Skip to main content

Cabinet Office

Volume 521: debated on Wednesday 19 January 2011

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Big Society

The Government have an ambitious agenda for the big society. We want to decentralise power and put it in the hands of local communities. We want to open up public services to small and medium-sized enterprises, voluntary organisations and mutuals, and support the growth of civil society organisations.

The ministerial group, which is co-chaired by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and myself, is helping to drive forward this agenda and has already contributed to progressing our vanguard areas, the renewed compact, the right to provide for mutuals, and our giving Green Paper.

Hyndburn citizens advice bureau has seen a 50% cut in its funding and four job losses, and I think that it is a similar tale at Rossendale citizens advice bureau. I am waiting for its job losses, but it is expecting a 50% cut. The Minister should be mindful that his Government might leave the legacy of a little society. What warm words would he have for Rossendale and Hyndburn citizens advice bureaux?

We urgently hope that local authorities, as they deal with the financial consequences of the budget deficit that the Labour Government left behind—when the Government were spending £4 for every £3 in revenue, having to borrow £1 out of every £4—will ensure that a disproportionate burden of those reductions does not fall on the voluntary sector. That is a matter he should take up with the local council.

Have Ministers considered how to avoid duplication in the work of existing volunteer bureaux, often supported by local councils, and the new community organisers who are being recruited by the Government?

I would expect community organisers to work closely with those organisations and to ensure that there is no duplication of effort. These community organisers, many of whom already exist and do great work in communities, will not carry any kind of bureaucracy or organisational structure with them. Their job is to put people together, give support to organisations and make connections where they are not already being made.

This morning, figures showed that youth unemployment has rocketed up, and this afternoon we expect the Government to confirm that they will cancel the education maintenance allowance. Without work and without study, surely we need our youth charities more than ever before, yet the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services says that three quarters are now cutting projects. Just what have the Government got against young people, and why is there such a narrow place for young people in the Government’s vision of the big society?

I am pretty reluctant to take lectures on this from the right hon. Gentleman, because he will know, as a prominent member of the last Government, that when his Government left office there were many more young people out of work than when they took office.

Charity Collections

Stealing from charities is a repulsive crime, but a growing problem, with suspected links to organised crime. It is estimated that up to £50 million a year is lost to bogus collections, which deprive charities of vital income and damage public trust and confidence in them. We are determined to take robust action against people who carry out such crimes.

Last week the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who has responsibility for civil society, and apologises for not being able to be here today, chaired a very positive meeting with charities, their collection partners, and the licensing and enforcement agencies to consider ways to tackle the issue. We want to review the licensing legislation and put much greater emphasis on the co-ordination of enforcement action to combat these criminals.

I thank the Minister for his answer. What assurances can he give the House that in our efforts to clamp down on fraudulent collectors we do not create an overly burdensome system that makes it harder for volunteers, on whom many of the charities in my constituency and across the country rely, to give up their time?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Charities Act 2006 is due to be reviewed, in the ordinary course of events, later this year, which we will do. It seems to us that the current laws are outdated; they date from many years ago, from a different world. They are not particularly effective at preventing fraudulent collections, yet they can already be very burdensome on legitimate charities. We want to reverse that to make the law easier for legitimate charities but more effective in controlling fraudulent collections.

In taking that important matter forward, what consultation does the Minister propose to have with the devolved Administrations so that best practice might be adopted in tackling that serious issue?

I am confident that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, who has responsibility for civil society and is taking the initiative forward, will want to collaborate closely with the devolved Administrations in just the way that the right hon. Gentleman suggests.

National Citizen Service

3. What proportion of the budget of the national citizen service he expects to be spent in the 50% least disadvantaged areas of the country. (34282)

Analysis by Cabinet Office officials shows that NCS pilots are taking place in more than 190 locations across England and that places are evenly distributed among the most and the least deprived areas of England. Just under half of the places are in the 50% least deprived areas and just over half are located in the 50% most deprived areas. The key criterion for selecting pilot providers was the quality of proposals, including their plans to attract a wide cross-section of 16-year-olds and to support disadvantaged young people to take part. The bidders themselves nominated areas where they wanted to deliver the 2011 pilots as part of the competitive commissioning that was completed in November.

I am sure that the Minister will be aware of the research published by the university of Strathclyde, since it was the Conservative party that commissioned it, which highlights the danger that the proposed NCS would in fact benefit more middle-class and well-off young people, rather than those in disadvantaged areas. What account is he taking of that research and how is he changing the programmes to deal with it?

