The Lord Speaker (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, it is with deep regret that I have to inform the House of the deaths during the Recess of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, the noble and learned Lords, Lord Bingham of Cornhill and Lord Lyell of Markyate, and the noble Lord, Lord Livsey of Talgarth. On behalf of the whole House I extend our condolences to the noble Lords' families and friends.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, no assessment has been made about the effect on road accidents that may result from the decision to discontinue the specific road safety capital grant. The Government continue to provide substantial funding for local transport, including for road safety. Fixed camera operation is an option for local authorities, which remain free to invest in new cameras using their own resources.
Lord Berkeley: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. He will be aware, I am sure, that there will be very few convictions for offences now that the cameras have been discontinued. Is he aware that the Thames Valley Safer Roads Partnership assessed the speed of cars after these machines were switched off and found that 2.9 to four times more cars are exceeding the speed limit? Is that what the Government's road safety policy is about? There have been many more accidents, deaths and serious injuries. Is that really what the Government intend?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, we certainly do not want people to exceed the speed limit and we will monitor the casualty rates both nationally and locally. Local authorities should consider the potential of the full range of road safety interventions, including educational and engineering solutions, and the Government will encourage them to do so.
Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, regardless of whether the speed cameras are on or off, given that darker evenings will begin at the end of this month, plus the increased traffic speed that has been mentioned, have the coalition Government assessed the estimated increase in the deaths of cyclists and schoolchildren during the months between when the clocks are put back and when they are put forward in the summer?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I would be delighted to debate that issue but, unfortunately, this Question is about road safety cameras. I hope that the noble Lord will table a suitable Question at some point when we can debate the issue.
Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, the Minister will be aware, from his department's own figures, that the statistics on road casualties caused by speed are horrendous. Can he give an assurance that if, as a consequence of this decision to discontinue the funding of safety cameras, there is an increase in the number of accidents at the sites where those cameras were present, the Government will reconsider their policy and ensure that the cameras come back?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, the first thing to remember is that local authorities are free to use cameras as much as they wish and as they see appropriate. We will also be carefully monitoring the casualty and accident rates, as will local authorities and the police. Local authorities will then take whatever action is necessary to continue the welcome downward trend in road accidents that the previous Administration achieved.
Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, with the advent of localism, whereby local authorities will be free to take whatever action they like in several areas, will the Government ensure that some objective monitoring of what happens is maintained, because many of the people doing the monitoring are parti pris to either the car lobby, the cycling lobby or the pedestrian lobby-all, as it were, peddling their own views?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, if we are to continue the downward trend in road traffic accidents, it is vital that we monitor the accident rate and its causes and contributory factors, whether that is speed that, if not illegal, is excessive or whether it is just plain exceeding the speed limit.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, is it not the case that the local authorities are anticipating cutbacks in resources as well? Will the Minister take responsibility for the statement on his department's website that,
Earl Attlee: My Lords, we are discontinuing funding for new cameras, but local authorities may install new cameras if they wish. It is up to local authorities to make decisions to suit local conditions.
Lord Condon: My Lords, does the Minister accept that, in addition to the new policy on speed cameras, it is very unlikely in the current climate that additional police officers will be deployed to traffic duties? In fact, the position will understandably be quite the reverse in the climate of public sector cutbacks. Therefore, is it not increasingly necessary to monitor accident rates?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, it is vital to monitor accident rates, but the urgent priority for this Government is to tackle the record deficit in order to restore confidence in our economy and support the recovery.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, am I the only one in this overcrowded House who thinks that there is a huge air of unreality in all the questions on this issue? Surely we should not be spending taxpayers' money to prevent people from breaking the law. People should know what the law is, obey the speed limits and just shut up.
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: On the last point, will the educational process of speed awareness retraining courses that currently take place, and which in the main flow from possible convictions arising from people being caught by cameras, increase or decrease in future?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I did not quite catch the first part of the noble Lord's question. The speed awareness courses are an important part of the educational process and are one tool that can be used to drive down the accident rate.
Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, in view of the Minister's earlier remarks, could he tell the House what contribution to driving down the deficit is made by discontinuing money for speed cameras and how he would compare that to the potential increase in loss of life?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, in this process of driving down the deficit, it is vital to understand that every area of expenditure that we ring-fence and protect will mean that another area must take even greater cuts.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: Will the Minister comment on evaluations that have shown that the income from fines of those caught on speed cameras going into the Exchequer is greater than the amount that the Government are saving by removing the grant to local government?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, Ministers are permitted to use an official car for official business and for reasonable home-to-office journeys on the understanding that they would normally be carrying classified papers on which they would be working or, exceptionally, when the security authorities consider it essential. The number of Ministers with allocated cars and drivers will be kept to a minimum.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, from time to time that can happen. It is a very good point, but sometimes a Minister may be attending other meetings or events
5 Oct 2010 : Column 5
Earl Attlee: My Lords, in 2009-10, expenditure was £11.2 million; in 2010-11, it will be reduced to £7.6 million and in 2011-12 it will be down to £5.6 million. We hope to keep it at about that level.
Lord Berkeley: My Lords, is the Minister aware that his colleague who went to the Dunkirk celebrations this year took a car all the way from London to Dunkirk instead of taking the Eurostar and hiring a local car at Calais to get to Dunkirk? I believe that the cost was several thousand pounds. Why could he not take the train half way, to Calais, and then take a car?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, if the noble Lord thinks that the Ministerial Code has not been completely complied with, he should write a letter to the Cabinet Secretary. On the question about certain former Ministers, on security grounds they may have the use of an allocated car and driver.
Lord Swinfen: With the leave of the House, let me say that I do not think that the Minister heard my question properly. I did not ask about existing Prime Ministers and Deputy Prime Ministers; I asked about retired Prime Ministers. Would he answer my original question?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, is the reduction in the use of ministerial cars a reflection of the priorities of the Government in cutting public expenditure or is it a reflection of the fact that more than half the Cabinet are wealthy enough to be able to afford their own cars and drivers?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, whether the Cabinet is wealthy or not is immaterial. The objective is to reduce the government deficit and we will do that any way we can, including by reducing expenditure on the Government's car fleet.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, we could use the mayor's bicycle scheme if we wanted to. I regularly walk to my department. It takes me precisely 10 minutes to get from my desk to the Secretary of State's desk.
Lord Elton: My Lords, will the Minister write to me if he cannot answer my question now? How many cars in government use are fuelled by liquid petroleum gas and what is the saving in using this alternative fuel?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I am not aware of any cars using liquid petroleum gas. However, many of them now use diesel fuel. For instance, some of the Jaguar cars will do 26.5 miles to the gallon and the Toyota Prius Mark III will achieve 72.4 miles per gallon. So far as I am aware, though, we are not using LPG as a fuel.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, five electoral systems are currently used-the full list has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. The Government propose a referendum next year on the system for electing Members of Parliament. We will also make proposals for elections to this House on the basis of proportional representation and we intend to introduce direct elections for police and crime commissioners in England and Wales.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, whatever side you are on regarding questions of electoral reform, to have five systems already in operation and to be planning three more surely means that there are far too many electoral systems for one country. We have now had the experience of a number of electoral systems. The main characteristics of all the new ones that have been brought in, particularly the European one, have been low voter turnout, greater confusion and a huge increase in the number of spoilt ballot papers. Is it not high time that we acknowledged that the characteristics of the system that we are familiar with-the straightforward, understandable,
5 Oct 2010 : Column 7
Lord McNally: I am well aware of the noble Lord's views on first past the post, but he will be equally aware that many people consider the system to be deeply flawed. Most of the systems referred to were introduced by the previous Administration on the basis of horses for courses, taking into account what was most suitable for Scotland, for London and for Europe. I am sure that this debate will go on, not least when my right honourable friend Nick Clegg brings forward his proposals for due consideration in this House.
Lord Naseby: My Lords, instead of worrying about electoral systems, should not the Government be spending more time looking at electoral registration, particularly the registration of postal votes, so that at least our electoral register gets up to a better level than it has been at in recent years?
Lord McNally: My noble friend has raised that issue before and I share his concern. Proposals have been brought forward for individual registration and identification of postal votes. He is on the right road and I assure him that the Government will continue to pursue that course to make sure that our register is accurate and, as far as possible, fraud-free.
Lord McNally: I can give the assurance that we will give an open-minded look. My suspicion, however, is that in both Houses and in general there will be reluctance to bring an element of compulsion into voting, although all parties would like to see greater participation.
Lord Howarth of Newport: If the House of Commons were to be elected under AV and the second Chamber were to be elected under proportional representation, would not the second Chamber then have greater legitimacy, and what would be the implications for the primacy of the House of Commons?
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, bearing in mind the valuable report of the Electoral Commission on the alternative vote and the arrangements that it has in mind, will the Government make sure that the information that comes to every voter at home is delivered sufficiently close to the vote being cast to ensure that the maximum number of people participating understand exactly which choice is the right one?
Lord McNally: I agree with my noble friend. Information and understanding will be paramount in getting the right decision. That is why we intend to follow the precedent of the Euro campaign of nearly 40 years ago in that two sides will have the funding and the ability to put their case to the British people.
Lord Grenfell: Will the Minister give us an assurance to allay our fears, in light of what has recently been said by the Electoral Commission, as I understand it, that this House will be given the time to debate the Bill on the May referendum? It appears that if there is to be a referendum in May there will be a shortage of time in which to have a proper debate and to make amendments. I have heard that this House might be denied the possibility of being able to amend because of the shortage of time.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, given that the issue of election to this House is more fundamental than the issue of the type of election to the other place, will the Government consider a referendum on election to this House?
Lord McNally: I do not think that that is the Government's plan at the moment but I would not be at all surprised if one of those amendments that I have just assured the noble Lord will be allowable was along those lines.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the reason why the Government supported the introduction of the single transferable vote system in Northern Ireland was its fairness? Why is a proportional system-rather than AV, which is not proportional-not one of the options available in the referendum questions that will be put to the public when we come to decide on this issue? Will the Minister also explain why he and his noble friends have abandoned their traditional commitment to the single transferable vote?
Lord McNally: AV is being put forward because that was the agreed form in the coalition agreement. If we could persuade our coalition partners and the Labour Party of the merits of STV, on which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I agree, we could also satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, as we could then go to one system in all elections.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has been waiting for some time. I appreciate that it is a fine judgment but I also appreciate the courtesy of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, in allowing the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, to ask his question.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: I apologise desperately for causing this trouble, but it is obviously difficult to ask a question from our new perch. Why is there this reluctance, again, to answer the Question as printed on the Order Paper?
