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Duchy of Lancaster

Volume 504: debated on Wednesday 27 January 2010

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Youth Citizenship Commission

1. What steps her Department has taken to implement the recommendations of the Youth Citizenship Commission. (313350)

I am co-ordinating the Government response to the Youth Citizenship Commission. I have been impressed by the breadth of commitment of all Government Departments in engaging young people as active citizens in their communities and as they go through the transition to adulthood. I expect to publish my findings in response to the YCC in February, when I shall report on the significant amount of Government initiatives on delivery for young people.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. As she knows, the UK Youth Parliament is absolutely key to delivering on the proposals outlined by the YCC. Will she press the House authorities to provide core funding for the UK Youth Parliament to secure its future, so that it can deliver on those proposals?

I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend on all her work for the all-party parliamentary group on youth affairs. She does an excellent job. The UK Youth Parliament is a real success story: my hon. Friend will know that it held a great debate here in the House, and one of its key priorities is to lower the voting age to 16. She makes a valuable point, and I will indeed press the House authorities to try to ensure that we get some core funding for the UKYP.

We are all very keen to get more young people involved in the electoral process, and to ensure that they vote and participate. An election is near, so what more can the Government do to fulfil the commission’s recommendation that eligible pupils should be encouraged to register via school to make sure that they participate when it comes?

The hon. Gentleman makes another valuable point. We do not need any changes in law to ensure that young people are registered in schools, colleges and universities. We need to encourage those institutions to make sure that young people are encouraged to sign on and be registered to vote when they reach 17, so that we have the maximum number participating in the next election.

Get Safe Online Initiative

By sponsoring the Get Safe Online initiative, my Department continues to work with private sector partners to raise the very important issue of public awareness of internet safety. The Get Safe Online initiative has won two prestigious awards for this joint working, and it continues to increase the number and length of visits to its website. There have been more than 605,000 links to the site—far more than its US counterpart, which has achieved only 25,000.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply. A lot of people in my constituency still enjoy using cheques, which is a good thing, but more and more people—especially elderly people—are seeking to shop online because it is easy. What additional support and advice can she offer older users of the internet, who may be less familiar with the systems? What protections are in place?

My hon. Friend has been a long-standing campaigner on this issue on behalf of her elderly constituents. It is an extremely important matter, as people over 65 are the fastest growing group of internet users. That may seem slightly counter-intuitive, but that group of users grew by 15 per cent. in 2009 over the previous year, whereas the number of younger people using the internet grew by only 3 per cent. in the same period. Get Safe Online works specifically with Age Concern and has focused precisely on the important issue of security in banking and other financial transactions. It is important that the technology and content of websites always keeps ahead of fraud’s capacity to cause great anxiety and distress.

What are my right hon. Friend and her colleagues doing to encourage new sponsors to support this very valuable initiative?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Get Safe Online is a joint initiative, involving the Government and important private sector sponsors such as HSBC and Microsoft. Indeed, the Minister for the third sector, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith), recently hosted a sponsorship event as a result of which two new sponsors came on stream. It is clear that sponsors understand the initiative’s potential public benefit when it is presented to them. It is a very attractive sponsorship proposition.

The Minister mentioned fraud. With an increasing number of people being used as money mules, what are the Government doing to track down the foreign international gangs behind those schemes, and in particular to prosecute UK citizens who take their cut of the money?

I would like to refer the hon. Gentleman’s question to the Home Office, which takes the lead on this. I do not think that I referred specifically to money mules; I referred to protection for elderly people doing their banking and other financial transactions online. I hope that, as far as there is operational responsibility for this, his point about anticipating crime and future forms of fraud is taken into account in the constant review under the auspices of Get Safe Online working with the relevant organisations.

There has been a dramatic increase in cyber crime related to online transactions, as the Minister mentioned. Treasury figures show that transactions have more than doubled in the last three years, but the amount of identify theft and fraud has nearly quadrupled in the same period. What are the Government doing to tackle this growing problem, and what assessment has been made of the Payments Council’s decision to phase out cheques?

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State is taking forward this very important work, meeting the relevant stakeholders. Once those discussions have concluded, she will want to make a statement to the House.

NHS Charities

4. What discussions she has had with the Charity Commission and the Secretary of State for Health on proposed changes to the accounting treatment of NHS charities. (313354)

I have discussed the accounting arrangements for NHS charities with the Charity Commission and with the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope). The funds of an NHS charity are, and will continue to be, controlled by the charity’s trustees for charitable purposes. The international financial reporting standard will have no effect on the independence of those funds. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby, however, has engaged with colleagues in the Treasury to seek to delay the implementation of that requirement for a further year.