The essence of that programme is that it is designed to bring together young people from a genuine mix of backgrounds. It is not designed particularly to help disadvantaged young people. It will benefit all young people and help to create a much more cohesive society by bringing together people from all backgrounds at an important and formative stage in their lives, during the rites of passage to adulthood. The social mix is an absolutely crucial ingredient of the programme.

Is it not true that the national citizen service requires that the voluntary sector has adequate capacity to deliver additional volunteering, which is contrary to the unequivocal statement made at the last Cabinet Office questions by the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), that the sector would expand? Will the Minister now admit that that statement was untrue. The latest figures for the voluntary sector show a decline of 13,000 jobs in a single quarter. Does he agree that the House was misled and that the statement—

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The House was inadvertently misled, even though the facts show what actually happened. Finally, would the Minister say that the job losses are a clear disaster for his big society aspirations?

The hon. Gentleman asked in particular about the capacity of the voluntary sector in relation to the national citizen service. I can tell him that the number of interested providers massively outweighed the number of places that we were able to fund. There is huge interest in the voluntary sector in taking part in the programme. The point that my right hon. Friend the Minister was making was that our approach to public service reform will open up areas of public service delivery to the voluntary and charitable sector and to social enterprise in a way that has not been done before, for all the talk from the previous Government, and the opportunities going forward will be considerable. My right hon. Friend made the point, as we all have, that there will be a tough time immediately, and we have some steps in place to try to help over that period, but the opportunities down the track are considerable.

Behavioural Insight Team

I am glad to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the behavioural insight team is now well established. It is beginning with work on three areas: improving the nation’s health; empowering consumers and encouraging people to give money; and protecting our environment.

“Nudge” author, Richard Thaler, has said that he believes that groups of friends can reduce their alcohol consumption by ordering from a bar tab rather than buying rounds of drinks. What savings from the national tab is the Minister making by applying behavioural economics at the heart of Government instead of creating yet more legislation?

I am glad that my hon. Friend asks that extremely interesting and important question. Of course, there has to be legislation about some things, but legislation has strict limits. The Opposition should be well aware of that, as they wasted £1.1 billion on ID card legislation—a totally ineffective example of authoritarianism. They also proposed to engage in bin taxes, and the evidence is now very clear: those measures would have increased fly-tipping and burning at home and have had counter-productive effects. The comparison with the RecycleBank initiative that Windsor and Maidenhead council and others are taking up, which nudges people into successfully recycling, is very striking. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that we can do—[Interruption.]

Order. May I just very gently say to the right hon. Gentleman, whose mellifluous tones I always enjoy—

Has the insight team considered an independent think tank’s judgment that the Government’s health reforms are like trying to resuscitate a corpse, which has not been done successfully since the time of Lazarus? How will the Government’s reforms help the nation when they are imposing chaos on the health service?

I do not think that the national health service is anything like a corpse at all; it is a living, breathing body that does a fantastic amount of good for our nation, and we are trying to improve it. The behavioural insight team has, as a matter of fact, been involved with the Department of Health—I was hearing about it just this morning—in thinking through ways in which we can nudge improvements in the health service, too, and try to make it more effective without imposing additional regulation on it.

Big Society

5. What recent discussions he has had with the civil society organisations on the implementation of the big society initiative. (34284)

All Cabinet Office Ministers meet civil society organisations regularly. I was present recently with the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude), the Prime Minister and other members of the Government at a round-table meeting with a cross section of voluntary and community groups and their representatives. We had extremely fruitful conversations about the new opportunities opening up for the sector and the way in which we can encourage those.

Yesterday, my local Tory council announced that 22 well-regarded voluntary organisations would be evicted from their home in Palingswick house, which they have been in for 25 years, to provide a site for a free school run by the self-publicist Toby Young, most of whose pupils will come from outside the borough. Will the right hon. Gentleman extend his deliberations and come to Hammersmith to sort out the broken big society there?

I have of course heard about the Palingswick house events, but it is hugely in the interests of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents that there should be a free school there, as it will improve education standards, I have no doubt. That is of course entirely a matter for the local council, not for the Government, because we believe in localism, but I understand that the council intends to find other ways to house the voluntary and community groups that are involved, and I am sure that it will do so with his help.