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Is the Minister aware that the system of election to the Scottish Parliament is so crazy that, if Margo MacDonald MSP were to retire tomorrow, she could not be replaced, if I retired tomorrow, the second person on the list would replace me, and if my noble friend Lord McConnell retired tomorrow, there would be a by-election in his constituency? Is that not a good argument for being very careful before rushing into changing electoral systems?
Lord McNally: Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I do not have to answer for the decisions made by the last Administration. Whether the Scottish system produces absurd results, I am not sure, but I can think of one or two.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, that is a very interesting Answer. Does the noble Lord agree that high public office, including chairmanship of a party and membership of the Cabinet, comes with real responsibility? If serious allegations are made about electoral fraud, is there not a responsibility to report them to the police? The noble Lord has been given a sticky wicket today and I regret that the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, is not present. At the Conservative Party conference, the noble Baroness said that,
Lord McNally: My Answer reflected the truth. The Government do not have information and neither is this the Government's direct responsibility in these matters. If anybody has evidence of electoral fraud, they should report it to the returning officer concerned and to the police. The Government's attitude is that they would then expect the authorities to prosecute any offences thoroughly and vigorously.
Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, as I read it in the newspapers-I must admit that the press are not always accurate-said specifically that the Conservative Party had lost its overall majority in the House of Commons on the basis of fraud in three or four constituencies, perpetrated majorly by Asian minorities. Ministers cannot do that and say, "It was just an off-the-cuff remark". It is a serious matter for any government Minister to traduce the constitution of this country and its electoral system. The noble Baroness ought to come to this House and apologise.
Lord McNally: I am sure that my noble friend will read those remarks. As far as I understand it, specific complaints have been made in a range of constituencies and are being investigated. However, I ask the House for pause on this. Research after the general election showed that 30 per cent of people thought that there were some elements of fraud in our electoral system. I do not believe that that is true, but it is a worrying factor that over the past few years, for the first time in my life, the integrity of our electoral system has been called into question. All major political parties have a duty to look at themselves and to make sure that fraud of any kind does not seep into our system. I emphasise that those who commit electoral fraud will be prosecuted and will face severe penalties.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the Government are actively considering two important safeguards to prevent the increase in electoral fraud, as perceived: first, an increase in the proportion of postal votes that are verified-I believe that at the moment it is only one-fifth-and, secondly, an acceleration in the change to individual registration, to which my noble friend referred, so that it can take place before 2015? Neither was a change with which the previous Government decided to proceed.
Lord McNally: The short answer is yes, we are so doing. However, I do not want to score party points on this. I remember asking questions from the opposition Benches before the election about the loss of confidence, particularly in postal voting. We need to follow through some of the reforms that are now in chain and to look to our own houses in terms of how we expect our members to behave. We need to be willing to push forward the process by which people respect our electoral system.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: Given the importance of this area and the seriousness of the allegations made, will the Minister explain why the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, is not in the House to answer the Question standing today?
Lord Trimble: My Lords, the Minister may be interested to know that after the 1992 general election I attended a meeting in the Home Office as a representative of the Ulster Unionist Party. In the margins of that meeting there was an interesting discussion involving the representatives of two other parties, who discussed the prevalence of electoral fraud in certain regions of England among certain sections of the population, along the same lines as the comments of the noble Baroness that have been referred to. This issue has been around for a long time. People have been pussy-footing around it and failing to deal with a serious problem. Would it not be good if the party opposite, which has neglected to deal with this issue, was a bit more responsible now?
Lord McNally: I again make the point that anybody who has specific allegations or evidence should report that to the police and to the returning officer in the constituencies concerned. We are open to discussing with all parties how we can improve the integrity of our system. As my noble friend said, this is not a matter that has blown up simply since the last general election. There will be a full report in January by the Electoral Commission and the police. I suggest that at that time it might be open to the major political parties to look at that report to see whether there are other ways in which we can take this forward. The integrity of our system must be protected.
To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to report to Parliament the details of welfare reforms including the introduction of a universal credit, a family benefit cap and the ending of universal child benefit.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach:My Lords, too often the current system traps people in benefit dependency, making a move to work seem risky and financially unsustainable. This has led to a 45 per cent increase in real terms in spending on welfare in the past decade. Our proposals for these and other welfare reforms will be announced at the spending review. We also intend to publish a White Paper in response to our consultation on welfare reforms, and I assure noble Lords that there will be ample opportunity for further debate.
Lord Knight of Weymouth: My Lords, I am grateful. There is a real urgency for Parliament to scrutinise these massive changes to the welfare state. Can I ask the Minister what he would say to the mum with three young children who wants to stay at home to care for
5 Oct 2010 : Column 12
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I would suggest that the only one who is out of touch is the noble Lord himself if he is not aware of the financial difficulties facing this country and the need to reduce government spending in line with the deficit that we inherited. This is essential to our policy. This is not an easy decision to make, but it is a necessary decision to make if we are to bring public spending into line.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I would ask my noble friend to await the debates that we will have following publication of the White Paper in which all these matters will be made clear. The detail of the policy has not been presented to Parliament, as noble Lords will know. There will be plenty of opportunities for debate and at that point this matter can be addressed.
Lord Touhig: My Lords, the Government have identified £9 billion of savings in the tax and benefits system, £4 billion of which comes from child support. What have this Government got against children?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: The Government have nothing against children-indeed I think that that must be self-evident. At the moment we tax people on low incomes to pay for the child benefit of people who earn much more. There is fairness and equality involved in this, and I am surprised that the noble Lord cannot perceive that.
The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the necessary cuts are already beginning to harm the most vulnerable families and the services that support them? Does he agree that if the £1 billion saving made by ending universal child benefit were targeted towards those most vulnerable families, many people in this country would agree that it is the right thing to do?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: Indeed it is. The strategy, of which this is part, is to reform the welfare system so that it is fairer, and at the same time to raise tax thresholds so that people on lower incomes are likely to be better off rather than worse. At the moment we have a situation where those on middle incomes are paying for benefits to be given to people on higher incomes. That cannot be justified.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, it has been estimated that 80 per cent of the cuts will fall on women, because women receive most of the benefits that have been alluded to. Women receive the bulk of public services and fill the most posts in low-paid public sector jobs. How will the Government ensure in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review that there is fairness to low-paid, hard-working women?
Lord Kinnock: If mangling the system of support for families with children is vital to the reduction of the deficit, why did people who are now government Ministers, including the Prime Minister, say the absolute opposite before the recent general election?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: There has been a review of the whole welfare system. A Green Paper was published. It was quite clear at the general election that the Conservative Party and the coalition both believed in welfare reform. Those matters have been presented to the electorate. It is a pity that all the false starts on welfare reform made by the previous Government were not implemented. We are tackling a task that should have been tackled many years ago.
Baroness Boothroyd: On the subject of the original Question, is the Minister not aware that when policy changes of this nature are made, it is usual for them not to be announced at a political party conference or to the media, but first to be introduced into Parliament so that Ministers may be questioned at the Dispatch Box?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: The spending review will be announced to Parliament on 20 October. A series of business matters arising from that review will, I am sure, interest noble Lords. Meanwhile, the policy announced at the Conservative Party conference was but an elaboration of the consultation process and the policy formation that has taken place since the Green Paper was published.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, perhaps my noble friend would be ever more courteous. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, has been prevented from speaking by his own side on two occasions. Perhaps we might allow him to do so.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: Thank you. Is the Minister aware that, given the current pressure to get people back to work, there is a real danger that genuinely disabled people will be included? The margin is a delicate one and the pressure to get disabled people
5 Oct 2010 : Column 14
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I admire the noble Lord immensely for his advocacy on behalf of disabled people. The Government are very mindful of the situation and are constructing policies that will bear in mind the point that he is making.
Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, should the Government not be congratulated on having a scheme whereby if child benefit is withdrawn from a higher-rate taxpayer, it is both fair and simple and avoids all the problems of means-testing?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: One difficulty of all welfare systems is their complexity. It is always difficult to draw the line between a complex system and one that is more arbitrary. The Government have made the right decision in this case.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: The question that has to be asked is whether it is reasonable to ask somebody who is earning something like £25,000 a year to contribute through the tax system to the child benefit of people earning that sort of money.
"Probably. Tax advisers are already devising ways in which people who earn just over the 40 per cent tax band can legally reduce their income so they still qualify for child benefit. It may be possible to reduce your pay through 'salary sacrifice' schemes such as buying extra holiday days".
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: The noble Lord is an expert in these matters. Indeed, I have debated welfare, thresholds and marginality with him at the Dispatch Box before and I respect his contribution. However, inevitably when you draw a line in the sand, you find
5 Oct 2010 : Column 15
Later this afternoon, after we have debated the Third Reading of the Local Government Bill, we shall have a debate to which 38 Members of this House have signed up. At this stage, it is clearly impossible for me to give very helpful guidance as to how long speeches might be in order for the House to rise by 10 pm but perhaps I may give a little helpful guidance. We expect the speaking time guidance to be between seven and eight minutes, but as soon as the Local Government Bill has been debated, I will return to give more precise guidance. Of course, it is always a matter for the House to determine how long it wishes to be detained here.
I am now in a position to announce the recess dates. I am pleased to be able to announce that the House will rise for the Christmas Recess at the close of business on Wednesday, 22 December and return on Monday, 10 January. As ever of course, recess dates are subject to the progress of business in the House. Notice of these dates is now available in the Printed Paper Office.
For those not familiar with the Bill, John Denham, the former Secretary of State, legislated for unitary status for Norwich and Exeter in spring 2009. The Liberal Democrat party, which ran Norwich from 2002 to 2006, started our move towards unitary status
5 Oct 2010 : Column 16
That Bill passed and a transitional authority was put in place for both cities, which I emphasise abided by the law at every step of the way. Last May's elections were therefore suspended. Norwich and Exeter have behaved impeccably throughout. In the general election, Mr Pickles made it clear that he would overturn the Bill immediately because Norwich belonged to Norfolk and Exeter belonged to Devon even though they were self-contained, chartered, self-governing boroughs 600 years before there was even a concept of a county council. The Bill was truncated because the courts also ruled that there was incomplete consultation because the Boundary Committee's report came in six months late and that the city council seats left open should be filled by by-elections-these occurred this summer on 9 September-since this matter was last before your Lordships' House on Report. I know that those noble Lords who are still here will be anxious to know the results of those by-elections and what they say about this whole story.
