§ 9.4 p.m.
§ Lord Winstanley rose to ask Her Majesty's government whether they will explain the reasons for the uncertainty about the allocation of grant for 1983–84 to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux in view of the fact that neither of the Statements made in both Houses on April 12th and 27th made any reference to those reasons.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords. I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I should declare something of an interest. As many noble Lords know, I have spent much of my time during the past 13 years presenting a TV advice and information programme—a kind of Citizens Advice Bureau of the air—in the Granada area in the North-West of England. In that capacity I have been deeply dependent on the services of CABs and I have worked closely with them on a daily basis.
§ It therefore follows that I could not fail to be aware of the damage which was—and I emphasise and underline "was"—being done to the morale of the organisation by all the rumour, speculation and innuendo which inevitably arose from this recent and, in my view, regrettable episode. My Question, as now amended, as noble Lords will have noticed, merely asks for the reasons for that uncertainty over the funding of the NACAB for 1983–84. None of those reasons was given in either of the Statements made to both Houses of Parliament on 12th April and later on 27th April. I am constantly being asked for the reasons. I think it is right to say that friends and acquaintances who work very closely in the CABs, have come to me in large numbers and asked me what on earth has been going on. They say they are all desperately worried and feel very uncomfortable and have an awful feeling that something has been going on in London that they do not know about.
The reasons, if there are reasons, ought to be given. Looking at the Statements, it is apparent that they do not give the reasons. The Statement on 12th April does not give what the reasons were but only what one of the reasons was not. The statement says:
These steps have absolutely nothing to do with the current CND campaign".
If they had nothing to do with it, why mention it? It might just as well say that it had nothing to do with the industrial dispute at Cowley or ship repairing in Malta, or whatever. Perhaps the clue lies earlier in the Statement. In the same column reference is made to the need for,
avoiding activities which can be seen as politically motivated".—[Official Report. 12/4/83; col. 116.]
That is a question to which I shall want to refer in more general terms and on which I must ask the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, some specific questions a little later.
§ I should like to make it absolutely clear that the NACAB is now wholly satisfied with the outcome of this dispute, if dispute be the proper word. Indeed, I am aware that the NACAB would have preferred me to withdraw this Question. I acknowledge that it asked me to withdraw it and in its efforts to persuade me to do so it told me that not only has the NACAB now got 159 everything it wanted but it had in fact got more. I had to reply that, far from allaying my suspicions that information, if anything, aroused them still further. It seemed to suggest that perhaps there was some element of guilt on the part of the Government and that an injustice had been done to the NACAB for which amends should, and had, been made. But I have no wish to rock that particular boat.
§ I believe that the inquiry which is now on foot—an inquiry agreed and welcomed by the NACAB—will in the end show that the organisation is under-funded rather than the reverse. But I think that the inquiry may also point to ways of making the NACAB even more effective than it now is: for example, by more co-operation and integration with other voluntary bodies and even closer links with central and local government departments. But I am bound to say that it seems to me that the link with central Government will not have been strengthened by the recent episode.
§ Only one point remains about which I am not yet entirely happy so far as the NACAB is concerned, and that is the possible effect on local government funding of CABs in their areas. As we all know, local government is under very heavy pressure financially. Some councils may have been tempted to delay, however temporarily, their funding of the CABs in their areas. I hope that at the end of this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, will be able to tell the House that his department has used its best endeavours to make absolutely sure that that does not happen.
I have persisted with this Question because, as I said earlier, I believe that some very important points of principle regarding the relationship between the Government and voluntary bodies arise from this whole matter. These principles are highlighted in a letter to The Times of 15th April from Mr. Peter Jay, who was writing in his capacity as Chairman of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Among other things, this letter refers to the importance so far as these various national voluntary bodies are concerned of securing:
the proper balance between independence and accountability".
These are bodies which have become increasingly dependent upon central Government funding, and there are many of these bodies.
That brings me back to the words that I quoted from the Statement to your Lordships' House on 12th April, referring to the need for:
avoiding activities which can be seen as politically motivated".
Mr. Peter Jay's letter does say that he thinks that perhaps the Charity Commissioners can look after this whole matter, and I say at the outset that I do not accept that. I do not think that is a satisfactory solution or a satisfactory safeguard. But, Mr. Jay's letter goes on to say:
There remains lamentable confusion about what is and what is not 'political' activity. Case law suggests that some aims are classified as political whereas others are not, even though both seek to influence public policy, legislation, etc; and this breeds suspicion that the judgment between them is itself 'political', with a bias against those who would change rather than conserve the status quo.
It would be more in accordance with the principle that law should be clear, ascertainable and predictable if a simpler, more objective test were adopted—namely, that politics is essentially about the retention and transference of government power and that, in a democratic society and in the present context, 'political' activity
consisted only of activity whose aims include, overtly or covertly, the influencing of the electoral process in favour of (or against) any person or party".