May I draw your attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, Mr Speaker, and ask the Minister what the likely timetable will be for local voluntary organisations to access the big society bank?

My hon. Friend has a distinguished record in financing voluntary and community groups, and the big society bank will make a difference to that area. The bank is a quite a complicated proposition, and we have to organise it and find the funding for it, but my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General is at work on that at the moment. Although we hope to be able to progress it at a reasonable rate, I certainly do not want to give my hon. Friend the impression that it will happen overnight, but I anticipate it being up and running in the not too distant future.

What reassurance has the Minister given civil society organisations that the big society agenda is being driven not by marketisation principles and the desire to see the voluntary and community sectors bid for public sector contracts simply to reduce costs, but by the desire to enable genuine community empowerment?

If the Speaker will permit a little essay, I would say two things in response to the hon. Lady’s important question. First, this is not all about money, in any dimension. The Localism Bill that we are bringing before the House has a huge effect on building social capital, and it does it by empowering people to make decisions about really important things such as their neighbourhood planning. That has nothing to do with saving money and everything to do with building social capital and empowering people.

Secondly, I fear that the hon. Lady shares the error that many of her colleagues have exhibited in thinking that the issue is one of services versus money. We are actually trying to find ways of getting more for less, and we believe that the innovation, enterprise, intelligence and social capital in the voluntary sector will enable us to do that.

Public Bodies

6. What savings have been achieved under the Government's programme of rationalisation and abolition of public bodies to date. (34285)

7. What assessment he has made of the effect on public expenditure of his proposals for non-departmental public bodies. (34286)

The proposals for reform that I set out in the House last October are the most major change to the public bodies landscape that any Government have made in a generation. They will make a significant contribution to reducing the baseline of Government spending as part of the coalition Government’s deficit reduction plan.

While “The King’s Speech” is rightly being feted all around the world, the right hon. Gentleman’s Government are abolishing the organisations here in Britain that helped to make that film happen, as part of what even the Conservative-dominated Public Administration Committee has described as a “botched” bonfire of the quangos. Given that he cannot even say how much, if anything, this is going to cost, is it not typical of what the Government are doing in so many areas—ill considered, ill thought through, rushed and damaging?

Just to be clear, the purpose of these reforms is to increase accountability. The Government will not simply create incontinently new independent bodies in order to avoid Ministers having to make and defend uncomfortable decisions. Ministers should be prepared to make those decisions and defend them themselves—that is what democratic accountability is about, and that is the primary aim. However, we will save money. The changes to the public body landscape planned and announced by the previous Government, of whom the right hon. Gentleman was such a distinguished ornament, were much more minor than the changes that we are undertaking. That Government claimed that those changes would save £500 million a year; our changes are much more radical and will save a great deal more.[Official Report, 2 February 2011, Vol. 522, c. 10MC.]

I will tell the Minister what the real effects of his proposals are going to be, according to the Public Accounts Committee. There will be no savings. In my constituency, between his actions on Consumer Focus and the Scottish National party’s actions on Waterwatch Scotland, we have a shambles of job losses, reduced protection and no gains. Is the Minister going to be a man, step up to the plate and do the right thing, or continually try to defy gravity?

It would be quite interesting to know which of our plans for reforming quangos the hon. Gentleman disagrees with. His own party had in its manifesto a commitment to cut the number of quangos. It had such plans when it was in government, but sadly, as with so much else, it did not give effect to them. We will save money, but much more importantly, we will increase accountability, which is what this is really all about.

Public expenditure by quangos includes expenditure on lobbying, which is an abuse of public money. Will Ministers ban quango lobbying?

The code for public bodies already purports to make it impossible for quangos to employ lobbyists from outside in order to lobby the Government. However, that code has not been effective, and considerable amounts of taxpayers’ money have been spent by public bodies, frequently in order to lobby the Government for them to spend more taxpayers’ money. We will make absolutely certain that the code is watertight and that that becomes impossible.

One of the list of quangos to be dealt with in the Public Bodies Bill is S4C. There is genuine anxiety in Wales about the future of S4C. Although there is a debate to be had about funding, can the Minister at least assure the House of S4C’s continued existence?

There is no question mark at all over the continued existence of S4C, which plays a valuable part in the life of the Principality. I will convey my hon. Friend’s concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. However, S4C appears in the Public Bodies Bill in the schedule to do with funding arrangements, and that has nothing to do with its continued existence. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber, and far too much noise.