In Exeter the Labour Party won three seats and is now in control. Thank you, Mr Pickles. In Norwich the Labour Party increased its majority; the Liberal Democrats lost a seat, as did the leader of the Tory city group, Mr Noble, who had been the parliamentary candidate just four months before-so much for all those remarks from the opposition Benches that the proposals did not have community support. In at least three wards in Norwich the Lib Dem candidate struggled to beat the UKIP candidate for fourth and fifth places respectively. Not pretty. The party that ran Norwich from 2002 to 2006 can now meet in a phone box and may be wiped off the map in the next couple of rounds of local elections.
On those poll results, if projected, the Lib Dem local MP for Norwich South and the Tory MP for Norwich North would lose their seats. From a joint population of around 270,000, some 25 to 30 per cent of the electorate voted on a single issue-unitary status. They knew what they were voting for and made their views clear. I take no issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. I think that it is a bad Bill. She may have different views from mine on it, but she has responsibility for her department to carry it through and I well understand its obligations. But no such obligations fall on the Lib Dems. The Lib Dem council started the process towards unitary status and Lib Dem councillors have remained stalwart behind it throughout. They are decent, honourable people.
The Lib Dem MP, Simon Wright, supported it and his wife was a Liberal Democrat councillor who was very much in favour of it. Delegations to the Lib Dem leadership in London were led to believe that, given Lib Dem commitment to localism, they would have full support for becoming unitary. What was said to them in private was shamefully reversed in public. I refer to the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Rennard, pressed I do not doubt by Norman Lamb in the other
5 Oct 2010 : Column 17
Those three senior Lib Dems denied their local Lib Dem colleagues and their Norwich Lib Dem MP their support. Not only that, they ensured defeat. Local Lib Dems are appalled; they used words such as "treachery" in the press; they have made savage denouncements; and the electorate are well aware that the London Liberal Democrats have effectively destroyed the local Lib Dem party as well as, more importantly, the ability of Norwich and Exeter to generate the economic growth and jobs that this recession badly needs. Any trust that Lib Dems had in Norwich and that local Lib Dems had built up has been wiped away. The Lib Dem party has always been a party built up from local government. When the coalition segments, you may find that you have nothing left on which to rebuild your party, because this episode will not be forgiven.
This Bill is shameful. It is a delay, not a defeat, because it will come back. It is not a defeat except for the standing-and, frankly, if I may say so, the honour-of the Lib Dem party in local government.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, it will have been clear from all the prior stages of this Bill that we do not support it. We do not consider it to be in the best interests of Exeter or Norwich. We consider that it represents a heavy-handed, centrist approach denying those great cities the opportunity of again becoming unitary authorities-an opportunity already available to many local authorities of different political leaderships provided by both Conservative and Labour Governments -and denying them that opportunity at the very time that their potential to be at the forefront of driving growth and creating jobs is most needed.
However, at this stage of a Bill, we should offer some thanks. Our thanks go to the electors of Norwich and Exeter for turning out in their thousands in by-elections to show their support for Labour Party candidates, enabling Labour to become the largest party in Exeter and to lead the administration with plummeting Lib Dem votes and both coalition parties losing seats and, as my noble friend explained, a swing to Labour in Norwich with both coalition parties suffering losses. Those are real votes, not surveys: a clear demonstration of the anger felt in both cities directed at those who have been frustrating their legitimate unitary aspirations.
As my noble friend said, this is not the end of the matter. This remains unfinished business. We pass the baton to our colleagues in another place, confident that they will continue to press for proper answers, particularly on the legitimacy of the impact assessment. We will continue to give support and encouragement to Exeter and Norwich to pursue their future as unitary authorities.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I shall be brief on this occasion, because it seems to me and to many of us who have witnessed these debates that just about
5 Oct 2010 : Column 18
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, referred to the recent local elections in Norwich and Exeter, but she chose not to refer at all to the general election outcome in May this year. It was very clear before the general election what was the position adopted by the Liberal Democrats and by the Conservatives, and the outcome of the general election was very clear in terms of both votes and seats in support of parties-
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I am sure that he would not wish to mislead the House, but his candidate, Simon Wright, made it clear throughout the campaign that he supported unitary status for Norwich.
Lord Rennard: Indeed, but the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives stated categorically just before the general election that both parties were committed to not proceeding with those structural changes in the way, in the timescale and on the basis in which the Labour Government tried to introduce them in their dying days in what was a quite improper way-a way which the judges decided was illegal and improper. Other parties won those elections, and therefore decided that they would proceed in this way. We believe that it is not the right scheme and not the right time, and that this debate should be brought to a close and the Bill be allowed to pass.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham): My Lords, there is very little more that I should say, except that I reiterate slightly what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said. In the heat of the moment, we forget where all this started. It all started because the previous Government decided that Norwich and Exeter's bid did not fulfil the criteria for unitary government.
Baroness Browning: Not very much has been said on this side about Exeter. I represented a parliamentary seat around Exeter-the Tiverton and Honiton seat-for 18 years, and I was involved in quite some detail in the earlier stages of the Bill in another place. On the point that my noble friend is making, the five criteria set by the Government originally included a requirement to consult across the county of Devon. When that exercise was completed, the Government refused to publish the results, which does not stand well in terms of them listening to people. Had Exeter become a unitary-I am well aware that people in Exeter, particularly the Labour Party, wanted that to happen-the consequences for the rest of the county of Devon would have been extreme. It would have been a beggar-my-neighbour policy.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend. I was not ignoring Exeter-it was of course part of the partnership that included Suffolk-for these proposals. I will return to where I was. Nobody thought that Exeter or Norwich could fulfil the five criteria. It was not until we were very close to the election that there was a sudden switch of view and a decision that they met them. The view taken by the coalition was that it was improper to go ahead on the basis that had been decided. In any event, the matter went to court. By the time we discussed this, the judge had quashed the orders and that resulted in the elections.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, taking into account the time, I can advise that if Back-Bench contributions were to be kept to eight minutes, the House should be able to rise this evening at around 10 pm.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, it is very satisfying that we start what is likely to be a busy autumn with today's debate. Not only does it enable me to seek to satisfy the genuine curiosity of the House in respect of a key item in the coalition agenda, but it is a subject area in which the experience of noble Lords in their lives outside this place can be brought to bear with great effect. It will be especially useful to hear of ways in which charities and voluntary groups can work together with communities and the agencies of government for the creation of civil society. The sheer number of noble Lords who have indicated their wish to join in this debate reinforces this expectation. It must be a long time since seven maiden speeches have been made in a single debate. I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords when I say that we look forward to hearing those speeches in particular.
There is a strong tradition of commitment to charities in this country by giving both time and money. The facts that there are over 170,000 charities in the UK and that we have the highest financial giving in Europe suggest strong levels of social responsibility in our country. Charities help bind people together. They act as a mechanism for people to come together to take action on a given cause and to provide a voice to individuals or groups who might otherwise not be heard. Where charities provide services, we see the good will of volunteers and donors being matched up to support others in society who may be less able. They do this not because there is a financial gain, or because they have been instructed by the state to do
5 Oct 2010 : Column 20
Charities and other voluntary and community organisations also play a role in creating bonds and driving social capital among volunteers within the organisations. It is common to hear people talk of charity work strengthening their sense of purpose and well-being, and giving them opportunities for building friendships. The freedom for any of us to set up such organisations-to take action on what we believe is important-should be seen and cherished as a fundamental right. We should all celebrate and support the role of charities in society. Later this month there will be the first annual trustees' week, which will be an opportunity to recognise the hundreds of thousands of people who voluntarily give their time to lead our charities and to encourage more to take on this incredibly rewarding role.
It would, however, be incorrect to suggest that civil society is as developed as it could be. While charities and other organisations can be inspiring, their role within society can be strengthened. Indeed, there are significant geographic variations in their distribution. Many areas with high levels of deprivation often have fewer local voluntary and community groups compared with more affluent areas.
While the Government have for a long time aimed to support the voluntary and community sector, I am not convinced that their actions have really been conducive to strengthening civil society. In recent years, the state has taken a bigger and more interventionist role in society, thus increasing the burden of bureaucracy and removing decision-making from local communities. Not only has this stifled local initiative and enthusiasm, it has led to an overdependence on the state.
Charities have not been immune to positioning themselves to respond to this. One sees ways in which they can be tempted to move away from their core agenda in order to maximise their corporate success. This Government are committed to reversing the trend and to supporting civil society to grow and to flourish as an independent force for good. The big society agenda is about giving power back to individuals, families, communities and groups-turning government upside-down-so that society, not the state, is in the driving seat.
But big society is most definitely not another government programme: it is quite the opposite. It is about challenging everyone to think differently. It challenges individuals to think about the personal and social consequences of their behaviour; it challenges communities to take more responsibility for their local areas and find ways to positively transform them; and it challenges the state to ask itself why it is performing certain functions, rather than giving responsibility for them to citizens, neighbourhood groups, voluntary sector organisations or social enterprises.
Taking up these challenges means rebalancing the relationship between the state and community and individual. For example, it might mean charities, social entrepreneurs, and the private and public sector collaborating in the design and delivery of services and individuals being more active in supporting their
5 Oct 2010 : Column 21
Therefore, Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, and Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, have clearly set out three things that the Government will do to support charities, social enterprises and other community organisations. These are: to make it easier to run a charity, social enterprise or voluntary organisation; to get more resources into the sector and strengthen its independence and resilience; and, finally, to make it easier for sector organisations to work within the state. I shall explore these themes in more detail.
The Office for Civil Society has now been set up in the Cabinet Office to co-ordinate work to deliver these three things. A full work programme which complements other big society work across Government is now under way. First, on making it easier to set up and run a charity, voluntary group or social enterprise, a key priority is to reduce bureaucracy within the voluntary and community sector that is currently stifling participation and social action. This will make it easier in future to set up and run civil society organisations.
My noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts is leading a task force to cut red tape, which has been set up jointly by the Cabinet Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The task force has a broad remit and will also feed its ideas into other work that is taking place across Government, such as the health and safety review being undertaken by my noble friend Lord Young of Graffham. I am thinking, too, of the Home Office-led review of Criminal Records Bureau checks, or the Treasury-led gift aid forum. While regulations of this sort are well intentioned, the bureaucratic downside can often outweigh the benefits they bring. Indeed, the word "trust" underpins charity. We need to trust charities more and give them the space to get on with their work without detailed top-down targets, lengthy forms or overbearing regulation. I look forward to hearing what my noble friend Lord Hodgson has to say about the task force this afternoon, and its recommendations due early next year, which I hope will liberate charities to focus more resources on front-line services and remove barriers to participation and social action.
