With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the review of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. In the Adjournment debate last week I said that I would make an announcement to the House on the details of the review as soon as I could. I am glad to say that I can now announce the chairman and terms of reference of the review, which the association and I have agreed is urgently needed.
The terms of reference will be:
To review the functioning of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and to make recommendations, with a view to ensuring that the Association gives the best possible service and support to local citizens advice bureaux; and that the monies available to the Association are spent in the most effective way.
The review will be chaired by Sir Douglas Lovelock. A firm of management consultants will be appointed to assist in its work.
A senior partner of the firm chosen will also be a member of the review team. I propose that a third member should be appointed and I hope to announce the name shortly.
The terms of reference and the membership that I have announced have been agreed with the national association.
I have asked the chairman to report to me in the next six months. The review team will, of course, work closely with the national association; and the report will be made available to it once I have received it. I propose that the report should be published.
The management consultants assisting the review team will examine the staffing and management structure of the national association and will be asked to complete their work within the next three months. In accordance with normal practice, we shall be seeking tenders at once for this job on the basis of a shortlist to be discussed with Sir Douglas Lovelock and the national association.
I am very glad to say that complete agreement has been reached with the national association that the review should be carried forward on this basis, and I am sure that that will be welcomed by the whole House. In the light of this, and my helpful discussions with the national association's officers, I can confirm that Government funding for NACAB for the whole of the current financial year—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Ah!"]—will be maintained on the normal basis.
The whole House will welcome that assurance to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux that at least it may proceed to budget on a proper basis and not on the hand-to-mouth basis that the Minister originally proposed. Does the Minister appreciate that no one would dispute that a body receiving public money should submit to a review of how that money is spent? Is he aware that the national association would welcome such a review?
The House will note with pleasure that the inquiry into staffing and efficiency is not intended to deal with the allegations of improper political activities, which emanated from his Department, but is it not the case that, however the allegations originated, the Minister has still not said clearly and unambiguously that they are without foundation? After three previous invitations, may I call upon him to do so now? When does the Minister propose to reply to the letter that I wrote to him on 12 April, inviting him to acknowledge the damage that has been done to the relations of some local citizens advice bureaux with their local authorities, on which they depend for finance, and to circularise local authorities urging them to continue funding citizens advice bureaux in the vital work that they are doing, at least to the same level as before?
If, as the Minister has just said, he is anxious that local citizens advice bureaux should receive
the best possible service and support",
is the answer to my letter that he will send that circular to local authorities, or that he will not?
I am glad about the first part of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks and about the welcome that he has given to the statement. I also welcome his supportive remarks, which are contrary to many of the comments that have been made, which undermine local bureaux—[AN HON. MEMBER: "That is a bit rich."] As to the various allegations, I have said several times that when complaints are put to me it would be quite improper not to pass on the general nature of what was said. I have announced clear terms of reference for the review, which speak for themselves. It is not for me to comment further on its scope, which, within the terms of reference, is a matter for the independent review team to determine. I made it clear in my statement and in the Adjournment debate that I expected local authorities to continue to support the local bureaux. On Friday, I gave an undertaking that I would consider the possibility of a circular to back that up.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the achieving of agreement represents a signal success and will be welcomed by everyone? Is he also aware that the closing of DHSS caller offices, now that the benefits are no longer paid out, still leaves them providing a service by advising elderly people on how to fill in forms? Would not that service be performed better by the citizens advice bureaux? Will my hon. Friend bear that in mind when he considers future allocations of resources to CABs?
Will the Minister confirm that his statement has nothing to do with the highly critical report on DHSS local offices that was sent to the DHSS in December 1981 by NACAB and which drew attention to massive shortfalls in departmental services to the citizens of this country, as a result of which NACAB was having to pick up the pieces?
In relation to the question asked by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) about the terms of reference, will the Minister confirm that the review body can look at NACAB in conjunction with its services to local CABs? Is the Minister aware of the effect that mass unemployment has had on the full-time and part-time staff of NACAB? The review body is welcome to visit Birmingham, where NACAB provides a local service that cannot be provided by any other body. There is nothing whatsoever to hide.
The hon. Member seems to be a little confused. Once again, he is mixing up a number of different points and trying to make some rather cheap political remarks by widening the issue. I have already had an invitation to visit one of the Birmingham bureaux, which I am happy to accept. I do not see any relationship between DHSS activities and what we are talking about today.
Will the Minister acknowledge that there will be a warm welcome in Northern Ireland for the resumption of funding for the current year? Will he ensure that local authorities are not discouraged from expanding the assistance that they give to the local citizens advice bureau, particularly in the light of increases in overheads through charges for rents and so on?
Will my hon. Friend accept, from one who was critical of his initial decision, grateful thanks that he is to restore the second £3 million? Is he aware that some uncertainty has been created as a consequence of the events of the past 10 days or so? Therefore, will he consider issuing a circular to local authorities so that they continue to support these worthwhile voluntary organisations?
