March 2012 Monthly Archives

Cabinet Office Questions

March 21, 2012

Nick Hurd answers back bench MP’s questions on voluntary sector funding.

Voluntary and Community Sector

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had on the types of Government funding models available to the voluntary and community sector. 100939

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had on the types of Government funding models available to the voluntary and community sector. 100949

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): We want to help the voluntary and community sector to become more resilient by developing three pillars of funding: traditional giving, income from the state including more opportunities to deliver public service and a new pillar, the emerging market of social investment.

Lilian Greenwood: Many local voluntary organisations were set up to complement statutory services, as Nottingham Community and Voluntary Service reminded me when I met its representatives last week. If the predominant funding source for the voluntary sector is now to be public sector contracts, will not thousands of valuable voluntary groups throughout the country be left high and dry, showing once again this Government’s utter contempt for the big society that they purport to champion?

Mr Hurd: I think the hon. Lady missed my point. We are developing three pillars of funding, with the encouragement of high levels of giving, including a very generous tax incentive introduced by the Chancellor in the previous Budget; a new source of funding, social investment; and the launch of the world’s first social investment bank within a few weeks. But, yes, we want to do more with the sector to help us deliver public services, so, yes, we will be opening up new opportunities for charities and social enterprises to help us do just that.

Mr Speaker: I call Phil Wilson. No? Can I simply say—

Phil Wilson rose—

Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is here. We are grateful. Good.

Phil Wilson: Question 13, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: No. The hon. Gentleman asks his supplementary question now, although it would have been helpful if there had been advance notification of the grouping to my office, which there was not. Very regrettable. The Minister must do better in the future, I am afraid.

Phil Wilson: A survey commissioned by Charity Bank has revealed that more than 20% of charities have suffered from the cancellation of contracts with businesses and Government bodies in the past year. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s refusal to recognise the needs and benefits of charities and voluntary organisations in policy formulation is preventing such organisations from getting vital funding to which they are entitled?

Mr Hurd: First, Mr Speaker, I apologise to you formally for that oversight by my office.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Any commissioner in the public sector needs to engage with stakeholders in communities before commissioning services—not least in the voluntary and community sector, whose stakeholders tend to have, on the whole, a much better understanding of the needs of the people we are trying to help.

Mr Speaker: I thank the Minister for his gracious apology.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Five months ago, the Prime Minister told me here that he would look at the funding gap arising from changes to legal aid funding for advice services such as the citizens advice bureaux in Wiltshire. Does the Minister consider that he has yet found lasting funding arrangements to sustain that voluntary sector service in future years?

Mr Hurd: We know that the charity advice sector is under a lot of pressure; that is why we found the money for a £20 million fund to provide immediate support for the most vulnerable organisations and why we are undertaking a serious review of the longer-term issues facing the sector. We will be announcing the findings of that review later in the spring, so the hon. Gentleman may not have to wait very long.

Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): Will the Minister join me in congratulating the work of bodies such as Voluntary Action Leicestershire, which are advising the voluntary and community sector so well in Leicestershire, including my constituency of Loughborough, on how to find alternative funding models and how to do things differently given the changed funding environment?

Mr Hurd: I am certainly happy to do that. Such organisations play an essential role in providing support for front-line organisations. That is why we have found £30 million of funding to support organisations as they improve those services for the front line through the transforming local infrastructure fund.

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Voluntary Sector Funding

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of the change in the level of funding to the voluntary sector in 2011-12. 100940

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): Most voluntary sector organisations receive no public funding at all, but those that do cannot be immune from the need to reduce public spending. That is why we are taking active steps to help the most vulnerable organisations, to encourage more giving and social investment, and to create new opportunities to deliver more public services.

Seema Malhotra: Given that the most recent report by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations shows that, according to the Government’s own figures, charities are facing cuts of £1.2 billion in public money per year, does the Minister agree that the Government need to do more to support the voluntary sector in constituencies such as mine, Feltham and Heston, as we turn around what the NCVO has described as a “toxic mix of circumstances” affecting our charities?