Next year, there will be a review of the Charities Act 2006, giving us an opportunity to consider whether the current legal framework for charities is effective or whether there may be areas where we can further empower charities and strip out unnecessary regulation. Following a consultation earlier this year, there are already some sensible proposals for the review to consider in, for example, the area of what might make it easier and cheaper for charities to undertake land transactions.
The second area of action is to get more resources into the sector and to strengthen its independence and resilience. One of the key bits of infrastructure that will support charities and other parts of civil society is
5 Oct 2010 : Column 22
Another key piece of work is the Communities First funding scheme. Subject to the spending review, these neighbourhood grants will be available to provide small amounts of funding to unlock the potential for social action by new or existing community groups. The grants will be available in the most deprived neighbourhoods, estates and wards in England. Areas will be announced this autumn and the grants will be available from spring 2011. We also want to support infrastructure organisations, like the councils for voluntary service, which play a valuable role in energising local action by nurturing the small groups that bind neighbourhoods together. Therefore we are keen to find the best ways to improve the effectiveness of infrastructure organisations, which is why we will carry out a consultation on this later in the autumn.
On the third commitment, an important element of making it easier for civil society organisations to work with the state will be to reform public sector commissioning and to ensure a more level playing field so that charities, social enterprises and other sector organisations are more able to bid to deliver public services. This will greatly enhance public sector markets and provide opportunities for civil society organisations despite falls in other forms of funding.
The Government are committed to the compact, as the Prime Minister stated when he launched the big society programme at No. 10 in May. A draft renewed and streamlined compact has been developed by the Office for Civil Society, working with Compact Voice, which is currently consulting the sector on it. The Government are continuing their dialogue with the sector. In July, Ministers wrote an open letter to the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors asking for help in identifying good practice and any emerging risks to developing the big society. More than 200 responses have been received and are being analysed to identify key themes and opportunities. The results will be considered by the informal ministerial group on the big society, and a summit will be held with sector leaders to discuss joint action to support civil society in tackling issues important to local people.
Alongside work specifically focused on civil society, the wider big society work programme will interact with and complement the civil society sector. Examples of work here include establishing community organisers. They will be individuals who lead and co-ordinate work in their local areas to help people work together to make their community a better place in which to live. With strong connections to the local community, they will act as local catalysts to help galvanise change.
5 Oct 2010 : Column 23
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord but the conversation being carried on to my right is making it extremely difficult for me to concentrate on what he is saying. I remind local Lords who wish to converse that they may remove themselves to the Prince's Chamber if they wish to have a discussion while business is being carried on in the House.
We will be launching the National Citizen Service-a programme which aims to develop young people's sense of active citizenship through personal development activities and community service. We plan to run the first pilots of the National Citizen Service during the summer of 2011.
A key component of the big society is the transfer of power from Whitehall to communities. This is being led by Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralisation, and pioneering work is already going on in the four vanguard communities announced by the Prime Minister in July-Eden Valley, Liverpool, Sutton and Windsor and Maidenhead- where barriers to community-led action are already being identified and broken down.
I hope this gives noble Lords a sense of what the Government will be doing to support charities and encourage other voluntary and community organisations to thrive. I have also tried to illustrate the central role that these organisations play in civil society and how this role interacts with the state. As part of this, I hope I have been clear that strengthening civil society and building the big society is only possible with partnership and support from all the different players involved. Certainly, the Government do not have all the answers but they do have a key role in encouraging and facilitating charities, voluntary groups and individuals to play their part in building a better and more fulfilled life for all: a civil society no less. I beg to move.
Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I thank the Minister for securing this debate and for his opening remarks. I know that he has a strong personal interest in the charity sector and, through his other life in business, a strong record of supporting very important charities-not least the one that I held dear to my heart for many years, Breakthrough Breast Cancer. I know that we understand each other across this Table and I agree very much with him that our country is blessed with a strong, vibrant and diverse charitable sector. I, too, believe very much that it is the lifeblood of our civil society. Without our voluntary and community organisations, I would argue that there would be simply no civil society.
Such is the importance of this matter, as the Minister has already explained, that we simply have a most amazing and dazzling array of expertise and knowledge
5 Oct 2010 : Column 24
The figure that I have for the number of charitable organisations is slightly higher than the Minister's, so perhaps we should check our references. I would say that we have around 200,000 charitable organisations operating in the United Kingdom, covering a diverse range of subjects from specific health support charities through to international environmental groups. These organisations bring together an equally diverse range of individuals who are passionate about the causes that they work for and dedicate many hours, as we know, in the pursuit of their organisation's mission. Within the charitable sector there are literally millions of people who volunteer as part of their daily lives. I know this, as I have worked alongside volunteers and been a volunteer, and that the motivations behind volunteering are as many and as varied as the people who volunteer.
While that number has remained relatively stable over the past 20 years or so, I am pleased that there has been an increase in the amount of money and in the number of people making financial donations to charitable organisations. That is extremely welcome. For years, the charity sector has agonised about how we continue to drive up support for charities, but we are becoming more financially generous as a population. For example, the Charities Aid Foundation found that, last year, £81 million was donated to charity by half a million employees through the payroll giving scheme, Give As You Earn. That is an increase of around 153 per cent from the 1999-2000 figures; that must give us cause for great optimism in these extremely challenging times.
As I have said, I have spent my life in the charity sector and I have a personal and a professional understanding of the demands that the voluntary and community sectors face daily. Like many here, I, too, have experience not only of the previous Government but of the previous Conservative Government, so I have a good back story, but funding is pretty much always the biggest issue that concerns the voluntary and community sector. I will dwell on that matter today, but I also know that capacity is a major issue for the sector and that my noble friend Lady Royall, the Leader of the Opposition, is very concerned about that too. She will talk about it in her remarks later.
I turn to the Government's plans for the sector-to the big idea and to the big society. I welcome the coalition Government's interest in the charity sector and in the voluntary and community sector, and the emphasis that the Government are placing on the challenge. I have been listening carefully to what the voluntary and community sector has to say on this topic. Some Tory campaigners during the election campaign found it very difficult to describe on the doorstep what the big society was about, but this is not a problem that we might experience in this place. We know that it is not a new idea and that it is not rocket science, but there is
5 Oct 2010 : Column 25
Many charitable organisations are rightly enthusiastic about expanding their service delivery and continuing with the new Government the close relationship that they developed under Labour. That is absolutely right. At the same time, the sector has legitimate concerns about the funding and capacity for taking forward this big idea. March 2011 is the cut-off date for many charitable organisations currently receiving government funding, and it is a very worrying time for them. The Government have asked local authorities drastically to cut spending, in an attempt to manage the deficit, at a pace that we would argue is reckless. But that is what local authorities are being asked to do. Community and voluntary organisations are expecting council budgets to be reduced by 30 per cent. Volunteering England has noted its concern that, in London alone, Greenwich council is proposing cutting its voluntary sector budget by 50 per cent and Croydon council by 66 per cent. The proposed cuts will have a devastating effect on community and voluntary organisations, many of which will face the loss of important programmes, possibly in their infancy, and even their total extinction. The reality of cutting budgets with no bridging policy is that many organisations will disappear, which will be a great loss to our society. When in government, we valued the sector because of its innovation and closeness to service users as well as its extremely important advocacy role, challenging us and saying difficult things to us but also helping us to improve government policy.
It is a fallacy to think that volunteering is free. Volunteering England has stated that volunteers often need training and certain expenses to be paid, which is fair enough. Inclusive and high-quality volunteering is achieved only by funding to support volunteer managers and co-ordinators who recruit, train, and support volunteers and with funding to support the volunteering infrastructure. That is essential. Without careful consideration and support in going forward, after-school clubs, domestic violence charities, rape crisis centres, parenting programmes, projects to tackle youth crime and support schemes for isolated older people are all at risk.
If community organisations and charities are not to be affected by the funding cuts, it is likely that even so they will be caught by the Government's proposed rise in VAT. According to the Charity Tax Group, the rise in VAT will,
This will hit smaller charities disproportionately hard. Then there is the unfolding tragedy for medical research charities when the Government no longer match what charities invest in medical research, risking a new brain drain in British science and the economic impact of that. There is also a very real fear within the sector that it will be left to deal with the fallout of the Government's public sector policy, which will result in reduced benefits and an increased likelihood of social problems requiring attention.
The one stop-gap for this that we heard about is the promised big society bank-and I am very grateful to the Minister for telling us more about it today. But the
5 Oct 2010 : Column 26
I shall finish shortly. The Labour Party has a long and proud tradition of volunteering and collective action. Our party was born of trade unions, friendly and mutual societies and the co-operative movement. From the very beginning, we have seen people join together in a common endeavour to press for social justice, from women's suffrage to the right to a minimum wage. We have achieved positive social change through the strength of conviction of our members and communities coming together. These achievements are bound by a belief in civic responsibility and are motivated by our core values of solidarity, reciprocity and mutuality. That is what makes a good society, not maintained by voluntary action and charity alone but based on strong partnerships where markets are held to account and civil society thrives.
I look forward to the debate today and, yes, to learning about the practicalities of what the charity, community and voluntary sector wishes to do. I hope that the Government will build on the commitment that our Government made, not least the doubling of investment in a sector to promote innovation and closeness to service-users, to add value to all the volunteering and giving that our society does and to add capacity and value to the great work that our voluntary, community and charity sector does for us in this country.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, perhaps I can help to unravel the dispute about the number of charities. I think that neither the Minister nor the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Drefelin, are quite right. The Minister was right about the number of registered charities, but no one knows how many unregistered charities there are. The thought is that we have a total of 300,000 charities in this country. Never forget the tiny charities, the local ones, that often give a bigger bang for their buck than anyone in the empire of charities.
I thank the bishops for having got this debate into play. I also congratulate the seven maiden speakers. There is no doubt that the Guinness book of records needs to be informed about this; five lady Peers are making their maiden speech today, which is infinitely more than we have ever had before. How good.
I am another old charity hack. Of my more than 50 years in the law, the past 35 have been spent primarily acting for charities great and small, right
5 Oct 2010 : Column 27
A simple answer to the title of the debate-namely, "What is the role of the charitable sector in strengthening civil society?"-would simply be, "Unique and indispensable". Charity, after all, preceded the state and will perhaps outlive it. It certainly still provides the context within which the state and business function.