As a former local CAB chairman, I am relieved that the Minister has withdrawn his ill-judged threat to cut CABs' funding this year. On a Scottish point, is the inquisition that the Minister has announced to extend to the entirely autonomous Scottish parts of the CABs? If so, is that necessary, as SACAB's organisation and staffing have already gone through an inspection by the Minister's Department in recent months? Has the Minister had any specific complaint about political bias in Scottish CABs? When does he expect to reply to the parliamentary question that I tabled on this issue, which should have been dealt with six days ago?
I resent the suggestion that this is an inquisition. This is a review, agreed between the Government and NACAB. The hon. Gentleman does not do justice to NACAB when he tries to claim that in some way the review will be an aggressive inquisitorial attack. There is no question of a cut, and I have made that clear in a series of remarks. There have been three letters from Scotland, each of which has made a complaint, and I shall be answering the hon. Member's question today.
Will the Minister make it clear that, in its terms of reference, the inquiry team has the right to recommend that the added burden put on national and local CABs could result in advice, which the Government will accept, that the association needs more money, not less?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the terms of reference of the inquiry, which are:
To review the functioning of the National Association … with a view to ensuring that the Association gives the best possible service and support to local citizens advice bureaux".
I congratulate the Minister on arriving at an agreed review, but will that review be able to consider whether there is any party political bias in any of these bureaux and be able to make recommendations accordingly? In the citizens advice bureaux that I have been conversant with over many years, there never has been any party political bias, and there is no reason why there should be. Will it be within the terms of reference to make a recommendation in that regard?
The agreed terms of reference have been designed to be as constructive and helpful as possible to the movement as a whole. It will be for the independent review team to determine what it looks at within the terms of reference.
I welcome the decision to extend the grant for a further six months. Does the Minister accept that most of those who have had close contact with NACAB think that the review is unnecessary? Is he aware that his intervention has caused a great deal of concern, not so much to the public, who already have a great respect for the work of individual advice bureaux, as to the many thousands of volunteers who unstintingly give their time so that the services can be provided? Is the Minister aware of what he has done to those—most of them quite non-political—who give their time to help this service?
Had the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) been here, I am sure that he would have joined me in congratulating both the national association and my hon. Friend on reaching agreement. I understand that the national association welcomes this early review rather than the later inspection that had been planned. Will the review make recommendations so that the results of the work of the CABs can be shown to those public authorities and Government Departments that might be able to adjust their approach to consumers of services in such a way that the CABs need not grow year by year as they are at the moment?
Will the Minister admit that he has publicly mishandled the attack on the CABs and take this opportunity of paying tribute to the fact that, in the past 12 months, the bureaux have had an increase of 11 per cent. in their cases, dealing with over 5 million, many of which have been brought about by the Government? Does the Minister realise that Members of Parliament are already overburdened with problems facing their constituents, and that if the CABs did not exist the burden on hon. Members would be far greater?
The hon. Gentleman obviously has not been following the exchanges. Over and again, I have paid tribute to the work done by the CABs and to the way in which the Government over the past three years have consistently increased the funds available to the CABs. That shows the amount of support that we give the association.
Although I welcome the fact that the inquiry is going out to tender and is not being handed out without tender as the Government have been accustomed to do recently in other matters, in broad terms what is the expected cost of this, where is the money to come from and will it come from the money originally allocated to NACAB?
How much will the inquiry cost? Will it not be an expensive exercise in face-saving, to which the Minister is stooping after having made—or having acknowledged — a number of unsubstantiated innuendoes? Does not the result appear to be a combination of a witch hunt and a face-saving exercise? As the Government place a cash limit on virtually every activity, except defence, upon which they get their dirty little fingers, why will the Minister not tell the House the cost of this exercise?
For the simple reason, as the hon. Gentleman knows, that until we receive the tenders and examine the scope of the review—a better word than inquiry—we will not know the exact cost. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that it will be done thoroughly and quickly because we see great advantages in having a full review, done properly and rapidly.
Why does not the Minister, in simple language, withdraw the unfounded allegation of political bias? It is not a difficult thing for him to do. He must understand that those who help in citizens advice bureaux, particularly those who give advice in a professional or semi-professional capacity, must be seen to be giving that advice free from bias. He owes it to them to withdraw the slur.
I am disappointed that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not welcome what we are doing and accept it in the spirit in which it has been entered into. I do not see how I can possibly withdraw allegations that I have not made. It is part of my job to pass on complaints as they arise and that is what I have been doing. I should have thought that I was the person who had been most witch-hunted. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh".]
If the Minister has that sense of aggression it may be because he has been something of a witch. Is he aware that workers in the citizens advice bureaux in my borough to whom I have spoken volunteered to me the fact that they were incensed by his statement and that they believe that a slur has been deliberately cast on them? If that was not his intention, why did he specifically refer to the allegations that have been reported to him that citizens advice bureaux have been engaged in biased political activities? Was there any need for the hon. Gentleman to refer to that?
I hope that when those anxieties were put to him the hon. Gentleman reassured the local volunteers and I hope that he did not do so in quite the terms that he has just used to me. I welcome NACAB's recent reaffirmation of political impartiality in the CAB service and the assurances that I have received that any breach of that principle will be thoroughly investigated.