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October 2010 Monthly Archives

Cabinet Office Questions

October 20, 2010

Nick Hurd answers MPs questions on encouraging more young people into volunteering and the National Citizen Service.

Volunteering (Young People)

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): What recent steps his Department has taken to increase opportunities for young people to volunteer. 18048

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): In the current financial year, the Department has provided £39 million in grants to the v organisation. On 22 July, the Prime Minister announced the introduction of the national citizen service to give young people an opportunity to develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens, mix with people from different backgrounds and start getting involved in their communities.

Mrs Hodgson: I thank the Minister for his response. At a fringe event at the Conservative party conference, I understand that the Minister for the Cabinet Office was quoted as saying that in his opinion the big society would be “chaotic and disorderly”. That being the case, I feel that his heart is perhaps not in it. How can he go on to encourage young people to volunteer so that they can pick up the right skills and be employed fruitfully in the future?

Mr Hurd: We are absolutely committed to that, and the national citizen service will be an extremely important opportunity to connect young people with their own power to make a difference in their communities. I know that the hon. Lady took a strong interest in that through her work on the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families. If she had had the opportunity to talk to some of the young people who had taken part in this year’s pilot, she would have been as impressed as I was by the transformative effect that it had on them and on how they view their community and their own power to make a difference. We are very excited about it.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Voluntary organisations in my constituency rely on the great efforts of many people who are retired, and they are crying out for younger volunteers. Those volunteers need not just be teenagers, however. What plans do the Government have to facilitate opportunities for volunteering by people of working age?

Mr Hurd: We have planned a series of initiatives for the forthcoming years to promote wider volunteering and to connect people again with their own power to make a difference locally-that is the heart of the big society. I cannot be drawn on the detail of those plans, because they are subject to the spending review.

Mr Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): If voluntary service for young people is to work, the third sector has to still be alive. This afternoon the Chancellor is going to try to drive a steamroller over the big society. Can the Minister explain why, in answer to parliamentary questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar), three quarters of Whitehall could not say what contracts they had in place with the third sector? How can the Department protect the third sector from cuts this afternoon if it does not know what contracts are in place? Is the Minister not, in effect, flying blind?

Mr Hurd: I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman will eat his words later when he hears the Chancellor. I do not see any steamroller in evidence in relation to the big society, which is absolutely central to the Government’s mission. A central strand of that mission is to open up the public services to a more diverse set of providers, including and specifically contributions from the voluntary and community sectors. As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, they are in a position to add a huge amount of value. That is a specific commitment of this Government, and we are going to deliver on it.

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National Citizen Service

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): What recent progress has been made on establishing the national citizen service. 18051

7. Charlotte Leslie (Bristol North West) (Con): What recent progress has been made on establishing the national citizen service. 18054

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): In July, the Prime Minister announced the start of the bidding process for providers of national citizen service pilots. We have been really pleased with the response, and in the next few weeks we expect to announce the successful bidders. We expect to provide places for about 10,000 young people, with a good geographical spread.

Mary Macleod: The national citizen service is a great example of how young people can make a difference in their local communities. What can I do to persuade people in Brentford and Isleworth to get more involved in the project?

Mr Hurd: I thank my hon. Friend for her interest. As I said, the successful bidders will be announced shortly. They will be responsible for recruiting local young people and communicating the opportunities in their area. If a pilot is run in her area, I urge her to support its provider, as I would urge all MPs to do. The experience of young people in the pilots that have already taken place just down the road from her in Hammersmith has been extremely positive.

Charlotte Leslie: In my constituency, some of the richest wards exist side by side with some of the poorest wards in the country. Can the Minister reassure me that children from more disadvantaged backgrounds will also be encouraged to get involved in the national citizen service?

Mr Hurd: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance, and those children will be more than encouraged. Involving people from all kinds of backgrounds is a central aim of the programme and a key part of its value. As part of the commissioning process, organisations bidding to deliver a pilot next summer have been asked to set out their specific plans to support the broadest range of young people to participate. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. There are still far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. I want to hear, and I hope the House wants to hear, Steve Rotheram.

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): As a former employee of a quango, I am following the Minister’s much-vaunted “bonfire of the quangos”, as he called it. Now that the comprehensive spending review is upon us, can he tell the House what the total savings will be?