Mr Hurd: As I have said, almost 80% of charities receive no money from the state, but we have made it clear that those that do cannot be immune from cuts. The Labour leader himself has made it clear that he could not have protected them from cuts at all. We should remind ourselves that the cuts are necessary because of the actions of the last Labour Government. This Government are taking action to protect the most vulnerable organisations, create new sources of funding and open up new opportunities for charities and social enterprises to deliver public services. All they hear from the Labour party are empty words.

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Communities Summit

March 21, 2012

Meeting Prince Charles

Nick meeting HRH the Prince of Wales with the Prime Minister at the Communities Summit on 23rd February.

Freedom of Information Act debate

March 14, 2012

Nick Hurd responds to a back bench MP’s debate on the Freedom of Information Act.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr McCrea.

I follow convention in congratulating the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) not just on securing the debate, but for the way that she presented her case. We served together quite happily, I think, on the Public Bodies Bill. I am not surprised that she has been pursuing this matter forensically for many months, through the Education Committee and this debate.

I will do my best to answer the questions that I can. The hon. Lady will know that I cannot answer them all; in fact, I cannot answer the majority and I cannot speak for the Secretary of State for Education. I am certainly not going to respond to allegations about any destruction of information or materials, because they remain just that.

Lisa Nandy: I am sorry to ask the Minister to give way so quickly. I have just handed him a list of questions for the Cabinet Office, to which I should be grateful for answers. If he cannot answer them today, I should be grateful if he looked into them and got back to me.

Mr Hurd: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s clarification. I was wondering what the piece of paper that was thrust into my hand was. It is a long list of questions and we will do our best.

In some ways, the hon. Lady was challenging the Government on their important commitment to transparency and, because I feel proud of the Government’s direction of travel, it is important to put this debate in context by mentioning some things that we are doing to improve transparency, including in the Department for Education. The Secretary of State mentioned, in evidence to the Select Committee, increased transparency about schools performance.

Information is power and we are giving people more power. For example, the Government are now publishing details of ministerial, special adviser and permanent secretary meetings with external organisations; details of hospitality and gifts received by Ministers and special advisers; senior officials’ salaries, and detail on Government procurement card spend. They are also publishing information on many other items of public interest, such as hospital infection rates, crime maps—which have been an enormous success with the public, with more than 430 million hits since their launch— and data on general practitioners’ performance. More than 7,500 data sets have so far been published through the combined online information system on, more than any other comparable transparency service in the world.

The information published enables people to see all Government expenditure, browsing by date, spender, recipient and amount. All Government contracts over £10,000 are to be published to ensure openness and fairness.

The whole Government accounts were published in November 2011 and each Department has published a business plan, setting out how it will achieve its reforms, how much money is being spent and what it is being spent on. Reports against these deliverables are published monthly on the No. 10 website.

Transparency does not just extend to central Government. For local authorities, there is increased local accountability and transparency of councils. We can see, down to the last £500, what is being spent in our name by our local authorities, including salaries, names, budgets and responsibilities of staff paid more than £58,200. There is detail on councillor allowances and expenses and we can see organisational charts, pay multiples, copies of contracts and tenders to businesses, which are important to the voluntary and community sector.

Lisa Nandy: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hurd: The point that I am trying to make—I will give way after doing so—is that this level of transparency is unprecedented and today’s debate, which challenges the Government and questions their commitment to transparency in some ways, needs to be seen against this background. So much of the long list that I read is self-evidently good and in the public interest. Why did it not happen before? The hon. Lady and other Opposition Members may have an answer, since they were in power for 13 years.

Lisa Nandy: The Minister has read a long, impressive list of things that have been published under the Freedom of Information Act. Does he agree that it is extraordinary that guidance of such central importance to decisions made across Government is not on that list? Will he commit to publishing it immediately?

Mr Hurd: I am getting to the meat of the debate, which raises important issues about freedom of information requests and private e-mails. That is a complex new matter.

Ian Mearns: Waffle.

