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Voluntary Sector

Volume 547: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I thank the Minister for coming, and I am pleased that some hon. Members are here today to celebrate the voluntary sector in small towns and cities. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) is keen to speak, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) is keen to intervene. I am happy for both to do so.

Everyone here today recognises the important contribution in our areas that the voluntary sector makes to many families and to our local economies. The voluntary sector receives and spends tens of billions of pounds every year and employs hundreds of thousands of people who are all trying to make a difference to the life of other people.

Before I raise two points with the Minister, I would like to celebrate the work of the 163 charities and more than 100 community groups in my constituency. Yes, that is right—in my constituency, with 69,000 people on the electoral roll, we have about 300 charities and local community groups all trying to make a difference. A classic example took place just this weekend, when Stevenage hosted the largest armed forces day celebration in Hertfordshire. The Stevenage indoor market traders, under the chairmanship of Peter Mason and its outstanding committee, welcomed the market stall that Mark Williams, a Gulf war veteran, runs for the national Gulf Veterans and families association. It not only raises funds, but tries to support servicemen and servicewomen who fought in the Gulf.

There were more than 20 charity stalls on the day, and thousands of people attended. I was honoured to be given the opportunity to speak at the opening of the day, and was humbled to meet a Dunkirk veteran who was collecting money in a bucket for the Royal British Legion. As a nurse, she had looked after wounded soldiers on the beaches at Dunkirk. I was very proud of what she had done, and it was an honour to meet her. There were many other stories from veterans and war widows. I was proud that our community came together to show our support for our armed forces.

Turning to more established local charities in my constituency, I am proud to be a patron of Turn the Tide, a local charity that tries to help disadvantaged young people. We are trying to teach children, in groups of two, how to build a small sailing dinghy. Once they have built the dinghy, we then teach them how to sail it on Fairlands Valley Park sailing lake. We hope this will develop into a lifelong hobby for the children, and we are also looking into the possibility of giving them access to some qualifications. The charity is run by a good group of people. A number of people have come through the scheme so far in the past year or so, and it is proving to be a huge success.

I am also a trustee of The Living Room in Stevenage, which is a charity founded and led by the inspirational Janis Feely, who now has an MBE for her services. The Living Room is a charity that helps people put their lives back together and makes a massive contribution to the local community. It simply tries to break the cycle of addiction and uses abstinence-based group therapy to help addicts recover, whether from drugs, alcohol, food or other addictions. The programme at The Living Room in Stevenage works. It has a high success rate because of a very unique selling point—all the counsellors have been addicts in the past. They have all reached rock bottom and they all know what it is like to be there. They know when the people they are counselling are pushing a little bit further than they should, and when they are not going fast enough. It is a unique charity and I am delighted to have been involved with it for a number of years.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. It is also a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin.

My hon. Friend mentioned being a trustee of various charities in his constituency. He also mentioned how many charities there were in his constituency. There are 270 charities and voluntary sector organisations in Lincoln. With the help of two companies, Lindum Group and Wright Vigar, we have a number of receptions coming up to thank the trustees of those charities. With 270 charities and voluntary organisations, the number of trustees in my constituency numbers in the thousands. I am sure that my hon. Friend would like to welcome that.

The importance of trustees to charities is massive. The Minister will be aware that one of the biggest challenges for charities is to attract good-quality trustees. It is like being a school governor—they are overwhelmed with paperwork and given a huge amount of responsibility. Like most people involved in charities, all they want to do is help people. I am delighted to hear that my hon. Friend is welcoming all the trustees in his constituency. It has given me a very good idea, and I will no doubt be doing something similar later this year.

Returning to the work of The Living Room, the charity is very good at putting people’s lives back together. It has helped mothers recover to the point where they have been able to get their children back out of care. It has helped to rebuild marriages, and it has helped many clients, as we call them, to go back to the world of work and put their lives back together. It is a fantastic organisation, and I am very proud to be associated with it.

Another charity that was started in Stevenage is unique, and I love it. It is run in partnership with Hertfordshire police and has expanded across the county, and I understand that a number of other police forces are interested in it. It is called Dog Watch. Everybody has heard of neighbourhood watch, but we have a system called Dog Watch. Dog walkers are often the ones who identify fly-tippers. It is usually a dog walker who is unfortunate enough to discover a dead body, because their dog finds it. More than 400 people have signed up with Hertfordshire police through the Dog Watch charity, and they are effectively the eyes and ears on the ground in Stevenage. There are many community events, and the whole community gets involved. Dog Watch helps rescued dogs and looks after a number of animals. Most importantly, people are out there with the police on a day-to-day basis. If something happens and the police are keen to find out what is going on, they have access to a resource of people who have probably walked past the very spot three times that week and may have seen a particular vehicle or something else. Dog Watch is led by a lady called Sarah Sheldrick, and she is also an inspiration.

