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House of Commons

Wednesday 12 November 2008

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Duchy of Lancaster

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Volunteering (Young People)

1. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): What steps he is taking to encourage more young people to volunteer. [234793]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Kevin Brennan): The Government are investing £117 million in youth volunteering in the next three years through the organisation v. This is the biggest ever investment in youth volunteering and v has so far created 750,000 volunteering opportunities. The Office of the Third Sector also provides funding to YouthNet UK, the National Youth Agency, Youth Action Network and the British Youth Council, which will provide youth volunteering opportunities.

Kerry McCarthy: I thank the Minister for that response. Although progress has been made, it is still very much the case that children from poorer families are less likely to be able to volunteer to do internships or a gap year working in the community before going on to further study. They lack the contacts, the confidence or, in many cases, the finance to do so. Will the Minister tell the House what more is being done to ensure that the opportunity to volunteer is made available to everybody?

Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Volunteering is an extremely important part of social mobility and opportunities. Volunteering in our most deprived communities is important to building up our young people’s aspirations and the skills that are available to them, which is why we are making the investments that I have mentioned. As she mentioned gap years, she will be interested to know that the Department for International Development is investing £10 million to enable 18 to 25-year-olds to volunteer for 10 weeks overseas. The Platform 2 project, as it is called, is aimed at those who would otherwise not have that opportunity.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): As the Minister will know, with a former Defence Minister, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), on his
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right, many young volunteers in the community are from the cadet forces. May I encourage the Minister to liaise with Defence Ministers as part of Cadet 150 to ensure that the right funding is found for the Sea Cadet Corps, the Air Training Corps and the Army Cadet Force?

Kevin Brennan: Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Cadet Corps and the great job that they did on Remembrance Sunday and in the recent important commemorations. I can confirm that the Government fully support the Cadet Corps. Indeed, my previous post was in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and we did a great deal to promote the cadet forces through our schools, and I will certainly be happy to liaise with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence on the issue.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): I am a patron of TimeBank, one of the great volunteering organisations in the United Kingdom. Will the Minister confirm that the research so far suggests that those who are out of work but volunteer then get back into work more quickly than any other group of people?

Kevin Brennan: Yes. I recently met representatives of TimeBank, and I commend my hon. Friend for his work. Volunteering is extremely important to getting people back into work, in terms of both aspiration and skills. Volunteering can form an important part of getting people back into work quickly and maintaining momentum in social mobility. I speak from personal experience: when I left university in 1982, at a time of high unemployment, the first thing that I did was volunteer in what would now be called a social enterprise. I can confirm that doing so helped me to get the confidence and skills to get into paid employment quickly.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I should like to follow up on that comment. The Minister will know that many young people who will be graduating from school and university will be aware that they are not going to get work in this economic climate. What is he doing with the voluntary sector to step up volunteering opportunities for those young people, so that they are not disillusioned and can at least gain some experience and strengthen their CVs? [Official Report, 19 November 2008, Vol. 483, c. 1MC.]

Kevin Brennan: I would recommend volunteering as an option for people leaving university who are not immediately moving into work. As I have said, the investment that the Government are making in v, which has already been matched with more than £33 million from the private sector, with, I understand, more to come in an announcement in December, will play a big role in getting young people into those volunteering opportunities. As I have said, v has already identified more than 750,000 opportunities for young people.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I recently attended an event in Tipton in my constituency, which was organised by V Flex and designed to promote volunteering in local charities and schools. Will the Minister undertake to assess the progress and outcomes of such events, with a view to rolling out best practice in the rest of the country?

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Kevin Brennan: I commend my hon. Friend for attending that event and taking such a close interest. I will certainly be happy to talk with him and hear what his perspective on that event was and to take a look at the success of such events throughout the country.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): What does the Minister think will be the impact of a deep recession on attitudes to volunteering? What assurance can he give the House about the Government’s commitment to coming forward with measures to support charities and voluntary organisations that are suffering liquidity and cash-flow problems as a result of the banking crisis? They could be forced to cut services just when they are most needed.