Social Enterprises

8. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on the social enterprise sector of reductions in Government expenditure. (34287)

9. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on the social enterprise sector of reductions in Government expenditure. (34288)

11. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on the social enterprise sector of reductions in Government expenditure. (34291)

There is no doubt that the cuts that we have had to make as a result of the huge deficits that were piled up in government by the colleagues of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) have made and, in the immediate future, will make life difficult for some voluntary and community sector bodies, contrary to the way in which I was misrepresented by the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett). However, we have put in place measures that will vastly increase the opportunities for voluntary and community bodies to participate in public service delivery and earn money by doing so, and we have established a £100 million transition fund.

Will the Minister explain to the House what discussions he has had with his Treasury colleagues about extending and reforming community interest tax relief, which many social enterprises want to happen? That might be a way to enable social enterprises to flourish, despite the reductions that are contemplated.

Tax relief is, of course, an issue for the Chancellor of the Exchequer at Budget time, and I would not dream of trampling on his front lawn. The hon. Lady should recognise two important facts. First, charities already receive about £3 billion in tax relief, including a VAT exemption for trading activities for their main purposes and gift aid. Secondly, we are reluctant to create an unlevel playing field between social enterprises that are not charities and the private sector, because we want to ensure that there is a fair contest between the two and that social enterprises are fully involved in competing for public service delivery.

I take note of the Minister’s reply. In opposition, he said that the creation of a social investment bank was a priority, and last July the Government said that such a bank would be making loans by this April. We now know that that will not happen until the end of 2011. Is he frustrated by the Government’s dithering?

It is certainly true that we would like that to happen as fast as possible. We would have been much assisted in that if the previous Administration had not spent three years talking about it without setting up anything and without allocating any money to it. We have made arrangements for the bank to have some money. We hope to get more into it and to set it up in the very near future.

Given what has been said by my two colleagues and the Minister, will he explain more fully what immediate help the Government will give to the voluntary sector to help it create more social enterprises?

I hope that the hon. Lady has already gathered that we are trying to do two things. The first is to provide immediate assistance to voluntary and community groups that have had a tough time because of the spending review. The transition fund of £100 million is open. We are waiting for the bids to be completed, and they will then be judged and money will be handed out. Secondly, we are opening a wide terrain of public service delivery functions that can be carried out by voluntary and community groups, resulting in a huge potential for them to earn.

National Citizen Service

10. What steps he is taking to ensure that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds participate in the national citizen service. (34290)

One of the main aims of the national citizen service is to create a more cohesive society by mixing participants from different social backgrounds. To ensure that that happens, organisations bidding to deliver national citizen service pilots this summer were scrutinised on their plans for supporting the broadest possible range of young people to participate. A number of the organisations that were successful in bidding to run the pilots have a strong track record in working with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and we will closely monitor the success of the pilots in working with those young people.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Given that education maintenance allowance is being scrapped and that the Connexions service in my constituency faces huge cuts, how can disadvantaged young people in Houghton and Sunderland South be confident that they will benefit from the national citizen service?

The hon. Lady will be glad to know that a number of NCS pilots are taking place in and around her constituency. The Prince’s Trust is running a pilot in collaboration with local partners, including Sunderland football club, and Catch22 is running pilots in Sunderland and Washington. I hope that she will engage directly with those organisations to ensure that the widest possible range of participants is attracted to those pilots.

Big Society

12. What assessment he has made of the effects on the big society initiative of the outcomes of the comprehensive spending review; and if he will make a statement. (34292)

The hon. Gentleman was a distinguished head teacher in Scotland, I believe, and if his question relates to the effects in Scotland, he should of course address it to Scottish Ministers, as we do not have responsibility in that field.

For England, £470 million a year has been allocated to the Office for Civil Society, a considerable amount in light of the spending review. We have also allocated £100 million to the transition fund, and as I have mentioned repeatedly, there are huge new opportunities for voluntary bodies.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Can he reassure me that ultimate responsibility for providing a safety net for the most vulnerable people in society still rests with the state?

Of course responsibility for ensuring that people are cured, taught and protected from criminals rests with the Government and the state. The question is how that responsibility is best fulfilled. In our view, there are some areas in which things should be done by innovative and enterprising voluntary and community groups, rather than being delivered directly by public authorities.