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Voluntary Sector

Volume 524: debated on Monday 28 February 2011

1. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on the community and voluntary sector of reductions in levels of Government funding for local authorities. (42485)

8. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on the community and voluntary sector of reductions in levels of Government funding for local authorities. (42492)

18. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on the community and voluntary sector of reductions in levels of Government funding for local authorities. (42503)

Spending decisions are a matter for local councils, but no council will see its spending power fall by more than 8.8% next year. Councils face difficult decisions owing to a fiscal crisis that was not of their making or of ours. The best councils are expanding the opportunities for the voluntary sector to help them to make savings. The worst-run councils are targeting the sector for disproportionate cuts. We are requiring all councils to be transparent in their actions.

Next year, my local authority is cutting more than 20% of its running grants for voluntary and community organisations, which means that organisations such as the citizens advice bureau, the council for voluntary service and advice services generally will find it almost impossible to continue to support the volunteers they have supported over the past year. Does the Minister think that authorities such as Southampton will rue the day they did that, or is he rueing the day that he enabled his Department to acquiesce so readily in the cuts to local government funding that he has endorsed?

I have made it very clear that councils should not cut disproportionately. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to meet his local council. I understand that the leader of the council has invited every voluntary organisation to come to see what other opportunities there are for them within the council. I also hope that if he does go to the council, he will reflect on the fact that every Conservative and Liberal member has taken a 5% cut in their allowances, but Labour members have refused. When he is in city hall, I hope that he will get his friends there to make their contribution to the voluntary sector.

The Government have completely cut the grant to vinolved—a youth volunteering project—cut the grant settlement to Bolton council by £60 million, which will amount to 25%, and last year cut £1.3 million from Bolton’s grant to the voluntary and community sector. Bolton council is prioritising funding to the voluntary and community sector, but cannot work miracles with no money. Why is the Minister not listening to and supporting the voluntary and community sector?

I do not know whether the hon. Lady listened to the debate in the Bolton council chamber on Wednesday—it was its budget meeting—but I did. I listened to it live on the internet, and it was fascinating. Two things emerged: first, the director of finance warned two years ago that the council should get its house in order, but was overruled by Labour members; and secondly—and disgracefully—a motion by the Conservative group to provide a fund to protect voluntary organisations was voted down by her Labour colleagues. She pipes up in this House, but can she pluck up the courage to talk to her colleagues in Bolton?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is now more important than ever that local councils maintain and strengthen their links to community and voluntary groups, because these very groups can lead to innovative ways of delivering very high quality public services?

They can indeed, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Reading council, for example, has taken the opportunity to increase funding to the voluntary sector, knowing that actually it helps it to change its services and make some of the savings it is required to make.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise the need to bring forward legislation to strengthen the ability of charities to come together to get the expertise to procure and gain contracts from local authorities that all too often set the rules in ways that do not enable charities to provide the services in their local communities that they really want to provide?

My hon. Friend is exactly right, and that is why he will know that in the Localism Bill we are establishing rights for every voluntary organisation in the country not to be rebuffed by local authorities but to make a challenge to provide services, if they can demonstrate that they can do it better. That is the right approach, but it did not happen during the 13 years of Labour party rule.

We all know that local councils are the largest providers of public funding to the voluntary sector, which has grown over the past 10 years, particularly through the partnerships that operate so successfully up and down the country. What was the Department’s estimate of the number of jobs that would be lost in the voluntary sector as a result of the front-loaded cuts the Government have imposed on councils, and will the Minister confirm that the Government’s transition fund, which was meant to help charities that have lost funding, was closed to bids on 21 January, before most councils had even finalised their budgets?

I welcome the right hon. Lady to the debate; I had thought that her silence on matters concerning the voluntary sector might be terminal. We have made it very clear that councils should not cut disproportionately, but she has been absolutely silent, as have her Front-Bench colleagues, about Labour councils that are taking their cuts out on the voluntary sector. We have provided £100 million of transition funding, which is now being taken up. The first grants have been paid this week. I look forward to the right hon. Lady writing to members of Labour councils up and down the country and joining us in making it clear that they should not cut services.

Labour has always celebrated the partnership between local government and the voluntary sector, and under a Labour Administration we saw those partnerships grow. We saw local voluntary groups taking over some of the services that councils had traditionally run. The fact is that it is not only we who are raising concerns about the threat to the voluntary sector: 88 Liberal Democrat council leaders have made a public statement about their concern, and we know from a freedom of information request that Tory council leaders have also raised concerns about the front-loading of the cuts that they are facing, so the Minister should not make any party political points on this. However much he might pretend otherwise, is it not the truth that every Home-Start that goes to the wall, every over-60s club that closes and every domestic violence shelter that shuts—

Order. I think we have got the thrust of the right hon. Lady’s question, and we are grateful to her.

I wish the right hon. Lady was more vocal when she talked to the Labour councils that are making disproportionate cuts up and down the country. The fact is that they are having to make those cuts as a result of the policies of the previous Government, who left a completely unsustainable legacy. Our spending on debt interest is almost twice the amount that the council tax raises. Labour politicians got local authorities into this mess, and they are not playing their part in helping the voluntary sector. They should be saying very clearly, as we are doing, that councils should not make disproportionate cuts.