I thought it might be of interest if I gave your Lordships the one-sentence contributions to this debate of a few of the leaders of the charity world whom I asked to make their input in this way. Noble Lords will see that their main focus is the relationship between charities and the state. Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, extolled,
Michael Brophy, whom many in this Chamber will remember as the former leader of the Charities Aid Foundation and who did more than anyone to make the CAF such a focal point of the sector, concentrated on what the state alone can do to encourage philanthropy. He wrote:
Finally, Barbara Stocking, chief executive of Oxfam, and Campbell Robb, chief executive of Shelter and formerly of the Office of the Third Sector, concentrated on the liberating aspects of charity. The former said:
"Oxfam's experience has shown that lasting development means poor people taking matters into their own hands to become active citizens, holding governments to account and taking on the sources of their own exclusion".
I want to concentrate on that aspect. Before I do, I should like to take up a theme already mentioned by both previous speakers about the thin line between government assistance and smothering, between enabling and bureaucratising, between regulating and demoralising. Believe me, as a lawyer, I have seen all of that, on stilts. Too often, Governments can be heavy-handed; as a
5 Oct 2010 : Column 28
As regards Parliament, I propose that charities should be taken completely out of the party political arena. When charity issues are being discussed and charity Bills debated, votes should not be whipped. That was broadly the way in which we in this House dealt with the Charities Act 2006, but in the Commons votes on crucial issues such as public benefit were whipped. Many, I suggest, think that it would have been better not to do that but to leave it instead to the experience, reason and conscience of individual Members.
What of the "big society"? I would have much preferred the "good society". It is bigness that is getting us down, whether in government or in business. It is giantism which, in an already decommunalised and deracinated society, unduly atomises and individualises. Indeed, I believe that the rabid materialism and all-enveloping commercialisation of life and our culture is doing untold damage to our values, our probity, our decency and our fellow feeling. Charities, in all their wonderful diversity, harbouring as they do a level of public trust exceeded only by doctors and policemen, and with their astonishing engagement right across society, are fit to lead a national reformation. For charity is in essence-and indeed by law-altruistic and voluntary at a time when trust and idealism are bruised and in short supply. Charity also carries the egalitarian genes of our history. Small is indeed beautiful; it is near, it is humane; it abets relationship and begets humility.
Charity is egalitarian in another way. Most people who work at the voluntary coal face will say that they have got as much from doing it as they have given to it in the form of gratitude, empathy, insight and a sense of usefulness that is so often lacking in their paid work. In short, charity reaches the parts that nothing else reaches so well.
I will quickly make two other points. First, the world of which we are a part is obsessively busy, with technology as much our slave as our enabler. In my lifetime solicitors, for example, have gone from being pillars of the community to being men and women so driven by their targets-so specialised and bound up with the law-that too often they have little or nothing to do with civil society. That pattern is repeated across the business and professional board at huge cost to our society, let alone to the individuals concerned. What happened to "example"?
Lastly, everything in this debate comes back to citizenship. Young people can leave school with no idea of what citizenship is in this grotesquely complex society; they then have no way of getting around it or feeling part of it. Indeed, many feel like outlaws in their own country. If we cannot give them skills, attitudes and knowledge sufficient for them to want to engage with, and play their part in, their communities, we are surely whistling in the wind. However, the coalition Government-my Government-currently plan to take citizenship education out of the compulsory school curriculum. That is barmy.
Lord Rix: My Lords, I first place on record how much I value the role and expertise of charities in strengthening civil society. I declare an interest as president of the learning disabilities charity Mencap, which I have supported in various roles for nearly 60 years, ever since our daughter was born with Down's syndrome-or mongolism in those days. We were told, as most parents of that time were, to put her away, forget her and start again. Moreover, we were told she would be dead by the time she was in her early 20s; she lived until she was 54. It is only by understanding such experiences-an encounter that, regrettably, many others in a similar situation would also have faced-that we can begin to appreciate what motivated people, often mothers, to become involved with charities in the first place.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, amid the optimism of peace in Europe and the establishment of the welfare state at home, charities were established with a strong sense of purpose and hope for a better future. The ideals that led our founder member, Judy Fryd, and her contemporaries back in 1946 to form the National Association of Parents of Backward Children-now the Royal Mencap Society-are as relevant today as they were then. Those early pioneers were motivated by a strong sense of social justice, combined with a genuine zeal for campaigning. In the field of learning disability, they were the innovators who led campaigns to challenge prejudices and confront the status quo. They championed the human rights of disabled people, and they believed that disabled people were as entitled to their lives as the rest of us and should not be locked away in some remote Victorian institution. They wanted the state to recognise its responsibility to help some of the most needy, vulnerable and neglected in our society.
The valuable complementary roles of both the state and the charitable sector led to a network of professionals in areas such as health, social care and housing. To this day, they play a vital role in communities up and down the country. It is for this reason that charities are well placed to continue to make significant contributions to the life of our communities, whether through providing voluntary support and advice or delivering local services. They are a vital lifeline for some of the most vulnerable and neglected people throughout the United Kingdom. It is to our country's credit that charities undertake such a valuable role; and to the credit of the public's generosity that they often feel motivated and inspired to contribute to charities with both their time and their money.
Much of the coalition Government's agenda around the big society are ideas that charities up and down the country have embraced over many years. However, measures taken by the coalition Government which aim to encourage even more volunteering and involvement in social action are to be welcomed and I hope that people with a learning disability and their families will have the opportunity to participate fully in such activities, too. For example, Mencap is working with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games-LOCOG-as part of its official volunteering programme to ensure that among the 70,000 volunteers helping the Olympics and Paralympics to take place will be those with a learning disability.
Then there is the home shopping scheme run by Mencap Cymru whereby, with funding provided by Cardiff County Council, volunteers who have a learning disability provide a shopping service to a group of older people within the community. It is successful projects such as these, often unsung and modestly undertaken, where the crucially important and valuable role of charities and voluntary groups really comes into its own.
However, it would be remiss of me if I was not to mention some of the worries which cast their ominous shadows in the context of today's debate. Much of the charitable sector is emerging very nervously from the recession. Noble Lords will already be aware of the considerable impact that has made on public giving, the level of donations and benefactors. The charitable sector also looks with some trepidation to the outcomes of the comprehensive spending review. The sector recognises, as the coalition agreement document made clear, that reducing the public deficit takes precedence and that cuts in public expenditure are inevitable. However, our key priority as a sector is to ensure that cuts do not impact most on those who can afford them the least. To those who claim that we are all in this together, I would urge them to consider this: many in our country endure some of the greatest needs-poor health, substandard housing and barriers to opportunities, combined with prejudice, discrimination and bullying-as a consequence of their disability. To suggest that we are all in this together implies to a certain degree that we have successfully eliminated all exclusion in society, a scenario which, I suggest, is being more than economical with the truth.
Across local government I am aware of local authorities that have already started the process of reducing their costs. With the Communities and Local Government Department facing budget reductions of between 25 and 40 per cent, many people with a disability who rely on social care services are fearful about the future. A recent feature on "Channel 4 News" revealed that Oxfordshire is already charging people the maximum rate for care in their homes and that places such as Lewisham, Warwickshire, Hertfordshire and Hampshire are all consulting on removing payment caps introduced by the previous Government in 2003 to limit charges for care.
Beyond social care, many local authorities are already reducing the value of grants awarded to local groups or societies. In some cases these awards have been not just reduced, they have been cut altogether. I suggest that the short-sighted appeal of cuts in social care and grants to voluntary and charitable organisations, especially cuts for those working with the most vulnerable in society, can lead to long-term consequences and even greater costs on the state.
If we strengthen the role of charities, we strengthen the role of our society. The coalition Government's support in helping make this happen is very welcome. However, warm words in themselves are not enough. There has to be a consistency between the rhetoric and the reality and there has to be recognition that charities are not an alternative to the state but must work in partnership and complement the work of the state. If we can get that partnership right-I hope and believe that we can-charities will have a very important role to play in strengthening civil society in the future.
A one-time King of England, Athelstan, also called the Glorious, issued a writ to the King's reeves in 939 AD whereby peasants on the King's estates were ordered to provide food and clothing to those who were deemed to be destitute. We have clearly made significant progress since then, but I caution against expecting individuals to undertake so much more at a time when the state wants to undertake so much less.
The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, I am very grateful indeed to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for initiating this debate. The charitable sector is not only an enormously important element in the complex mixed economy of social institutions, it is also of course a sector which embraces much of the life of the churches, which have been instrumental over centuries in establishing and sustaining charitable activities of all kinds.
As your Lordships know, I am bishop of a predominantly rural diocese and know from my experience in Herefordshire and South Shropshire that the role of the charitable sector is highly integrated throughout those counties and communities, and this needs to be cherished and nurtured.
The roles of the charitable and voluntary sectors are absolutely crucial if we are to create more resilient social and community institutions. The charitable sector relies, absolutely fundamentally, on individual people giving of their time and skills, as well as their money, in the pursuit of the common good. The common good is usually best understood and appreciated in relatively small local community structures and relationships. So a flourishing charitable sector is essential to flourishing communities.
In the rural areas of our nation, life can be very fragile. The dominance of urban and suburban patterns of living, and the ways in which our economy concentrates resources in our cities, have marginalised some rural communities, especially in the most sparsely populated areas. Some rebalancing of economic and social priorities is urgently required. But over and against that fragility, rural communities have important assets: people make time to know each other and to build community, and these are real assets on which all of us need to build.
We all know about the hard, dedicated work, frequent meetings, persuasive conversations and huge effort that must take place in order that charitable and community work can be effective. We short-circuit these processes at our peril. They are the outward signs that charitable relationships are different from contractual ones. Our communities are inclusive organisms, not purpose-driven hierarchies, and the work of the charitable sector must never become so fixated on a business model that it loses the significance of the face to face and the importance of participative decision-making.
There are problems faced by all charities, large and small: the difficulty of recruiting volunteers, concerns about funding, the ageing of the volunteer base and the long hours that many of them work-to name but a few. For those dependent upon being funded by significant grants and with paid posts, there is the
5 Oct 2010 : Column 32
It is a matter of grave concern that among the working population the time and energy that people are able or willing to give for volunteering and charitable activity are increasingly limited. We have been reminded that the total number of volunteers has stayed steady, rather than grown. Working patterns demanded by competitive markets are not conducive to voluntary work, especially when husbands, wives and partners all have to work, with corresponding pressure on their limited leisure time. If we really value community, it is vital that there is a shift of power to give a wider, more flexible choice of work and leisure hours, in order that people can make space for voluntary and charitable activities.
