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Charities and Civil Society: Ministerial Responsibility

Volume 816: debated on Tuesday 23 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of including charities and civil society within the remit of a Minister who is also responsible for sport, tourism and heritage on the level of ministerial attention charities and civil society will receive.

My Lords, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare an interest as president of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

My Lords, we greatly value the important role that charities and civil society groups play, and work across government to support them as they do so. This includes in the areas of sport and heritage where, as in so many others, charities and volunteers play a crucial part. Aligning those ministerial responsibilities creates a real opportunity for an innovative and collaborative approach to growing the sector’s contribution. My honourable friend is committed to his brief and will ensure that charities and civil society organisations benefit from significant attention.

I thank the Minister for his reassurances, but research by the commission on civil society showed that ministerial engagement with the social sector is significantly lower than engagement with business, despite the huge contribution made by that sector in the Covid crisis, as the Minister acknowledged. In the absence of a dedicated Minister, will the Government consider returning to a system of having nominated civil servants in every government department, not just DCMS, responsible for engagement with civil society, as was the case some years ago, when I chaired the advisory body for the third sector set up by a previous Government?

My Lords, with 170,000 registered charities in England alone, it would of course be impossible for any or all Ministers to speak to every charitable organisation that does such important work. It is a duty for all Ministers in the roles they perform. In my portfolio, I have already in my weeks of office had the pleasure of working with the Music for Youth organisation and the Intermission Youth Theatre, and I know that ministerial colleagues across government take very seriously the role that civil society organisations play, not least my honourable friend, with his specific responsibilities.

I declare my interests as set out in the register, with particular reference to the Harris (Belmont) Trust and Rochester Cathedral. Does my noble friend agree that within whichever department charities sit, the role of their volunteers is paramount? What measures can the Government take to facilitate their rapid return after the pandemic to both charities and those other organisations where volunteers fulfil a vital need, such as special constables in the police force? Will he also give an opinion on whether the position of volunteers could be included on future census forms?

The Government recognise the vital importance of volunteering and its wide-ranging benefits, not just to the organisations for whom people volunteer but for individuals themselves. We know that, during the pandemic, volunteers have had to make adjustments or pause their volunteering and we are very grateful to them for adapting as they have. My honourable friend is seeking to learn from the new approaches developed in the pandemic. We have launched a new volunteering futures fund, through which £7 million will be made available to improve the accessibility of volunteering in the arts, culture, sport, civil society and many other sectors. On the point about the census, it was included in the 2018 White Paper published by the Minister for the Constitution. It was rejected by the Office for National Statistics, but DCMS’s community life survey captures people’s volunteering.

My Lords, as has been mentioned, voluntary and community associations have had an enormous impact on health and well-being during the Covid pandemic. There are several important organisations. I think of those such as C2, Connecting Communities, the Health Creation Alliance and others which support and develop those organisations. Will the department engage with the Department of Health and Social Care to support and develop those enabling organisations, as well as the sector more generally?

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is of course a former Health Minister, and the new Health Secretary is a former Culture Minister, so the insights that each have gained in their respective departments will, I know, be brought to their work. My honourable friend the Minister works with a range of groups—charities themselves but also sector representatives— including through round table meetings.

My Lords, the voluntary and community sector deservedly gained a high profile during the pandemic, particularly as so many people responded to the call to volunteer at a time of national need. What assessment has the Minister made of the effectiveness of government machinery in harnessing that activity to support the sector? With all due respect to existing ministerial efforts and responsibilities, does he feel that there is a case to be made for a full-time Minister who will work across Whitehall and beyond to ensure focus on this?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right to point to the fantastic work that volunteers did during the pandemic. The Government stood by them with support, including an unprecedented £750 million package specifically for charities, social enterprises and the voluntary sector, and my honourable friend, with his responsibilities, is the champion for the sector in government.

My Lords, I must remember to declare my interests. Does the Minister agree that having one Minister in the smallest department in government, who is covering dozens of other subjects, does not exactly instil confidence? Also, if they are not going to have a powerful enough Minister, when will we get an idea about a coherent strategy throughout government for dealing with the charitable and voluntary sector, which is simply too big to ignore?

My Lords, it is not being ignored. Ministers in every department, big and small, work with a range of charitable and civil society organisations and greatly value the work that they do. This is not something just for DCMS, but my honourable friend, with his responsibilities, is the Minister with specific focus on championing them and ensuring that across government we are giving the sector the support it needs, such as I have mentioned.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Does my noble friend agree that there is some sense in combining these responsibilities, as, for example, in the case of the British Paralympic Association, an excellent sport organisation and an excellent charity? Does he also agree that in our honourable friend Nigel Huddleston we have a Minister with the talent and tenacity to make a stunning success of his new portfolio?

I certainly agree with my noble friend and thank him for that. He is right to point out that the briefs of civil society and sport have been combined before to great effect, and right to point to the fantastic organisations that work at increasing people’s participation in sport and physical activity through charitable and civil society groups.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of Beacon Collaborative, a charity dedicated to promoting philanthropy. As has been said, Covid highlighted not only the importance of civil society but how fragile its sustainability and financial resilience are. Does the Minister agree that the growth of philanthropy is very desirable to increase support for civil society and, if so, can he tell us what the Government are doing to enable greater giving and philanthropy? Is he confident that the current ministerial arrangements are sufficient to support civil society and the growth of philanthropy, and to gain insights into the needs and values of the sector?

The noble Baroness is right to point to the huge importance of philanthropy in supporting the groups, and to the fantastic work that they do across the country. In addition to the support that the Government gave from the taxpayer, we are keeping a close eye on the health of the sector as it emerges from the pandemic. I am glad to say that the work of the Charity Commission shows that only 1% of charities foresee a critical threat to their survival in the next 12 months. However, we continue to keep a close eye on them.

My Lords, what worries me is the way we are trying to overload the responsibilities of one particular Minister. I think of the Minister for Intergovernmental Relations. I think it should be the Minister for Inter-Gove-rnmental Relations, because he already looks after housing, communities and levelling up. Let us give him Scotland, Wales and England. It is nonsense. Is it not only overworking somebody who does a good job in many ways but denying the younger and newer generation experience at that level to take over major government responsibilities at some time? What are the Minister and the Government thinking about in this sort of situation?

The Minister with responsibility for civil society is my honourable friend Nigel Huddleston, not my right honourable friend Michael Gove, though, as I say, all Ministers across government work with the third sector in the important work they do. I also point out that responsibility for the voluntary sector and volunteering in the Welsh Government is held by two people who combine that with responsibilities for welfare reform, fuel poverty, fire and rescue services, domestic abuse, youth justice, community safety and much else.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. As has been said, volunteers have always played an incredible role in British life. I think of the Olympics, the Paralympics, the ongoing Covid pandemic and the tireless efforts of millions of everyday people across the country. Does my noble friend agree that more can be done to harness and galvanise the spirit of volunteering by introducing a framework that links a volunteer’s voice within and across national and local government, and a volunteer champion to protect and recognise achievements, to stand up for their views and interests, and to help order the future functioning of volunteering? Will my noble friend therefore consider appointing a commissioner for volunteering to support the sector and give it the status that it so richly deserves?

My Lords, the Government highly value the contribution of volunteers across the whole of society. We witnessed the huge difference they can make during the pandemic, as well as in the examples my noble friend raised. Volunteers are represented in discussions with government by a variety of sector representatives and bodies, but I will take her interesting suggestion back to my honourable friend the Minister and discuss it. I have also pointed to the volunteering futures fund, which the Government have announced to support more people to volunteer and play their important role.