HC Deb 12 April 1983 vol 40 cc676-84

4.5 pm

The Minister for Consumer Affairs (Dr. Gerard Vaughan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the action I have taken on the grant-in-aid to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux.

I am glad to do this, since we are discussing an organisation that fulfils an important national and local role—one which the Government fully support. I feel that I must make that absolutely clear. We have the fullest confidence in the citizens advice bureau movement as a whole. It is a fine example of volunteers and professionals working together for the good of the community.

Our support has been shown by the rapid increase in this Government's funding. In 1979–80 it was £1.85 million; in 1980–81, £4.02 million; £4.91 million in 1981–82; £5.75 million in 1982–83, and now £6.04 million in 1983–84.

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.

But increases of that order can have disadvantages, and I felt it proper to inquire if the money was being used effectively. I started looking at this in June last year. I may say that one of the difficulties that NACAB freely admitted to me is that it has been without a permanent director from April 1982 to February 1983.

That is one aspect that has concerned me. The other has been allegations of changing attitudes within some CABs and the taking up of campaigns that some people have seen as going outside the generally accepted scope of the service. For example, a local chairman resigned recently after 30 years in the service out of disgust at what was happening in his area—[Interruption.] No, it was not—and of course I asked NACAB to look into that.

I am glad to say NACAB now has a permanent director, and I welcome that. In my letter to the chairman on 21 March I said that I was not sure whether the present level of grant was correct and that I intended to authorise a six month grant with a review thereafter. In that context I said I would expect the association to tell me in good time before the middle of the year how it is dealing with the various matters I have raised with the association. To ensure that the money is being effectively used I have proposed, with the full support of the association itself, an early and independent review of its staffing and efficiency. It has also agreed to draft guidelines on the need for impartiality and avoiding activities that can be seen as politically motivated.

My aim throughout has been to endorse and support the giving of accurate and impartial advice and information when it is needed and to ensure that the considerable sums of public money are put to the best use. Those steps have absolutely nothing to do with the current CND campaign and were first mooted by me some months ago. I hope that the House will accept that these steps are simply a prudent exercise of responsibility.

Mr. Peter Archer (Warley, West)

The House will welcome what the Minister said about his confidence in the CAB. For the avoidance of all doubt, will he confirm that he is aware of the great service that that movement has rendered for more than 40 years in providing help and guidance for those who do not have knowledgeable friends and who cannot afford constant professional advice? Has not the movement provided that with a high proportion of volunteer help?

Does not the hon. Gentleman appreciate that vague insinuations of the sort that have emerged over the weekend are grossly unfair and damaging? If he was withholding grant in consequence of any complaints about the conduct either of the national association or of any specific bureau, would it not be elementary that those allegations should have been made known to them, specifically and in detail, so that they could have an opportunity to answer them?

I wish to ask three specific questions. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the money available for the grant represents money saved on the discontinuance of the former grant for consumer advice centres, which were destroyed by the Government?

Secondly, will he confirm that the one instance which he cites of the resignation of a local chairman is a case in which the chairman asked for a vote of confidence by his own local committee, which was not forthcoming, and that that incident has already been the subject of an investigation?

Finally, after hearing from the association about any outstanding complaints, will the Minister either arrange for a proper investigation by an impartial investigator or withdraw all these allegations clearly and publicly?

Dr. Vaughan

I can assure the right hon. and learned Member that I am well aware of the great service that this organisation gives. I hope that my opening remarks made quite clear not only our appreciation of what it does but the fact that it is an extremely valuable service for a great many people who are in great need.

I should also like to assure the House that there has been no cut whatsoever. The grant is running at the same rate. All I have suggested is that it would be sensible to review the allocation of the money and the management of the central organisation after six months, and I have linked this very closely with the appointment of the new director and the review that I referred to in my statement.

When it comes to individual complaints and investigations, I really do not think that it is for me to go into detail on various statements that are made about the running of the organisation.

Mr. Richard Wainwright (Colne Valley)

Why raise them then?

Dr. Vaughan

I think that it is the proper function of the organisation to run its own affairs and to reassure me, the House and the public generally that those affairs are properly conducted and that there is no substance in the various allegations that have been made. [HON. MEMBERS: "What allegations?"]

