HL Deb 30 January 2003 vol 643 cc1284-6

3.22 p.m.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether in the event of a merger of the Community Fund with the New Opportunities Fund they will protect the independence, devolved structure and funding of the Community Fund.

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, the Government have not taken a decision on a possible merger. However, our commitment to maintain until 2009 the share of lottery funds going to charitable good causes will hold for any new body. The independence of lottery distributors in making decisions on individual grants would also be preserved. No decisions have been made on the structure of any new distributor, but we acknowledged in our recent review of lottery funding the importance of local decision-making.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her reply. Can she give the House an assurance? There is one general concern in the charity and voluntary sector and two particular anxieties. The general concern is that the notion for the merger is driven more by the Whitehall instinct for control than anything else. The two particular concerns are: first, that the present highly devolved and applicant-sensitive grant-making procedures might be centralised; and, secondly, that the often imaginative and bold grant-making decisions and policies of the Community Fund might be sanitised. Will the noble Baroness comment on those anxieties?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I say, first, to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, that this has nothing to do with Whitehall control. It is about trying to find the most effective form of lottery distribution. On the two specific points about which he says there is concern in the voluntary sector, perhaps I can give him the reassurance that, before any merger occurs, further discussions will take place with all the interested parties, including the voluntary sector. It is the Government's intention to ensure that there is no sanitisation, as the noble Lord puts it, but that there is an independent system for deciding on the many hundreds of bids that are received from the thousands of organisations in the charitable sector which currently receive lottery grants.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the implementation of such a merger would require primary legislation?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I can confirm that primary legislation would be required for a full merger. But it would be possible to bring together the two existing distributors from an administrative point of view so that they could be co-located, their boards could be merged and they could share a common administration, pending legislation.

Baroness Pitkeathley

My Lords, as chair of the New Opportunities Fund, I declare an interest in this Question. Is my noble friend aware that the New Opportunities Fund gives almost as much money to the voluntary and community sectors as does the Community Fund? Is she also aware that it shares the concern of our colleagues in the Community Fund and, indeed, in the wider voluntary sector about the maintenance and independence of that funding stream? However, does she agree that the potential benefits of such a merger might include making lottery funding more accessible, more visible and more flexible, and that the aim of any such merger must be to make more lottery funding available to more disadvantaged individuals and communities across the United Kingdom in the most effective and efficient way possible?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I can confirm that about 40 per cent of NOF funding goes to the voluntary sector. I believe that the purpose of considering a merger is to try to build on the strengths of both bodies and to form a new organisation which provides a fresh and streamlined funding source for communities with the minimum amount of bureaucracy and reduced spending on overheads.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that any grants given by any new body—if the two bodies are to be merged—will cover the full costs, including the overheads, of the activity being funded and that support and advice will be made available throughout the period of the projects undertaken?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I cannot confirm the details of what the new arrangements might be for funding particular projects. However, I can say that discussions will take place with the voluntary sector and its views will, of course, be taken into account. I am absolutely sure that the lottery distributor—whether the two distributors merge or stay separate—will continue to want to give the type of advice to which the noble Baroness has just referred.