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Social Enterprises

Volume 492: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2009

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.