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Social Enterprises

Volume 492: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2009

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.