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Voluntary Sector (Nottingham)

Volume 524: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2011

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne?

The voluntary sector in Nottingham is doing a huge amount for our city and its citizens. It provides services, support and advocacy to a wide range of groups, including some of the most vulnerable in society, as well as raising awareness, campaigning and fundraising. It also offers thousands of volunteering opportunities, which are important in strengthening our civil society and sense of community, but which also provide vital experience and skills to people seeking to move into paid work. Finally, of course, it provides employment to many people who are committed to making Nottingham a better place to live.

There are 678 registered charities in Nottingham. Nottingham Community and Voluntary Service, the local support organisation for the voluntary and community sector, has more than 1,000 local groups on its database, including charities, community groups and social enterprises. I am grateful to have the opportunity today to pay tribute to the fantastic work that the voluntary sector carries out in Nottingham, but I also want to express the hope that action can be taken to protect the sector before it is too late. I must tell hon. Members that Nottingham’s voluntary sector faces a crisis brought on by the Government’s spending cuts and the particularly severe reduction in funding for our local authority.

In its response to the city council’s budget consultation, the NCVS has stated that

“we believe that direct support to the sector from the council in 2010/11 totalled approximately £47.5 million. This is testament to both the strength of our local voluntary sector and the spirit of partnership working developed over many years by the Council”.

It is clear that Nottingham is already doing what the Government say they want local councils to do by using specialist providers in the community and voluntary sector to provide services to local people.

Over the past week, Delia Monk, the local government correspondent for our local paper, the Nottingham Post, has revealed the impact that spending cuts are having on the many different groups that make up the sector. The paper has done the community a great service by bringing the crisis to public attention and explaining how and why it should matter to us all.

Local groups face this funding crisis because of Government decisions to cut local authority funding too far and too fast. The Government claim that Nottingham’s spending power will be reduced by 8.4% in 2011-12, but the actual figure is 16.5%. That masks even deeper cuts to needs-based grants, which have now been rolled up into the total settlement. Those cuts include the scrapping of the working neighbourhoods fund and the future jobs fund and the 48% reduction in Nottingham’s allocation for Supporting People.

No, I am sorry, but my time is very limited.

The evidence for those cuts has been set out in an exchange of correspondence between the leader of the council and Ministers. NCVS anticipates that £47.5 million of council funding for the voluntary sector last year could shrink to about £29.5 million this year, which is a 38% drop. That reduction includes the loss of £7.5 million from the working neighbourhoods fund and £3.5 million from the future jobs fund, £7.6 million of cuts to Supporting People funding, cuts to commissioned services and likely reductions in grant aid and in-kind support.

Although cuts to local authority funding are the biggest worry for local groups, they come alongside big changes to the way groups can access alternative funding. Those changes include, for example, the introduction of charges and direct payments for social care and the upheaval in the health service, which is also a commissioner of services. Some groups will also be hit by the Government’s 60% cut in funding for asylum advice and the decision to end entirely funding for advice to people with refugee status. Refugee Action has been forced to leave Nottingham and to offer only outreach from its Leicester office. Legal aid cuts will also prevent Nottingham’s advice agencies from responding effectively to increasing local need.

Last Tuesday, the Nottingham Post reported that 40 services in the city and the county are at risk of closure.

I am sorry, but I have said that my time is very limited.

By this morning, that list had grown to include 35 services that are due to close, 16 that are at serious risk of closure and 12 that will be reduced. Those include services for children, such as play sessions and toy libraries, help and support for teenage parents, services for the mentally ill and their carers, a handy person scheme for the elderly and projects supporting women and children suffering domestic abuse. The support service for those who are homeless, or who could become homeless without adequate support, is particularly hard hit.

In the time available, I cannot possibly set out the full range of support services that will be lost as a result of this Tory-led Government’s choices, or describe individuals and families and the ways they will be affected, so I intend to focus on three issues: how the reductions in Supporting People will impact on not only service users, but the wider community, and how they will cost us all more than they save; how opportunities for volunteers and volunteering will be undermined rather than enhanced; and how employment and the local economy will suffer.

