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Cabinet Office

Volume 498: debated on Wednesday 28 October 2009

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Operation Miser

1. What assessment she has made of the findings of Sir Ian Johnston’s review of the investigation of leaks from the Home Department under Operation Miser which relate to the actions of her Department. (295973)

I welcome Ian Johnston’s report and the wider report published on the same day by Chief Inspector Dennis O’Connor. We have looked very carefully at both reports, and my Department will shortly send new guidance on managing information to Departments and adopt the chief inspector’s protocol for future consideration of police involvement in leak investigations, which recognises the high threshold required for police involvement.

The police inspectorate’s report has savaged the role of the Cabinet Office in calling the Metropolitan police to arrest my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). Will the Minister place the current guidelines and protocol in the Library so that we can review the failings of the existing rules?

Both reports reflect very fairly the state of events that led to the police involvement—a series of leaks, some of which gave rise to concern about national security. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that it is very easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to reach a different judgment. I have made it clear in my answer that the lessons of the O’Connor and Johnston reports will be applied in full, and I will certainly consult the Cabinet Secretary about the release of the information that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

The Minister says that there was some concern about national security, but Sir Ian Johnston’s report makes it absolutely clear that these leaks were only matters of “embarrassment” that were

“not…likely to undermine government’s effectiveness.”

So why did a Cabinet Office director write to counter-terrorism asserting that there was

“considerable damage to national security”

from these stories and that

“the potential for future damage is significant”?

Did the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister or Ministers know about this letter before it was sent, and was there any political pressure on civil servants to shut down those embarrassing stories?

Neither report from Chief Inspector O’Connor nor from Sir Ian Johnston makes any claim that the Cabinet Office exaggerated national security claims; the right hon. Gentleman should be absolutely clear about that. He will also know that there was no ministerial involvement in the decision to involve the police.

But the report says explicitly that these were only matters of embarrassment that were not likely to undermine Government effectiveness. On 31 October, the Cabinet Office demanded a scoping exercise that then went into detail about the involvement of “members of the Conservative party”. Does the Minister think it right that counter-terrorism officers were misled and used, in effect, to try to intimidate and suppress parliamentary opposition? Given that the Prime Minister himself made his political career as a conduit for a flood of civil service leaks, should he have been arrested when he was a shadow Minister?

Let me deal with the substantive point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I reiterate that neither report drew the conclusion that the Cabinet Office had over-reacted. His judgment is made with the benefit of retrospection and of the two reports having been carried out, as well as with the benefit of hindsight. The important step now is that the recommendations of the report are implemented, as they will be.

Third Sector (Recession)

2. What her most recent assessment is of the effect of the recession on the third sector; and if she will make a statement. (295975)

We recognise that this is a very difficult time for the sector, with some parts experiencing increased demand for their services at the same time as having concerns about their financial situation. That is why the Government have provided a comprehensive package of support for the third sector worth up to £42.5 million. The money is getting out there right now to groups who need it. Thousands of grants have been made, and that is supporting the communities that need it most and providing jobs.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s answer; that will be very welcome news to the voluntary sector. However, many funders of not-for-profit voluntary organisations do not recognise the need to cover their core funding in order to make them sustainable for the future. Those organisations want to create income that provides for that. I come across this problem frequently in organisations that I work with in my constituency. Will she encourage funders to bear this in mind in future?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend has a reputation in his constituency for his involvement in the third sector, and the points that he makes are entirely valid. Let me mention some of the things that the Government are doing; I hope that other funders will consider them. Grass-root grants are going directly to smaller organisations—an initiative that has never been taken before, coupled with an endowment process—and that is providing £130 million. That can address the issue of core funding. We also have the community assets programme, providing £30 million across the country for projects involving buildings that are sustainable for the long term. May I direct him also to Communitybuilders, a £70 million programme that was recently opened for applications and has received 1,500 already? That is the kind of programme that the organisations he mentions will benefit from.

We should be concerned that more than 10,000 charities have ceased operating in the past six months, according to the Charity Commission. After two years of consultation, we are still no clearer about Government plans to make gift aid easier and more effective for charities. Instead, we are now getting signals from private meetings that the Treasury actually wants to scrap tax reliefs for higher rate payers who give to charity. This must be the wrong time to be hiding things from the sector. When will the Government come clean on their plans for the reform of gift aid?