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Will my hon. Friend take note of the fact that many of us regard his criticisms of the CABs as almost an insinuation that they are not doing an effective job? May I say to him, if he is not aware of the situation regarding the CABs across the whole country, that in my view they do an invaluable job in explaining Government policy at all levels of Government activity and also in making people aware of the benefits and Government help that are available to them, which they might not otherwise discover? They are of enormous help in the process and progress of democracy in this country and I hope that my hon. Friend will do nothing to discourage their activities and progress in this field.

Dr. Vaughan

I am very glad to confirm the importance of the service, to which my hon. Friend has just drawn attention. I think that is shown by the steady increase in Government funding which has taken place in recent years and which last year I recommended.

Mr. Richard Wainwright

Is the Minister aware that this is a flimsy trail of insubstantial gossip, a mean-minded harassment of people who achieve a high ratio of public good compared to public cost—a level which is undreamt of in his Department? Will he, instead of asking the House to rely upon one solitary example of the resignation of somebody who entered the CAB service in the very different world of 30 years ago, enlighten the House as to who is to conduct this review, how it is to be done and whether it is to be accompanied by a stream of similar publicity?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I should ask Rossminster to look at it.

Dr. Vaughan

If I may take the last point first, the review will be undertaken either by management consultants—

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)

What will the fee be?

Dr. Vaughan

—or by our own staff inspection services. I shall, of course, be consulting NACAB on this before finally deciding. The important point, I would suggest, is that the investigation be completed quickly and thoroughly. I am confident that it will be of real value to the service as a whole. I do not accept the other remarks which the hon. Member made.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

Has the Minister read this week's edition of The Sunday Times, which says—I quote the words— The Minister said there was anxiety in his constituency that Joan Ruddock was using public money given to the CAB to subsidise CND activity"? Is that not yet another smear on the CND—

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

It is a lie.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Stirling, who sits there shouting from a sedentary position, will withdraw that remark at once. He said, "It is a lie," and he must withdraw it.

Mr. Canavan

I am not the hon. Member for Stirling, Mr. Speaker; I am the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire. I did not say that the Minister or anybody else in this House was lying. I said that what was said in the press was a lie.

Mr. Speaker

As long as the hon. Member makes it clear to the House, as he has, that he is not making a charge of any sort that anyone in this Chamber is telling a lie, the matter will, of course, drop.

Mr. Allaun

Is this not yet another smear both on the CND and on Mrs. Ruddock, a woman of the utmost integrity?

Finally, is the hon. Gentleman aware that, as I understand it, legal opinion is today being sought on what would appear to be a serious libel by both the Minister and The Sunday Times?

Dr. Vaughan

Clearly, I am not responsible for the content of a particular article. [HON. MEMBERS: "Did you say it?"] I was not consulted about the article to which the hon. Gentleman referred before it appeared. I was not contacted at all about it.

Mr. Allaun

Did you say it?

Dr. Vaughan

The article is totally inaccurate in that it states that a cut has been made. No cut has been made. I have said on a number of occasions since that the actions I have taken have absolutely nothing to do with Mrs. Ruddock and the CND movement.

Mr. Norman Hogg (Dunbartonshire, East)

Did you say it?

Dr. Vaughan

It is correct that a complaint was put to me at one stage, which I passed on to the chairman of NACAB. She gave me an assurance that there was no substance in this and I accepted her word.

Mr. Allaun

They are your constituents.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, certainly as far as my constituency is concerned, the CAB does an enormous amount of very good and valuable work? Certainly I have never heard any suggestion of political bias during the years that I have represented the constituency. May I ask him what, if any, specific details of the complaints he received, and in particular what, if any, specific proposals for change he put to NACAB before making public the fact that he was withholding half its grant?

Dr. Vaughan

First of all, I did not make this public. I thought that the funding was a matter for the national association to deal with. At the time I linked it very clearly indeed with the appointment of the new director and the anticipated review to which I have referred. I am very glad that my right hon. and learned Friend has referred to the important work that his local bureau is doing, because the majority of bureaux—and for all I know all the bureaux—are doing extremely good work, and I give them great credit for this.

