and national organisations to give advice and support, including on administration and skills, on making use of computers and on the internet. I would recommend that as a first step the organisation that she mentions goes to the Capacitybuilders website or contacts its main switchboard. We can provide her with the details about that. Many local authorities and businesses often provide surplus computers and equipment to voluntary organisations, and she might like to pursue that avenue too.
I am afraid that it is not my position to condemn one council or another. This Government have made it clear to local authorities that we expect them to provide sustainable, long-term, three-year funding in compliance with the Compact, which applies across the country. They should also ensure, as part of the local government performance framework, that local third sector organisations thrive in every local area across this country in line with this Government’s objective of ensuring that we have a modern, 21st-century third sector that delivers, and stands up and campaigns for the needs of people in communities.
Voluntary organisations have an important role to play in the design, development and delivery of public services. That is why in areas such as child care provision, recycling and employment services we are promoting the sector’s role. Third sector delivery will not be used by this Government as a cut-price alternative to properly funded public services.
I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman, because lots is happening. If one looks around the country at the different services provided by the voluntary sector, from recycling to pathways to work, the offender management service to child care provision, one sees that in a whole host of different areas the third sector is increasingly playing a role in public services. There is further to go and we want to encourage it.
Before I call the statement, may I say that a practice has come in that hon. Members are reading supplementary questions? I am not going to single out any hon. Member, but they should hear what the Minister has to say and respond accordingly. Questions should not be prepared beforehand. We are well into this Parliament, and the practice should not continue.