This is a difficult area. If I may say so, it is well illustrated in an excellent report to the Minister for Consumer Affairs, published only last week. It is a report by the National Consumer Council on information and advice services in the United Kingdom. It shows the complexity and the vast number of organisations operating in the field—organisations upon which the Government of the day are deeply dependent and which themselves are dependent on central Government for funding. It illustrates the complexity of the scope of their various activities.
§ The problem here is that this kind of organisation changes. Many of them start off as help organisations. For example, Shelter started its career as a body trying to do what it could to house the homeless, but it very rapidly became a campaigning body, acting in the main to pressurise local authority housing departments. More recently, CLEAR, the voluntary body campaigning for the recognition of the danger of lead in the environment and so on—a body which is not, I think, in receipt of Government funding—campaigned and influenced public opinion, as a result of which the Government recently changed policy. That is a decision which I commend and upon which I congratulated the Government. That activity by a voluntary body was political, but the essential point is that it was not party political.
Returning to the Statement of 12th April referring to the need for,
avoiding activities which can be seen as politically motivated"—[Official Report, 12/4/83; col. 116.],
I think that it would be extremely regrettable if a vital and important body like the CABs nationally felt inhibited about occasionally taking steps in order to change legislation. The NACAB has done that successfully on many occasions. I remember that it mounted a campaign about the anomalies and injustices which arose from the 5 pence concessionary television licence for certain elderly people but not for others. As a result, the Government changed the rules—and rightly. That activity was political, but it was not party political.
§ I have never seen any evidence, anywhere, of the NACAB adopting a stance which is in favour of one political party rather than another. If ever it did—even if it adopted a stance which was in favour of my political party—my association with it would be at an end. It is very important that after this episode the NACAB should understand its right to advise Government about the need for changes in legislation, about gaps in services, or about special needs of which it becomes aware through the very important function which it fulfils on the Government's behalf. The Government are dedicated to improving the take-up of certain benefits, and we now know that the actual take-up of many benefits depends upon the degree and nature of the activity of the CABs in certain areas. It must be made clear that doing that kind of thing, or pointing out deficiencies in legislation, is not party political, though it must be political.
§ I add no more, save to say to the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, that I genuinely believe that his presence here at this very late hour will itself have done 161 something to reassure the Citizens Advice Bureaux because I believe that it will have indicated the importance which his department attaches to morale in the organisation. I am very grateful to him for his presence here at this very late hour. I hope that he is able to reassure us on the various points: first, that clear, coherent, and unequivocal advice has been given to local government with regard to the funding of the bureaux, which is important; secondly, that no attempts will be made to restrain voluntary bodies which are in receipt of Government funds from activities designed to influence legislation as opposed to activities which, frankly, are party political. If the noble Lord can clearly and unequivocally give us a reassurance on those points, my Unstarred Question at this very inconvenient and late hour will not have been in vain, and it will have proved necessary to have dragged along the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, at this time of night.
§ 9.16 p.m.
The Earl of Selkirk
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, for not withdrawing this Question, because I believe that there is here something which needs clarification. In Scotland, it is felt that whatever happened did not happen in Scotland, and so far as I know, that is perfectly true. I am very glad that my noble friend Lord Cockfield is answering the Question, because I am quite certain that he will make the position quite clear. I am told that a review—not an inquest—is taking place on what is going on. In Scotland we have had two reviews in the last few years. One review was carried out in 1981 by the Department of Trade and Industry and Commission Services. In 1982 there was another review by staff inspectors for the Department of Industry and Trade Commission Services of the Establishment Management Services Manpower Division. Both of the reviews were carried out at the request of the Scottish association itself. We wonder whether another inspection is necessary at this time, or whether the matter refers only to England.
I ask the noble Lord to bear in mind that the Scottish citizens advice bureaux have been developing quite rapidly. In 1975 the various bureaux were federated together, and in 1980 the federation became independent. The organisation is, curiously enough, run mostly by women, and there are about 30,000 inquiries a year. What I believe is important is the fact that about 90 per cent. of those people working in the organisation are volunteers, and it is extremely important that they should not be led to think that there is happening something of which they are not properly informed.
In this House, and in Parliament generally, we must recognise that bodies such as the bureaux are necessary. We approve statutory instruments and pass them on to the general public, many of whom have the utmost difficulty in understanding what we have done. They quite naturally turn to the CABs and ask, "Can you tell us what Parliament really means by these things?" This reflects our failure to make statutory instruments and regulations much clearer and simpler.
I often wonder why on that remarkable television programme "Mastermind—I think it is broadcast on 162 a Sunday evening—a contestant does not take as his special subject the welfare services of this country. It is quite possible that no one feels brave enough to answer all the questions which might arise under that heading. But I would invite Mr. Magnus Magnusson to try to encourage someone to take the welfare services as a special subject, since it would be of very great interest to an extremely large number of people.