The previous Government introduced Supporting People funding to provide housing-related support, such as services to support homeless people and services to help individuals with learning disabilities or mental health issues to live independently in their own homes and to participate in the community. An independent evaluation by Capgemini for the Government in 2009 estimated that national expenditure of £1.6 billion generated net savings of £3.4 billion by avoiding the need for more costly acute services. I know from my own casework that the lack of proper support for vulnerable people—for example, those with mental health issues or substance misuse problems—can lead to difficulties with neighbours, require intervention by the local housing office, police and health services, and ultimately threaten people’s tenancies.

Framework is a homelessness charity based in my city, which provides housing, support, training, care and resettlement services. It often works with those groups that are most marginalised and stigmatised, including ex-offenders, people with a history of alcohol or substance misuse, and Gypsies and Travellers. In addition to being a direct provider of services, Framework heads a number of consortia of smaller specialist organisations that fulfil contracts commissioned by the city council.

Of the £22.3 million the city council spent on Supporting People services last year, approximately £7.5 million was spent through Framework contracts. In 2011-12, that figure is due to fall to approximately £3.5 million, resulting in the complete loss of 10 services and reductions in a further two. The 10 to be closed include specialist floating—that is, home-visiting—services for people with problems related to the use of illegal substances and alcohol. Such services have helped more than 500 service users in the past year. Other services to be closed include floating support for teenage parents, which supported 128 young people in 2010-1, a 16-bed hostel and five supported move-on flats for young people with complex needs. Without such support services, people with real needs face the prospect of getting into difficulty with their rent and housing, not looking after themselves or their home properly, becoming isolated and possibly placing a much greater burden on local services. Such people do not have a strong voice and do not always enjoy widespread public support.

We should be concerned about these cuts, because we are compassionate and care about social justice, but even on a more practical level, they are short-sighted in the extreme. It will cost us all more to deal with problems when they become urgent, when they could have been avoided through less expensive preventive measures. That is the principle behind the early intervention work pioneered by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), for which our city is rightly recognised. There will also be non-financial costs because of the distress caused to service users, their families, their neighbours and people in their local community. Many of us remember the sight of rough sleepers on our city streets, and none of us wants to return to those days, yet the Government’s actions make that a real risk.

The Government claim that the national Supporting People budget has not been significantly reduced, but it has certainly been redistributed away from areas of high need. Nottingham is the 13th most deprived local authority in the country and is suffering the 21st largest reductions in formula grant funding, whereas Windsor and Maidenhead, which ranks 323rd in terms of deprivation, has seen its spending cut by just over 1%.

In Nottingham, the council has sought to cushion the impact on the voluntary sector by not passing on the impact of the full cuts—almost £10 million in 2011-12—to Supporting People. With the reductions already being made to other parts of council services, the ability to protect the sector is limited, and it is inevitable that front-line services will be affected now and in the years to come.

The second area that I want to highlight is the impact on volunteering. Given that the Government have said that a key objective of the so-called big society is

“encouraging and enabling people to play a more active part in society”,

it seems incomprehensible that they are making cuts that undermine the very organisations that provide those opportunities.

It is normal to ask in advance of the commencement of a debate whether it would be okay to intervene. I am afraid that the hon. Lady did not do that, and I am short of time, so I will not. I am sorry.

Nottingham volunteer centre supports groups to recruit and retain volunteers, as well as helping potential volunteers to find suitable placements. In the past year, the centre matched about 2,500 people with volunteering opportunities in the city. A recent survey also found that volunteers in Nottingham gave more than 1 million hours of their time free, to support local people. If the volunteers were paid for their work, it would cost more than £14 million. In less than four weeks, all funding to support volunteering in Nottingham will end. The volunteer centre is affected by the scrapping of the working neighbourhoods fund and the national youth volunteering programme, vinvolved—eight members of staff are losing their jobs. The Government plan a new national citizen service for young people, but, as far as we are aware, none of those projects will take place in Nottingham, and the valuable expertise and infrastructure that has been built up in the city will soon disappear completely.

