HL Deb 15 July 1994 vol 556 cc2081-4

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will provide or encourage financial support for citizens advice bureaux.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Strathclyde)

My Lords, the Government provide financial support to the citizens advice bureaux through the grant-in-aid that they give to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and to Citizens Advice Scotland. The Government also welcome the good work of the Friends of the Citizens Advice Bureaux in raising funds to provide one-off grants to local bureaux.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the doubling of the grant since 1979 sounds very generous but is in fact parsimonious because it has not kept pace with the vast increase in the demand for the services of the CAB? Last year the number of calls for advice—many relating to government legislation —rose to 5 million. The present freeze on funding is especially damaging and threatens particularly the work of the CAB in regard to the training of volunteers and the keeping of information files which are two vital pillars of the CAB's work. Will the Government therefore please think again and increase the funding?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, we always keep those matters under review. However, the noble Lord is being slightly churlish when he says that the doubling of the grant since 1979 is parsimonious. We are great believers in the CAB network which is why we shall continue to support NACAB, the national body.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there is a general feeling among social work organisations that the Government take no interest whatever in whether they grow or become smaller? There has been a large increase in funding since 1979 but that is in no way relevant to the demands now made of the CABs.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the Government support the national body at national level. The local CABs are provided for by local authorities. There are some 1,500 CABs nationwide; they provide a very useful source of information. The service is provided at the expense of the taxpayer and the local council tax payer. Generally, the CABs provide an excellent service.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I acknowledge the splendid work which the CABs do locally in advising people. However, is my noble friend aware that in recent years they appear to have become more and more of a pressure group? Will my noble friend say how much of their funds are spent on work as a pressure group?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, through annual discussions with the national association, we try to decide, to some extent, on the carve-up of funds. But NACAB is an independent body. It is subject to democratic control by its members and. particularly by its member organisations—the CABs at local level. It is true that I have received some letters voicing anxiety about the lobbying work which the CABs do, but I believe that it is right that they should be seen to be independent and remain so.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that we are grateful to him, in particular for his latter remarks? We all consider that NACAB does a first-class job on behalf of people who really need help, advice and counselling. We certainly do not want: to be churlish about the grants that have been given so far. But does the Minister not accept that the expansion in demand and need for the services which NACAB offers has been at the behest of government policy? The Government have taken away functions from the local authorities and diverted them to the voluntary organisations. They are relying on those voluntary organisations to fill the gap. But when they do that, they do not receive the necessary funding. Is it not a fact that this year's grant to NACAB will be the same as it was last year and that it is likely to remain at the same level for three years? How can the CABs maintain, let alone increase, the services which are being imposed upon them while the grant is reducing in value?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it is true that there has been no year-on-year increase in the past 12 months but now that inflation is firmly under control there is no need for automatic upward movements in public expenditure. We shall keep the situation under review.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is not the part of the expenditure which is devoted to the training of volunteers money well spent? Otherwise, the unpaid services of the CABs could not be enlisted. There are plenty of suitable volunteers. Do the Government value that training, bearing in mind the complexity of the subjects on which advice is now being sought?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. The subjects on which advice is sought are becoming more complicated. We need good quality volunteers. There is no shortage of volunteers and NACAB and Citizens Advice Scotland do tremendous work in improving the quality of training.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is it not true that a major determining factor of demand on the citizens advice bureaux is not inflation but the influence of government legislation? Will the Government consider making a special one-off grant to cope with the huge increase in the number of inquiries the bureaux are likely to receive as a result of the criminal justice Bill?

Lord Strathclyde

No, my Lords; I can see no connection whatever in that respect.

Lord Bottomley

My Lords, when I was Member of Parliament for Middlesbrough a close friend of mine was secretary of the local CAB. Is the Minister aware that she recently told me that those bureaux cannot today deliver the same high standards of service because of the shortage of funds?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, as I said in response to an earlier question, the responsibility for funding local offices falls on the local authority. I hope that the friend of the noble Lord, Lord Bottomley, will make representations to the local authority on the basis of her own requirements for the local CAB centre.

The Lord Bishop of Peterborough

My Lords, will the Minister kindly consider being a little more generous, not only on the grounds of human misery— because, for many, the world has become more and more complicated—but also on the grounds of economy? Citizens advice bureaux are often the first line of recourse. If they can deal with people immediately, it saves a good deal of trouble down the line with the law becoming involved, great expense being incurred and the whole process proving more of a burden on the nation than the grant which goes to the CAB.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate has put forward a good reason—and I agree with him—as to why we continue to support the national network. Indeed, last year the grant was frozen when so many other public programmes suffered a reduction in the amount of funding.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I think the whole House is pleased to hear the sympathetic response of the Minister. I know that the noble Lord is doing the best he can. I believe we all echo the words of the right reverend Prelate; namely, that citizens advice bureaux are very economical and good value for money from the Government's point of view, apart from anything else. Given that the matter turns out to be the responsibility of his department—which, I must admit, I was surprised to discover—will the Minister recommend to his right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade that, at the very least after this year's freeze, this is an area where he could validly press for greater funding in the current public expenditure round with a view to saving money elsewhere within the public budget, which is what the CAB very much helps the Government to do?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, not only is it the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry; the matter comes under my own ministerial responsibility.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Strathclyde

Indeed, it is an area of policy that I find immensely interesting. Of course, the public expenditure round for next year is just starting. As I said, such matters are kept continually under review.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I believe that the House would like to move on to the next Question on the Order Paper.

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