The number of charities has reduced, but from talking to the Charity Commission we find that that is about the cleaning up of the charities list. There are charities that have been on the list for some time but have not been functional, or there may have been mergers.

This Government have a proud record on gift aid, and several changes have been brought in.

The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but it is absolutely true. A number of changes have been brought in to simplify and improve the system and get more money out to charities. I understand the frustration of some charities that want to see change more quickly, particularly on the issue of higher rates, but the problem is that there is not agreement among the charities themselves about the best way forward. We are in talks with the Treasury about how best to address the matter, but the improvements that this Government have made have increased the amount of gift aid going to charities. The number of donations has more than doubled since 2001, when we first started making changes. I understand the frustrations, but we are working with the Treasury to ensure that there are improvements.

Can my right hon. Friend give us any indication of whether voluntary organisations are responding to the Government’s initiatives to get more people into work by increasing the work that they do, so as to benefit from the programmes that have recently been put in place?

The response to the Government programmes put in place during the recession has been remarkable. I am pleased to say that the anecdotal response that we are getting, particularly on grass-roots grants, is that the forms and application process are easier and simpler than they have ever been before. There is an increased number of volunteers, and we are supporting them through a variety of programmes. The evidence is clear that people who volunteer often find a route into work by gaining skills, confidence and connections with employers.

Charities (Regulatory Burden)

The changes that we have made to charity law and to accounting and reporting thresholds have resulted in savings of thousands of pounds for charities. Departments are cutting red tape for third sector organisations, and further progress will be reported before the end of the year. The Government and the National Audit Office have produced guidance to reduce red tape associated with the £12 billion a year that the sector gets from the Government.

Does the Minister understand that in my constituency, charities are worried about the detailed applications for gift aid, which she has just discussed, the ending of the ring-fencing of Supporting People and particularly the vagueness of the extension of Criminal Records Bureau checks, especially for volunteers dealing with children. The problem is not that the regulations are wrong, it is the application of them that is causing concern.

We have to get the balance right between protection of the public and the regulatory burden that we place on charities. I am very conscious of that, and I have outlined some of the measures that we are undertaking to address the matter. Sir Roger Singleton is currently examining the new vetting and barring system for criminal records checks to ensure that we get the right balance between protection and regulatory burden. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it will be better for charities and volunteers, and that checks for volunteers will be free. I hope that that reassures him that we are getting the balance right and addressing the concerns that he has raised.

I welcome the news that CRB checks will be free for volunteers, but I recognise the importance of removing regulation. Any money that is donated that actually goes to charities rather than being spent on costs is welcome. Can my right hon. Friend give us some suggestion of what the savings to charities will be?

It is difficult to ascertain the exact amount that we are saving for charities, because to do so we would have to examine every single volunteer. One problem has been that some charities have paid for the same volunteer to be checked twice. We will examine the matter, but it is difficult to give my hon. Friend an exact figure.

But can the Minister be very clear on what particular steps the Government are taking to allow charities that receive from generous donors financial aid at this time of recession to use it on good causes, rather than spend the money on the increasing burden of fulfilling administrative and compliance demands?

We are very conscious of the administrative burden on charities. One thing that we have been doing is supplying grants through the modernisation programme so that charities can look at working with other charities and organisations, perhaps by sharing back-room functions, collaborating or merging. That frees up more money to be spent on the objectives of the charity itself. That is one way that we are able to help. I will be happy to give the hon. Gentleman further information and to look at the particular charities in which he is interested.

Bogus Charitable Collections

I am absolutely appalled that any organisation would try and con people into thinking that it is a charity in order to collect goods from the public that are intended to be sold to raise funds for a charity’s important work. I can tell my hon. Friend that in 2007, the Government, through the Office of the Third Sector, co-ordinated a Give with Care campaign to increase awareness of bogus clothing collections, and we are planning further such public campaigns in the coming months. We will also continue to encourage enforcement of the legislation.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but two of my constituents, Mr. Dale Rutter and Mr. Mike Hyde, from Sprotbrough in Doncaster my constituency, who do charity collections on behalf of Cancer Research UK, informed me at a recent surgery that the number of bogus charity clothes collection operators working in south Yorkshire is very much on the increase because of the credit crunch. Will the Minister agree to meet me and my constituents to discuss this very important issue in greater detail?

