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Big Society Initiatives

Volume 525: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2011

1. What recent discussions she has had with (a) ministerial colleagues and (b) the Welsh Assembly Government on big society initiatives in Wales. (45731)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I have discussed a wide range of issues concerning the big society in relation to Wales with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who has responsibility for civil society, and Carl Sargeant, the Minister for Social Justice and Local Government in the Welsh Assembly Government.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will he comment on the important role that local authorities in Wales can play in encouraging the big society?

Local authorities can do much to help roll out the big society. Smart and intelligent councils are already doing so by recognising that big society initiatives can complement services that they provide and vice versa. I recently visited Pembrokeshire, where many good neighbour schemes have been set up to provide help and support for individuals who would otherwise be isolated. Pembrokeshire county council has appointed a scheme co-ordinator who offers advice to groups that want to establish such schemes.

On Saturday, I saw the big society in all its glory in Anglesey with the opening of the scouts and guides hall. That project brought together the public and private sectors and volunteers, but public funding was key. Will the Minister ensure that funding is given to the Welsh Assembly so that such schemes can carry on? Next Tuesday, he will be able to see the big society in all its glory on Anglesey day here in the House of Commons.

As I said, I have held discussions with Carl Sargeant, who is the Minister responsible for such matters in the Welsh Assembly Government. We are taking that work forward. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the big society bank will be available for the whole of the United Kingdom. There is no reason why Welsh groups should not apply to it for funding.

My hon. Friend will be aware that many people in Wales want to take advantage of the opportunities that the Government are offering, but that they may need mentoring. Will he appoint somebody in his Department, perhaps by seconding a civil servant, to assist people who have ideas to take forward the big society?

All ideas are gratefully received. The Government will ensure that there is a network of big society facilitators throughout the country. As many as 5,000 will be appointed in due course.

The WCVA has reported that half the 750 charities in Wales state that they will see a drop in their income next year. Is not investment from the big society bank just a matter of jam tomorrow?

There is no doubt that we are going through difficult economic times, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Unfortunately, third sector organisations are affected by that. I believe that the £200 million that will be available through the big society bank will be of immense benefit to third sector organisations in Wales.

The Welsh people are a shrewd lot, and they have quickly seen through the big society scam. Since £1.8 billion was cut from the Welsh Assembly budget, leaving councils with a shortfall of many millions of pounds, charities such as People First, which works with people with learning disabilities in the Rhondda Cynon Taff area, have been on the verge of closure. That is throwing more people on to the record unemployment numbers in Wales. As Dawn Price of People First put it to me:

“How can we take part in a Big Society when our funding is being so cruelly cut?”

I realise that some Opposition Members have huge difficulty with the proposition that people should be allowed to organise their own lives in the way that best suits them, rather than such matters being delivered top-down by big Government. However, there are signs that it is slowly dawning on the Leader of the Opposition at least that the big society may be rather a good idea. When he launched Labour’s policy review recently, in which I think the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) played a part, he said:

“We have got to take that term ‘big society’ back off David Cameron”.