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Duchy of Lancaster

Volume 492: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2009

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

Social Enterprises

1. What recent assessment he has made of the potential for social enterprises to deliver a greater range of public services in the next five years; and if he will make a statement. (276393)

I believe that social enterprise does have a bigger role to play in delivering public services. Therefore, in addition to the several hundred millions of pounds of investment that the Government are providing, we have also established a ministerial group to look at how we can fast-track public service contracts to third sector organisations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will he join me in congratulating Emma Wilson, the dynamic chief executive of Local Care Direct, which has 14 health centres across west Yorkshire and is opening a 15th centre in my constituency of Wakefield on 1 June? May I invite the Minister to come and see the fantastic work that Emma is doing in our area and look at how we can roll it out across the board? Dynamic individuals such as her have a real part to play in helping us to deliver our public services.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She is absolutely right to say that Local Care Direct and its management team are an inspiring example of what can be done as a result of the innovation and energy of the social enterprise sector. That is why the Department of Health has established £100 million of funding to help to back social enterprises such as Local Care Direct, why the Department for Children, Schools and Families is providing £100 million to a youth sector development fund, and why the Department for Work and Pensions is setting aside £100 million for social enterprises that want to create 15,000 jobs during this recession.

In the past year, unemployment has risen by 182 per cent. in my constituency. Biggleswade Baptist church is now operating a debt advice centre, and I suspect that there will be many more of those. Does the Minister believe that social enterprise has an important role to play in providing debt advice and counselling during what would appear to be a protracted period of recession, and how are the Government planning to help it provide that?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that social enterprises have an extraordinarily important role to play in providing debt advice, not least because they are often able to provide services in communities in a manner that it is difficult for Government to match. In February, the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), announced £42 million of extra help to support charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises that are seeking to do more, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor provided for £20 million on top of that in the Budget. If there is anything more that we can do to help social enterprises in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency to get their hands on some of that money, I would of course be more than delighted to help.

What plans does my right hon. Friend have to assist charities and social enterprises in bidding for contracts from the future jobs fund set up by the Department for Work and Pensions—organisations such as the Prince’s Trust and the Groundwork trusts, and, at a local level, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers Cymru, which is based at Forest Farm in my constituency?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her work to champion the causes of those organisations. As a Government, we are absolutely clear that we will not repeat the mistakes of the 1980s, when too little help was provided to those losing their work, particularly the young—those under 25. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set aside £1 billion in the Budget to ensure that extra help is available to those under the age of 25 who have been out of work for more than 12 months to ensure that none of them needs to stay out of work, out of training or miss out on a volunteering opportunity. We think that social enterprises have a critical role to play in delivering that programme; that is why the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announced £100 million of funding for social enterprises to set about the job of giving people new opportunities during this downturn.

Would the Minister like to put on record his thanks to the faith-based organisations throughout the country that are doing such a great job? That is further to the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) about the Baptist church, but it applies across the denominations, with Catholic and Anglican churches advising on drug rehabilitation and other social programmes, and indeed entrepreneurship programmes. Will he give a commitment to the House that where there is clear evidence of discrimination against churches, his Department will investigate and ensure that it is dealt with, whether that discrimination comes from local authorities or other public sector bodies?

I am very happy to give the hon. Gentleman that undertaking. If we want to come through this recession as quickly as possible and in a way that best protects families and businesses, we have to ensure that we are not only delivering help to families and businesses but doing everything in our power to ensure that communities are strong, because it is on the foundation of strong communities that we will build a different kind of future for this country. Faith-based organisations have an enormously important role to play, so it is important that they are eligible for the extra assistance that we are providing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in arguing that the funding that we are providing through the Cabinet Office should not be cut back, and never should be in future.

The Minister has referred to the fact that the Chancellor is trying to boost the economy, and therefore demand. He knows, surely, that the voluntary sector prospers best when demand is increasing, and that it plays a significant and progressive part in providing services. However, may I remind him that until we have a serious council house building programme to fire up that part of the economy, it will be very difficult for the voluntary sector to make real contributions to the housing market generally?

My hon. Friend has championed this cause, certainly for the short time that I have been in the House. He is absolutely right that the renewal and regeneration of housing is critical to the future that we want to see in this country. However, there cannot be traditional housing projects as they might have looked 20 or 30 years ago. We know now from pioneering housing associations that there is far more that associations themselves can do not just to build houses and give people homes that are safe and secure but to equip people with skills and connect them with jobs.