When it comes to individual allegations, I have had between 30 and 40 complaints of various kinds. The majority of them were put to me as information which it was thought proper to give to me, but I was asked not to involve local people. This is something which I respect. I have made quite clear and will make clear again, if necessary, the general nature of the allegations. All I am seeking from the organisation is an assurance that improper activities are not taking place, would not be countenanced and will not take place.

Mr. Tom McNally (Stockport, South)

Is the Minister aware that to start talking about 30 or 40 anonymous accusations in the light of an organisation of the scope and scale of the citizens advice bureaux, which deal directly with the public, is a pathetic justification for the severe damage that he has done to the organisation? Will he make a statement now that he expects local authorities to continue their support for the citizens advice bureaux, and that none should consider his activity a green light for political sniping against the organisation? Will he make it clear also that this is not yet another act by the Government against organisations or people who are not in tune with the Government's philosophy and thinking of the sort that has happened elsewhere, and give an assurance that a witch hunt is not taking place? It is intolerable that the NACAB should have to draw guidelines while public money is being withheld, so that the implication to be drawn is that the guidelines will have to be acceptable to the Minister and his colleagues.

Dr. Vaughan

I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about local authorities. I hope that they will continue to support the organisation and, where appropriate, increase their support. The organisation does extremely good work. I can only repeat that this is not a witch hunt of any sort. I do not think that the House would feel that I was doing my job properly—[HON. MEMBERS: "You are not."]—if I did not convey complaints that were brought to me. That I intend to do, now and in future. I have the greatest confidence in the citizens advice bureau movement. I have said that a number of times. I hope that the movement will be able to say, "The work that we carry out is entirely proper and there is no political slant to it." It and I agree that the advice and information should be impartial, objective and accurate.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Is the Minister aware that, instead of this trail of red herrings about the lack of a permanent director and the resignation of a local chairman, a full withdrawal and a reasonable apology would have minimised the damage from his point of view? In the absence of a withdrawal and reasonable apology, will he recognise that the House, on an issue of principle as important as this, will never tolerate a Minister taking action which has about it a whiff of McCarthyism?

Dr. Vaughan


Mr. Canavan


Dr. Vaughan

I cannot accept the implication of the remarks of the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley). The context in which he has used them is entirely misleading. I have not intended any slur on the citizens advice bureau movement. If I had done so, I would of course apologise. I think that the House would expect me to exercise proper responsibility over how large sums of public money are allocated and would expect me to seek from the movement an assurance that the advice that is given is impartial, accurate, informative and objective.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

Will my hon. Friend accept that his ready acceptance some weeks ago of the invitation to visit the excellent Peterborough citizens advice bureau tomorrow morning was received by that organisation as a measure of his support for it?

Mr. Skinner

The hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) is Irish.

Dr. Mawhinney

Is my hon. Friend aware that when he visits the bureau tomorrow morning he will be accorded the friendship that one normally affords to supporters of the organisation that he has supported today?

Dr. Vaughan

I very much welcome those remarks. I am looking forward immensely to the visit tomorrow morning, as I have been for some time.

Mr. David Ennals (Norwich, North)

Did the Minister say, or did he not, that he had been seeking to ascertain for some time how NACAB spent its money? If he did say that, why did he say it, bearing in mind that he has a representative on the national committee and the council of NACAB? Will he give the House just one reason why he has dragged this extraordinarily efficient and effective service and organisation into the political arena? In view of the appalling replies that he has given today, will he consider at least his resignation?

Dr. Vaughan

I certainly do not accept the implication of the right hon. Gentleman's demands. I have not dragged the organisation into the political arena. [HON. MEMBERS: "It was your decision."] Many of the remarks that have been made following my statements have had no substance in truth and I have not been associated with them.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Not much.

Dr. Vaughan

Of course, I have had information on how the money is spent in the ordinary auditing. I have been seeking a discussion on how funds are allocated, where priorities lie and what are seen as the most important needs for Government funding. I think that hon. Members will feel that that is an entirely proper function.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, instead of having a good parliamentary row, it might be more sensible to refer to his remarks in the debate that took place in May 1982, in which he gave support to the work of the citizens advice bureaux? Does he recognise that there is unanimous support in the House for the support that local citizens advice bureaux receive from the national association, and that the result of the review will be that further funding after September will be agreed before the last moment so that the organisation can continue to provide effective help for our constituents, and often to Members of Parliament?

