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My Lords, the hour is late but I wish briefly to explain why I have added my name to this amendment moved so compellingly by the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, whose credentials in this field are second to none.
In Committee it was argued that the Bill, as currently framed, could have serious unintended consequences both for social enterprises and for the wider voluntary and community sector. In my remarks, I want to focus on the wider voluntary and community sector. The basic concern expressed was that staff working on the NHS Commissioning Board, and indeed more widely, would interpret the Bill to mean that capacity building and other measures to support the development both of social enterprises and of voluntary and community organisations would be outlawed. A consequence of this would be to make it harder for charities and community groups, which are often very small with tiny management capacity, to provide the services and support that many people, particularly the most vulnerable and the hard-to-reach, rely on.
I know that many charities and community groups are particularly effective in reaching out to the people who the statutory sector finds hard to reach and they then can advocate on their behalf and indeed can help provide an authentic user voice in the system. In Committee the Minister gave assurances that essentially these concerns were unfounded and that the Government will,
"ensure that procurement practices do not unfairly restrict the opportunities for charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises to offer health and care services".-[Hansard, 28/11/11; col. 108.]
When I followed this up afterwards with very helpful officials at the Department of Health they said that the NHS Commissioning Board would be publishing guidance on this issue for commissioners. That guidance I am sure will be helpful but is it enough? There is always a danger that guidance will not be adhered to, will be misinterpreted or indeed will not be seen.
I want to refer very briefly to my own experience in this field. Until a month ago I was chief executive of the charity Relate. Our local centres which are very small with very limited management capacity found themselves in a commissioning exercise in relation to the talking therapies part of the NHS services. It was not an encouraging experience, to be frank. These local centres often found that potential NHS commissioners would wrongly assume or argue that the local Relate centres would be quite unable to mesh with the NHS's systems, data, outcomes measurement or requirements. Often this simply was not the case but it reflected a lack of understanding on the part of the commissioners. I know that this has been the experience of a number of other charities both big and small.
In conclusion, this modest amendment would be more effective than simply guidance in preventing these unintended consequences. I very much look forward to hearing the Minister's concluding remarks.