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Government: Office for Civil Society

Volume 720: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for the strategy and work of the Office of Civil Society, now in the Cabinet Office.

My Lords, the Office for Civil Society will support charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations in their pivotal work, encouraging a big society and addressing disadvantage by making it easier to set up and run such organisations, easier for them to work with the state, and by getting more resources into the sector. The office will co-ordinate work across government to implement the big society and establish a number of flagship big society projects.

My Lords, I am grateful for that encouraging Answer. However, does the Minister not agree that if the big society is to become a reality, the capacity of the voluntary and community services will have to be built up? At the same time as the NCVO is talking about a tidal wave of cuts, local government is cutting back on funding and contracts. Does the Minister see, as I do, a real and fundamental contradiction in that? Can he therefore assure me that the funding for the OCS programme budget will be protected so that the sector can not only continue to provide services but take up the challenge of making the big society a reality?

My Lords, there is no escaping the need to tackle the deficit, but we are in this together. Those on the Benches opposite are well aware that cuts need to be made in the deficit. But where cuts are made, they should be conducted in accordance with the principle of the compact between government and the sector. We are committed to helping the sector access a wide range of funding to increase its strength and independence. We are establishing a big society bank to lever additional social investment into the sector and reviewing ways to incentivise further philanthropy and charitable giving.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, will of course have remarked that, immediately before he stood up, we had a question from the opposition Benches. It is time for a question from a Liberal Democrat; otherwise there will be two opposition questions consecutively.

I am grateful to my noble friend. Can the Minister say whether, in seeking to get more resources into the sector, the Government will consider the forms of tax incentives to philanthropy which are pursued very successfully in the United States? Does he recognise that, in this way, the Government can assist more readily than can their newly created quango?

The big society is not a quango, it is a concept, and I think that it is very important to see it in those terms. It is utilising the resources that exist within the voluntary sector. Of course funding of voluntary organisations is very important. The Government are looking at the role of gift aid because that is an extremely important source of funds for all voluntary organisations and charities. It is under review to try to make it less burdensome on the administration of charities so that they can benefit to the full from this situation. However, I take great note of what my noble friend has said about other systems that might encourage funding for voluntary organisations.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that for the third sector and charities to be effective they need to be supported by excellent social workers, excellent youth workers and other excellent professionals? Will he discuss with his colleagues whether the superb Teach First scheme might not now be spread in some form towards social work and youth work so that people who might have thought of entering the City will instead at this time of recession consider other areas and we can have the benefit of their enthusiasm and expertise?

I thank the noble Earl for that question, as it enables me to draw attention to the role of the noble Lord, Lord Wei, who sits on our Benches and has been appointed as a government adviser to the big society. As a social entrepreneur he was one of the founders of Teach First and Future Leaders, and his current interests include work with the Shaftesbury Partnership, a professional services network designed to ensure social impact and absolute return for kids. The professionalism which the noble Lord, Lord Wei, brings to the creation of the big society underlines the important relationship between professional support for voluntary organisations and the volunteers themselves in building up this concept.

I apologise to the Minister because I was under the impression that the noble Lords opposite were part of the alliance and were not a separate political party. Therefore, I had no precedence when it comes to asking questions. If I may, I will now get round to asking my question. The Minister said that the big society was a concept. It is a concept which is totally meaningless to me. Following the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, will he give us a definition so that those of us who would like to follow this analysis can actually find out, apart from the extreme vulgarity of the expression, what concept the noble Lord and the Government are referring to?

I hope that Question Time gives me an opportunity to do so. The big society is a concept that is running throughout the Government. It is an approach to the coalition, redistributing power from the state, from the centre, to local communities, giving people the opportunity to take more control over their lives. I hope the Benches opposite will support that concept.

My Lords, I was very pleased to be in the audience for the Prime Minister’s speech on the big society in Liverpool on Monday and I welcome the emphasis on the renewal of civil society. Many of the Ministers at that meeting referred to DCLG officials being available to community members in order to help create civil society. Can the Minister advise the House on whether these officials will be available in London or locally, because London is a long way from many of these local communities?

I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for his personal endorsement of the scheme. There are going to be four test-bed projects spread throughout the country, in the Eden Valley in Cumbria, Liverpool, the London Borough of Sutton, and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. DCLG officials will be there to help support the concept in these towns and the projects that are being generated there.