That was a slightly confusing response. Will the Minister make it quite clear whether the Government are pursuing the option of consolidating NHS charities on NHS balance sheets? Can we just have a simple yes or no?

The hon. Gentleman may operate in a world in which yes or no does it for him, but most things in life are a bit more complex. However, I can give him a categorical assurance that the finances of NHS charities will remain entirely controlled by the trustees of those charities, which is appropriate. All that we are talking about, and the source of the confusion and misunderstanding, is a technical change to accounting and reporting arrangements. I can give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance that funds will remain controlled by the trustees, and will continue to be controlled by the trustees.

My right hon. Friend will know that many communities give a great deal of support to NHS services, both in the hospice movement and in general health services. People would be dismayed if they thought that the moneys given voluntarily would be used against the NHS hospital budgets.

I agree with my hon. Friend, and they will not be. This is purely a technical accounting matter, so I am sorry about those concerns, because they are unfounded. There is no intention whatsoever that anything should be done with charity funds, which should remain with those charities. It is a purely technical accounting matter, and I hope that those assurances will satisfy my hon. Friend.

The Minister described this as a purely technical matter, but is there not a danger that NHS charities could be subject in effect to more central micro-management? Should we not seek in fact to decentralise control?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no such intention. This arrangement will not centralise any funding or any control of those charitable funds at all.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement that she is going to defer implementation for 12 months, but may I persuade her to go back and have further meetings, and support the Sunday People campaign not to introduce the new arrangement at all, and ensure that people feel happy to give freely and openly to charities in the NHS without any issues?

First of all, I do not have the power to introduce it or not. It is a matter for the Treasury, because it is a technical—

If I can finish answering the question that my hon. Friend asked. [Hon. Members: “Oh!] I would always wish to respond to my hon. Friend in full, and I will continue to do so. I am sorry that there is misunderstanding about this, because we do not want people not to give to charities in the NHS because they think that the money will not be used appropriately. It is purely a technical matter but, as I said, the Health Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby, has asked the Treasury to defer implementation for a year to provide the reassurance that is required.

The Charity Commission does not agree with the Government. It warned 18 months ago that the proposals risk undermining public confidence in the independence of NHS charities, but still the Government dither. Those accounting standards were never meant to be applied to charities. Other countries have chosen not to apply them in this way. They are being imposed because of bureaucratic diktat. The issue needs gripping by Ministers, so will the right hon. Lady pledge to work with colleagues in the Department of Health and Monitor to persuade the Treasury not just to defer a decision for another year, but to drop this whole nonsense altogether?

I am not sure that there is any disagreement in the House on the principle of what the Government seek to do. NHS charities should have their funds independently administered by the trustees, which is the law. As I said, the Health Minister, who has been dealing with the matter with the Treasury, fully understands the views of the House and will ensure that they are represented at all times.

2011 Census

The census rehearsal, unlike the 2011 census, was voluntary and was carried out in just three areas. To date, the provisional percentage response is 38 per cent. overall and analysis of the rehearsal returns is still ongoing.

The Minister, knowing Southend well, will know that I am appalled by those low figures, given that the 94 per cent. average at the last census was even lower in Southend. We felt that we undercounted by about 20,000 people, which cost us £7 million each year. Will the Minister agree to meet me and Southend council in the time before the general election to make sure that we are fully prepared for 2011?

I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. In fact, I would be happy to meet him after the general election as well, to discuss the matter. I understand the points that he makes, but the census rehearsal is voluntary. There was no publicity about it and it does not in any way reflect the response rate that we will get for the census, which I anticipate will be much the same as at the last census. What I can tell the hon. Gentleman, which will be helpful in terms of the points that he raises, is that additional work is ongoing by the Office for National Statistics, which undertakes the census, to ensure that the response rate is as high as possible. That is part of the reason for the rehearsal—to look at the actions that the ONS can and will take in areas that traditionally send in fewer response forms. So action is being taken to address the very points that he made. Indeed, the ONS has been meeting Southend council and others to look at increasing the response rate.

What efforts are being made to reach groups that are traditionally difficult to reach, such as ethnic groups or Gypsies and Travellers?

The ONS has put additional work into that. More than £2 million will be spent to encourage organisations and individuals who have been more reluctant to respond to the census to encourage them to do so. Billions of pounds of public money is allocated in expenditure each year, and it is right that we have projections of where the population lives and what the needs of future populations will be. That applies to all populations in this country, so every effort will be made and extra resources will be put into ensuring that those people are able to respond.

