HC Deb 22 December 1983 vol 51 cc625-30 2.32 pm
Mrs. Angela Rumbold (Mitcham and Morden)

I remind the House of the start of the community programme and its objectives. In an answer to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment said: The community programme was started in October 1982 to provide employment opportunities for the long-term unemployed, largely on a part-time basis. By the end of October 1983, 106,000 places had been filled. This represents a considerable achievement on the part of the Manpower Services Commission and all concerned. Places have been filled rather faster than budgeted and, subject to parliamentary approval, I am making available an additional £10 million for this financial year to cover costs above the original estimate. The Commission will be carefully controlling the filling of places in the remainder of this financial year so as to remain within the revised cash limits. My right hon. Friend continued: I am also able to announce that in the light of the progress made, and the evident value of the community programme, I am asking the Manpower Services Commission to run the programme for a further two years from October 1984 on the basis of 130,000 filled places for the long-term unemployed, and that financial provision will be made accordingly."—[Official Report, 16 November 1983; Vol 48, c. 482.]

The subsequent problem was that the marketing of that scheme in the "unemployed" world took some time to get off the ground so that, although only 106,000 places were filled in October 1983, by the end of this November, when it was discovered that the money set aside within the Manpower Services Commission for the programmes was over-committed, the number of firm placements had risen considerably.

About 920 placements were received in the south-west London area, where my constituency lies. The limit allowed by the Manpower Services Commission following the shortfall in cash was 718 placements. Even if the cash flow resumes, as expected, in April 1984, there are likely to be sufficient funds for only 850 people.

Deen city farm receives its funding primarily from two sources. The Manpower Services Commission funds the employment of three key adult workers to oversee the running of the farm, and under the youth training scheme young school leavers are engaged on training primarily on constructing outbuildings, carpentry work and some animal husbandry. Both girls and boys are engaged on that work. The community programme money is intended to supplement and enhance the work of this extremely valuable venture by providing transport to enhance the school liaison work, the running of a charity shop, which is becoming extremely successful, and the setting out of a butterfly park.

It may help the House to know that the farm is situated on allotment land close to a substantial local authority housing estate, where a number of young people in particular do not during their ordinary lives have ready access to work with or to see the type of animals that are kept on the farm. The farm began as a voluntary project about five years ago. Due to the considerable amount of devoted care by the people involved in it, it has developed into a worthwhile asset for the surrounding community, providing work for the young and now for the older unemployed. It is of irreplaceable educational value for the community at large, and I am, therefore, seeking the support of the Minister to prevent the disaster that might ensue if we cannot overcome the abrupt cut-off of money on 10 February 1984. This abrupt cut-off of money is hanging over the Deen city farm project because it appears that Manpower Services Commission funds run out on that date.

Everyone knows that there are other revenue sources. Cutting the money could create a number of problems. Currently there are about 300 animals on the farm whose safety is ensured by the employment of a night watchman. Two years ago there was an unfortunate incident of vandalism when many of the animals were mutilated and some were killed. Therefore, the employment of a night watchman is essential and is a key to safeguarding the project.

The continued employment of the other two key workers is in question. Both of them have spent a considerable amount of time and effort and they have been on a number of courses at public expense to enrich and enhance their experience and their knowledge of animal husbandry. The prospect of expanding the farm could be lost.

That aspect raises a further problem because if any of those three key workers—who are employed on an annual basis, with renewable contracts on 1 January—has a break in his or her continued employment, it may mean that those three workers, each of whom is exceedingly experienced in work on the farm, will be unemployed, and that would prevent them from being reemployed within 12 months. Therefore, the experience of those workers would be lost to this project, and any new people who were employed in their place would need considerable time in which to gain the knowledge and expertise that they are providing for the farm.

By about 10 February, when the cut is likely to occur, a number of the animals, including pigs, sheep and goats, will be producing young. A small number of pedigree pigs will farrow at that time. With the key workers' jobs in danger, the lives of the animals that are about to farrow will be put at risk as farrowing pedigree pigs, without the benefit of expert help, is a dangerous and difficult exercise. There is thus also a risk that those animals will not survive.

Capital items purchased for the community programme include a minibus, farm shop equipment, a concrete mixer and a typewriter. At present it is expected that the MSC will have to reclaim those items and sell them at a loss, only to repurchase the same items at current prices if the programme is resumed in April. That would be highly wasteful.