There is only one other point that I should like to raise. It is whether the Scottish association that is said to be independent should not receive its grant directly from the Department of Trade instead of through the NACAB. I would have thought that it would benefit the Department of Trade to deal directly with the Scottish association that is after all located 400 miles from London. It is generally found more effective and useful that voluntary organisations should be firmly based in Scotland where they can be approached and have a very much better understanding of the nature of the problem. I am confident that the noble Lord will clear up these matters, but I hope that he will bear in mind the last question that I have mentioned.
§ 9.20 p.m.
§ Baroness Burton of Coventry
My Lords, I wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, for leaving this Question on the Order Paper, not out of politeness but because I feel that it is necessary for us to have this opportunity to discuss in a calm atmosphere the problem that has arisen and that concerns a great many people. I am particularly glad that the Secretary of State is here tonight so that we can know his opinion on these most unfortunate happenings.
Having said that, I want to approach the matter from a different angle, especially as the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, is present. Noting what the Minister for Consumer Affairs said in another place on 22nd April, I wish to ask what on earth we are discussing tonight and what all the fuss is about. When one considers what the Minister stated, these questions must be asked. He said at column 580:The Government have consistently said that they admire the CABs. We respect and value the work that they do. Together with NACAB, they carry out an important national and local job. As I have said before, they provide a fine example of volunteers from all walks of life working with professionals for the good of the community. We respect, admire and support that".Speaking of the increase in Government grant, the Minister went on to say:that is surely a measure of the confidence that we have in the movement. It reflects our considered view that the citizens advice bureaux provide an essential and a highly cost-effective service of general and consumer advice at a time when it is desperately needed".In view of those remarks I am not sure whether one should use the word "obviously" or "apparently", but the comments that I have quoted can mean only one thing; namely, that the Government feel about the CABs exactly as we do—all of us—and that is that they perform a first-class and much-needed service.
Moving on from the question of what the fuss is all about, I should like to ask a second question. How and why did all this arise? It is a question that should be asked. The Minister said:The origin of the recent controversy is both interesting and important. It came in an article in the The Sunday Times. Unfortunately, it appeared without any contact with me and was incorrect"—[Official Report, Commons; 22/4/83, col. 580.].163 I believe that The Sunday Times has some responsibility for its article of 10th April, which I have with me. Its leader of 24th April stated that Dr. Vaughan,gave a tendentious account of the original report of this affair in The Sunday Times".Tendentious or not, we shall not get far by pursuing that aspect, but we all realise the power of the press.
Before leaving this point of interpretation, one detail did strike me and I think it is a reasonably good example. In its leader of 12th April, the Guardian said:About two weeks ago, Dr. Vaughan told the Association that he was withholding its grant for the second half of the coming financial year until he had satisfied himself that various 'problems' had been resolved";whereas The Sunday Times on 10th April said that Dr. Vaughan had written to the NACAB on 23rd March,telling them that they will receive a grant of £3 million for the current financial year, compared with £6 million last year".Those interpretations are not the same, and I think that we should conclude this section by noting that on 25th April, at column 588, the Minister said:My Department did not confirm what appeared in the article in The Sunday Times and no contact was made with me".Hence, I feel that Dr. Vaughan may have some cause for complaint about media interpretation, but—and it is a big "but"—why did he start the whole affair? And why has there been such a mounting reaction? I do believe that, at best, the Minister has been extraordinarily inept, and the more the recriminations levelled at him the more this ineptness has been evident. There is just no answer when you, personally, have reached this stage.
But why has there been such a mounting reaction? The answer, of course, is a spontaneous tribute to the Citizens Advice Bureaux. We all think so highly of them and of what they do that such implications produce amazement, disbelief and anger. Most people would accept that the question of Government funding is of fundamental importance. The current annual grant allocation to the NACAB of up to £6.04 million is higher than for the previous year. As we all know, of course, that money does not go directly to the local bureaux, which receive some £10 million from local authorities; the Government grant goes to NACAB, the central body, and is used to finance a range of support services for all bureaux. Obviously the Minister has a responsibility to ensure that the funds are used in the best interests of the service. That, I am sure, is the attitude of the NACAB.
But it has been handled in such a "ham-fisted" way (I could not find a better adjective to describe it). Here at Westminster, in both Houses, Members are always prepared to accept from anyone, Minister or Back-Bencher, that an error has been made when this is admitted. The fault may have been ineptness; it may have been that of the media; certainly it has not been that of the CABs.
I should like to revert to the Statement made in our House on 17th April and to two points which I made, because I would appreciate the Minister's comments. On the point of financial management and the calling in of management consultants, I was under the impression that a representative of the Minister concerned 164 sits on the national committee and on the council of the NACAB. I should like to ask: had they expressed concern? However, as we have the management consultants, it is important—most important—that the third member of the committee, as yet unannounced, be someone from the voluntary services movement. The Citizens Advice Bureaux give a service of incalculable human value to people who would not know where else to go for the type of advice that they need. I hope that the report to be made will recognise and support their excellence.