Mr Hurd: The hon. Gentleman says it is waffle, but I am proud, because in less than two years we have achieved all that I mentioned—which is more than his party did in 13 years in power—in giving people information about what the state is doing in their name. I do not describe it as waffle; it is hard information that is in the public domain now.

This debate is about the use of private e-mails and their relation to the Freedom of Information Act. We have to recognise that this complex issue has been the subject, as the hon. Lady says, of a recent decision by the Information Commissioner, published on 2 March. In his decision notice, the Information Commissioner makes it clear that at the time the Department for Education received the FOI request, there was no guidance in existence. This was a new area that had, perhaps, not been anticipated. The commissioner acknowledges that the full implications of the FOI Act in relation to this issue may not have been well understood at the time. He states in his decision notice that he

“would say first of all that he acknowledges that this is a novel issue and one which may not have been anticipated when the Freedom of information Act was passed…Given the unique role played by special advisers it is not always easy to draw a clear line between official information held by a public authority and party political information.”

It is clear that the Information Commissioner’s decision notice raises important issues that the Government are taking seriously and considering.

For reasons that I am sure hon. Members will appreciate, a time period is set out in the FOI legislation within which the Government will consider whether to appeal or release the information. I cannot answer the hon. Lady’s question about whether any decision has been taken. The Government have 28 days from the date of the decision notice to decide whether to appeal. If there is no appeal, the Government have a further seven days to release the information or assert a relevant exemption. Therefore I am sure that hon. Members will understand that it is not appropriate for me to comment on the decision while such consideration is under way.

The hon. Lady has asked me to make public the advice given by the Cabinet Office to the Department for Education on FOI and private e-mails. She asserted at the start of her speech that she had not received any answers on this, but in fact she has, although it is not necessarily the answer she wants. In a written answer from the Minister for the Cabinet Office, she was informed that the Department will not publish any guidance on private e-mails and the Freedom of Information Act given to the Department for Education, because:

“Information relating to internal discussion and advice is not normally disclosed.”—[Official Report, 6 February 2012; Vol. 540, c. 63W.]

That has been so for a long time and we will stick to that line, because the Government do not disclose what is effectively internal advice. Doing so would prejudice the conditions under which such advice was given. That is a long-standing convention, and it is entirely respectable for the Government to stand by it. Today’s debate has not changed my view and, I am sure, will not change the view of the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General. We both believe, as Ministers before us have believed, that advice between officials and Ministers should remain confidential.

Lisa Nandy: Can the Minister tell us whether that is written down?

Mr Hurd: The hon. Lady intervenes from a sedentary position. The answer to that question is that we will not disclose the advice or the manner in which it was communicated—we would not normally disclose that, and we will not do so now.

The more substantive issue is what happens now, in that the Information Commissioner has given a view and the Government must respond. The hon. Lady asked when the Cabinet Office will publish its guidance. I have made it clear that the Government are considering the Information Commissioner’s recent decision notice and his guidance, published in December, and will publish their guidance as soon as it is ready, but the issues are complex and require detailed consideration. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Lady laughs, but we must get it right: the question is new, it is complex and it was not anticipated at the start—it needs to be got right. The Cabinet Office is doing that work, which is well under way. When our guidance is ready, it will be issued.

The debate is valid and raises important issues that the Government are considering and taking extremely seriously. I do not recognise what the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) said about the Secretary of State’s apparent flippancy in Committee—I read the transcript; I was not there—but, given that in that part of the inquiry he was being interviewed under Paxman-like conditions by the hon. Member for Wigan, his replies were serious and to the point. However, important issues, which we are taking seriously, have been raised and I ask hon. Members to allow consideration to take place in the appropriate way. Within the time frame set in tribunal rules, the Government will decide whether to appeal or to release the information originally requested, in response to the Information Commissioner’s decision notice of 2 March. The Government are also considering the guidance issued by the Information Commissioner in December on freedom of information and private e-mails, and the Cabinet Office will issue further guidance to Departments in due course.

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