Young people are very important in charities. Only last week, I visited Thomas Alleyne school in Stevenage, where the pupils presented me with a petition that I hope to give to the Secretary of State for International Development. They want all children throughout the world to have access to primary school education. You know, Mr Dobbin, that I am very interested in global poverty and what is going on around the world, especially in relation to access to education. The pupils of Thomas Alleyne school have gone a step further and raised enough money to send three African children to school for the next year. The pupils are making a personal demonstration to those children in Africa that they will try to help them get educated. That is very important, because it shows that in my constituency of Stevenage people are becoming involved with community spirit right from the start.

A slightly larger charity based in Stevenage is POhWER, which provides highly skilled advocates to support vulnerable people who find it difficult to challenge the NHS and other services when things go wrong, and to help people get the public services they need. I work very closely with POhWER and am a huge fan of the support it gives to people. It understands the challenges, as most of the board of trustees have used advocacy services themselves in the past. The Minister with responsibility for care services has written to POhWER to thank it for the work it does, particularly with those who have mental health issues. POhWER is also a success, because it is one of the few charities that has managed to win some Government contracts to provide advocacy services. That brings me to my first question to the Minister. Why is it so difficult for charities and community groups to win contracts from the public sector?

The Minister is keen for local councils, local NHS, police and various public sector bodies to work more closely with local charities and community groups, and many do, but that never seems to translate into a contract in my area. The tendering processes of local public bodies are bewildering. Most charities just want to get on with helping local people and cannot navigate the complex bureaucracy that is put in their way.

I met a couple of people last week who are keen to launch a self-empowerment service in Stevenage, but they are coming up against huge barriers and do not think that they can deal with the tendering process. They believe—I have heard this complaint from many small local charities—that many of the contracts are too large and say that, when they can get involved in a contract, they effectively have to subcontract to a larger charity or a private sector organisation, and feel that they do not get what was promised. I am also starting to hear complaints that charities are being used as a form of bid candy; that is, they are being used by large providers to win a contract, but see little benefit locally. That issue has arisen time and again in my constituency, especially in the past 18 months, as ever more contracts of this kind have gone out.

We need to level the playing field and have services delivered more locally, but how does the Minister intend to do that? The Government’s localism agenda works; it is the right thing to do. We have to push power away from central Government towards local people and communities. However, many local councils seem to be acting as a barrier between the Government and local communities. Councils pay lip service to the Government, but do little to help local community groups and small charities tender for contracts. It is almost as if they want to keep as much work as possible in-house. In my constituency, Stevenage borough council keeps everything in-house and does not outsource anything, so it is difficult for small groups and charities to be involved in any way.

Will the Minister consider introducing to councils more standardised bidding and monitoring forms that pass the plain English test? We are giving councils guidance and working hard—the Minister is desperate for them to engage with local community groups—but in my experience in the past two years, there is a barrier between the Government and local communities, which means that community groups cannot navigate bureaucracy and red tape. Those groups want to help people, just as small businesses want to get on and sell their product and not deal with health and safety and myriad other regulations. Many small charities and community groups are subject to the same regulations as businesses and are not geared up to work with them.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the issue of irrecoverable VAT, which costs local charities and community groups up to £500 million a year. This is a long-standing issue, but it is important that we try to tackle it.

Many people in my constituency come to me about Criminal Records Bureau forms. One man has had 15 CRB forms for the different groups that he is involved in. We put the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 into place and we are getting rid of unnecessary bureaucracy to do with CRB forms, and I know that the idea is that, if there has been no change in people’s circumstances, they will be able to log on to the internet, check the system and move forward. However, it is two years on and that measure does not seem to have been implemented yet, and nobody knows when it will be implemented. People are agitated, saying, “Do I need to get my new CRB forms, because I’m going to be helping out?” The CRB forms are a huge barrier to people being involved in community groups.

The Government have made it clear that volunteers should not have to pay for CRB forms. However, most councils are, in my experience, charging an administration fee to process the forms, so the reality is that most volunteers are being charged for a CRB form, and that cost is borne by the individual or the charity. There is a sense of a barrier between what we want to achieve and what local communities want and what is happening. We need to leap across the barrier and deliver this free service to volunteers.

I would have loved to mention every one of the 300 charities and community groups in Stevenage, but no doubt we can do that in an hour-and-a-half debate in future.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) on securing the debate, which is relevant to small towns and to cities, such as my constituency of Carlisle. I should like to make a small contribution to the debate.