I do not know how many of your Lordships saw in The Times on Saturday 30th April an article on pensions. It was headed:How to take problems out of the biggest investment in your life".I should like to quote two paragraphs from it, because I think that they are important perhaps as regards what the Minister will say in his reply. It is speaking of the Occupational Pensions Advisory Services, which it then calls "OPAS". It goes on to say:OPAS is trying for charitable status, and will probably be partially funded by the pensions industry. It is linking up with the Citizens Advice Bureau to provide a pensions information service at CAB's 850 branches, backed by a panel of local, and central pensions experts …CAB workers, 90 per cent. of whom are voluntary, will be trained to deal with pensions queries: hence the two month gap before the service starts.I am citing that, in case the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, has not seen it—he may have done—in order to emphasise the type of problem that comes to the CAB. I am very much hoping what I know the two previous speakers have already hoped, that in the reply that the Minister will give us tonight, out of this most unhappy episode may come further tributes to the work of the Citizens Advice Bureaux and what they do.
In conclusion, I should like once more to pay tribute to the National Consumer Council. I hope that their report, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, and published last Monday, entitled Information and Advice Services in the United Kingdom, will have a wide circulation. Indeed, the report is made to the Minister of State for Consumer Affairs, Dr. Vaughan.
Those of us from all sides of the political spectrum who have supported the voluntary advice system over many years know full well that the National Consumer Council is correct when it says that in some areas no public money is available for advice centres, such as the Citizens Advice Bureaux, while in others central and local government set up competing services. Problems of today have led to increased demands on advice centres, and during 1981ߝ82 the inquiries dealt with by the Citizens Advice Bureaux rose by a tenth, to nearly 5 million. I want to emphasise, as I am sure all past Members of another place and those of us interested in the social services will confirm, that people who come to Members of Parliament on this type of problem and people who go to the Citizens Advice Bureaux on this type of problem really do regard both those sources as sources of a last resort. They do not know where they would go for help if they did not go there, and I think that that cannot be overemphasised.
I believe that whatever sort of Government we get as a result of the general election, there is a job that must 165 be done. I quote from the report of the National Consumer Council:Central Government departments still have no common policy towards information and advice services. It is still extremely rare to find any coherent strategy at local government level".If that statement is correct—and, knowing the source, I think it is—I am pinning great faith on the belief that the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, will think that something must be done about this. It is certainly a job which the political party to which I belong would regard as necessary and I believe that that would apply to any party in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, will be able to reassure us on those matters.
§ 9.34 p.m.
§ Baroness Gardner of Parkes
My Lords, I listened with great interest to the points that have been made, and in due course I should like to reply on one point in particular. This has been a good debate and this matter is of a kind which we in this House are, I believe, very well placed to tackle. Despite all the excitement of recent weeks, it is not a party political issue—as the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said—any more than the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux is a political organisation. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, pointed out, it raises some very important general questions on Government relations with grant-aided organisations, and I think that we must consider those.
I have attempted some rapid research on this matter of Government grant-in-aid funding and I am surprised how little information there is readily available. There are the somewhat obscure statements in the Treasury handbook, Government Accounting, that:a grant in aid reflects Parliament's agreement to surrender in some degree its control over the spending of the monies it has granted";and that Government departments providing grants-in-aid should aim to ensure,prudent management",of the money,from the point of view of the taxpayer, while leaving a reasonable degree of freedom to the bodies concerned".In addition, there is the Management and Personnel Office's Guide on Non-Departmental Public Bodies, which contains some useful general principles on Government policy in this part of the area. There are some grant-aided organisations—and the NACAB is one—which do not seem to fit the guide's own definition of what is a non-departmental public body.
Neither of these publications has much to say about the underlying issue: how can Government ensure that public funds are effectively and properly used, while leaving an appropriate degree of independence to the organisations concerned? I am not the only one to ask this question. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, has referred to the letter from the chairman of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and he raised many of these points. I agree that efficiency and propriety are essential conditions which any Government must satisfy themselves are met in the use of the funds they provide. As to the need for efficient use of the grant money, there can be no room for argument. It is fundamental that taxpayers' money must be 166 economically and effectively used. That is the principle which the Government—and I applaud them for it—have done much to bring home in the citadels of Whitehall where rigorous disciplines have been imposed. Have they been equally rigorous, I wonder, in considering grant-aided bodies?
These bodies are as dependent on the taxpayer as any part of Government itself, yet they claim—and are accorded—substantial independence in determining their spending priorities and aims. In the particular case of the NACAB there is, as we all know, to be a wide-ranging independent review of cost-effectiveness, and I warmly welcome this. As has already been mentioned in the debate, the NACAB themselves welcome this, and the point has been made that they are more than happy. I enjoyed that the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley—and I felt that it was a typical comment to come from those Liberal Benches—thought that because people were more than happy he was suspicious of it, but that is just a sidelight.
