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Voluntary Sector

Volume 495: debated on Wednesday 1 July 2009

3. What assessment she has made of the effects of the economic downturn on the financial viability of the voluntary sector; and if she will make a statement. (283137)

We recognise that there is a double challenge for the sector during the economic downturn: not only is there an increased demand for services, but there are concerns about financial viability. In response, we have devised a significant package of support for the third sector comprising up to £42.5 million of targeted supported, which is delivering real help now, when it is needed, and the £16.7 million hardship fund announced in the Budget in April. In addition, the sector will have a share in the £1.2 billion future jobs fund. That is a comprehensive package of measures. It includes support for volunteers, grants for small organisations and social enterprises, support for jobs and loans to assist partnership working.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her extensive answer and I welcome her to her post. Does she realise that some people, particularly those with economic problems and the charities that deal with such problems, are encountering more difficulties than others? As money is being filtered into the Olympics as well, such people are finding it very hard to make ends meet these days. What additional help can be given to those people, particularly those who are having problems balancing their house budgets?

It was an extensive answer because it is an extensive package of support. The two key things that I should point out to my hon. Friend are the £42 million-plus package, which will support in various ways those organisations facing difficulties because of the recession, and the hardship fund. That will apply in a number of different ways, and charities and voluntary organisations will find it very useful. In addition, £515 million of support is available generally from the Office of the Third Sector. All those things coming together will provide significant help through these difficult times.

Please will the Minister make an assessment of the impact, during the economic downturn, on charities and others of the area charging regime used by water companies? The rain tax is having a substantial impact across the country. There is not a charitable organisation in my constituency, be it a charity shop, a scout group, a church or any other voluntary group, that is not being adversely affected by the tax.

I certainly understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, because all of us, as individual Members of Parliament, receive correspondence from a wide range of organisations in our constituencies. I understand that this matter is being examined by the regulators and that Ministers have been talking to them in order to look into it.

Will my right hon. Friend find time to examine the proposal made only a few months ago—I understand that it is still subject to detailed evaluation in her Department—for lifetime legacies to be brought into the field of charitable giving? That would make a big difference at a time of great difficulty for charities.

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I know that other countries, in particular the United States, have taken on board lifetime legacies in a significant way. I shall look into the matter, because we want to ensure that charities, the voluntary sector and the third sector as a whole can access support when they need it. That is one area that we can consider.

May I press the new Minister for a better answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key)? Church groups, scout groups and sports clubs face crippling hikes in their water bills as a result of the proposed changes. Three months ago, I asked the previous Minister whether he would consider a moratorium, at least until an impact assessment was carried out. He said that he would speak to colleagues across Government, but we have heard nothing and time is running out. In welcoming the members of the new team, may I ask them what their view is? Will they consider a moratorium or the idea of a special social tariff, or will they continue the policy of doing nothing?

That is an interesting question from the party that privatised the water industry, which has had a direct impact on the bills that are being seen today. After three weeks in office, I do not have a final answer for the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that he will understand that I want to look into the matter. We understand the concerns that have been raised and we are talking to colleagues in Government and the regulators about the issue.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that among the hardest hit by the recession are young people. How will the hardship fund in particular, and the voluntary sector in general, help young people to obtain the necessary skills that they need to get through the recession and find much needed jobs at the end of it?

My hon. Friend has hit on a key point. By volunteering or becoming involved in the third sector, people gain skills that help them into employment. For young people specifically, I would point her to the charity v, which has significant funding from the Government and is building a database of volunteering opportunities for young people. Many of those enable young people to gain skills that will lead them into work. V also provides support to ensure that volunteering is an activity that builds new skills.