Kevin Brennan: It is clearly a challenging time for the third sector, and there are complex issues to address. Any Government response should be well considered, planned and executed. The hon. Gentleman will know, because the Prime Minister, in last week’s Question Time, answered his question by saying that the Government were considering a number of measures in response to the third sector, given the economic circumstances. I can confirm that the Office of the Third Sector within the Cabinet Office is working closely with Treasury officials to develop a package of support measures for charities that will be outlined later this month after the pre-Budget report. I can also confirm that I will be co-chairing a sector-wide summit with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations on 24 November.

Voluntary Organisations (Disabled People)

2. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with voluntary organisations on working with severely disabled people. [234795]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Kevin Brennan): I meet with representatives of a wide range of voluntary organisations in my capacity as Minister for the Third Sector, including those from many excellent organisations who work with and on behalf of disabled people with a range of impairments. For example, just last week I met John Knight of Leonard Cheshire Disability to discuss issues related to disabled people.

Julie Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware of the pioneering work of the Touch Trust, of which I am a patron, which was started by my constituent, Dilys Price? The trust works with people with profound disabilities—many of them cannot walk or speak, and also have profoundly challenging behaviour. Does he agree that voluntary bodies are often the best at starting off charities, as my constituent did, and that Government agencies should give them as much support as possible?

Kevin Brennan: I commend my hon. Friend for her patronage of that charity and, in fairness, all hon. Members who support charities in their local areas. I know of the work of the Touch Trust, not least because my hon. Friend is also my constituency neighbour in Cardiff. I am familiar with both the work of the trust and the work that she does with it. Such organisations often bring a special, personal and local perspective to issues such as working with disabled people.

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Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): The Minister will be aware of the valuable work done by Voluntary Service Overseas with able-bodied and disabled people, but what steps can his Department take to stop what is in effect a fraud? Private companies attract money from individuals to send them on trips abroad. Those individuals think that they will be doing valuable work, but it turns out that they are on some sort of glorified holiday. It is not the intention of those people to go on glorified holidays; they want to do valuable work. In effect, they are defrauded of their money. Meanwhile, disabled people who could be getting help are not getting it.

Kevin Brennan: I would not wish to belittle voluntary work overseas, and I assume that the hon. Gentleman is not referring to taking the shadow Front-Bench team to Rwanda, which I understand is part of its plans. Many people want to make a positive contribution, and we should welcome that. If the hon. Gentleman has any particular evidence of the fraud and mis-selling that he described, I would be grateful to see it and take the matter up with my colleagues.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): As my hon. Friend represents a Welsh constituency, I am sure he will be aware of the excellent work done by Mencap Wales. Does he agree that there is still a lack of understanding among some Government agencies of what learning disability means? There is a long way to go before those agencies and the public at large understand about the type of work that Mencap Wales carries out, and about learning disabilities.

Kevin Brennan: I commend my hon. Friend for the work that she does with Mencap Wales, and I commend Mencap’s work more broadly across the UK. As part of our public service agreement with the social exclusion taskforce, we have been trying to help socially excluded adults. We have ensured that people with learning difficulties are one of our target groups, for the very reasons that my hon. Friend gave. I hope that, in driving that message across government, we will overcome some of the problems of the past that she outlined.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): One of the observations made in last year’s report by the Commission on the Future of Volunteering was that volunteers—for example, people who deal with the disabled—often found that those in statutory agencies had poor training in how to work with them. That was a source of great concern and annoyance to them. Have the Government made any progress on dealing with that problem, and on creating greater training opportunities for those in statutory agencies to work more effectively with volunteers?

Kevin Brennan: Yes, and we are investing in training not just for the volunteers themselves, but, exactly as the hon. Gentleman suggests, for those who train the volunteers. I would be happy to have further conversations with him about the details, but, following the commission that he mentioned, this is certainly a priority matter for us.