In Nottingham, more than half the volunteer centre’s service users were aged 25 or under, and when I visited the project recently I was impressed by the commitment and skills of the staff. Last year, 16% of the people supported by the V project were classed as not in education, employment or training. At a time of record youth unemployment, when one in five young people is unable to find work, it seems both cruel and foolish to cut off that vital link to skills, training and confidence for the most disadvantaged groups. That is best summed up in the words of a young woman who at first doubted her ability to make a worthwhile contribution through volunteering.

“I doubted myself…who was I kidding to think I could do something so mature like help at a hospice. I called Charmaine at Vinvolved to tell her that I didn’t think could do it. She was brilliant…she reassured me....I’m so glad I called her as I was ready to give up....3 months have passed and I’m still volunteering. My confidence has grown loads.... I really feel like I am making a difference.”

With 40% of the centre’s users out of work at the time they come in to volunteer, not only will the loss of the service reduce the opportunities available for people to retrain and improve their skills and employability, at a time when demand for the service is expected to rise, but it will deprive dozens of organisations of potential volunteers. Unfortunately, as local community and voluntary sector groups are unsure of the future of their own services, they are also losing the capacity to recruit and train volunteers. In most cases having fewer paid staff will mean fewer volunteers, not more.

That brings me to the third point that I want to highlight, which is that the cuts will lead to a significant reduction in employment. Nottingham city Unison, the local union branch that represents many voluntary sector staff in the city, reports that more than 1,000 members have been placed at risk of redundancy. Others face proposals to make significant cuts to their terms and conditions in a sector where pay is not generally high. NCVS-commissioned research from 2010 indicated that voluntary organisations benefit the local community by employing local people, so the job cuts and pay cuts will affect the spending power of hundreds of families in Nottingham. Coupled with job losses in local government, the police, the health service and the construction industry, following the Government’s decision to cancel investment in new school buildings and better social housing, they will further undermine the ability of our local economy to recover from the recession.

I could say so much more. On the 100th anniversary of international women’s day it is particularly saddening to read of the loss of services for women, such as the closure of Noelle House, the only gender-specific homelessness service in the city, and the loss of courses for teenage parents run by Platform 51, formerly the Young Women’s Christian Association, which were funded by the local primary care trust. The Women’s Voluntary Action Network is so concerned that it has appealed to the Minister for Women and Equalities to intervene. Black and minority ethnic communities will also feel the effect of the Tory-led Government’s decisions. Tuntum housing association reports cuts of 80% in its Supporting People funding, which will remove all the assistance it provides for vulnerable young people, primarily from BME backgrounds, and particularly young women.

I have no doubt that the Minister will say that the cuts were inevitable and that what I have described is the legacy of a Labour Government who left the national coffers empty, but people in Nottingham are not gullible. They understand that the money spent on British schools, hospitals and police officers did not cause the recession that was felt in Ireland, France, Greece and the USA. They know that we had to borrow money to bail out the banks and that tax receipts plummeted, making the deficit inevitable. They also know that the decision to cut the deficit as deep and fast as the Government are doing is a political choice. My concern is that that political choice will have devastating effects in the city I represent, and that those bearing the brunt are the very people who are least able to withstand it, including the poor, the old, the young, the disabled, the mentally ill and the homeless.

The Minister will doubtless say that that is the fault of Nottingham city council, but not a single Communities and Local Government Minister would meet representatives of the council or the city’s voluntary sector when they came down to Westminster last Monday to voice their concerns about the unfair settlement imposed on our city.

Perhaps the Minister will also say that the council should cut backroom functions and make efficiency savings. Well, it is already doing those things, cutting corporate services by 20%. It has already reduced the chief executive’s pay.

The debate in our local press has brought the work of the voluntary and community sector, which often goes unnoticed, to the public attention. I hope I have been able to highlight some of the work under threat. It has also raised questions and concerns among the people whom we serve, and now I want to put those questions before the Minister. How can it be fair for councils that serve the most disadvantaged communities to suffer the deepest cuts? How can we expect people to take responsibility for themselves, while at the same time cutting away the support they need to do so? What good is talking about a big society while removing the infrastructure that it needs? Nottingham people want answers, and I hope that the Minister has them ready.