The sum required to ensure the continuation of the project is about £21,000. I in no way suggest that it is a small sum, but I believe that with a certain margin of ingenuity and flexibility on the part of the people who consider resources a solution could be found. I realise that my hon. Friend would have to suggest this to the MSC, as it is not entirely within his remit to tell the MSC how to spend its money. I hope that the Department will stress to the MSC that the sharp withdrawal of community programme money in the early spring could jeopardise the project to such an extent that not only would the farm, which is a worthwhile asset for the London borough of Merton, need funds to restart its work but a number of people would have to be retrained and animals lost would have to be repurchased.

The people involved have worked for five years to establish, initially as an entirely voluntary project, a worthwhile and exciting venture not just for young people in London but for the socially deprived and especially the handicapped. I put it to the Minister sincerely that the project is well worth consideration. I hope that he will do all that he can to assist it to continue without interruption in the interests both of good housekeeping and of humanity and common sense.

2.42 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold) for raising this matter. I am sure that the House is pleased that today's timetable has been used in this way, as these arrangements are devised precisely for this purpose so that important matters of constituency interest can be raised and the House can consider specific examples of real problems and appreciate the effects of general programmes on particular communities.

My hon. Friend has done the House a great service in setting out so clearly the position of Deen city farm. The Government feel that the project is a most valuable contribution to the community in which it is situated and we congratulate those who started it and continued if for some years without any help from the community programme. Anything that I have to say is said against a background of great support for an imaginative scheme, which we were very pleased to see take part in the community programme. My hon. Friend will agree that it would be a great sadness if the community programme, which is meant to encourage and aid the provision of help in such areas, should become a means of destroying that which has been created. It is in that spirit I am sure that my hon. Friend has proposed this subject for debate.

However, the community programme is meant to provide funds for only a year. That is the basis on which funding was requested, and that is the basis on which funding was granted. A problem can arise when people envisage, or embark on, a continuous programme on the basis of temporary funding. Perhaps it is wrong to refer to a sharp cut-off in February. All that will happen in February is that the period for which the community programme was agreed will come to an end. It is true that there is provision for an extension for a further year or more, but the idea of the community programme is to provide a means whereby various schemes may be started, and other schemes expanded, to give an opportunity to those who have been unemployed for long periods. The purpose is to prime and encourage voluntary organisations, statutory bodies and other groups which are prepared to help in this partnership in order to provide opportunities for people who have found it difficult to find jobs.

The programme is based upon a clear agreement about the length of time. In this case, the project had specific purposes, including building a raised garden for the disabled, operating an arts and crafts shop, liaising with and providing transport for local schools visiting the farm, and constructing a pond and piggery. Previously, stables were built under the youth opportunities programme, but the care and tending of the animals, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, is not part of the project approved by the MSC.

Here is an excellent enterprise which was fully in existence before the community programme entered the scene. A community programme project was set up, which the Government were pleased to welcome. Because of the aid from the community programme it has been possible to extend the enterprise. The programme was also almost incidentally valuable in ensuring the provision of the night-time guardianship which protects the animals from vandals, although it was not the purpose of the community programme to provide that guardianship.

The House is aware of the reasons why the Government have had to cut back on the automatic, semi-automatic or presumed extension of present schemes. Our reasons are twofold and are connected with success of the programme. First, the community programme has proved to be more successful in its take-up than anyone could have expected. Whenever one organises a programme of this size and complexity, one has to imagine that some of the places promised and some of the opportunities offered will not materialise. One assumes that not every place will be taken up nor every sponsor able to provide what he has contracted to provide. In order to ensure that we have the number of places that we want, we have to aim above that number, making an estimate of what proportion we are likely to get. The House is well aware that there was a much more successful take-up than on other schemes. That was bound to embarrass us. There was also a problem in certain parts of the scheme.

What I am about to say will probably be taken amiss by some but I must say it. Many people, including members of the GLC, did a great deal to discourage the community programme. They sought to use party political reasons to try to remove the opportunities that the community programme was to provide for those who were unemployed. I deeply deplore the way in which people in jobs, and able to make ends meet, should use their party political prejudices to remove opportunities from others. That was the action taken by the extreme Left-wing element within the GLC and other organisations The result was, as my hon. Friend said, that it took a marketing exercise to bring the scheme to the notice of those people in whose interests the community programme was produced before we received responses and sponsors.