Of course I am happy to meet my hon. Friend, who has a record of campaigning on this issue. I would direct his constituents to look at the campaign that we have been running and the small print on the sacks that are delivered to people’s homes to encourage them to donate, because sometimes there is more helpful information there. I would also suggest that if people want to donate, they might want to go to the charity shop directly. That may be a better way of ensuring that bogus collectors do not get the gifts that are intended for charities.

Would the Minister like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Salvation Army, which is one of the leading clothes collectors and recyclers in the country, and whose depot in Kettering is one of the largest clothes recycling depots in the United Kingdom?

I am always pleased to congratulate a charity that is doing good work. The public can be assured that if a sack comes through their door to collect clothes for the Salvation Army, it is totally genuine.

I think I am right in saying that a case of that sort was taken to court by the local authority in Cardiff recently, resulting in a fine of £750. Perhaps that ought to have been higher, but will my right hon. Friend encourage local authorities and magistrates to use their existing powers to the full to drive these cancerous companies out of business, and to allow the public confidence that what they give goes where it is intended?

My right hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. I congratulate Cardiff council on taking that prosecution. A £750 fine is significant for those who are involved in such illegal activities, and I will certainly talk to my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to see how we can work together to encourage local authorities to enforce their current powers.

List of Ministerial Responsibilities

5. What the cost to her Department was of the (a) production and (b) distribution of the most recent list of ministerial responsibilities. (295978)

The list of ministerial responsibilities is produced in-house in the Cabinet Office, the costs of which are met from within the existing Cabinet Office budget. They are not, I am afraid, separately identifiable.

The Cabinet Office booklet helpfully ranks Cabinet Ministers in order of importance—No. 1 being the Prime Minister, No. 2 being the Leader—[Interruption.]

Order. One would have thought that the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues would want to listen to his question and that it would be courteous to do so.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Back to the ranking of the Cabinet: No. 1 is the Prime Minister, No. 2 is the Leader of the Commons and No. 3 is the Lord Mandelson, who is more important than the Chancellor, the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, the Justice Secretary and the Defence Secretary. In fact, the Defence Secretary is listed as the third least important—[Interruption.]

I was waiting for the punch line. The ranking of ministerial offices reflects the significance and importance of the responsibilities carried by the post-holders within the Government. No one is in doubt about the significance of the contribution made, and the responsibility carried, by Lord Mandelson.

Ministerial lists have to be reprinted frequently because of the Government’s obsession with changing the machinery of government. Since 2005, the Department for Trade and Industry has had four incarnations, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have been split up and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills abolished—the list goes on. Does the Minister agree that those reorganisations are unnecessary and expensive, and staff time would be better spent working on policy and problems than on changing the headed paper?

If it were only as trivial as changing the headed paper, yes, but modern government has to be flexible, with the capacity to respond to new and changing demands. That is what the machinery of government changes are designed to do.

Social Enterprise

I am very pleased to answer this question in the run-up to social enterprise day on 19 November, which is a celebration of the 62,000 social enterprises in the UK. Last week, I met 13 social enterprise ambassadors at the restaurant Fifteen, itself a thriving social enterprise, and they are some of the most inspiring social entrepreneurs in the country, together employing more than 1,400 people. Social enterprises contribute about £24 billion to the economy each year and employ 800,000 people. It is clear that at their best social enterprises contribute to a stronger economy and a fairer society.

Would the Government consider introducing a community reinvestment Bill to further support social enterprise?

One of things that the Government need to look at—and are doing so—is how to get more capital investment into social enterprises. My hon. Friend may be aware that we have recently concluded our consultation on the creation of a social investment wholesale bank. Consultation closed on 7 October and we are looking at the responses to see how we can best ensure that we get more capital investment into social enterprise, to the benefit of the economy and the community as a whole.

Will the Minister do her best to encourage Departments, and especially the Government offices for the regions, to participate in social enterprise organisations locally, some of which are working very hard to find practical answers to problems such as transport in rural areas? Will they also work with organisations such as Policy Connect, which is based in this House?

It is very good when the Government offices for the regions can co-operate with social enterprises. Indeed, I recently visited Hackney transport social enterprise, which is doing tremendous work for the local community. The public are now looking for something different from their business enterprises—social and environmental concern instead of just the financial bottom line. It is important for government at all levels to co-operate and work with social enterprise—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Members for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) have been conducting an animated conversation for several minutes. I feel sure that that conversation has now been concluded.