How can the cost of half a billion pounds, which is double the cost of the last census, be justified at this time of fiscal crisis? In 2001, 10 per cent. of the data was not even counted; it was imputed. Is this not a thoroughly wasteful and inaccurate exercise?

Absolutely not. It is a very valuable and important exercise. The cost is about £482 million, but we estimate that the benefit to the economy of the work that has been done is about £700 million, so the benefits outweigh the cost. The cost is about 87p per person per year. For every person in the country to pay 87p per year for the benefit that we get from the census is good value.

The census is not even accurate. Why are Ministers rushing to send millions of the 32-page census forms to the printers this March, a full 12 months before the census date? Should not a responsible Government be scaling the census back? Is not the answer a less intrusive, much cheaper census that offends the public less, increases compliance and therefore yields much more accurate information?

I think the right hon. Gentleman struggles to make his point. If we look at the costs of censuses across the world, our census is better value for money and cheaper than those conducted in such countries as New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the USA. In the USA the census costs more than £2 per person per year—significantly more than in this country. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may find that amusing, but I find value for money quite an important aspect. The Government are doing everything they can, working with the ONS, to ensure that the information is accurate. It is important that the response rate is as high as possible. We use the information to help to allocate Government priorities and Government expenditure, so I totally refute the right hon. Gentleman’s comments.

Voluntary Sector (Government Funding)

Q7. What recent representations she has received on the effect on the voluntary sector of changes in levels of Government funding. (313357)

I regularly meet third sector organisations to discuss various issues, including any potential changes to the levels of Government funding. Owing to the third sector’s value to the community, public funding increased to £12 billion in the most recent financial year, an increase of more than £3.5 billion over seven years. The Government have further increased their support to the sector with a recession action plan, which is worth up to £42.5 million, and the £17.4 million hardship fund provided additional support. We have also funded a website that provides a one-stop shop for information about funding and financial opportunities, including advice and guidance on sustainable funding opportunities.

I am very grateful to the Minister. Whoever wins the next election, there are likely to be spending cuts in national and local government, and that will inevitably reduce the amount of funding for the third sector just at a time when its burden of social care is on the increase. How does the Minister intend to square that circle?

The issue of local government funding has caused the third sector considerable concern, and we have been working with local government and those who commission services from the third sector to ensure that commissioners are aware of the value of the third sector and how they can best apply for the work that it undertakes on behalf of local government. In terms of social care, that is the most crucial consideration.

There are issues with Government funding, but council budgets are under huge pressure, too, and, in the drive to enable the third sector to undertake core social services, that is leading to a double pincer movement for many local charities. What will the Minister do to ensure that councils do not simply say, “We cannot fund you,” and that we do not lose the core social services that councils used to run?

If third sector organisations are undertaking core social services, they will be doing so on behalf of the local authority, which will fund those services. I say to all local authorities, look for the third sector’s value for money and its contribution to the overall objectives of the council and the overall benefits of the area. I am convinced that, when those issues are taken into account and councils see the value that the third sector brings to their area, it will impact on their funding decisions.

Surely the Minister accepts that the voluntary sector makes a vital contribution to the well-being of our society. Therefore, in these difficult financial times, financial support should be strengthened rather than diminished.

It is gratifying to receive so much support for Government funding of the third sector; it has not always been forthcoming from the Opposition. We have addressed those funding issues. During the recession, the Government have given an extra £42.5 million to the third sector, and that support has been absolutely crucial. We want to ensure that we still support the third sector, but we will not regard it as a cheap option for the provision of public services. It is a quality option that deserves to be properly funded.

Government Information Service

Q8. What the work programme of the Government Information Service is for the next 12 months; and if she will make a statement. (313358)

The Government Communication Network is the successor to the Government Information Service, which was disbanded in 1997. Over the next 12 months, the permanent secretary at the GCN will improve the professional skills of communicators throughout the civil service, maintain professional standards, increase efficiency and deliver maximum value for money. Effective communication performs a critical role in providing important information to the public and improving access to public services. The Government will continue to use communications in support of their policy agenda, building on current successful campaigns.

I am grateful to the Minister, and I am sure that the Government Communication Network does a marvellous job, but at a time when we are looking to ensure that public money is well spent, will she explain why, for example, it is necessary for the Ministry of Defence to have 255 people employed in communication?

Over the years, there has been a lot of demand on press officers’ time. I will give the hon. Gentleman some figures. There are 374 media personnel in the Press Gallery and more than 3,000 journalists at the BBC, and each of their queries demands a response. On average, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, for instance, receives 600 calls a day. The increase in numbers is a direct response to the increased number of questions to Departments.