We all know that, with economic times hard and getting harder, unemployment is already too high but likely to rise higher. However, it is not the case that higher unemployment widens the pool of people available for volunteering and charitable activity. The Jobcentre Plus network rightly concentrates on getting people back into paid work and ensures that unemployed people use their time accordingly, which militates very strongly against volunteering. I wonder whether there might be a new dynamic that would encourage unemployed people to combine the search for work, which is fundamental, with at least some voluntary, or even paid, charitable work. This would have three benefits for the long-term unemployed: raised self-esteem, a more interesting CV and a raised awareness of service to the local community.
Many issues that I have mentioned are not exclusive to rural communities, but I firmly believe that there is great potential in rural life to build up the charitable sector and its role in making for good communities. The specific nature of the rural context needs to be understood and incorporated into policy-making. I commend the practice of rural-proofing, whereby one stage of policy formation is to assess the impact that a policy may have on rural life. Our nation is a rich tapestry of urban, rural and suburban. We need each other, but that mutuality is not found by treating all areas the same.
At the heart of many rural communities is the church. Christian congregations form the base from which so many local charitable activities take place. This is well documented by important research undertaken by Professor Richard Farnell of Coventry University. In 2006 he stated:
This is further borne out by the 2008 Citizenship Survey, which suggests that those who are religiously observant are more likely to volunteer and give than their non-believing or non-practising counterparts-as the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, reminded Anglican bishops only three weeks ago.
Churches contribute to rural community life in an enormously wide diversity of ways, particularly for those in our society who are on the margins and more vulnerable-and not just within church congregations. Furthermore, we make available the use of our church buildings. I am told that there are 9,639 of them in rural communities, and in many of our villages, those are the only public buildings that remain open. In our diocese, for example, we have encouraged that wider use in many ways. Some permanently house a post office, village shop, Sure Start centre, library, radio mast for quicker broadband or a café and restaurant.
The charitable sector is vital to the flourishing of all our communities, but the economic, and to some extent cultural, context of today gives us cause for disquiet. Charities that depend on government grants to deliver services are hearing the rhetoric of the big society and feel needed, but at the same time see the reality of spending cuts and feel deeply threatened. Often, grants to charities are-alas-the soft targets for cuts. Is it any wonder that parts of the charitable sector are almost frozen in limbo at the present time, wondering whether they are more likely to be built up through the big society or exterminated by austerity measures? If that is the case for the larger charities, how much more is it the case for some smaller ones? Charitable financial giving tends to hold up well in the first part of a recession but then declines steeply. Much depends on how long the present phase of economic austerity lasts, of course, but some charitable activities need a minimal infrastructure if they are to flourish, although some infrastructure is absolutely vital.
In conclusion, the church is, as I said, cautiously optimistic about the potential of the big society and the enhanced role that it offers the charitable sector, but of course the charities cannot live on ideas and we await the policy details with interest, needing wise decisions that support the charitable sector-not least the work of the churches and not least support that will help our work in rural Britain.
Lord Wei: My Lords, I start by also welcoming the forthcoming record-breaking number of maiden speeches today, which I have no doubt will enrich our timely debate. This topic is of course very dear to my heart, not least because I am personally thankful for the great work of charities today and over past centuries that has led to a more compassionate and cohesive Britain, and not just because of my own experience in developing charities and seeing their extraordinary benefits, but because, looking to the future, there are clear links between charity and the big society-a big society in which government, business and the voluntary sector help to support and empower citizens so that they no longer feel small.
I am conscious that I have only a few minutes to speak, so I shall cover three points: first, the challenge relating to cuts brought on by the need to deal with the deficit left by the previous Administration and their impact on the charitable sector; secondly, some thoughts on the role that the charitable sector has in strengthening civil society and on related dangers
5 Oct 2010 : Column 34
First, there is of course a real risk with cuts and with increased demand in this next period that damage may occur to individual charities-some irreversible. I am therefore angry that on occasion the previous Government led thousands of charities up the garden path, including many around me in Shoreditch, where I live, such that a good number became so dependent on state funding that they are now overexposed.
Of course, this does not mean that we should sit back. I and those I have been advising in government are working extremely hard to ensure that in the near term forbearance is shown to charities by government departments and local authorities, that philanthropy and social investment are mobilised to help to orientate charities on to a more sustainable path, and that in the medium to long term commissioning and funding will be more local and long-term so that citizens will have more say on who provides services and support to them, with funds flowing accordingly. Indeed, far from big society being a veil for cuts, which is untrue given that it originated as an approach many years before the current recession, it offers a way out and a means for getting through this difficult period together.
My second point is that charities have a clear central role alongside their many other roles in strengthening civil society. Examples are: social action-in giving a voice to and connecting local citizens across divides online and offline to tackle vested interests and solve social problems together; public, social, and private sector reform-in mobilising resources to attract and help to scale responses that empower citizens to take more control of services and tackle complex issues where they live, for example through free schools, libraries, local neighbourhood renewal and more shared ownership of former state, financial, and business assets; and neighbourhood empowerment-in helping to uncover in a personal, local and compassionate way the assets and gifts that we all have and which we can all bring in a given location, and helping to deploy these to strengthen community capacity.
However, there are also ways in which a small minority of charities can have a damaging effect on civil society, which I have witnessed during my time as a social entrepreneur. We must guard against them. One way is having a mindset of "big charity", which is not so much about size but about how citizens are made to feel by interacting with these organisations-for example, by frustrating citizens or donors through overly competitive, bureaucratic or unresponsive behaviours. Another way is by corroding individual responsibility, rather than by helping to release people to become active citizens, independent of state or charities. A third way is by sometimes acting as non-critical arms of government, either deliberately or unwittingly, through strings that can come attached to contracts. That can mean that they focus on citizens in silos rather than within a wider societal group and context.
Therefore, charity can, and does, play a powerful role in supporting active citizens but should not itself always be presumed to be the same as the big society, for there can be instances when it works against it,
5 Oct 2010 : Column 35
That brings me on to the third and final area that I want to talk about today-the challenges and opportunities for the charitable sector presented by the big society. The challenge is that, while building on the best of what has gone before and recognising in many places that many are right when they say, "We are doing it already", a good number of voluntary organisations will find that they need to undergo a huge transition, just as will business and government, because we are now entering an era in which more power and control will shift to citizens and civil society, when demographic time-bombs and lifestyle changes are increasing expectations and demand, and when funds from government will be more limited. We are entering an age that requires a new welfare settlement, anchored in Beveridge's belief that the state,
Charities will not only need to handle the dramatic changes in the fiscal environment, and diversify income and relationships away from government to more business and other local third-party sources; they will not only in some cases need to scale up without losing touch with local people and concerns where the state has ceased to be a monopoly provider; they will also need to engage with their members and the public even more than they do today, and in ways that mesh with our varied and changing lifestyles.
Citizens and other stakeholders will increasingly want more control, more transparent information and more flexibility, to be empowered to operate as groups themselves and pull down support rather than being told what to do. Technology can play a potentially supportive role, as can new models of delivery such as social franchising and the freemium approach of giving your knowledge away for free alongside paid-for value-added support, and tools such as time credits and harnessing volunteer managers can help unleash activism without overburdening staff too much relative to increases in related activity.
At the same time, big society will represent huge opportunities for the charities that are able to shift towards or maintain a citizen orientation. The coalition Government have already said that they want to open up access and commissioning and level the playing field for charities; to make it easier for local groups to fund and support very local charities and community services, and expand philanthropy and voluntary action as part of that; to provide wholesale financing through the big society bank and intermediaries to enable charities to scale up by accessing finance; and to use the national citizen service and the opportunity annually to celebrate, support and showcase the work of local groups and charities, and to ensure that community organisers and neighbourhood funding help build up
5 Oct 2010 : Column 36
In conclusion, we have come a long way from the traditional concept of charity. In the past decade the emphasis on the third sector has established that charities and voluntary organisations are distinct from the market and government. Today, big society asserts that there is a further distinct and overlapping sphere for the citizen and civic action to which we all belong, one whose prime goal must be to pursue Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's vision of society as,
So we act as citizens and give of our time and resources-not primarily or always to profit in the marketplace, or to save the state money by providing services gratis that it should be paying for, or even always out of pure altruism, though these are often benefits that can accrue from civic and charitable action; but because by doing so we imbue the world around us with meaning. We leave our mark on the world and show that we are stronger when we stand together than apart. By supporting this vision, charities will undoubtedly be strengthened by, and in turn strengthen, civil society.
Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top: My Lords, it is an enormous privilege for me to be able to speak here today and to make my maiden speech in this debate. This House has many Members who have a remarkable history of contributing to the voluntary and community sector. I therefore intervene with some trepidation. The generosity of spirit that exists in this House means that new Members have been received with warmth. Every effort has been made by staff and Members alike to ease our entry. I want to say thank you for that.
I must confess, however, to being bemused by some of the rhetoric around the big society, because the ideas behind it are those with which I have worked throughout my life. I was born into a family which was steeped in the Methodist Church and in the Labour Party. My sponsors, my noble friends Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, who is here today, and Lady Morgan of Huyton, represent both those strands of my life that come together so strongly.
In our household, public service was simply a part of how we lived our daily life. Several people here knew my father, who was a local councillor, a head teacher and then my predecessor as Member of Parliament for North West Durham between 1964 and 1987. In Durham, he was probably as well known for his lay preaching and his support for non-league football as for his politics. He and my mother simply lived their lives in the belief that, in our society, we had responsibilities one to another. Their children were just expected to get involved and we did.
I was lucky enough to be one of the early recruits of the Voluntary Service Overseas. I spent two years between my degree course and my postgraduate year
5 Oct 2010 : Column 37
As previous speakers have said, voluntary and community organisations are a very important part of how civil society works. For centuries, they were the main means by which education and healthcare were offered to many people in this country. It is only since the Second World War that a welfare state has been established to offer universal services as a right and not simply as a matter of charity. But this did not sound the death knell of the voluntary sector. The challenge for both the state and the voluntary and community sector is to understand the changes that are taking place in our very complex world and in people's lives, and to respond appropriately. Recent research shows that, contrary to what many think, an active state provides a framework within which citizens feel free to engage and charities are able to take risks and to innovate. My experience in charities that work almost exclusively with the most excluded-those whom someone described to me last week as the people whom nobody else likes-has shown me the importance of engaging those people in voluntary activity and work, and training them in the skills necessary to raise their self-esteem and enable them fully to participate.