The second condition—propriety in the use of public funds—looks entirely straightforward, but in reality it raises some complex issues of principle and practice. We all agree—and again this was mentioned in the opening speech—that grant-aided organisations should not campaign politically in the party political sense, and they should not overtly associate themselves with any particular political party.
However, it would not be right to say that grant-aided bodies should be precluded from commenting on matters of public interest and concern merely because a few people might regard the views expressed as political. The definition of political is the important thing. Politics come into everyday life all the time, but there is a vast difference between that concept of politics and the overt party political activity and even campaigning. CABs are there to help people to know and obtain their rights. That is their prime purpose. But the general issue here affects a wide range of grant-aided bodies.
The work of the CABs involves the interests of a legion of departments: the Department of Trade; the DHSS; the Home Office; the Department of the Environment; the Inland Revenue for tax problems; and even the Lord Chancellor's Department for legal aid and related questions. All of these departments are interested in the work because the work is directly related to the legislation for which they are responsible.
Public debate and mentions in the press seem to have generally confused the issue of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and the local offices where the public go for advice, and indeed here tonight we have all talked about both national and local offices. They seem to be so inextricably linked that we have to deal in a way with both. The National Association is the body mentioned in the noble Lord's Question.
But I should like to take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, about the local bureaux and the funding from local authorities. I should mention that the greatest workload in terms of new and repeat inquiries, according to the report of the NACAB, is in London where the four areas handle 167 21.4 per cent. of the total CAB workload, whereas the Midlands, the East and the West handle about 14.8 per cent. At the other end of the scale, the smallest percentage of cases is in Devon and Cornwall at 2.4 per cent. To me, that difference is particularly interesting as my local government and other political experience has been in both places. My local government experience was in London, but I was a parliamentary candidate in Cornwall. Thus, I have seen the difference in these areas. The NACAB figures typify these differences.
I understand that in most of the large cities the voluntary element within the local CABs has almost gone. The staff are almost entirely fully paid. Since the 1976 decision by the London borough of Hackney to regrade all the staff in line with local authorities' related pay scales, pressure has built up in London and in almost all areas staff are now paid full local authority rates.
This has resulted in the fact that, although local authorities may choose to give a sum of money to the Citizens Advice Bureaux, the bureaux may say that that is not enough and in most areas in London they have cut back their service. The City of Westminster last year gave a grant of over £155,000 for the four CABs in the borough, plus the premises, which cost a further £35,900. In applying for the local authority grant that year, the Greater London CAB area office, which comes between the national and the local, asked for an estimated £44,000 extra to regrade the bureaux staff. On the other hand, the council took the view that it could manage to increase the grant only in line with inflation—10 per cent.—and the council committee made clear that it did not mind what the Greater London CAB did, provided it did it within its own budget.
Perhaps I should point out that the council also funds two law centres and an immigrant employment bureau, and all of these work closely with the Citizens Advice Bureaux, and that is another quite large amount of money for the local authority to find. In grant-aiding voluntary organisations the local authority intends to provide a needed service for ratepayers. Here I should point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, when she says what the local authority should or should not do, that a local authority is actually empowered to give grants but is not obliged to give them. It is its choice where it decides money should be spent.
The addition of the direct personal and voluntary effort which we see in the rural areas is a most interesting point. It is highly relevant to the debate and the controversy that has arisen over this issue. In London, as chairman of the social services committee, I have had a considerable number of complaints over the years about the operation of local bureaux. In rural areas people are rightly proud of the marvellous volunteer service. The same applies to Meals on Wheels. It applies through the whole structure of social services. In the big cities we have lost the voluntary element and the community spirit of the rural areas. I only wish we could reproduce this in London and retain those very valuable elements.
The problem in London is that the local authorities are concerned about duplication of effort and the 168 double expenditure of money involved. Looking briefly through that local authority's budget, I saw that it was giving a further £220,000 to bodies exactly duplicating the work of the Citizens Advice Bureaux.
When I was a chairman of the social services committee, I had complaints about the local Citizens Advice Bureau from both sides. One group of people would say to me, "They are not trendy enough for us. It is not relaxed and informal enough. When you go in, they do not let you have a cup of tea and just sit down". The other side will say that they are too trendy. It is extremely difficult to produce a service that satisfies all sectors of your community.
I think that the CABs do a marvellous job and I am not complaining about that. Where my surgery is now—that is, in Islington, that borough that flies the red flag over the council chamber—I am shocked to see that at the moment this service has been cut right back. On Mondays, they open from 1.30 to 4.0; Tuesdays, from 3 to 6; Wednesdays, 1.30 to 4.30; Thursdays, 12 to 2; and Fridays 10 to 12.30.
