HC Deb 16 June 2003 vol 407 cc8-10
5. Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall)

What plans he has to promote community engagement and active citizenship. [119015]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart)

Last week, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary published a comprehensive statement on civic renewal. It is fundamentally about unlocking the power and potential of local communities and their citizens, enabling active citizens to provide solutions to their own problems. We are bringing the civic renewal agenda into everything we do in the Home Office, whether criminal justice reform, policing or the development of assets in the community. Community engagement and active citizenship are key to a healthy society and crucial to delivering the Government's objectives.

Mr. Khabra

I thank my hon. Friend for that response and congratulate her and my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on their appointments to the Front Bench.

What plans does the Home Office have to ensure that those efforts to engage the community in citizenship will reach out to the ethnic minority communities, too? What contacts will my hon. Friend make with other Departments to ensure that that is the case?

Fiona Mactaggart

I suspect that one reason why I have been appointed to this role is absolutely to do that, because I will have responsibility for volunteering and citizenship activity and for racial equality. I really believe that making those contacts with communities and enabling other Departments to ensure that they engage communities and that the race equality aspects of their policies are effective will be key in delivering the responsibilities that the Home Secretary has given me.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment. Does she agree that there is probably no better way to be an active citizen than to become a special constable? As a Thames valley Member herself, will she explain why she thinks that the number of special constables has fallen by so much and what the Government will do to try to reverse the trend?

Fiona Mactaggart

The hon. Gentleman is right that special constables form a very important part of civic engagement, and I am pleased to note that many special constables in my area have taken up full-time employment with the police, as we are increasing police recruitment. I suspect that the number of special constables has fallen because many of them have been able to take on professional responsibilities and use their experience as specials to enable them to become professional police officers. I hope that more people will take that route into serving our communities.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

May I offer my warmest congratulations to my hon. Friend on her promotion to the Front Bench? Does she agree that active citizenship can flourish only in an atmosphere where bigotry and hatred are banished and unacceptable? To that end, does she agree that we still have much to do in relation to equality law and updating our anti-discrimination legislation to ensure that all our citizens can be free from the horror of being discriminated against because of their beliefs, colour, gender, age or sexual orientation? Will she support further Government action to provide protections in those important areas?

Fiona Mactaggart

I thank my hon. Friend for her generous remarks. I agree that we have to work to free our society from bigotry and the way in which bigotry and prejudice fuel attacks and diminish people's rights. Part of the way to do that is through legislation, but there is more to be done by challenging attitudes, engaging communities and so on. I hope that we will go forward on both those fronts to deliver an effective way to engage people properly and to diminish the bigotry and prejudice that blight our communities.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

Does the Minister agree that nothing is more important to community engagement and active citizenship than schools and voluntary organisations working with young people? Can she explain why—after a year's disruption caused by the delays and incompetence of the Criminal Records Bureau and the appalling company, Capita—those organisations are now faced with a doubling of charges?

Fiona Mactaggart

I understand that there has been no doubling of charges for volunteer checks or any charge for checking on volunteers. If I am wrong about that in any way—I am new to these responsibilities—I shall write to the hon. Gentleman. Of course, there are expensive charges for professional staff, and that affects voluntary organisations, but it is important that we protect people effectively. It is also important that we do not inhibit people from volunteering because of the cost of checking criminal records.

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