Dr. Vaughan

Yes. I very much welcome my hon. Friend's remarks. I think that it is important for a body of the size of NACAB to know where it stands over its funds so that it can make proper plans for future spending.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I intend to call four more hon. Members from each side of the House before we move on to other matters. That will be a very good run.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

Is my hon. Friend aware that we are in danger of forgetting that the Government have done a great deal for the citizens advice bureaux, and that his statement is something of a slight departure from the normal benign influence that he has had on these matters in the recent past? May I emphasise what my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley) has said, that it is extremely important that we recognise that an early announcement should be made by my hon. Friend about continous funding—not six-month funding—to prevent this issue from becoming controversial, politically and otherwise, over the next few months, which will not be advisable in the interests of the CABs, the House or himself?

Dr. Vaughan

I think that there should be an end to any controversy over this issue. It is clear that there has been a number of misunderstandings. However, it is in no one's interests, least of all those of the service, to have the sort of comments being made about it which have been expressed recently. I accept very much what my hon. Friend has said—[Interruption.]—and I welcome his remarks.

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

Is the Minister aware that I welcome his quick response to the early-day motion that stands in my name on today's Order Paper? Is he aware that he has turned on its head the old proverb that to name one example is not to produce proof? He has referred to 30 or 40 allegations, when there are 850 local citizens advice bureaux. Surely he is seeking, in an entirely arbitrary fashion, to emasculate the organisation and to cut off the funds of the bureaux through NACAB in September. In so doing he has wreaked uncertainty throughout the movement, which performs such sterling service for all Britain's citizens. In view of the Minister's most unsatisfactory statement, I shall be grateful if he will now withdraw his allegation and restore the funding until at least the next financial year.

Dr. Vaughan

I do not agree with one word of what the hon. Gentleman has just said in trying to make a political point. I refute his allegations and draw the attention of the House to the considerable figures to which I referred when talking about the funding of the organisation, and the remarks that I made at the beginning of my statement, which I hope will be widely appreciated, about the importance of the service.

Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

Does the Minister accept that, if he has a suspicion that all is not well in the financial and administrative sphere of CABs, he is correct to insist on some kind of inquiry? Does he accept equally that, if he suspects that some CABs have been inclined to introduce a leavening of politics into the advice that they give, it will do no harm to make that matter public? Will he accept, finally, that many of us on this side of the House are stout supporters of the CABs because of the great work that they do for the less-well-off people and that among those who are at the forefront of the CABs in my constituency there are relatively few, it seems to me, who are either members of the Labour party or supporters of CND?

Dr. Vaughan

It would be difficult to find a stronger supporter of CABs than myself. I am a great admirer of the work they do. I concluded my remarks on the review by saying that I am confident that it will be of real value to the service as a whole.

Mr. Gordon A. T. Bagier (Sunderland, South)

Does the Minister agree that, whatever the words he has used today, his actions will have brought great concern to CABs throughout the length and breadth of this country? Does he accept that by judging them in advance and cutting their finances he has passed a judgment on their standing and how they are looked on by the public? The Minister has said also that he believes that the funds should be spent properly. Could he explain why, under his administration, the tribunal assistance unit which is used in connection with industrial tribunals in Sunderland has had to close because of a shortfall of some £30,000, in spite of an appeal to him by the chairman of the regional office of the industrial tribunals? The chairman said that that boy, representing applicants at tribunals, saved a great deal of his staff's time and a great deal of public money and in many cases stopped hearings even having to be made, thus saving public money again. If the Minister is so worried about how money is being spent, why has he allowed that unit to close?

Dr. Vaughan

I do not think that the funding of other kinds of bodies is relevant to what we are discussing. I made it clear to the House that, far from my cutting the funds—the hon. Gentleman has used that expression again and he knows that it is not the case now—the funds available to the organisation have been increased. I see no reason why the funds should be reduced. It seems to me a proper thing to say to an organisation when it is having a major change in its management, "Let us guarantee you half the year's figures and then see whether that is the right amount for your needs."