As part of the change that has taken place particularly since the introduction of the welfare state, charities-even those that are contracted to deliver public services-have taken up advocacy and campaigning. This is very important. A commission looking at law and practice relating to charitable trusts in 1952-it was chaired by a former Member of this House, Lord Nathan-reported that an active, questioning charity sector is one of the guarantees of democracy. That is very true. I see the partnership between the state and the charitable sector as one that has edge, that has challenge, and I want that to continue.
Today, there are more civil society organisations than at any time in our nation's history. Likewise, volunteering and membership of charitable causes are at historic levels. The independent, campaigning role of civil society has had a profound effect on government policy-it certainly did in my time. I think of Make Poverty History, the anti-smoking campaigners in public health and of gay rights campaigners. All of those enabled legislators to keep pushing social policy forward, and they are all indicators of a healthy, vibrant, independent and assertive civil society. I now have the privilege of being involved as a trustee with a whole range of voluntary organisations and social enterprises-I have registered them all, I hope-mainly in the area of the homeless and socially excluded, but also with international development organisations and children's organisations. I find it incredibly exciting and challenging, day by day, to work with such a range of people who have so much to give and to offer to our society.
There can be a temptation for some people who promote the big society to pretend that nothing good or worthwhile happened during the past 13 years. I urge them to resist the temptation to overpoliticise this
5 Oct 2010 : Column 38
That means on both sides: politicians have to work effectively to encourage and develop that partnership. There is increasing anxiety in the sector. Many are already dealing with severe cuts, and that affects the service that they are able to provide to the most vulnerable. The spending review will be very important, and the messages given very important. If the big society is seen primarily as a means of cutting support to the most vulnerable, much that is good in our society will be tarnished. Not only will the lives and opportunities of our most vulnerable be diminished, the work of those who give their commitment and skills to work with the most vulnerable will also be devalued. I do not believe that any of us want that.
I look forward to holding the Government to account and to being part of that challenge and that active society which makes sure that we value the contribution of charities and the voluntary and community sector in our society.
Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, it is a great pleasure and privilege to be the first to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, on her excellent maiden speech. I well remember the apprehension with which I approached mine, but I had not been an MP for 27 years and a Chief Whip, a Minister and held several other political posts. She and I share three things personally: first, a close connection with north-west County Durham, which she and her father represented in Parliament for 46 years, because my elder son lives there. Secondly, we share rusty Swahili from our time in Kenya in the 1960s, so I say, "Asante sana" for her speech. Thirdly, we are both associated with a wonderful organisation called the Tyneside Cyrenians, which does such remarkable work with the homeless and dispossessed in that part of the country. I am sure, having heard her speech, that all of us in the House look forward to the considerable contribution that we know that she will make to the life and work of this House.
Something is said to be only as strong as the sum of its parts. I was therefore rather struck that one of the first actions of the coalition Government was to change the name of the Office of the Third Sector to the Office for Civil Society. It seemed to be a move in the right direction because the third sector is part of, rather than apart from, civil society. I base that on the definition given by the NCVO:
"Civil society is where people come together to make a positive difference to their lives and the lives of others - for mutual support, to pursue shared interests, to further a cause they care about".
In that connection, I was very struck by the analogy to a coral reef that the noble Lord, Lord Wei, made in his speech in the House on 16 June. He said that
5 Oct 2010 : Column 39
Taking that line as a cue, I shall focus on the criminal justice system, where the hopes, fears and aspirations expressed in these various statements come together and where, sadly, the potential of the charitable sector to strengthen has been dissipated by intransigence and inconsistency. Lest it be thought that I am just going to apply strictures to government, let me say that I do not think that in the criminal justice system area the charitable sector does itself any favours by being too uncompromising about its sovereignty and about co-ordinating with others.
There are said to be between 80,000 and 100,000 organisations supporting individuals who have had some connection with the criminal justice system. Of those, 4,000 work directly with offenders but only one, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, qualifies for the definition of large in the excellent Library brief by having an income of more than £10,000. I congratulate and thank the Library staff for that excellent brief and I am sure other noble Lords will also wish to do so. As more than 50 per cent of all rehabilitation work done with and for offenders is done by the charitable sector, it can be seen that it is a key part of that revolution with its aim of strengthening civil society by helping offenders to live useful and law-abiding lives on release.
The criminal justice system currently presents three disadvantages to the charitable sector in pursuit of its aim to help in that process. First, there is no clear overall strategy for the involvement of the charitable sector; secondly, there is no structure for co-ordinating its consistent involvement; and, thirdly, there is no agreed mechanism for assessing the value of its involvement. In stark contrast with that, I shall mention one unique advantage that the charitable sector, working in the criminal justice system, has; it is the remarkable organisation Clinks, which not only enjoys the respect of Ministers and officials and has their ear but supports individual members within the sector as a whole. It shares good practice and, particularly, it disseminates information to the small local groups that are the backbone of all the work that is done. In order to achieve maximum advantage, all that Clinks does must be actioned throughout the criminal justice system.
The system is not helped by several things that I have referred to in the past. There is no clear regional structure within which there can be consistency in charitable sector involvement. There are no directors of individual types of prison or prisoner to make certain that the charitable sector is properly employed to continue consistent development. There are no voluntary sector co-ordinating and development officers in every prison and every probation area, and in the layers of management between them and Ministers. There is no aim for every prison, so an incoming governor is not required to carry on from where his or her predecessor left off, including the employment of charitable sector organisations. There is no agreed assessment tool, despite the fact that the previous Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department
5 Oct 2010 : Column 40
Of course, all is not doom and gloom, and I should like to talk for a short while about an organisation in which I must declare an interest as its president. Among the groups of organisations that do most for offenders are the arts. The arts have a remarkable, indeed unique, role to play. They do not prevent reoffending, but, by building esteem, they encourage people to become engaged in work and education that ultimately could lead to offenders leading a useful and law-abiding life. If anyone doubts that, I invite them to cross the river to the South Bank and see the 49th exhibition of offender art mounted by the Koestler Trust, which has been curated this year by victims. One can see the artists' writing about what the art means to them and what the victims say about what is on display.
In order to co-ordinate all the activities of the arts organisations, we have formed the Arts Alliance, which is nothing other than a loose coalition. Fortunately, it has Clinks as its secretariat. It represents the aggregation of all those organisations to government in order to make certain that the arts are included in policy-making. The Government responded by appointing an arts forum of representatives of the Ministries involved, the Arts Council, funders and practitioners. That two-day dialogue is helping things to happen.
The Arts Alliance has two aims. The first is to ensure that the arts are embedded in every syllabus everywhere and, secondly, to ensure that no contract for an organisation is for less than three years, and preferably for five years, to ensure that there is investment. I mention that because I believe that something like that is essential in a whole lot of other action areas within the criminal justice system where organisations are prepared to sacrifice some of what they call sovereignty in the better interests of strengthening civil society. I think that all this will happen much better if everything is organised locally, including the siting of prisons, because there is a tremendous increase in the strength of local ownership of local problems. To quote that old saying, "God helps those who help themselves".
Lord Wills: My Lords, it is with some nervousness that I rise to make my maiden speech in what I knew for 13 years in the House of Commons as the other place. I am nervous most immediately because I follow noble Lords who have already made important and illuminating speeches on this topic, which is of such importance to those we all serve. I particularly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, on securing this debate. Looking at the distinguished provenance of the remaining speakers, I am sure that more important speeches are to come.
I am nervous also because throughout my time in what is now to be the other place this was a place that was mysterious in its ways and somewhat intimidating. As a Minister you were always more likely to be more rigorously scrutinised by Members of this House. I am not sure its ways will ever become less mysterious, but I hope that in time it may become less intimidating. Indeed, I am already extremely grateful for the way I have been made welcome by noble Lords across the House, and to all the staff who have already come to my aid on numerous occasions. And I shall, of course, always be grateful to my noble friends Lady Blackstone and Lord Bach for their kindness in acting as sponsors for my introduction into this House.
My long held views of the need for reform of the composition of this Chamber are driven not by any perception of inadequacy in the discharging of its role of scrutinising and revising legislation. On the contrary, all my experience in the House of Commons confirmed the quality of the work done in this Chamber. Rather, my views on reform flow from constitutional principles which I accept that many dispute. That is a continuing debate in which I look forward to playing my part. In the mean time, my remarks today in this debate are derived primarily from my experience as the Member of Parliament for North Swindon.
As noble Lords who have already spoken have so cogently pointed out, charities play an indispensable role in strengthening civil society. Charity is one of the most fundamental human instincts, and it helps to knit our country together. When we see the selfless work of volunteers and the passionate commitment and energy of those who work for charities, and the imaginative solutions they can bring to the meeting of need, it is easy to see the attractions of turning to them to help deliver public services. This Government are following the previous one in emphasising the importance of the charitable sector and the need to learn from it. This is clearly welcome. The benefits are manifest. The important reforms to end-of-life care, for example, undertaken by the previous Government owe a huge amount to the work of the hospice movement, and I have seen in Swindon the wonderful work undertaken by the Prospect Hospice there.
Governments should draw on the energy and imagination of charities, and they have done so to great effect over the last few years, but I hope that as the Government continue to do so, they will recognise that the more they have sought the help of charities to deliver public services, the more the importance of government to the charitable sector has grown. Although most do not rely on it, a quarter of all charities receive public funding, and getting on for half of all charity income now comes from government. Any significant change in this relationship will particularly affect small charities-and most charities are very small. As noble Lords will know, such smaller charities are often closest to the communities they serve and most responsive to their needs. They are an invaluable part of the fabric of our society, but they have far fewer resources than larger charities to fall back on, and the savage cuts in public spending now being threatened by the Government could fall very heavily on them and indeed destroy many of them. I hope that, in delivering their spending review, the Government will pay particular attention
5 Oct 2010 : Column 42
Even in better times, small charities face particular problems in dealing with local and national government. I found this over and over again in Swindon. Bidding processes are often unnecessarily opaque and complex, and their completion requires a devotion of resources that are not readily available to many of the smallest charities. Funding is often for short periods of time, preventing these organisations doing any serious planning for the future. These should not be difficult problems to fix given appropriate commitment from civil servants and Ministers, and I hope that as they strive to turn their rhetoric about the big society into reality, this Government will make a determined commitment to sort out these problems.