Mr Speaker: Order. Unfortunately, that question suffers from the disadvantage that it bears absolutely no relation to the question on the Order Paper. We must have another go, so I call Stella Creasy.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): The tender document for the national citizen service pilot sets out the Government’s refusal to meet the total costs of the programme. Just how much of the bill does the Minister expect the voluntary sector and young people themselves to meet?

Mr Hurd: The cost of the pilots will be revealed as a result of the spending review. We are committed to two years of pilots to test a range of approaches to delivering the service, which will help us to identify the most cost-effective way forward. We will have a clear idea of the likely costs of a wider roll-out of the national citizen service once we have evaluated the two-year pilot phase.

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Bogus Charity Bag Collections Debate

October 13, 2010

Nick Hurd replies to a debate on bogus charity bag collections, fake charities and theft of genuine charity bags which deprive charities of funds and undermine public confidence.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) not only on securing the debate, but on presenting her arguments extremely forcefully. It is also important to register the presence of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who performed a similar useful exercise back in 2007, so she represents some continuity in terms of pressing the case for continued action on this extremely emotive and difficult issue.

As my hon. Friend said so well, we clearly have a problem. We all know, even just from walking the streets of our constituencies and knocking on the doors, that the public are more and more exposed to leaflets, bags and requests for information, and that is irritating them. There has been a change in the economic incentives underlying the behaviour that my hon. Friend is concerned about. Prices for second-hand textiles and clothing are at about £700 to £900 a tonne, so there is some serious money to be made.

The Fundraising Standards Board tells me that there has been a 100% increase in complaints to it over the past year. The media and various Members of Parliament are taking an interest in the issue, which is clearly serious. However, this is not so much about the sums involved or the cash cost to charities, which outside bodies estimate at between £5 million and £15 million a year. What concerns me is the issue of public confidence in charities at exactly the time when we want to encourage more people to give. This is clearly an important issue of public confidence.

Three types of collection activity potentially damage the sector’s reputation. The first is outright fraud, which involves fake charities adopting the names of real charities for their collections, pretending to be charitable and stealing clothes that are left on doorsteps; my hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford and for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) identified such activities. The second area of activity involves misleading literature that gives the impression that there is a charitable beneficiary, when that is not in fact the case. The third area of concern is the actual theft of bags of clothing left out for legitimate charities to collect.

All that behaviour is absolutely reprehensible, but the question is what we can do about it, and I take on board the point that the issue has been raised over some time. A lot of activity is going on, but the question is how effective it is, and it is important to review that. There are three levers that the Government can pull: more and clearer regulation, enforcement and education. The Government’s position is that the challenge and the priority relate more to enforcement and education than to further regulation.

The regulatory base that is in place is sufficient, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford will know, collections are regulated under the House to House Collections Act 1939 and the House to House Collections Regulations 1947. Where collections are undertaken by a commercial collector on a charity’s behalf, the necessary commercial participation agreement under part 2 of the Charities Act 1992 must be in place. As a Government who see themselves as being in the business of deregulation rather than of adding to regulation, our instinct is therefore not to reach immediately for the regulatory lever, not least because we would be concerned about imposing additional costs and burdens on those who perform their activities in a wholly legitimate way.

My hon. Friend rightly pressed me about the implementation of the Charities Act 2006. She will be aware that it is due for review next year-there is a requirement on the Government to review its workings and implementation-and I have already made an explicit commitment in public that a review of the issues before us will be an explicit part of that process.

The honest answer to my hon. Friend is that if I thought that full implementation of that measure would transform the landscape and make a huge difference, I would have carried that out some time ago. In fact, the advice that I have received is that the net impact of implementation could be marginally deregulatory, in the sense that it would effectively replace the requirement to get a local authority licence to operate in a specific area with a requirement to get certification from the Charity Commission to operate anywhere. I am not entirely persuaded that that would solve the problem, but research is being conducted and, as I have said, there will be an explicit review of the issue in the context of the review of the Charities Act 2006. My hon. Friend has that undertaking from me.

Enforcement was a central concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford. We look to various players in the field to make a difference and an impression: local trading standards officers, the police and, of course, those responsible for regulating advertising standards in the context of leaflets that are arguably misleading. The debate has prompted me to review what is going on, and on the face of it I am reasonably encouraged by the level of activity and what that tells me about the underlying concern of the agencies responsible.

