Cabinet Office Questions

Big Society Network

 
1. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policies of the National Audit Office’s recent report on funding arrangements for the Big Society Network. [905293]
 
3. Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policies of the National Audit Office’s recent report on funding arrangements for the Big Society Network. [905295]
 
The Minister for Civil Society (Mr Brooks Newmark): I take this report seriously. I am satisfied that the issues raised concerned adherence to process, and therefore do not feel that there are any implications for the policies of my Department.
 
Richard Burden: First, I welcome the Minister to his place. When it seems pretty clear that the National Audit Office had some pretty damning conclusions regarding the mismanagement of over £2 million of public money to the Big Society Network, and when, in my own constituency, the SWEET project, which got a big society award, ends up having money cut by the Government because it does precisely the innovation work that it got the award for in the first place, what exactly, in this day and age, does the big society mean? While he is at it, will the Minister look into the circumstances surrounding the cuts to the SWEET project?
 
Mr Newmark: I shall certainly look into the matter that the hon. Member has asked me to. We welcome the NAO’s report and have learned the lessons from this experience. There are no conclusions that the Cabinet Office did anything untoward in this regard. All the report says is that we did not adhere to the guidance we issued for this particular programme on a couple of points.
 
Pat Glass: Is it true that the Prime Minister’s flagship Big Society Network is now being investigated by the charity commissioners over allegations of misuse of Government funding and inappropriate payments to directors, including a Tory donor?
 
Mr Newmark: This has been investigated and no evidence of impropriety has been found.
 
Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): None of us could let that go. Thanks to the National Audit Office’s report, we now know that the Government’s big society lies in tatters. We have since learned that the charity the Prime Minister personally launched at No. 10 Downing street is not only under investigation by the Charity Commission, but is under investigation for moving Cabinet Office funding to its parent company, which is chaired by a major Conservative party donor who also earned hefty consultancy fees from it. Was the Cabinet Secretary aware that Government funding was being transferred not to the thousands of legitimate charities in this country, but to the bank account of a Conservative party donor?
 
Mr Newmark: This allegation has been investigated by the grants manager, and appropriate action to recover any funds not spent in line with the grant agreement is being taken.
 
 

Political Activity (Charity Commission Guidance)

 
2. Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): What assessment he has made of the scope of the Charity Commission guidance on campaigning and political activity; and if he will make a statement. [905294]
 
The Minister for Civil Society (Mr Brooks Newmark): Charities play an important role in shaping Government policy. Indeed, Departments are working on the development and implementation of many our policies. However, it has long been the case that the law and Charity Commission guidance prohibits charities from party political campaigning and activities. I believe that that is the right position.
 
Charlie Elphicke: Does the Minister nevertheless agree that it would be right to return to the Charity Commission guidance of 2004, which ensured that charities focused on social justice and helping people in need on the front line, not on big marketing budgets and playing party politics?
 
Mr Newmark: The Charity Commission’s guidance is clear about what charities can and cannot do and reflects the commission’s view of the underlying law. The guidance was last reviewed in 2009. The Charity Commission has said that it keeps all its guidance under review to ensure that it remains relevant and up to date, but it has no immediate plans to amend its guidance on campaigning and political activity.
 
Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): Since 1921 the Royal British Legion has undertaken political campaigns for the benefit of military veterans and their families. Will the charities Minister please affirm the right of charities to undertake political campaigning in line with their charitable objectives? If he cannot say that loud and clear, could he please get back to his knitting?
 
Mr Newmark: I take the hon. Lady’s point and I was expecting a question along those lines, so I have stitched together a response for her. Charities, with all their expertise, have long been at the forefront of helping to tackle some of the country’s biggest social challenges and have an important role to play in helping shape a Government policy, but they must stay out of party politics, which has been a long-standing requirement by charity law—[Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who is chuntering, saying that her party seeks to change the law?
 
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for his response and to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) for tabling the question. Was it not the Leader of the Opposition who, when in government, commissioned the report that changed the Charity Commission guidelines, which are giving so many people so much concern?
 