I am sure that the noble Lord, having been in medical practice (and I am a dental practitioner) will know that the one thing that is essential in life is to have regular hours. It does not matter what time you are there, but if you are there at the same time every day, patients will get to know about it and will come. I hear all the time from my patients that they go along there and it is closed. That is no service for people. There is a need for much to be done. I think there may be complaints sometimes with political motivations but those are not the complaints that I have had. The complaints I have had are complaints about the service. I think that there is a vast difference between "outside London" and "in London". I think that anything that can be done to encourage the voluntary sector to continue would be wonderful; and I am sure that this largely could be done nationally.
The only point that I feel that I must draw to the attention of the Minister—because it concerns me greatly—is the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, in his opening speech. He asked the Minister to direct local government on what action they should take in relation to local citzens advice bureau. As someone who has spent considerable time in local government, I would point out that, first of all, I do not think that the Department of Trade has direct connections with local government; but secondly, local government values its autonomy and local government is elected to know the needs of local people. As in the past, those pressures occurred to create alternatives to the CAB, in a time when social services were expanding. In fact, that is what is causing the problem now. There are so many and we can no longer afford to carry them on. I would say to this House that if the Minister attempted to direct local government as to what they should or should not give to any sort of voluntary body, there would be another uproar to equal anything we have had in the past.
My Lords, will the noble Baroness allow me to intervene on a point of accuracy. I did not say "direct". My actual words were that I hoped that the department would use its best endeavours to persuade local government not to delay their 169 contributions. I agree with her. I do not want to see local government directed by one department or any other.
I thank the noble Lord for that remark. We are all agreed that people serving on local authorities do carefully consider their grants and have great faith in their citizens' advice bureau. I welcome 170 the national review. I believe that any organisation, no matter how good, cannot but gain from a regular review to see what is happening. As organisations carry on—and this one has been going for many years and very successfully—it is always good to have the opportunity to stand back and look at it. I should like to say that I am very interested that the subject was debated tonight and thank the House for listening.
§ 9.48 p.m.
§ Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
My Lords, I do not know whether or not I join with other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, for leaving his Unstarred Question on the Order Paper this evening. In fact, I think that, as the Unstarred Question has been set down, the debate this evening has concentrated very much on the question of the Citizens Advice Bureaux; but the underlying question which I think Lord Winstanley wanted to draw out of the debate this evening concerned the reasons for the uncertainty about the allocation of the grant for 1983ߝ84 to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. I think the thought that he had in mind in altering the wording of his Unstarred Question was to highlight some of the problems by way of Government grants to non-departmental public bodies or to voluntary-aided bodies which exist from time to time.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, reminded us, we gathered something about these reasons from the articles which appeared in the Sunday newspapers before the Government's Statement of 11th April. I do not wish to dwell on the specifics of those articles, which have been refuted—and, indeed, I do not think that any speaker has dwelt on them—but I should like to dwell for a moment on the problems that a sponsoring Minister inevitably has with a national organisation which has autonomous branches or local units throughout the country. Some of those local units will inevitably, in their campaigning work, run foul of the susceptibilities of local politicians. For this reason it is important that there should be clarity for those who work for voluntary bodies about what their personal and public roles are in relation to that work.
I speak tonight as a former chairman of the Greater London Citizens Advice Bureaux and also as a former chairman of the Community Projects Foundation, in both of which roles I have been involved in this problem with two different sponsoring Ministers. For example, in the Community Projects Foundation we agreed that, in order to clarify the situation, for all who worked for the Foundation there should be guidelines drawn up on the question of party political involvement. We made it quite clear that the staff of the Foundation, whatever their private political beliefs, were expected to avoid being identified in their professional role with any particular political party, and that they should not allow any personal political beliefs improperly to influence the work for which they were paid. Staff were, and are, encouraged to stimulate or induce community initiatives, but not to proceed with proposals unless there is clear and substantial support for proposals from within the community for which they are working. We hoped that these guidelines helped to solve some of the problems.
Some problems have also been laid at the door of the Charity Commissioners. Their annual report for 1981 referred to what was regarded as "party political activity" by War on Want, and to the need to clarify exactly the nature of the activity and who carried it out.
172 I think it is important for us to be slightly clearer than we have been in the past, so that everybody who works for voluntary organisations or for organisations falling within this general category should be absolutely clear as to where his or her duties lie and what should be the extent of his or her political involvement in a non-party sense. It would be helpful if this matter could be clarified, because a lot of the problems which have been raised in the case of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux seem to have arisen in particular local areas, since there was not absolute clarity as to the role of individual people working for the local advice bureaux.
The noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, recalled the whole saga of the grant to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. What she said was absolutely accurate and I agree with her, inevitably, that this question was rather ineptly handled. I remind her that in one of our earlier debates I pointed out to the Minister who was answering for the Government that representatives from the Department of Trade attend meetings of the executive committee of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, and that they have not at any time raised at those meetings any questions about the management of the finances of the National Association.
Another problem which this incident has highlighted is the very unsatisfactory procedure for voluntary organisations of being funded from year to year, and of not being certain what level of funding—if any funding at all—they are to receive in succeeding years. One would have thought that if a rolling funding operation, carried forward from year to year—maybe, over a three-year period—could be adopted, an organisation would be able to plan its future activities in a surer way than it can at the present time. This point is emphasised in the report from the National Consumer Council, which refers to the very unsatisfactory nature of the short-term funding of these organisations.
The question of local authority funding was also raised. This varies very much from area to area and it does not necessarily reflect the need for advice services in certain places. I have always thought that the National Association ought, in some ways, to be able to even out some of that funding when it was not adequate. It would have been much better if the review had been set up as a routine action. It is quite normal for organisations of this type to have a periodic review by the Minister responsible, without its arising in the way in which it arose after the concern about the withholding of the half-year's grant. Without the concern, the review could have proceeded, and there was no need for the uncertainty which was created as a result of the Minister's initial action in withholding half of the year's grant. As many noble Lords have pointed out this evening, that induced a feeling of uncertainty about the work of the national association. Nevertheless, the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, felt that this was good. It showed how much the work of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux was valued, because everybody came to their aid.
173 I must I feel say a few words about the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes. She said that the Citizens Advice Bureaux service in London is now almost 100 per cent. paid service. I must confess that my information is not absolutely up to date, but until recently the position was that although it was almost 100 per cent. paid service in the Inner London area it was very largely voluntary service in the Outer London area. This was because the two services had developed in a quite different way during the last 30 or 40 years.
§ Baroness Gardner of Parkes
My Lords, I should like to correct my statement and say "Inner London". The noble Lord is, I believe, correct.
§ Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for confirming that what I have said is correct.
The noble Baroness referred in particular to the very generous grants made by the City of Westminster to a number of voluntary organisations within the area of the city council. I am well aware of this. However, one should remember that local authorities approach the question of how services in their areas should be run in a different way. Some local authorities like to run their services directly, whereas other local authorites like to provide these services through voluntary agencies. That is certainly the case in the City of Westminster. Not only does the City of Westminster provide funds for the Citizens Advice Bureaux; very substantial funds for Age Concern are also provided.
A great deal of social service work is also done through a voluntary agency in the City of Westminster. As the noble Baroness said—this was reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, in his intervention—I do not believe that we should quarrel about the discretion given to local authorities as to how to run their services. I support the noble Baroness entirely in her statement that local authorities should not be directed and that they should have the power to do what they wish to do within their own areas. That is a sentiment which we very much support.
I hope that this debate has been useful and has managed to bring out some of the problems which have been associated with this rather unhappy episode.
§ 10.4 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Trade (Lord Cockfield)
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, posed his Question in a speech which was both moderate and helpful. I have also listened very carefully to the contributions made by my noble friends Lord Selkirk and Lady Gardner of Parkes, and also to the contributions made by the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. May I assure all of them that what they have said will be most carefully considered and will be brought to the attention of the independent review team under the chairmanship of Sir Douglas Lovelock. The one golden thread that has run through 174 the whole of this evening's debate has been the high regard in which the Citizens Advice Bureaux are universally held. I join in the tributes which have been paid to them. Some 90 per cent. of the people who work in CABs are volunteers, and this is just the kind of movement which is most valuable to the community and which I am sure we all want to encourage.
My noble friend Lord Selkirk said that we need to recognise that movements of this kind are necessary. The noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, made much the same point. We ourselves take this view, as is clearly borne out by the Government's record in this field. It is important that I should state this quite clearly. In 1979ߝ80 the total grant amounted to £1.8 million. In 1983ߝ84 (that is, the current year) the cash limit is £6.04 million—an increase of three and a half times in money terms and approximately double in real terms. If one goes back to 1978ߝ79, when the total funding was £1.3 million, the increase over the period is even more striking than the figures I have given.
If we look at the staff employed—and this essentially reflects the increase in the funding which has been provided—in March 1979, the total staff, in full-time equivalents, was 151. Today the figure is 224. This is an increase of nearly 50 per cent. The head office staff has increased in the same proportion, by a figure of approximately 50 per cent. These figures illustrate the extent to which the Government have provided the funds for the development of the Citizens Advice Bureaux movement.
May I turn from that to the question of the need for a review. As long ago as March 1981 a suggestion was made by my own department to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux that a staff inspection would be helpful. A staff inspection is not a staff cutting exercise but is designed to ensure that resources and needs are properly matched to one another. For various reasons, delay occurred, I wish to make it clear that there was no question of any delay on the part of the National Association; there were various reasons for the delay. But delay did occur and the matter was further complicated by the fact that the post of director remained vacant for some 10 months until Mrs. Filkin, the present director, was appointed on 1st February of the present year.