The result of that marketing exercise was that, instead of responses coming in the way that they should in arty sensible society not plagued by Left-wing extremists—generally and gradually over the development of the scheme—it took some time to get the word across. I know that my hon. Friend took a major part in ensuring that people in her area were not misled by the propaganda put out by those opposed to the community scheme. She and many others were successful. Everyone of good will, of all political parties and interests, particularly voluntary organisations and churches, are enthusiastic about the community programme. However, the schemes came through in a rush and people signed on in a rush. We moved suddenly from not having enough places or people to take them up to having all the places that we had sought and a great deal of pressure upon those places from people who wanted to go on to the community programme. That was why we had to have a moratorium and hold up the expansion that we had hoped to continue.

The Government have shown their interest and support for the programme by extending its life, as my right lion. Friend's announcement made perfectly clear. We have also said that we shall make an extra £10 million available., subject to parliamentary approval, to cover costs in this financial year. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the Government have shown themselves alive to the possibilities of this remarkable and extremely enterprising scheme. The scheme's success is the reason for some of our difficulties. The Government have said that they will provide more resources this year and have committed themselves to the scheme for a further two years.

The scheme will run until at least October 1986. I cannot say to my hon. Friend that we shall make an exception for this programme in February 1984. She will understand that were I to do so, I would be throwing into doubt the whole mechanism that we have had to introduce to ensure that we keep within the cash limits that we have set out for the programme.

We have no direct responsibility for the many animals that my hon. Friend mentioned. It seems to be a very fecund farm, as most of the animals appear either to be pregnant or recently to have given birth. As a Minister in the Department of Employment I did not expect to be discussing the arrival of pedigree piglets in Mitcham and Morden. It is not the place that I would think of first for such an event. However, that underlines the importance of the project. Without it the area would not have a direct opportunity to see what happens in agriculture. The chance to do so is particularly valuable to the young. Representing an agricultural constituency, I consider it most important that those who live in our big cities and their suburbs should understand what goes on in the countryside. That is good for them and for those of us who represent the special needs of those areas. I thank my hon. Friend for underlining the importance of the issue.

I cannot give my hon. Friend the direct assurance that she would like. However, I shall ask my officials to investigate fully to see whether there is a way to help. There may be methods, perhaps not as directly under the community programme as one might hope, to meet those needs. I shall do all that I can to ensure that the real issue that my hon. Friend raised is met in the best way possible. Once I have completed those investigations, I shall write to her, and I hope that I shall be able to provide her with something with which she will be pleased. However, I cannot promise that at the moment, as I must complete the discussions and see what else can be done.

I should like to refer to a general matter that arises out of the specific case that my hon. Friend raised. The Government are most concerned to reduce unemployment. That is why our economic policy is based on the principle of getting Britain's industry and commerce into a condition that makes it possible for us to compete and to earn our way in the world, to pay the wages and provide the jobs, which alone comes from producing goods and services that people are prepared to pay for.

Therefore, our first priority must be to create a society that is capable of producing that wealth. That means that any increase in taxation or the use of profits and personal disposable income for purposes other than the creation of wealth, makes it more difficult to produce real and continuing jobs. My hon. Friend knows as well as I do that that balance is difficult to strike. Therefore, it is not possible to have a policy that makes the community programme open-ended and able to use every penny that is around.

The Government must also try to provide help for the unemployed, for example through the imaginative and exciting youth training scheme, which was opposed, attacked and held up by the loony Left throughout the country. Such schemes enable us to do something for those who otherwise cannot be helped directly with proper jobs. The community programme is another of those schemes. I hope that my hon. Friend will help me to ensure that the community programme does not become a crutch upon which schemes that otherwise would have operated successfully under voluntary support depend, so that when the crutch is taken away at the end of the programme the whole thing collapses.

I appreciate that there are special reasons for concern in this case. I do not suggest that the general references relate to the case raised by my hon. Friend. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that it is difficult to envisage an extension and continuation of the community programme if it appeared to be being used, although as a temporary system, for the permanent expansion of voluntary and other ideas. If this form of discussion must take place at the end of every community programme scheme, the Government will face difficulties in using their money in this way and in getting taxpayers to continue to fund them.

In promising my hon. Friend that I shall make every effort to find a way to meet her needs—I have every sympathy with the case that she brought before the House—I hope that I can use this opportunity to warn that we must not use the scheme in such a way that it is more difficult to provide opportunities such as have been provided at Deen city farm in other areas of the country which may also need them.