Is not the biggest barrier to the expansion of the role of social enterprises in providing public services the lack of appropriate finance for expansion? Would not the quickest way to fill that gap be the rapid establishment of the social investment bank? Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government? She said yesterday at an all-party group:

“I’d like to say we have a plan for a social investment bank but we don’t.”

I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was referring to the fact that the consultation on how the social investment bank is to be set up has just been launched. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, legislation enabling that bank came into force only in November 2008. Because the Financial Services Authority will regulate the fund, it is of course vital that it oversees how the regulations are drawn up.

The Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill was published way back in 2007, so the social investment bank has been a long time in gestation. There is an urgent need for it to progress. Why is it taking until this summer for there to be even a consultation paper on it? Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster undertake that when it is established, it will be an institution that is genuinely independent both of the Government and of Government non-departmental public bodies, so that it really commands confidence in the sectors that it is set up to support?

May I simply underline that the necessary legislation came into force only in November 2008? The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not prejudging the results of the consultation, although the issues that he raises are useful input. I believe that he would agree, however, that a social investment bank is not some kind of silver bullet in securing a more effective social enterprise sector in future. We know also that local authorities’ contribution will be critical, which is why it is so important that we now ask the third sector’s opinion about local authorities and their support for social enterprises. He will be as interested as I am to see the results. When we looked at how the sector rates local authorities, we found that of the bottom 25 rated councils in terms of commitment to the sector, I am afraid to say that 17 were Conservative.

Social Enterprises

Funding for charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises has doubled over the past decade to £11 billion, and therefore social enterprises face the downturn with unprecedented strength. We do believe that extra help should be available, which is why the Department for Work and Pensions is setting aside £100 million, why we set aside £42 million in February and why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer set aside an extra £20 million in the Budget.

The west Lancashire furniture recycling organisation helps people in my constituency by offering recycled goods and also provides employment and volunteering opportunities to those who face barriers to employment. In the past 18 months it has recruited 11 employees, five of whom were long-term unemployed or on incapacity benefit. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such social enterprises are integral to the social and economic strength of our local communities?

The social enterprise that my hon. Friend highlights has been an inspiration to many in the social enterprise sector and beyond, and we have been very keen to learn some lessons from its experience. It is part of a growing pattern of success, and indeed the sector as a whole grew its work force by some 20,000 in the last year for which figures are available. We are determined to help the sector do more, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions set out £100 million of support to help the social enterprise sector, including enterprises such as she highlights, create 15,000 jobs in the year or two to come.

Does the Minister agree that, although many charities, citizens advice bureaux and faith-based organisations do excellent work in trying to get information to tens of thousands of people in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK about the benefits to which they are entitled, there is still a hard core of people whom the information appears not to reach? Does he also agree that we need to be much more innovative and dynamic in trying to reach those communities to ensure that they get what they are entitled to?

My view is that social enterprises can reach much further than many public services; they can reach communities to which public services have traditionally found it hard to connect. They can also often innovate in finding new ways of bringing public services together. That is one of the most important prizes that the groups to which the hon. Gentleman referred bring to the table. That is why cutting back the Cabinet Office budget by £100 million, as is proposed in some quarters, would be a grave error. It would diminish our impact on getting on with that sort of job.

I am encouraged by the Minister’s comments. Crazy Hats, a charity in my constituency, which deals with breast cancer and helps those who are recovering from it, wants to create a drop-in centre in my constituency for the whole of north Northamptonshire. Is that the sort of thing that the Minister would encourage? Could he point us in the direction of any funding?

That is precisely the sort of thing that the Government would like to flourish. For that reason, the Department of Health has set aside £100 million to invest in social enterprises. It sounds as though the organisation that the hon. Gentleman highlights is exactly the sort of enterprise about which the Department of Health would like to hear more. The fund is administered by Futurebuilders, and that would, therefore, be the first port of call for the hon. Gentleman.

Would my right hon. Friend consider having a discussion with the devolved Parliaments? We should consider best practice, and not reinvent the wheel throughout the UK. Will he consider holding a meeting with the Secretaries of State for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland so that we can talk about how best to take social enterprise forward?

The Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), is having such conversations. Pioneering examples of what social enterprises can do differently are to be found in every part of the country, and it is vital that we ruthlessly exploit good ideas rather than constantly try to reinvent them.

The Minister’s predecessor launched the £70 million community builders fund in July 2008 with great fanfare. It is there to help our social entrepreneurs and people who want to show leadership in keeping our communities strong. They need support at this time more than ever. Will the Minister confirm that, almost a year later, not one penny has been invested from the fund? Will he explain why not and tell us when the fund will deliver something more than a press release?

When those funds are announced, it is important to appreciate that not only Ministers like me are in charge of writing the cheques. It is important to give an arm’s length organisation the task of running the fund and understanding how the money is best deployed. Sometimes going through the process of contracting for that delivery partner can take time. We make no excuses for getting the right partner in place to get the money flowing, but we will not subscribe to the hon. Gentleman’s view that we should somehow wean social enterprises, charities or voluntary groups off public funding, because we know that it is vital to their success.

Open Source Software

3. What guidance his Department provides to other Departments on the use of open source software. (276396)

The Government’s policy is to use open source when it gives the best value for money. We are taking positive action to ensure that Departments and our IT suppliers do that. We published our new action plan on 24 February, including guidance on specific actions for Departments. The Chief Information Officer Council is driving the implementation.

The Government have talked a good game for some time about open source software, but have done very little. What more can the Parliamentary Secretary do to encourage Departments to implement real change and reduce the horrific cost and genuine inconvenience of software licensing?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. Indeed, I read the transcript of his Westminster Hall debate last year, and I know that he proposes some positive ideas, which the Government should take up. The Government are taking up open source solutions—50 per cent. of Government websites use open source software and we are about to deploy Linux-based platforms, which will go to 300,000 NHS workers. In the spirit of open source, I ask the hon. Gentleman, who is a renowned expert in the field, to come and meet our officials, share some of his ideas with us and help us improve what we do.

Would my hon. Friend put this debate into perspective? Does he agree that most of the chief information officers would agree that open source has its place, but that open standards are a much more important part of the debate?

They are a very important part of the debate. There is no doubt that open standards and interoperability are the means by which we will improve our IT sourcing. When we talk about open source, we should remember that it is only free to acquire and that we also must invest to maintain and sustain our systems.

Open source and open standards are important, but I have noticed that BT offers a free laptop, a free website and free help to all our charities. The open source and all the things for charities are available for free, so is there a way that we can round it all up in one place, on the site?

I am sure that we could do that. In fact, why don’t I talk to the chief executive of and put that question to her?

Social Enterprises

I have already mentioned the strength with which the social enterprise sector faces this downturn. I should add, of course, that social enterprises can also benefit from the measures that we have put in place to help all businesses, including the £10 billion working capital fund and the £75 million capital enterprise fund.

That is good news. Phoenix is a social enterprise in Swindon that works with people recovering from mental health problems by offering them work in a mailing and assembly service. I should declare an interest, because I have used the service, paying for it through my office costs allowance, and excellent value for money it was. What can my right hon. Friend do in a recession to help secure longer-term funding for social enterprises, so that they can help more people?

The social enterprise that my hon. Friend highlights is part of a sector of some 55,000 social enterprises that creates a turnover of around £27 billion. That enterprise, flair and innovation will be especially valuable in helping to get Britain through this downturn faster and in a way that protects families and businesses. That is why the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has set aside £100 million to help social enterprises get people back to work. It is also why the Cabinet Office is managing a clear set of ambitions to help ensure that those with learning disabilities or mental health issues are part of social enterprises’ work, because we know that those people, too, have a right to help and a contribution to make, and we are determined to unlock it.

Given that much financial support for social enterprises comes from local authorities, as we have heard, and given that most local authorities are tightening their belts in this recession, as they should, what steps will the Minister take to ensure that they do not take the easy option and slash their budgets for social enterprises, thus leaving a lot of disadvantaged and vulnerable people in this country without proper assistance?