For example, I welcome the work that the Fundraising Standards Board is doing with the Trading Standards Institute to develop a toolkit to guide all trading standards officers through the relevant legislation and through what evidence is needed to tackle bogus charity collections and effect successful prosecutions. As my hon. Friend will know, the process in relation to detection and evidence is extremely difficult. However, there is clearly partnership work going on to develop a toolkit that will help trading standards officers in that difficult work.

Tracey Crouch: I thank the Minister for what he has outlined, but I dispute whether it is difficult to detect the people in question. Quite often they clearly state where they will be, and at what time. It is misleading or misguided to think that it is difficult to catch them and find evidence. It is often very easy to catch the perpetrators in the act. I feel that sometimes it is not a question of catching them; it is a question of the process afterwards-prosecuting them. That is where the slow-down is.

Mr Hurd: I understand and accept the point that my hon. Friend makes. As to difficulty of detection I was thinking not so much of the person in the van as of the mastermind in the control room-the real villain of the piece. I also think that the public will play an increasingly important role in detection and evidence. For example, in my constituency we have rolled out the concept of neighbourhood and street champions, people who have value as the eyes and ears of public agencies, on a range of issues. In the present context they could play an important role in detection and evidence-gathering.

I was trying to summarise some of the welcome activity that I detect is going on among various agencies who are trying to work together to develop better practice. The Institute of Fundraising has a current consultation on its code of fundraising practice on house-to-house collections. That code will apply to all collections of money and goods made house to house, whether they are carried out by volunteers, fundraising organisations or third party agencies.

I note that the National Association of Licensing and Enforcement Officers is doing some work on developing guidance for local authority licensing officers on house-to-house collection of goods. I have looked again at what the Advertising Standards Authority is doing as the UK’s independent regulator of advertising. Again, I am satisfied that it takes the issue seriously and that its connections with the Office for Fair Trading are reasonably robust, so as to create the opportunity to act against those who mislead the public through advertising material.

The police’s sense of their local priorities clearly presents an issue, but the Office of the Third Sector, as was-it is now the Office for Civil Society-has been in regular contact with the Association of Chief Police Officers. I give my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford a personal undertaking to write again to ACPO to press the issue, and to raise the matter of cross-border co-operation that she specified.

The level of fines and the effectiveness of deterrence also needs to be considered. I understand that one of the maximum fines, for collecting without a licence, is about £1,000. There seems to be a mismatch between that and the price of a tonne of textiles, so again I shall write to the Ministry of Justice to explore its appetite for a review of the level of fines and deterrence.

To deal briefly with education, I have reviewed what has been done. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford will know that the Office of the Third Sector was instrumental in co-ordinating the “Give with Care” campaign. It distributed about 500,000 leaflets around the country. That was relaunched in 2010. The Charity Commission has been extremely proactive, and keen to raise awareness of fraud and theft. The media, Members of Parliament and various other stakeholders have played an important part in raising the profile of the issue, notifying the public and encouraging them to report suspicious behaviour and perhaps to be more rigorous in checking the claims made on the material shoved through their letter boxes.

I acknowledge that there is a problem, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford on raising it again. The more I look at the matter, the less easy it is to see an easy, quick-fit solution. The nature of the activity is in the shade and at the margin of the law. As I have tried to stress, our instinct is that the question is much more one of enforcement and education than regulation. There is a lot of activity and there are many programmes. The question has been raised-and I join in asking it-whether the activity is sufficiently robustly co-ordinated. Despite the levels of activity, there is always scope to do more and think harder about the issue. My hon. Friends the Members for Chatham and Aylesford and for Truro and Falmouth have both put some concrete, specific ideas on the table.

I want to close with an invitation to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford: given the scale and complexity of the problem, it is time to convene a round table of those people who are actively engaged in trying to reach a solution. I will do that, and my hon. Friend is invited to participate in that event, given the leadership role that she has played, through tabling her early-day motion and obtaining the debate.

The challenge will be for the people around that table to think afresh, review what we are doing and consider whether we could take cleverer, more co-ordinated and more robust actions to get on top of the problem. There is clearly a significant risk that the problem will undermine the confidence of the British public in giving to charity, at exactly the time when we want them to give more.

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