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Social Enterprises

Volume 492: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2009

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.