HC Deb 12 February 2004 vol 417 cc1560-2
9. Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD)

If he will make a statement on the children's fund. [154518]

The Minister for Children (Margaret Hodge)

The children's fund was allocated £450 million in the 2002 spending review. By September 2003, 302,000 children and families were using the services provided by the fund. However, efforts to ensure that all allocations were spent have resulted in a projected overspend. Reductions were therefore made in allocations for 2003–04 onwards.

Following my discussions with key stakeholders, we have taken action from 2003–04 to address the most difficult problems, and I am now urgently re-examining the allocations for next year. I expect to write to partnerships in the next few days.

Norman Lamb

I thank the Minister for that response, but how does she respond to the real anger and frustration felt locally at the far too late announcement of cuts to next year's funding allocation, which puts at risk the important work of groups such as Asperger Norfolk? Representatives of that organisation wrote to me expressing its dismay at the Government's announcement—it may result not only in jeopardising important work for children, but in redundancies—and the fact that it was made at such a late stage in the planning process for next year. Yesterday the Prime Minister confirmed that work was ongoing, so can the Minister offer any help to local groups and would she be prepared to meet a local delegation to hear directly about their concerns?

Margaret Hodge

I certainly understand the concerns expressed by Asperger Norfolk—I received a copy of a letter written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—and by other voluntary organisations throughout the country. That is why we are urgently reexamining the allocations for 2004–05 to establish whether we can do any more to help. I would be happy to meet any delegations representing organisations from Norfolk to discuss their problems with them. I would also like to give an assurance that we greatly value the work of the voluntary sector in respect of the children's fund, which has been a successful programme. Such preventive work among a given group of children is precisely what we want to carry forward as we implement the Green Paper in the coming years.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab)

I accept the problems created for the programme by the underspend, but would my hon. Friend accept that, now the projects are under way and are spending up to profile, cuts that represent a quite small amount of overall Government spending will have profound implications for the ability of some of the projects to continue and to serve some extremely vulnerable children? The work is highly valued locally and many people are anxious to see it continue.

Margaret Hodge

Again, I am aware of problems in my hon. Friend's constituency, not least because she has talked to me about them. The projects are extremely important in providing a valuable contribution to the infrastructure and they are helping us to reach young people who could not be reached in other ways, thus preventing things from going wrong. That is precisely why I am having urgent discussions to see what we can do to help, and I hope to be able to write and inform the relevant authorities over the next few days.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con)

The Minister will recall the Chancellor saying: The war against child poverty requires not only additional cash but also the support and encouragement of all forces of care and compassion". How hollow that sounds now. Against that background, will the Minister meet representatives of national voluntary organisations that work with children to explain face to face why they have been told to brace themselves for cuts of up to 30 per cent. over the next couple of years? They could then explain to her that it will mean redundancies and even the closure of some programmes. Are the budget cuts the result of mismanagement, incompetence or because the money is being diverted to other spending commitments? Does it not show that, in spite of the Chancellor's fine words, there is less rather than more cash available and precious little care and compassion?

Margaret Hodge

I am in constant communication with all the national organisations. Indeed, just this morning I had a conversation with one of the national charities that is responsible for running several partnerships in the country. Although I understand and applaud the hon. Gentleman's current commitment to the role of the voluntary sector, it is rather sad to note that he was among the Members who opposed the Budget, which enabled the Chancellor to provide the moneys to set up the fund, which has been so successful. However, I accept that there are lessons that the Government need to learn from the administration of the fund. That is why I am currently in urgent discussions with my colleagues to establish how to sort out the current position in order to ensure that the contribution of the voluntary sector to the well-being of children can be sustained over the long term.