The Government and politicians talk a lot about the role and importance of the public and private sectors, and the relationship between the two. That is natural, to a large extent, because the private sector is the wealth-producing part of our economy and creates the vast majority of our employment. It is dynamic, innovative and varied and vital to the success of our economy, nationally and locally. The public sector is similarly important. It provides our schools, hospitals, much of our infrastructure, the police and welfare and is important both nationally and locally. There is often political debate about the size of each sector and what each should do and how they should do it.

Sometimes, we neglect the third sector—the voluntary and charitable sector—which is equally important in small towns and in cities, as it makes a valuable contribution to communities in many ways. It plays a huge role, sometimes doing things that neither the private nor public sectors can or will do. It is important in terms of its contribution to society and to local communities, and in respect of how it helps people to get involved.

In 2009-10, 40% of adult volunteers formally volunteered once a year and 25% at least once a month. In my view, much of the voluntary sector flies below the radar: that is true of my constituency. Throughout the country, about 80% of voluntary organisations are not registered and there are an estimated 600,000 informal groups, many of which have annual incomes of less than £10,000; yet they play a vital, important role in our communities, especially in small towns and cities.

The voluntary sector is diverse. In my constituency, for example, Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line is a heritage trust that plays an important role in publicising the importance of that railway. A recently created charity called Cumbria Gateway helps people with drug issues move back into mainstream society. Cumbria Council for Voluntary Service helps voluntary groups generally with administration and encourages more people to get involved in the third sector.

It is important that we recognise the benefits of a thriving third sector, but it should be an independent sector that is not dependent on the state and it should not be over-regulated. What will the Government do to ensure that the sector continues to thrive, develop and expand? I want to be able to reassure organisations in my constituency that the Government support them. I should like the Minister to confirm that there are no proposals for additional regulation in the sector.

Although I appreciate that funding has been reduced, can smaller organisations in particular be provided with help to gain access to the funding that is out there? Often, small organisations struggle to find out where to get access to such finance, and even to find out where it is advertised and in which organisations or parts of government they have to seek it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that small charities often find it difficult to apply for funding because they do not have the resources?

Yes. Indeed, sometimes they do not even know where to go to seek such support. I also support my hon. Friend’s comment about the third sector having access to public sector contracts. It is important that small organisations have that opportunity, too, and that it is not just national charities that have priority in that regard.

The voluntary sector has an important role to play in our society—in changing the way we do things—and I seek reassurance that the Government will give as much support as they can to it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) on securing the debate and for the sincere way in which he expressed his admiration and respect for the 300-odd local charities in Stevenage. He clearly does more than talk the talk: he walks the walk by being a patron and trustee of at least two of those organisations, which is admirable.

My hon. Friend and other colleagues are reflecting the importance of the sector to the country in a year when we are presenting to the world the best of Britain, and I have absolutely no doubt that the voluntary sector is part of that. The ecosystem of charities, supported by millions of people who give time and money to improve other people’s lives and the conditions in their neighbourhood, underpins our sense of well-being; it is massively important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) spoke well about organisations in his area. I vividly remember visiting the Living Well Trust on the Raffles estate when I first became a Member of Parliament. What was really brought home to me was that on a troubled estate the thing that made a difference—the people who made a difference—were Barrie, Kath and the team there. They did much more than anything a council could do to support residents from the estate. The Living Well Trust was the battery at the heart of the estate, and that forged a strong impression in my mind.

Times are challenging for such organisations: less money is around, there are more demands and there is a huge amount of change. We are sensitive to that. In the short time I have, I shall reassure colleagues that the Government are extremely committed to protecting the sector as best we can through a difficult short term, while putting in place measures that will underpin its resilience and effectiveness in the future. I will address specifically how we can make it easier for charities to access money and to help us deliver better public services.

First, we are trying to make it easier to run a charity. We all know that it is one of the most difficult things to do; it has always been difficult, but it is particularly hard now. The Government can do things to help, such as looking hard at the amount of bureaucracy and regulation imposed—my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle made that point—and we are undergoing probably the biggest and most comprehensive review of the regulation and legislation that affects the sector. Our instinct is to deregulate and to remove bureaucracy, so that there are fewer forms to fill and fewer daft questions to answer, freeing time and money that can be better spent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage mentioned CRB checks, which have been a huge source of frustration. We are certainly not going as fast as many people would like, but the reform is radical; millions fewer people will need to have CRB checks, and those who do will find it much easier to carry the check around the system. The reform, which my colleagues at the Home Office are working hard on, is complicated, but the new system will be in place at the beginning of next year. It will be a new era for CRB checks, with an injection of common sense in a system that had grown out of all proportion. That is only one example of the kind of things that we are doing to make life a bit easier.