Mr Newmark: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but I want to stick to the main point. Charities have enormous expertise and can contribute to shaping Government policy. I want to make it clear that political campaigning by charities is absolutely right, but it is important that they steer clear of party politics.
 
Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Over the past few weeks it has been absolutely embarrassing to see a number of Conservative MPs come out of the woodwork and attack some of this country’s best charities. Would it not be better for the Minister and his team to get behind those charities and allow them to comment and campaign on issues relating to their work?
 
Mr Newmark: As I have made clear time and again, and as somebody who has spent more than 30 years of his life in the voluntary and charity sector, I say that it is absolutely right that charities have the right to campaign on the issues that they feel strongly about. The only point I have been making is that they should steer clear of party politics. Campaigning is absolutely right and they must continue to do that.
 
 

Social Enterprises

 
5. Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): What progress he has made on providing support for social enterprises. [905299]
 
The Minister for Civil Society (Mr Brooks Newmark): We are committed to supporting social enterprises, and we are leading the world in growing the social investment market to provide social enterprises with access to the finance and advice that they need. I am particularly pleased that we are working with Social Enterprise UK to deliver the first ever Social Saturday this Saturday to encourage more people to buy from social enterprises. I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituent Sebastian Huempfer, who yesterday won the Prime Minister’s Points of Light award for his work with soap recycling social enterprise CLEAN SL8.
 
Nicola Blackwood: Oxfordshire is a hotbed of social enterprise and tech expertise, as the Minister for Business and Enterprise discovered when he visited the outstanding social enterprise Oxford Launchpad at the Said Business School yesterday. Does the Minister for Civil Society agree that the middle-stage funding gap is acting as a barrier to UK social tech achieving its full potential, and that raising the cap on the social incubator fund is the right response to this problem?
 
Mr Newmark: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We are working closely with key stakeholders to ensure that social ventures can access the support and finance that they need throughout the different stages of development. Following the support provided through the social incubator fund, there are now a number of opportunities for social ventures to access support.
 
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I see that you are wearing a slightly pinkish tie today, Mr Speaker, but pinkness seems to be absent from the Government Front Bench. Today is “wear it pink” day, which is the national campaign day for breast cancer.
 
Social enterprise is a very important sector and it is getting more important by the day. Has the Minister seen the wonderful picture of Mrs Thatcher’s face with Che Guevara’s beret, which launches the new manifesto for the social enterprise sector? That is important, because it marks the conjunction of social enterprise, social enterprise investment and crowdfunding. We would be very grateful if he put his weight behind it.
 
Mr Speaker: The image is visible in Westminster station and doubtless elsewhere, as I am sure the Minister is aware.
 
Mr Newmark: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When I was coming into Parliament, the image struck me as a cross-party approach to campaigning. We lead the way on social impact bonds. The UK is also leading the charge through the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, which contributes to the Government’s ambition to reform public services to ensure that they not only achieve maximum value for money but contribute to their local communities.
 

Topical Questions

Michael Dugher (Barnsley East) (Lab): Last week, the Minister for Civil Society made his first, stunning intervention as the new Minister responsible for charities by saying:

“The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting”.
 
When so many charities and people who work for them do such a magnificent job in every part of the country, was that not the most condescending, patronising, inept, out-of-touch and just plain wrong thing for the Minister to say? Will he finally now apologise?
 
Hon. Members: Resign!
 
The Minister for Civil Society (Mr Brooks Newmark): Already?
 
As I have made abundantly clear, charities play an important role in shaping a Government policy, and indeed, with their expertise, they should be doing that. What I made absolutely clear was that charities should not get involved in party politics, because that is the law.
 
 
T5. [905273] Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): Will the Minister join me in congratulating Cheshire Community Development Trust on the work it does to help the people of Weaver Vale to get into work? Does he agree that that is exactly the sort of social action that should be used as a template to unite communities across the country?
 
Mr Newmark: I am delighted that my hon. Friend has highlighted the important work that Cheshire Community Development Trust does to support people in Weaver Vale. Through our social action work, we are supporting communities across the country to take a more active role in shaping their neighbourhoods and working together for the good of others.
 

 

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