Finally, I ask the Government to reflect more on the problems of relying excessively on charities to deliver public services, notwithstanding the extraordinarily valuable work they do, and we have heard a lot about that. Charities are a part of civil society, not the state, and even the most ardent advocates of the big society see a proper role for both. They are different. The best charities are driven by the passion of individuals, and that means they inevitably focus on specific areas of interest. They do not and they cannot provide the comprehensive meeting of need that a democratically accountable state must provide. Our Government are accountable to every member of society in a way that charities are not and cannot be. We should celebrate and support the work that charities do, and all those who contribute cash and effort to them, but we should also remember that in a democracy committed to social justice, the Government must retain the central role in delivering the public services that meet need wherever and whenever it occurs.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, I am delighted to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wills, on his excellent and thoughtful maiden speech. He brings to our House a broad background-in the Diplomatic Service, in the media, as an MP and as a Minister in a wide range of government departments-and I am sure that we will benefit greatly from that background. I cannot support him in his commitment to a fully elected House of Lords, but I look forward to debating it with him on frequent occasions in the House.
My first contact with the noble Lord was when he was a constituency MP and I was the deputy chairman of the BBC and he gave me a dreadful time over the BBC's handling of a constituency issue. He was forensic in his analysis, as befits a double first from Cambridge, and he did not let us get away with sloppy thinking. Again, I am sure that is something from which we will benefit here. He was like a terrier in his perseverance and he had a bulldog-like grip. It did us all good then and I am sure it will do us all good here when he brings these qualities to the business of our House. He will be an adornment to it and I look forward to his further contributions.
Before I speak to the subject of the debate, I declare, with delight, an interest as the chief executive designate of Diabetes UK and as a president and a vice-president of a range of environmental and health charities.
As many noble Lords have already said, charities are a vital part of modern society. Many elements of the coalition Government's proposals, so far as we have seen them, for the big society and the role of the voluntary sector are, on the face of it, very attractive, and I wish them success.
However, there are four areas that I wish to flag as potential concerns. First, what charities do best is innovate; they are nimble and responsive and they provide support, advice and advocacy for those in society who cannot advocate for themselves. Although many charities take on a major service provision workload and thrive on it, like the noble Lord, Lord Wills, I have concerns on occasions about the sheer scale of the large service workload they are expected to deliver. The bureaucracy and burden of contracting can overwhelm the qualities I have listed which make charities so distinctive.
Again, a number of noble Lords have raised questions about the second issue I wish to refer to-funding. It is axiomatic that cuts in the public sector are already impacting on the voluntary sector, and there are many more to come. That is of particular worry in the voluntary sector because of the leverage we get from volunteer organisations, which have the ability to enhance the value of even small amounts of public funding through the large volunteer workforce they can apply. There are 2.7 million active volunteers in this country worth an estimated £48 billion annually. The benefits of volunteering accrue not only to those who gain from the services but to the volunteers themselves. When I was chief executive of the RSPB-and I hope also in the future at Diabetes UK-the huge contribution of volunteers was a valuable and huge bargain for society. We must not overlook that fact. However, volunteers need training, support and organisation, and funding is already being cut from the organisations that enable this to happen.
My third area of potential concern has also already been referred to-there is nothing new under the sun-and that is the hugely important advocacy role of the charity sector and its ability to speak truth unto power. This is particularly important at the moment. I do not know whether I am the only one concerned about the trend or whether others are concerned about it, but there is no doubt that the valuable work that has been done in the past by government agencies and advisory bodies is now being suppressed as a result of the change of government.
Many organisations that have expert workforces on the ground have a range of specialists who, from their knowledge of what is happening in their day-to-day sphere, give valuable advice on policies that need to change. For example, in the environmental field, there is the Environment Agency and Natural England. The real value of their workforce and specialist staff is being lost if they are not allowed to put that advice together in the form of policy change which they advocate to government. As a taxpayer, I think that is
5 Oct 2010 : Column 44
My last point, on the whole relationship between big society and small government, was very well covered by the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, in her maiden speech. I believe that we need a vibrant voluntary and charity sector, and indeed a vibrant Government. They both have different roles. I add my voice of commendation to the work that the NCVO and Stuart Etherington have done over the past 15 years to really develop the excellence of the relationship between government and the voluntary sector. Yet the Government's proposals for big society must,
We have heard lots of praise for charity in this House today. My grandparents came from a generation that had a horror of having to depend on charity. The state needs to continue an effective role in planning and co-ordinating, both nationally and locally, to ensure that there is a comprehensive network of services so that the people of this country can have peace of mind. That is a right and I commend that word, which the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, used. They will be served by a diverse set of joined-up services and providers and welcome the role of charities, not go back to the bad old days of charity as something dispensed to the deserving poor.
I, along with the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, do not like the "big" in "big society" or "big government". I look forward to working as part of a vibrant charity sector in an effective and sensibly funded partnership with a well supported charity sector and a vibrant and effective Government.
Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone: My Lords, I am more than happy to take over from the noble Baroness, who I have regarded as a friend for very many years. If I might give her some words of comfort, in 1997, when my party went into opposition, I was convinced that the Government were municipalising all charities, taking editorial control and providing grants only on the basis that they were silenced. I suspect that it is something to do with the difference between being in government and in opposition. In government, my recollection was of always funding charities, which then employed a campaign officer who would spend his time telling the country how disastrous the Minister was and that she should be promptly reshuffled, so it is something about perception.
I also add my praise for the maiden speeches that we have heard, both from the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, and the noble Lord, Lord Wills. How pleased we are to see them in this House. It is interesting that anybody who has been a Member of Parliament cannot fail to have a real understanding of the breadth, depth and diversity of the voluntary sector-some supporting causes which, frankly, as the Member of
5 Oct 2010 : Column 45
I sometimes think that, as a Conservative, I am committed to the little platoons, not the big battalions. The work that the Government have swiftly put into place builds much on the work of David Willetts, the Minister for universities-the work now of the team of Nick Hurd, led by the Prime Minister. The priority that is being given is really exciting.
"A people among whom there is no habit of spontaneous action for a collective interest-who look habitually to their government to command or prompt them in all matters of joint concern-who expect to have everything done for them-have their faculties only half developed".
As a former sociologist, I read works by Durkheim at great length. He talked about alienation and anomie, the individual who feels powerless and impotent. As political parties do not meet with the same respect that they formerly did, political parties may have to be in coalition for government; they cannot possibly meet all the different individual frustrations, ambitions and hopes of individual citizens. They are a coalition. Churches, sadly, do not have the huge influence they had. However, I think that the Pope was absolutely right to say that there is still a huge force and power coming out of the churches. I was delighted to hear the right reverend Prelate describe the role of the churches as a community facility. One joy of all that lottery money that I was partly involved in dispensing was to provide grants to village halls and churches so that they could be that place where groups could meet for the benefit of the rest of society. Our tradition in this country goes back a long way.
Many noble Lords have declared their interest, and I have a long-standing interest with the Children's Society, where I was one of the trustees for a long time. It was founded because Edward Rudolf discovered at St Anne's in Vauxhall that several children were not coming to church and were in a terrible state. The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, is present. For a long time she was the head of Carers UK, which was started by the Reverend Mary Webster, again because she noticed that people were not showing up for church. That was about single daughters caring for elderly dependants. Out of that charity, which was started in 1963-and I was very involved in Eltham earlier on-came an understanding of the need for and the role of carers. I have just stopped being president of the Abbeyfield Society, and the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, has taken over from me. That society was founded in 1956, because Richard
5 Oct 2010 : Column 46
Of the many areas in the Government's policies that I applaud, developing a national citizen service must be critically important. The Government should regard it as a catalyst. At the London marathon, 50,000 ran and 160,000 applied. At the BUPA Great North Run-I declare an interest as a director- 50,000 people were involved. They are often young people who run with a philanthropic cause as their basis. My campaign is to get those sporting funders to becoming more involved with charities. It is not beyond the wit of man to use a database to find those people whom we are always sponsoring and get them to turn their hand to a more practical commitment. I am less enthusiastic about those who climb Mount Kilimanjaro because I think that it needs a protection society to stop people climbing it. I often say that I wish they could go prison visiting, or hearing children reading in school, and I would sponsor them doing that. Mobilising the volunteers of the future must be hugely important.
I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Wei is not in the Chamber now, because I want to talk about the new philanthropists, the new social entrepreneurs, who are applying the techniques of private equity to social capital. Sir Ronnie Cohen of Social Finance was trying to get hold of those unclaimed funds from the banks. He has developed social impact statements and all sorts of ways of using money wisely and well. Most recently, there has been an exciting project at Peterborough jail with the social impact pilot. Our job is to ensure that we use the best techniques to innovate and go forward. It was Oscar Wilde who said that constancy,
I have one last comment. Winston Churchill, the greatest Englishman, said that you make a living by what you earn, but you make a life by what you give. I believe that to be true, and I applaud the Government's steps.
It is a particular and unexpected pleasure to find myself among the speakers today. Like so many other new Peers, I have been touched by the kindness of so many noble Lords and by the dedication and professionalism of the staff who have been helping me to navigate my way, both literally and metaphorically,
5 Oct 2010 : Column 47
I am also profoundly grateful to my supporters, my noble friends Lady Hollis and Lady Prosser, for their kindness and wisdom, and to my mentor, my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley, who with a sureness of touch is leading me gently through a thorough apprenticeship that I am sure would impress even my noble friend Lord Sugar. These three Peers illustrate the range of civil society that we have been talking about today. Between them, they have an inspiring track record in our universities, charities and trade unions, all part of civil society.
I, too, have spent most of my working life in civil society, although to rather more modest effect. I had the privilege of leading a number of voluntary organisations, including the National Council for One Parent Families, now Gingerbread, and the British Refugee Council, once ably led by my noble friend Lord Dubs. It was suggested when it was announced that I was coming to this House that someone with a background in single parents and refugees might not be welcomed to the heart of the British establishment, but of course I knew that that was wrong. I was able to say that for years I had been amazed at the amount of help that I had received from all sides of this House, and that when I went to Members of this House and could make a case, with evidence, of an injustice, a need or a policy that simply was not working, those Members would need no persuasion to speak out, even when those affected were deeply unpopular-as in their time, I have to confess, both single parents and refugees have tended to be.
That role of speaking out, or enabling the voices of those who are not often heard to be heard by Parliament and by the nation, seems to be one of the most important roles that charities have. I am sure that other noble Lords will address the question of charities delivering or supplementing public services, but I want also to talk about their role in amplifying the voice of those communities. That seems to be central to the idea of "civil society".
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|