Charities (Regulatory Burden)

The Government are committed to cutting burdens on charities and other third sector organisations. Further plans outlining how this will be achieved were published last month. The changes that we have already made to charity law and to the accounting and reporting thresholds have resulted in savings for up to 5,000 charities.

Gift Aid is a wonderful thing, but it is complicated to administer and particularly costly for smaller charities. When can we have some sensible proposals from the right hon. Lady to simplify and reform the system?

Gift Aid is a matter for the Treasury. However, I have regular meetings with representatives from the third sector, as well as with Treasury Ministers, who are reviewing the operation of Gift Aid to see what more they can do to assist charities in this regard.

Is it not the case that the Charities Act 2006 brought rationalisation to the regulations governing the charities sector and therefore made it much easier, in many ways, for them to function? Is it not also the case that where third sector organisations are delivering other services such as hospices and so on, they must be regulated in terms of the service that they are delivering? What is important, therefore, is not the quantity but the quality of the regulation that we have imposed.

My hon. Friend, who has vast knowledge of the charitable sector, makes a valid point. This is a matter of balance. We need to ensure that there is adequate regulation to protect donors’ money and the services that they provide, but we do not want to overburden those organisations with unnecessary regulation.

As charities are finding it extremely difficult to maintain income streams because of the fragility of the economy—[Interruption.]

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but there are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. That is very unfair to the hon. Lady and to the Minister answering the question.

I will start again, Mr. Speaker.

As charities are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain income streams, would not now be the very best time to try to reduce the regulatory burden even further to minimise the adverse effects on all charities, including NHS charities?

I do not think the hon. Lady heard my answer to the original question as regards exactly what we are doing. We are publishing plans outlining what more we can do. However, the measures that we have taken to date in relation to charity registration, and other matters, have been welcomed by charities, and we will continue to do what we can to support them.

Advice and Advocacy Services

10. If she will take steps to ensure that third sector organisations have sufficient resources to provide advice and advocacy services for people employed by companies that do not recognise trade unions. (313361)

Because of the third sector’s value to the community, public funding increased to £12 billion in the last financial year, which amounts to more than £3.5 billion extra over the past seven years. During the recession, we have provided additional funding to advice centres and to the communities they help. That includes an extra £13 million for legal aid, an extra £10 million for additional hours of service by citizens advice bureaux, and more than £6 million for information, advice and guidance services and hardship funds. These services are open to those in every community irrespective of their employment status.

The national minimum wage protects the earnings of vulnerable workers, but during the recession bad employers have sacked low-paid staff or unfairly changed their working conditions, especially in non-unionised workplaces. What have the Government done to support vulnerable workers to ensure that they get good advice and representation about their rights at work?

I would urge every member of the public in employment to be a member of a trade union that protects their rights. However, the Government provide additional support to ACAS, to the pay and work rights helpline, and to the Directgov website. We also have a campaign to ensure that workers are aware of their rights at work so they cannot be discriminated against and treated as my hon. Friend describes.

Grassroots Grant Programme

12. What recent assessment she has made of the effects on local communities of her Department's grassroots grants programme. (313363)

The £130 million grassroots grants programme has already provided more than 13,000 grants to small charities and voluntary organisations, totalling more than £33 million. Those grants have enabled small groups across England to do what they think is best to meet the needs of their own communities. More than £13 million has been received in donations from businesses and individuals, which has been boosted by the Government’s provision of £25 million through match funding.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that voluntary organisations in receipt of that money are best placed to provide opportunities for young people to get employment through sport and training opportunities, and that that provides people with an excellent opportunity to participate in making their communities better?

I would commend my hon. Friend for the work that he has done in his constituency on this issue, working with the third sector and encouraging young people to volunteer and engage. He is absolutely right that the ability to volunteer seems to be a route into employment because of the skills and confidence that people gain through volunteering.

Charities (Regulatory Burden)

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) a moment ago about how the Government are reducing burdens on charities and the voluntary sector.

I recently visited a mental health charity that was getting its funding from 27 different sources and having to fill in 27 audits and 27 accounts of how it was doing its job properly every year. It was having to employ at least one full-time person just to do the paperwork. Surely that is a nonsense and we can streamline that whole system.

We can to an extent, and one thing that we can do is consider having one reporting system for such organisations. However, I do not think for a minute that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that some of the independent funding organisations should not give money to such charities. I commend the charity that he has in mind for being so successful in gaining funding from every source. We are looking into the issue of reporting and forms and working with the sector on it.