I just want to point out that in half-hour debates the Chair’s practice is to call the Member who obtained the debate, and the Minister. The Chair will call other Members to speak only if the Member in charge and the Minister indicate in advance that they are content. Whether Members accept interventions or not is a matter for them.

Thank you, Ms Osborne. [Interruption.] There is a sort of chuntering noise somewhere in the Chamber. I do not know whether it is the microphone. Perhaps it is picking up some interference.

I thought it might be the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). I will give way if I can just speak for a couple of minutes. [Interruption.] If the hon. Lady will allow me—

This is not very becoming of the hon. Lady. Some might say that she is plucky in the way she is disrupting the proceedings, but others might say she has quite a lot of brass neck. [Interruption.] We are talking about a subject that is incredibly serious, and there should be all-party consensus on the matter, given that we are not talking about hanging baskets, coffee mornings or other such elements of the voluntary sector; we are talking about homelessness and people who may well find they have nowhere to reside, if their current accommodation closes.

Without getting into too much detail about the grant formula settlement, the simple point that I want to make in my couple of minutes is that homelessness charities and hostels are the things that most people will feel particularly strongly about. They are, after all, the last resort for many of the people who are in greatest need. They provide specialist support and acute help for people with mental difficulties, drug and alcohol problems and learning disabilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) mentioned the charity Framework and some of its hostels. In my constituency I am particularly concerned about the closure of the Handel Street centre, which specialises in dealing with drug and alcohol problems. The new Albion hostel with 21 flats is potentially under threat. My hon. Friend mentioned the Noelle House closure. There is also Acorn Lodge in St Ann’s, which is run by the Salvation Army, for homeless people over 55.

The consequences are obvious in terms of rough sleeping and potential disorder, but it is the ill health issues that worry me most, such as the knock-on effects on accident and emergency, bed-blocking and so forth. We are expected to believe in the big society, but I wonder whether it is realistic to expect private philanthropy to fill the void in what has been the historical support for these services. That is my concern. I urge the Minister to reconsider the quick withdrawal of this grant support given that there is no alternative plan.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Over the years, Nottingham city council has spent excessive money not only on political advisers for the Labour group, but on promotional publicity, foreign jaunts and the like. It is unfortunate that the Labour-run city council did not use that money—taxpayers’ money—on the very services that he now is so keen to protect.

I had a feeling that the hon. Lady would want to make a political point. As predicted, some would say that she has a brass neck intervening on that point, given that it distracts from the primary issues that we face. There will always be examples of lower levels of expenditure on which local councillors will disagree, but given the sums involved—it is in multi-millions of pounds—it is not credible for the hon. Lady to say that that is the driver for the withdrawal of some of those services.

The hon. Lady disagrees—she has her point of view—but we have to do more to help the homeless in Nottingham and in my constituency.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this debate. She started by paying an extremely sincere tribute to her local voluntary community sector and her local paper. I began to lose respect for her speech, however, when she failed to recognise the difficulties faced not only by the Government, but by those trying to govern local authority areas.

The situation is horrendously difficult for everyone. The hon. Lady spoke of political choices, but I did not go into politics to make spending cuts, and I doubt whether the people on Nottingham city council did so either. The cuts were forced on us by the shambles that resulted from the previous Administration’s stewardship of our public finances, but she showed no recognition of that. I leave to one side whatever happened in the past to the administration of the various Nottinghamshire councils.

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene, given the short time that he has left. Is he aware that Nottingham city council has compensated two previous chief executives that it could not get on with, has sent an executive to the south of France on jollies and has hired a cherry picker to remove conkers from a tree? Would it have been better to spend that money on the voluntary sector rather than wasting it like that?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case, which brings me to my next point. However difficult this environment may be, it boils down to local choices, and local choice is often dictated by decisions taken in the past.

