Questions were put to the Cabinet Office / Duchy of Lancaster yesterday. Members were swift to express their deep sympathy to David Cameron and his family over the death of Ivan. I add my own.
Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Nick Hurd posed a question about charities. (Naomi House, to which he refers, is a children’s hospice in Hampshire.)
"On behalf of the Conservative party, I thank the Parliamentary Secretary and other hon. Members who have expressed sadness at the death of Ivan Cameron. His was a tragically short span of life, but one filled with a great deal of love. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) will draw strength from the House’s condolences.
Until now, the Treasury has done nothing for a significant number of charities, which have lost money in the Icelandic bank failure, so charities such as Naomi House face having to cut back their good work just when it is most needed. Let me make the Parliamentary Secretary an offer. We support the principle of a short-term Treasury loan fund to help sound charities, which face genuine hardships as a result of lost bank deposits. Will he work with us to develop cross-party consensus on a measure that will have minimal cash-flow impact on the Treasury and deliver real help to a vital sector of society?
Kevin Brennan: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest in the matter, but we need to separate the budget from the issue of help in the short term. I have already made it clear that there are attempts in the case of Naomi House to look at brokering a local solution. Those discussions are ongoing and we will be carefully monitoring the situation of charities more generally."
Bexleyheath & Crayford MP David Evennett (who is also a Shadow Minister for Innovation, Universities and Skills) asked about volunteering:
"Volunteers are the backbone of our society. Some organisations, such as the Scouts and the Guides, are experiencing great difficulties in getting people to commit to help. What more can the Government do to support efforts to establish regular volunteering as a social norm?
Kevin Brennan: The Government are doing a great deal to encourage volunteering, including through our investment in the v programme for young people and the up to £10 million that was announced in the recession action plan to support volunteering for people who might become unemployed during the recession. I feel quite strongly that volunteering is a positive thing, not least because there were not many jobs in south Wales when I left university in 1982, in the depths of a different recession. For me, volunteering was a way to gain new skills and an opportunity to get into employment."
Banbury MP Tony Baldry posed a sensible follow-up question:
"All of us are now seeing hundreds of people every week in our constituencies losing their jobs, in pretty well every sector of the economy. These are people who never, even in their wildest nightmares, expected to be out of work. They want to remain active, and to continue to be challenged intellectually, and one way of doing that is through volunteering. Will the Minister have a conversation with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that, if people can clearly demonstrate that they are looking for work, and accessing websites in an attempt to find work, the number of hours’ volunteering that they can do each week will not be restricted by artificial constraints? It can lead to enormous frustration for people who have lost their jobs and who want to volunteer when they are told by Jobcentre Plus that they cannot do so.
Kevin Brennan: As I said earlier, I recognise strongly and personally how important volunteering can be at a time of economic downturn. We are working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that there are no restrictive rules to stand in the way of people who want to volunteer as a way of gaining confidence and skills and of making good use of their time if they happen to fall out of work. In addition, our recession action plan is offering a brokerage service to create 40,000 additional volunteering opportunities for people who become unemployed."
Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Francis Maude wanted to know about social enterprise:
"The whole House will agree with the Minister about the importance of social enterprise and the huge contribution that it makes to addressing social problems. It is great that so many people want to commit their energy, skills and drive to this terrific cause. But is not the problem with the growth of social enterprise a lack of access to capital? When does the Minister expect the social investment bank envisaged in the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act 2008 to be set up, and how much capital does he expect it to be set up with?
Mr. Byrne: I welcome what appears to be a shared commitment. I do not consider that weaning social enterprises off public support should be an objective of public policy, because I think that public support is an important part of the mix, but I also think that it should be accompanied by increased help from the private sector. We now have the requisite legislation in place, but the conversations with banks are more complicated this year than they were last year, because there is a wider agenda for Government to advance. Regulations are now being discussed with the banks, however, and I hope that substantive progress will be made in getting the social investment bank up and running this year.
Mr. Maude: It is good to hear that there is some progress, but the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act gained Royal Assent in November last year, and people now expect to see at least the setting up of the framework. Given the effect of the recession on the most deprived areas, is not the answer to encourage more social enterprise by establishing social enterprise zones in those areas? Why do the Government not simply adopt our proposals?
Mr. Byrne: We continue to be open to any ideas that we think would help create a flourishing social enterprise sector, but that policy ambition must be backed by investment. I do not agree with the notion that we should somehow cut the Cabinet Office budget by £100 million, because that would close down 400,000 volunteering opportunities and about 2,500 small local charities across the country which rely on our support. As I have said, we have a complicated argument and a complicated agenda to present to the banks this year, but I am determined to ensure that our conversations about the creation of a social investment bank do not get lost in that wider set of ambitions."