It is important that we do a couple of things. It is important that we continue to invest in training those in charge of procurement and commissioning in local authorities. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying that the budget for that would, I am afraid, be cut if we sliced £100 million off the Cabinet Office budget. It is also important for us to introduce a bit of transparency, which is why we have asked the social enterprise sector to rate local authorities. We published those statistics earlier this month. I am pleased to say that eight councils in the top 25 were Labour councils. I am afraid that only one was Conservative, but I know that the hon. Gentleman will be anxious to turn that situation around.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the fine work that social enterprises and charities do across all our constituencies, such as The Hinge, in Goole, which works with young, vulnerable and homeless people. That is a client group that, sadly, is likely to grow through this recession. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that there will be fast-track funding to help social enterprises deal with that difficult and growing client group?

First, may I praise my hon. Friend for the charitable work that he does? Organisations such as The Hinge will have an enormous contribution to make over the coming months, and the strength that they could acquire in that time could serve them well in regard to their long-term contribution to the sector and to the communities that they work in. That is exactly why different Departments right across Government are putting in place significant amounts of funding to help the sector over the next two or three years. That funding would be cut if we took the advice of some in the House. Once the money is in place, it is vital that we get rid of any impediments to getting deals done, which is why I am bringing Ministers together to clear those road blocks out of the way much faster.

Would the Minister accept that the country and the Government cannot do without charities, churches and volunteers? We have a deprived estate in Macclesfield, the Moss estate. The local churches—with the support of my own livery company, the Worshipful Company of Weavers, which has invested a great deal in the project—are putting a great many volunteers and community workers into that estate to help to reduce the deprivation and exclusion and the other problems that often go with exclusion.

I am very grateful for that example, because I was not aware of the contribution that the livery companies were making to this agenda. The hon. Gentleman underlines my point that we will get through this recession faster, and in a way that protects families and businesses better, if we build our work on strong communities. It is the faith-based organisations, charities, voluntary groups and, I now know, livery companies that are knitting those communities together.

Real Help for Communities Programme

5. What progress his Department has made in the implementation of the Real Help for Communities Programme. (276399)

I am pleased to tell the House that the £16.5 million modernisation fund and the £15.5 million targeted support fund are both up and running, and have received more than 500 applications and expressions of interest to date. The volunteer brokerage scheme for unemployed people went live on 6 April, and nine regional roadshows have been fully subscribed. Last month, the Prime Minister appointed Dame Stephanie Shirley as the Government’s first giving and philanthropy ambassador. [Interruption.]

I thank the Minister for that reply. I understand that Bradford’s allocation is about £411,000. Can he tell me when that money will come through and how it will be distributed?

Yes. Of the £15.5 million targeted support fund, which opened to applications on 29 April, Bradford will get £410,892, which will be delivered by the Bradford and district community empowerment network. If my hon. Friend has any organisations that he wants to steer in the network’s direction, I recommend that he do so.

The Real Help website and documentation should be—and, indeed, are—really helpful, but I cannot help but think that MPs and the Government have perhaps not done enough to promote awareness of these services to the sectors that could really benefit from them. What can the Minister and Back Benchers do to make them more accessible?

I am writing to all Members affected by the funds, which will be all Members of the House in England affected by the Real Help Now action plan. In addition, the Office of the Third Sector has already held nine regional roadshows, which have been fully subscribed. Business Link is a free business advice and support service, and it is also available to the third sector. In Scotland, Business Gateway Scotland provides a similar service, giving advice on what help is available to businesses and the third sector.

Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration

7. If he will bring forward proposals to enable members of the public to bring matters directly to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. (276401)

The Government value the role and work of the parliamentary ombudsman. They also believe that Members of Parliament have an important role to play in assisting constituents with concerns about their dealings with Government Departments and public bodies.

One of the great achievements of a previous Labour Government was to introduce the parliamentary ombudsman system, against the resistance of elements of the Conservative party. Is it not now time to give citizens direct access to the ombudsman, as has been recommended by successive occupants of the office?

I have known my hon. Friend for longer than nearly any other MP, and his former agent, Jack Fleming, from the time of the former Labour Government of the 1970s, would have been proud of my hon. Friend’s work to improve the machinery of government. Sometimes, I have to say that it seems that we have been discussing the ombudsman for that long as well. We know that 134 MPs said that they wanted to remove the MP filter, but I cannot honestly say to my hon. Friend that that is the settled will of the House. To be honest with him, I would also have to say that there is no settled view in Government either, but I undertake to take soundings from Members again to ensure that their views are properly reflected when we come to make our decision.