My hon. Friend will know that Community Ventures is a social enterprise that serves my constituency very well. Is her Department considering advising social enterprises to put social clauses into public contracting, so that training opportunities and employment regeneration are added to social contracts?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is similar to the point that I made a moment ago about there being more to a social enterprise than the financial bottom line. There is a social return on the investment. I can tell her that yesterday the second phase of the Government’s national programme for third sector commissioners began, and it is specifically looking at how to address social issues and how to provide benefit to the public through public service procurement. The short answer is yes.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to my answer a moment ago, but I can also assure him that the Government—

Charities (Recession)

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we recognise the difficulties facing the sector. As I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), an increased amount of services are being provided, but at the same time there are concerns about financial support for the sector. The Government’s package of support during the recession of up to £42 million will help to address that.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Many charities in my constituency are already facing difficulties as a result of the economic climate and are now facing a further threat as a consequence of the dispute between the Lloyds TSB Foundation and the Lloyds TSB banking group. Will the Minister do what she can to intervene in that dispute and to broker some sort of settlement, so that the contribution that the foundation makes to many charities in Scotland can continue?

I would love to be able to do so, but I think that it might be beyond my powers. Obviously, if the Government can give any support or advice, we will be happy to do so. I understand that the Scottish Executive have looked at this matter as well. It is time to place on the record—perhaps this message can go back—how much we greatly value the foundation and the support given by such organisations. We hope that efforts can be made to ensure that it continues.

Is the Minister aware that the number of main reporting charities registered with the Charity Commission has fallen by more than 12,000 over the past year? Although some of that can be attributed to administrative changes in the commission, is it not really a sign that the Government’s third sector recession action plan is not working? How can she make it more effective?

I have to challenge the hon. Lady when she says that the £42.5 million put into the third sector is not working. Charitable organisations on the ground will tell us the difference that it makes. I can also say that she needs to talk to the Charity Commission about the reasons for the figure. Plucking out headline figures does not tell the true picture. More than 1,000 charities have chosen to merge, and the commission has said that it had to clear up the list. A number of those charities have been active for some years. Obviously, we want the number of third sector organisations to increase and those organisations to develop. That is why the Government have a plan to do that.

Has the Minister been able to form any assessment of how banks are treating charities in the current context, in terms of loans, operating charges and other pressures, including on the assets that charities hold?

There is no formal assessment, but anecdotally there is a mixed picture. Some report favourable responses and support from their banks, but in other areas we are finding that banks are perhaps not as sympathetic as they could be. That is one of the reasons that the Government have a programme in place to help charities, and that includes loans being made available.

Charities have suffered as a result of the recession. Charities such as Age Concern and the hospice movement make a huge contribution to the well-being of certain groups of people in this country because of the large number of volunteers who give their services free. Can the Government not do more at this time to help charities that are so well regarded in this country?

It is a pleasure—albeit an unusual one—to agree with the hon. Gentleman. I, too, recognise the value of volunteers, and I can assure him that a number of programmes are in place to train volunteers, to help them to broker the arrangements for volunteers that enable them to volunteer in the right way and to use the right skills of volunteers. Not only do charities benefit; the economy as a whole benefits. It is often a route into work. I entirely agree, therefore, with his proposition that volunteers are essential to civic society.

Contingency Planning (Floods)

8. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the work of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat natural hazards team in relation to contingency planning for floods. (295985)

I know that the hon. Lady has a great interest in this matter and is concerned, as we all are, that the recommendations of the Pitt review that followed the 2007 floods be implemented swiftly. To this end, the natural hazards team in the Cabinet Office has been established and is developing a programme to reduce the disruption to critical infrastructure and essential services that caused so much suffering during those floods. A statement of policy is being developed with local authorities, regulators and the relevant industries. A wider consultation on this will follow in November and no doubt Members on both sides of the House will wish to engage in this. The—

Order. We have got the drift. Let us have the supplementary question. I call Miss Anne McIntosh.

The Government promised to have undertaken a national assessment of all the critical infrastructure at risk by the beginning of this year. Why have they failed to do so and why have they let down those households that were flooded in 2007?

The hon. Lady is not correct; a lot of work has already been undertaken in establishing the basis for the wider consultation, including discussions with the regulators, local authorities and other relevant industries. Wider consultation with the public will take place in November, after which the policy statement setting out how such humanitarian crises will be avoided in the future will be published.