Those are local choices, but it is clear to me that the picture is very different around the country, with some local authorities—perhaps they were better run in the past, with a greater eye for efficiency and spending on what is really valuable—being in a position to minimise reductions to the voluntary and community sector. Indeed, places such as Reading and Wiltshire have increased investment, or are engaging in a process with that sector that is more transparent, more up-front and more engaged. There is a mixed picture across the country.

I know from personal contact with representatives of Nottinghamshire’s voluntary community sector that there are problems on the ground. I wrote to every Member of Parliament offering to meet members of the local voluntary community sector, and I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) took up my invitation. I met representatives of the sector there, and they directly expressed their concerns to me, which were principally about how the county council had managed the process of engagement.

In the little time that remains, I shall try to set out our stall and say what the Government are trying to do to help in this incredibly difficult situation. Clear messages have been sent to local authorities on the best way of behaving in this situation. The Prime Minister gave a clear steer, asking councils to cut their cost bases and make their own efficiencies before starting to think of making what might seem to be easy cuts to the voluntary sector. That is what my local authority has done, and many others are doing so, too.

That approach is clearly not happening across the piece, however, which is why I am delighted that my colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government have gone further. They are urging local authorities to be much more transparent about their spending on the voluntary and community sector, so that the people whom we represent can see what is being done in their names and exactly what choices are being made—for instance, decisions on county hall salaries compared with cuts for the local voluntary and community sector. The public have a right to know what is being done in their name.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. It is most unfortunate that of all the local authorities in England, it is Nottingham that still refuses to publish expenditure of more than £500. One wonders what is the problem—what has Nottingham got to hide?

That is certainly the question in my mind and in the mind of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. We, in Parliament, know the power of transparency—we know that it gives real power to citizens. In this instance, the public have the right to know how their money is being spent and what choices are being made. We are trying to help by sending a strong steer to local authorities and allowing the public to make up their mind about local decisions.

We have set aside £100 million of taxpayers’ money—a significant sum—as a transition fund to help voluntary sector organisations. Many are finding themselves terribly exposed to cuts of grant or in contracts, and need some help to get out of the hole—as long as they have a plan to do so. We continue to invest on behalf of the taxpayer in that sector. My Department has a budget of £470 million, and we structure what we do around three questions.

First, we ask what we are doing to make it easier to run voluntary community sector organisations. That involves cutting red tape to make it easier for those who have the incredibly difficult job of running small charities or civil society organisations. We continue to invest in the infrastructure that exists to support the sector. We want to make it much more effective.

Secondly, we ask what we can do to get more resources—both time and money—into the sector. We published a Green Paper on giving, which will become a White Paper. We are well on track to deliver a big society bank, which will make it much easier for social entrepreneurs to access capital, and we are coming up with new programmes such as the National Citizen Service, which I hope will be available in Nottinghamshire before too long. We are about to commission next year’s pilots, with 30,000 places. I urge the hon. Member for Nottingham South to engage with it when it arrives, as it will be an enormously positive opportunity for local young people, and a fantastically good process of connecting them and giving them the power to make a contribution to community.

Last but not least, we ask ourselves the question, “What can we do to make it easier for charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations to deliver public services?” The sector delivers about 2% of contract value, but we would like it to do much more. We are working towards publishing a White Paper on public service reform, which will specifically address what should be done to open up the public service markets to more competition. Under it, charities and social enterprises will have the opportunity to deliver more public services, with some of the real value being in supporting those people mentioned so eloquently by the hon. Member for Nottingham South. In my experience, with some of the really difficult things—getting the long-term unemployed back into work or keeping people out of jail or off drugs—really valuable work is being done by quite small community organisations or social enterprises. We want to level the playing field to make it much easier for such organisations to deliver public services.

I shall not give way, as this is my last minute and the hon. Lady spoke for a long time.

None of this is easy, but we are actively trying to help the sector and local authorities through the difficult process of managing this transition. We want to minimise the damage in the short term, and maximise the opportunities for the voluntary and community sector so as to unlock the potential that is out there for improving more lives.