November 2, 2011
Nick Hurd answers backbench MPs’ questions on the community projects, the voluntary sector and the national citizen service.
Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): What steps he is taking to encourage individuals and organisations to engage in projects that benefit their local community. 77750
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): Encouraging more social action is a key strand of the big society vision, so we are looking at ways to cut some of the red tape that gets in the way and are busy delivering programmes such as Community Organisers, Community First, the national citizen service and the social action fund.
Stephen Metcalfe: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Will he expand on how these initiatives will impact on the residents of South Basildon and East Thurrock and on what they could hope to see from such great ideas in the future?
Mr Hurd: I thank my hon. Friend for his positive reaction. I am aware that at least three wards, I think, in his constituency are eligible for the Community First grant programme. This is a fund designed to put money into the hands of neighbourhood groups to help them implement their own plans. It is focused on wards that blend high levels of deprivation with low levels of social capital, and I very much hope that he will engage personally in supporting constituents in those wards to maximise those particular opportunities.
Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I declare an interest as a trustee of Community Service Volunteers, which had its Make a Difference day on Saturday last week, encouraging people to volunteer and make a difference in their community. What steps will the Government take to ensure that organisations such as Community Service Volunteers can reach out and encourage volunteers like Abbie, who is unemployed, to make a difference by working in her local Marie Curie shop?
Mr Hurd: Community Service Volunteers is a great organisation and it had a spectacularly successful day. The answer lies in trying to reduce some of the barriers, such as the red tape that I mentioned, that stop people getting involved. It is also important to try to inspire people to step up and get more involved. That is why we believe that programmes such as Community Organisers and Community First, which are about bringing communities together to identify what they want to change and inspiring them to work together to make that change happen, can be a very powerful intervention.
Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): The Minister will be aware that this is national trustees week. Will he address two particular concerns of that campaign? The first is that the number of young people being attracted to become trustees is very small indeed, and the other is the fact that more than half of charities have at least one vacancy on their board of trustees.
Mr Hurd: The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. We all know the value and importance of the work of trustees and the ability of a really good set of trustees to transform the capability of a charity or voluntary organisation. It is important that the Government will announce some steps to promote wider awareness of the opportunity to take part in being a trustee.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): What recent steps he has taken to support the voluntary sector. 77751
Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to support the voluntary sector. 77752
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): I refer the hon. Members for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) and for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) to the open letter to the voluntary sector, which was sent to all MPs and published on the Cabinet Office website; it sets out our strategy for encouraging more social action and supporting civil society.
Tony Lloyd: The Greater Manchester centre for voluntary organisation estimates that a quarter of those employed by voluntary organisations are losing their jobs in this two-year period. Can the Minister honestly tell the voluntary sector through the House that with that level of cutbacks there really is a role for that sector? Volunteers need a structure in which to work.
Mr Hurd: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. We all have to recognise that there is less money around so some difficult choices have to be made. I simply refer him to the statement made by his own leader to the BBC on Valentine’s day this year to the effect that he could not have protected the voluntary sector from local authority cuts. There is awareness of the challenge that we all face. I know that the sector in Manchester has benefited from the transition fund and that a bid has been put in to the infrastructure fund from the organisations that support front-line organisations. Eighteen wards in the city of Manchester and 69 in Greater Manchester are eligible for the Community First grant programme.
Mr Brown: People in my constituency who are living with cancer and other long-term conditions desperately need benefits advice. It is currently provided by Macmillan Cancer Support, Citizens Advice, Welfare Rights and the Princess Royal Trust for Carers. I attended a meeting with these groups on Monday morning. Let me tell the Minister that they are under real pressure to find the financial wherewithal to go forward. Surely now is the time to make sure that these organisations have the financial support that is required to provide quality benefits advice.
Mr Hurd: I could not agree more. When I visited my local advice centre on Friday, I had a real sense of the strain and stress that its staff were experiencing. We have set aside a further £20 million of special funding for advice centres. There is also to be a short review to investigate what the Government can do to manage levels of demand on those working in that vital sector, and how we can make life easier for them.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Does the Minister agree that voluntary groups set up by people who do what they do because they want to, and because they have a lifetime of experience in the field—one example is Home-Start in my constituency—often fulfil their roles not only in a more cost-effective way, but better than others?
Mr Hurd: Absolutely. Value is reflected in two ways, in terms of cost and in terms of the effectiveness of the support that is given. In my experience, volunteer-led organisations enjoy a different level of trust among the people whom they are trying to help.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Would the Minister welcome increased Government spending to enable the voluntary sector to deal with human trafficking? If the money went through the Salvation Army, the big society could help all charities to look after victims.
Mr Hurd: My hon. Friend makes a good point, with which I have a great deal of sympathy.
Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): The latest survey of charity leaders by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations shows that 30% of them expect to cut jobs in the next three months, and that some 60% expect the economic situation, as it affects such organisations, to deteriorate over the next 12 months. Given that voluntary sector capacity is being reduced, is not the truth about the big society that, on the Minister’s watch, it is about to get smaller?
Mr Hurd: I dispute that. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the leader of his party told the BBC in February that he would not make councils protect cash for voluntary groups. There is a hard economic reality here: a sector that receives £13 billion of taxpayers’ money cannot be immune to the requirement to contribute to a reduction in Government borrowing. The challenge now is for us to find a way of working together to mitigate the damage done to the voluntary sector in the short term, while preparing it for the real opportunities down the track to deliver more public services.
Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): Having heard the excellent news this week on the increase in apprenticeship places, which are up 50% to 442,000, does my hon. Friend agree that the national citizen service can also play a key role in helping our young people into work?
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): Yes, because it helps them to develop the skills that employers need.