Mr. Robert Hicks (Bodmin)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a need for an early decision about the second £3 million, since otherwise the quality of advice given by the national association to the 800 local offices could be prejudiced?

Mr. McNally

Do it now, yes.

Mr. Hicks

Is the Minister aware that in Devon and Cornwall the 100,000 people who each year seek advice from the 40 local bureaux would consider it an insult if it were suggested that the volunteers who man those local offices are in any way politically motivated or that the advice that they are given is politically biased?

Dr. Vaughan

I agree with my hon. Friend when he talks about the urgent need to have any inquiry completed. I have every confidence, and I have been assured already by NACAB, which welcomes this review, that it will cooperate fully. We are discussing the central organisation. We are not discussing, as my hon. Friend said, the administration of the local bureaux. I endorse what he said about the valuable job that they do locally.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Did the Minister or did he not make the statements about the misuse of funds by Mrs. Ruddock which were quoted earlier today?

Dr. Vaughan

No, I have never implied that there was any misuse of funds. [HON. MEMBERS: "Did you say it?"] An inquiry was put to me as to how someone who was thought to be a fully-paid whole-time employee was able—

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)


Dr. Vaughan

—who was thought to be wholetime—was at that time able to devote so much attention to other things. I simply passed that inquiry on. It was an inquiry, not a complaint, on my part. I was fully satisfied by the answer that the chairman gave me.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

In view of the sterling work done by the CABs in Berkshire, will my hon. Friend accept my delight at his reassurance that there is no suspicion in his mind of any link between the CABs and CND? In view of his most recent remarks, I welcome his view that Mrs. Ruddock has performed her duties with the CAB with remarkable zeal. She is my constituent and I should wish him to know that in my opinion she would never let her zeal for the CND affect her work for the bureaux in any way.

Dr. Vaughan

I welcome my hon. Friend's remarks. I have never implied that there was any connection between the CAB movement and the CND movement.

Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)

Is the Minister aware that the CABs in Swindon and elsewhere provide a great public service at reasonable cost? He will have to do much better than he has done today if he is to convince them and the national association that the CABs are not being victimised because of a narrow, bigoted, party political vendetta that he is pursuing against Mrs. Ruddock—who happens to work in the CAB in Reading, part of which he purports to represent. The only way that he can convince the House that he has not embarked upon such a vendetta is to apologise now and to restore the £6 million immediately.

Mr. Canavan

And resign.

Dr. Vaughan

I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman is persisting in this kind of allegation, when I have already assured the House that it is utterly unfounded and has not come from me.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

This unhappy episode has the Prime Minister's fingerprints all over it. We should be interested to know the extent to which the Prime Minister's Office has been consulted or involved in these matters. We have had more than half an hour's questions and it has not resulted in one substantiated imputation or criticism against NACAB, despite the fact that the Department has a representative on the management committee. Having slaughtered the consumer advice centres, the Government are now embarrassed, not by any kind of political campaign, but by the impartiality of the citizens advice bureau movement.

I underline also the point which has been put to the Minister by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the degree to which this slur and statement are likely to undermine the support for CABs at local level. With about 900 CABs, one hears of cases where local authorities, as a result of their political prejudice, have not been willing to support them. Does the Minister recognise the extent to which damage can be done at a local level by his statement? Will he issue an immediate circular to all local authorities encouraging them not to stay even but to increase their support for CABs at a local level? No one in the House would deny the Minister's right to demand efficiency but no one in the House can grant him the right to make absolutely unsubstantiated allegations against a well-respected movement. Will he take this last opportunity to withdraw those allegations and give an assurance that the grant will remain untouched and uninterfered with?

Dr. Vaughan

The hon. Gentleman's opening remarks were improper and incorrect. When it comes to slurs, I point out that the majority of the slurs—in fact all the slurs—have come from the Labour Benches. I do not accept that there have been allegations made against this excellent organisation.

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

Utterly incompetent.

Dr. Vaughan

I hope that my remarks, which I have made a number of times, will be seen not as smears against the organisation but as a wholehearted and warm endorsement of what it does.