Security Breaches (Data Loss)

3. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): How many electronic breaches of security relating to information held by his Department there were in the last 12 months. [234796]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Tom Watson): I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, as a long-serving Member of this House, will appreciate that our disclosure policy is underpinned by advice from security experts. In this area, we are advised that it is not in our security interests to confirm information regarding electronic attacks against Government IT systems.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Perhaps I could inform the House, if the Minister will not, that over the past 12 months the Information Commissioner has reported 176 admitted breaches of data security by the public sector. That is a shameful record, for which the Government are responsible. Will they now abandon plans for further centralisation of personal data—either for identity cards or intercepts of e-mails and telephone calls—because the Government are plainly incapable of obeying their own laws on personal data security?

Mr. Watson: We are determined to keep the country safe and we will put in place the tools that are required to do the job. The answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question is that he knows that those data losses have taken place because we put forward a disclosure policy, which we believe is the only way to get the necessary culture change in government and in the public sector—although the problem applies to the private as well as the public sector—whereby people’s personal data are treated in the same way as people’s own money.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): What has happened in respect of the training of public servants since the important reports by Sir Edmund Burton and the Cabinet Secretary? What other steps is the Minister taking to improve public confidence in the Government’s handling of private data? Will he ensure that a transparent policy is adopted?

Mr. Watson: My hon. Friend is right: training is at the heart of the matter. I am informed that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has trained more than 90,000 of its staff in data handling. In my view, that compares very favourably to the private sector, where a recent survey showed that a third of companies do not even know when they have data losses, whereas the transparency policy that we introduced will lead to a culture change across the whole of the public sector.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): In the light of the number of data losses from public bodies, will the Minister consider increasing the penalties for those who mishandle our data, so that they begin to appreciate just how important it is that private and personal data should be treated as such—and not in the offhand way of many public bodies in the past?

Mr. Watson: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. The Walport review has looked into the matter and will be reporting back to the House in the months to come.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): The Cabinet Secretary’s report on data handling and security, which was published back in June, admitted that urgent action was needed to improve data security across the Government. Three years earlier, back in 2005, the Walport report, which came from the Government’s own Council for
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Science and Technology, had already recommended a series of changes to Whitehall practice in order to protect people’s personal data. Why did the Government not even bother to respond to the report, let alone introduce any of its recommendations for action, which were proposed three years ago?

Mr. Watson: The right hon. Gentleman and I have rehearsed this argument over a number of months. The Government have put in place a series of strong measures to tighten down on data loss, which I think compares favourably to measures in the private sector. We do penetration testing from user-friendly hackers; we restrict access to removable electronic devices; and encryption is now the norm. I say again that, compared to the private sector, where a third of companies do not even know when data loss has happened and 60 per cent. refuse to tell their customers when there has been one, we are leading the way in the public sector. I know that one of the right hon. Gentleman’s second jobs is as a banker—banks are notorious for not revealing data losses—so I hope that he is not trying to set one rule for the public sector in his day job and another rule for the private sector in his secondary-income job.

Mr. Maude: I remind the Minister that his responsibility is for data security across government. He will know that one of the recommendations—or, rather, requirements—of Sir Gus O’Donnell’s report was for all Departments to introduce privacy impact assessments so that threats to data security could be considered properly. Why, then, has the Home Office refused to provide such an impact assessment for the identity cards project, why has the Department of Health refused to draft one for the NHS Spine project, and why has the Department for Children, Schools and Families refused to provide one for the ContactPoint children’s database? How can we trust the Government to protect the privacy of law-abiding citizens when they systematically ignore their own requirements?

Mr. Watson: We have achieved a staggering amount of progress in making data safe in government. We are changing day by day, and thousands of people have been involved in the training project. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to take advice from his hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who has a secondary job as a consultant for a corporate social responsibility firm that trades under the maxim “Public reporting has become fundamental to a company’s trustworthiness”—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister is not responsible for these matters.

Power of Information Taskforce

4. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): What recent progress the Power of Information Taskforce has made; and if he will make a statement. [234797]

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