My Lords, it is a pleasure to answer this Question on the day of the centenary celebrations of International Women’s Day. I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to the millions of women around the world who continue to struggle and campaign for equality, dignity and respect. The big society is about a volunteering, social action, philanthropic approach to life, but it is also about the opening up of public services to local control and the devolution of power from Whitehall to local communities. This offers women’s groups and organisations an excellent opportunity to get more involved in their local communities and to have a say.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but it seems a little contradictory that, at the same time as the Government are setting up this rather costly structure of community organisers, experienced and committed women’s organisations such as Refuge and outreach organisations are being closed down through lack of funding. Would it not be much more sensible to use what we already have, train them up and get them to be part of the big society?
My Lords, I have said on many occasions that it is a shame that we are having to deliver the big society against the backdrop of the financial circumstances that we find ourselves in. In relation to commitment to women’s organisations, I know that the noble Baroness has given a huge amount of her life to chairing the Women’s National Commission, which has done much to be proud of, including tackling violence against women, increasing involvement in public life and promoting gender equality both in Britain and internationally. The consultation published yesterday by my colleague in another place, Lynne Featherstone, is specifically geared towards engaging women in a way that is reliant not only on umbrella bodies but also across a range of organisations and expertise. I am sure that the noble Baroness will agree that that is a step forward.
My Lords, is the Minister aware, as I am, that women have great difficulty in taking their proper place in society? Is she also aware that I consider this Chamber a funny old place? Last Thursday I stood in here surrounded by 45 women and began my speech with, “My Lords”.
My Lords, I declare an interest both as an outgoing member of the Women’s National Commission and as the honorary president of the Muslim Women’s Network. In the context of current Islamophobia, who is going to help networks such as the Muslim Women’s Network that were supported by the commission and need resources in order to campaign against daily experiences of harassment and hardship?
My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that I have recently raised the issue of anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia. This is a growing issue and it is right that women’s organisations such as the Muslim Women’s Network should play a key role in taking forward the concerns that I have raised. The Government are looking at the issue of Islamophobia in much detail and we will bring forward a paper to look at concerns that have been raised. I assure the noble Baroness that we will be consulting many groups, including the Muslim Women’s Network.
My Lords, as I said, the consultation that was announced yesterday by my honourable friend Lynne Featherstone in the other place is all about seeing how we can engage with women’s organisations on the ground that have to deal with the issues that affect women in local communities. There are a number of questions in the consultation document, which, among other things, looks at the equality assessment impact of funding decisions.
My Lords, can the Minister explain to the House how the dramatic reductions in the staffing of national charities such as the Children’s Society assists the cause of women within the big society, in the light of the deficit reduction programme?
My Lords, this is a recurring concern. When we are having to make difficult funding decisions —I say again that this is because of the economic circumstances that this Government inherited from the last one—it is important that local authorities make those decisions in a way that preserves those much needed front-line services. I can also say that the transition fund, which was brought in specifically to support voluntary and charitable organisations in these difficult times, has already made grants, of which two are specifically to women’s groups: the Domestic Violence Integrated Response Project in Leicester, which received £103,000, and the Incest and Sexual Abuse Survivors network in Newark in Nottinghamshire, which received £26,800. I hope that noble Lords will see that the Government, even in these very difficult times, are prioritising the needs of women.
My Lords, the Minister will know that the transition fund that she has just mentioned was already oversubscribed almost before it was announced. Is there any possibility that the Cabinet Office will make more money available to women’s groups and others in the voluntary sector that do such important work on the themes that she has described?
My Lords, we are in discussions at all times with local authorities to ask them to prioritise the areas that the noble Baroness has mentioned. However, she will also be aware that the big society bank, which among other things will be able to fund the projects to which she referred, will be on stream soon.
Would the Minister care to comment on the fact that local authorities of all political persuasions are getting increasingly irritated by Ministers washing their hands of responsibility for cuts that the local authorities are being forced to make? Before the noble Baroness refers to the economic climate, let me say that the Government had two opportunities: first, to ensure that local authorities did not suffer more savage cuts than central government departments; and, secondly, to ensure the phasing that has been advised by local authorities of all political persuasions.
My Lords, this Government firmly believe that the devolution of power to local authorities, including the responsibility to make decisions on funding—more so because of the taking away of ring-fencing, which this Government have implemented—is the right way forward. However, I think that it is right for us to accept that, when councils such as Labour-run Manchester City Council feel that, in these difficult economic circumstances, they can still advertise to recruit a “Twitter tsar”, that is money not well spent.