Mention was made of how small charities can find access to what money is around. Information is important, so we have continued to fund a website called Funding Central, which I recommend to colleagues. It is probably the most comprehensive source of grants and pots of money available.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) talked, importantly, about the value of trustees, which we are keen to encourage. The environment is challenging for charities, and most of them recognise that they lack certain things, such as business skills in particular, which will become increasingly relevant if they are competing for more tenders and public work. There are business skills in every constituency, but they happen to be engaged in different things. The impression I get in my constituency is that if we can make better connections between local businesses and local people with business skills and the charities that are on their doorstep, the effect can be transformational; it can raise the capacity and capability of small local charities. We will be doing a lot to make those connections work much better. Furthermore, some of those business people will be inspired to become trustees and become part of the governance of local charities.

Making it easier to run a charity, therefore, and helping the sector to modernise its skills is important. Behind most front-line charities, of course, sits a local council for voluntary service, or another support organisation, and we have invested £30 million in the CVS network to encourage the councils to think about how they can improve their offer to front-line charities. That is a serious investment when there is not a great deal of money around. Making it easier to run a charity is the first important strategic strand.

Secondly, how do we get more money into the sector? How do we get more resource in terms of more volunteers and people giving their time? I recommend to colleagues the White Paper on giving and the update we published last week for dissemination to local charities, because in those documents we communicate clearly our absolute commitment to broaden the base of people in this country who give.

I shall throw a spotlight on a couple of initiatives where we are putting up taxpayers’ money as a match to stimulate giving to local charities. is a new platform set up by one of the participants in “The Secret Millionaire” to inspire more support for local charities. In September, we will be matching, pound for pound, local donations given through that site. It will be our third match. The previous one sold out in 24 hours, which tells us that if people are given information about the local charities on their doorstep, they are interested in doing more to support them. I encourage colleagues to get their local charities to register and get engaged with, for the pound-for-pound match in September.

We have also put up £50 million to match donations from local philanthropists—people who have been relatively fortunate and want to put something back into their communities. We will match every £1 they give with an additional 50p towards the building of local endowments that will be a source of sustainable, long-term grants for local organisations. We are determined on such interventions for the long term, so getting more resources into the sector is hugely important to us.

Thirdly—a relatively new area—how do we make it easier for charities to participate in and help us to deliver better public services? Part of the problem is that the public services in the past have been closed and opportunities have not been available. The Government are opening up opportunities, but it is a big cultural change and will not happen overnight. Big question marks are raised about the capability and competence of commissioners throughout the country—many are new and many are being asked to do things in different ways—and of local charities, which need to step up and persuade commissioners that they have the resilience and ability to deliver.

We are working hard to make that a reality. We are sending strong signals to commissioners. We supported the private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), which places a requirement on commissioners to consider social value in their commissioning processes. The “Best Value Statutory Guidance” issued by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to local authorities also makes it clear that we want them to consider social value. The Localism Act 2011 contains a right to challenge, so that local groups can question existing provision in a public and transparent way. We are setting up a commissioning academy, because commissioners need support, and the first cohort is going through this summer. That is about encouraging more intelligent commissioning, in particular at local level.

We are supporting local charities that want to do more in that space. A £10 million investment and contract readiness fund has been set up as a source of grants available to charities and social enterprises that want to do more public service delivery but recognise that they need a little more help and support to increase their capability and readiness. The principle is clear, however: we want the people buying on our behalf to have much more choice in who they buy from.

In some of the most stubborn and difficult social areas, charities and social enterprises frequently make the extra bit of difference in keeping people out of jail or off drugs, as has been said, but such organisations are often small. One of the challenges mentioned is a real one; commissioners naturally want to buy at scale, with all the potential efficiencies that can be pursued, but they find it difficult to reconcile that with including small, local charities that could make that additional bit of difference in the supply chain.

We are feeling our way, but there is definite progress. This morning, I had a meeting with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and Serco, which have come together with a new framework to guide prime contractors—big private organisations or big charities—in their engagement with small charities in their supply chain. In an environment where we are paying people for outcomes, it is in the interests of bigger organisations to engage with the small local charities that, in our experience, can make just that additional bit of difference.

Finally, if my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage wants to bring any of the 300 magnificent charities in his constituency to meet the Minister, he is extremely welcome to do so, because I regularly have such meetings. I would like them to feel the appreciation of the Government for the incredible work that they do.

Sitting suspended.