The need for a review, therefore, has been common ground for some considerable time. The need for it was agreed with the National Association as well as by my own department. It is not the position—as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, rather suggested—that the review was simply set up as a result of the difficulties which arose recently. It is a subject that has been on the table for a period of approximately two years.
The terms of the present review—which have been agreed with the association—go wider than the staff inspection originally contemplated.
I think it would be as well if I reminded your Lordships of the actual terms of reference of the review. These were announced in another place on 27th April and repeated in your Lordships' House. The remit is as follows:To review the functioning of' the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and to make recommendations, with a 175 view to ensuring that the Association gives the best possible service and support to local Citizens Advice Bureaux and that the monies available to the Association are spent in the most effective way".—[Official Report, 27/4183; col. 940.]To ensure that the questions of staffing and management structure, which were at the heart of the original proposal for a review, are examined in detail a firm of management consultants will be appointed to assist the review team and a senior member of the firm appointed will be a member of that review team. The chairman of the review is Sir Douglas Lovelock who is a First Church Estates Commissioner. He recently retired as chairman of the Board of Customs and Excise. As well as his distinguished public service career, he has a long connection with voluntary work—particularly church work—and I am sure that he will make an admirable chairman with both knowledge of and an association with voluntary work and a real sense of the needs of the situation.
The review may well suggest ways in which the NACAB can improve its own efficiency and spend the money available to it to better advantage. That we must wait and see. The position therefore is that it has long been agreed that a review was needed, that the financial provision made had increased substantially over the years and, indeed, was being increased in the current year by a figure much in excess of the rate of inflation.
There is a responsibility on Ministers to ensure that public money is properly and effectively spent. In these circumstances, having regard to the agreement that a review was necessary, to the rise in expenditure over the years and to the provision of a greater amount in the estimates for the coming year, it was perfectly reasonable at the start of the current year to delay a decision on the appropriate level of the grant for the second half of the year, pending a decision on the review of the kind which has now been agreed. It was equally right, when it became clear that the review could not now he completed before September, to confirm at once that in these circumstances funding would be maintained on the expected basis of the £6.04 million cash limit throughout the year as a whole.
The position of local authorities was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, and also by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes. This is a point of importance. We have made it absolutely clear that we hope local authorities will do all they can within the constraints on public spending as a whole to maintain and, indeed, improve their support for the Citizens Advice Bureaux.
Perhaps I may turn briefly to the question of political activities by grant-aided bodies. This question was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, and referred to in a recent letter by Mr. Peter Jay in The Times newspaper. There was a particularly valuable and cogent speech by my noble friend Lady Gardner on this very point. What she said illustrates the difficulties that exist in this field.
It is one thing laying down general rules, although that is hard enough. But the interpretation of those rules in individual cases can give rise to very considerable difficulties. Indeed, much of what the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, himself said illustrated this point. A very penetrating and interesting speech was 176 made on this point by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. What he said will certainly repay careful study. But these matters go rather outside the limits of the Unstarred Question in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley.
So far as the National Association is concerned, the association has made it clear that it will investigate any complaint of political bias or activity, and that I am sure is the right approach. The National Association is also this week reissuing and consolidating guidance to its employees and to all local bureaux on political impartiality. That will be helpful and, I am sure, will be generally welcome.
My noble friend Lord Selkirk raised two points relating specifically to Scotland. I have no doubt that the review body will in fact seek evidence from Scotland, but the staffing and management structure of the Scottish association will not be examined in detail. Quite simply, the reason is that our own staff inspectors recently completed an appraisal of that kind. I am sure my noble friend will be glad to know that it identified no major problems. My noble friend also raised the question whether it might not be desirable for the Scottish bureaux, or the Scottish Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, to receive a grant direct from the Department of Trade. We shall certainly consider this proposal sympathetically, and we are in touch with SACAB about this. Perhaps we might proceed with those discussions with them.
Finally, may I say this. The position is that an independent review is now to be carried out on a basis which has been fully agreed with the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. The right course, I am sure, is to allow that review to proceed and for anybody who wishes to make a point of view known to make it to the review team, who will no doubt give it careful consideration. The review team will work closely with the National Association and the report will be available to them once we have received it. The report will be published: and this will give us all the opportunity of considering these matters in the light of the findings and recommendations of the review team.
§ Baroness Burton of Coventry
My Lords, I did not want to interrupt the noble Lord but, before he sits down, does he feel able to make any comment about the third member of the review team, who is still to be named? He will remember that I asked him that question.
§ Lord Cockfield
My Lords, we are at present giving active consideration to this and we have been in touch with the National Association on this point. I agree that it is important that we find somebody of wide experience who is able to bring a balanced judgment to bear on these matters.