There are three amendments in the group, and I shall go over them in turn.
Amendment 3 is a probing amendment and not one that I intend to press to a vote. It is intended to provoke some debate about the inclusion of police authorities and chief officers of police as partner authorities in eradicating child poverty. I recognise that they are statutory bodies and already members of local strategic partnerships, which is entirely appropriate in the context. However, I must admit that I find it a little difficult to understand their core role and purpose in defeating child poverty, particularly given how child poverty is defined in the Bill, with the four targets specifically focused on income poverty.
I can see that the police have a role in child well-being, because children need to be safe and secure; that is even more important for children than for adults. The Government, however, rejected our amendment 58, which sought to place well-being in clause 8. We were told that the Bill is not about childhood well-being, which is fair enough; that is the Governments prerogative. However, I was left questioning why chief officers of police and police authorities are mentioned.
It is not just me who suffers from a little confusion about such matters. When we saw reference in the Bill to chief police officers, Conservative Members said that they thought it appropriate for the Association of Chief Police Officers to give evidence to the Committee. ACPOs feedback was that it was not sure why it was being asked to give evidence in discussions about a Child Poverty Bill and that it could not see the immediate relevance of being asked to do so; I am not the only one to question its involvement. Involving ACPO would certainly do no harm, but I can see more logic in amendment 62, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness. That would include mental health trusts in the list of partner authorities.
It is almost a clichĂ(c) to say that mental health trusts are the Cinderella service of the NHS, but they seem to be cast in that role given that the Bill makes no reference to them. I have no doubt that the Minister will direct me to clause 20(1)(c) and say that local authorities can include mental health trusts if they so choose. However, it is a little odd to say that councils must work with the police whether or not councils think that they are helpful, but that councils only may work with mental health trusts. It would be more logical to put things the other way round, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness will explain with his customary panache when speaking to his amendment.
I have huge sympathy with the idea that mental health is a key issue in tackling child poverty. I suppose that the rationale behind the list might be that it covers a set of commissioning bodies. For example, acute hospital trusts are not included in the list; presumably, that is because primary care trusts decide what they do and how they spend the money. Does that not apply to mental health trusts, too?
There may well be logic in what the hon. Gentleman says, but I am concerned about the fact that mental health trusts are statutory bodies. He is correct to say that they clearly have an important role, but I am questioning why they should not have a seat at the table, as of right, because they are spending public money and providing services. I accept that they are not the commissioning bodyprimary care trusts arebut mental health trusts have a vital role in helping parents of children with mental health problems get back into the workplace and thus enable children to be the productive workers of the future. I shall listen with interest to what my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness has to say on the subject.
I have some sympathy with amendment 73, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Regents Park and Kensington, North. We could argue that regional development agencies, learning and skills councils and their successor bodies, which are charged with local economic regeneration policy and local skills training, have a good case for being included in the Bill. So, perhaps, do chambers of commerce and further education colleges, as they play an integral part in what we are trying to do.
The hon. Ladys amendment is supported by London Councils, the collective body that represents all local authorities in London. It thinks it surprising that regional development agencies and the Learning and Skills Council, which is soon to become the skills funding agency, have been omitted from the list of partner authorities. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness wishes to speak to his amendment, but I will listen with interest to the rationale for the current list of partner authorities when the Minister responds.
As we have heard, the danger of having a list of partner authorities is that we focus on the partners that are not in the list, but the danger of having a comprehensive list of dozens of partner agencies is that everybody feels that responsibility lies elsewhere. It is then hard to focus, and some of the work at local-area-partnership level reflects that.
I have a strong view that it makes sense to keep a tight focus. The emphasis at the local level on commissioning is sensible and sound, and we should not dilute responsibility too much. However, in practice there is frequently a weakness in the relationship between a local authority, those agenciesthe PCT and othersthat commission services in the area, and the more regionally based and, in some cases, national organisations, whose service delivery and commissioning can have huge implications for a local area service.
I can certainly see my hon. Friends point. I am sure that everyone here has experienced constituency casework involving a lack of communication and a lack of data that would allow policy to be shaped on prisoners children and many other issues.
The two agencies that I want to add to the list are particularly important and germane. The regional development agencies have a driving role in child care delivery, and the Ministers have graciously conceded the importance of child care as a key policy commitment to be specified in the Bill. I welcome that, but the resourcing of a significant amount of child care to assist in the employability of parents is done through the regional development agencies. For example, the London Development Agency is the delivery agent for the child care affordability programme in London, which has significantly helped to deal with affordability and child care delivery. It has just awarded another £1 million to my local authority to provide 200 child care places for parents seeking work. Having that bound into the local delivery of child care provision is critical, and I therefore strongly commend the inclusion of the regional development agencies.
The Learning and Skills Council, which is soon to change its name to the Skills Funding Agency, is also very relevant, and I shall give an example of why. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions came to a school in my constituency and met a group of parents who were supported by a voluntary organisation called Women Like Us, which does important outreach work in traditionally hard-to-reach communities, with primarily Bangladeshi and Arabic-speaking women. A strong message from the women to my right hon. Friend was that many of them wanted to work in schools and child care settings because the working hours made a great deal of sense for them as parents, and there was also a cultural dimension, in that they regarded such settings as good and safe places to begin their working lives. However, they were not funded, so they were required to pay for a level 3 national vocational qualification in child care, which is now a necessary qualification for working in a school setting. On the one hand, the accreditation standard for working in child care has changedwhether through local authority or national Government determination I do not knowand, on the other, LSC funding of skills training has not changed, so there is a gap between the training that parents require to fill the available jobs and the funding. That is a good example of where we need to tie up more effectively how we resource skills training with the kind of jobs people want to take and are preparing for. There are good arguments for those two agencies, if we are to have a specified list of partner agencies. I look forward to my hon. Friend the Ministers response.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. I shall speak primarily to amendment 62 which, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire commented, would add mental health trusts to partner authorities. The hon. Member for Northavon pointed to the logic of omitting mental health trusts from partner authorities but I shall explain why I believe that logic is flawed in practice.
I will make a few comments about the prevalence and impact of mental health, and the reasons why it is relevant to any debate on child poverty, even in a Bill that centres mostly on incomes rather than wider issues. According to the brilliantly named Dr. Nurse, the national lead for public mental health and well-being at the Department of Health, one in six of the adult population experiences mental ill health at any time. Some 10 per cent. of children have a mental health problem, which for many continues into adulthood, and 15 per cent. of people experience a disabling depression at some time. One in 100 people has a serious mental health problem. It goes without saying that those problemsparticularly in the acute phasehave a real impact on a familys ability to manage finances and ensuring that the children do not suffer poverty. Kings Fund research estimated that mental health problems in England had a social cost of £71.1 billionaround 5.3 per cent. of gross domestic productin 2007. Increasing trends of poor mental health mean that, by 2026, the cost of mental health problems is projected almost to double to £136 billion, which will be made up of more than £47 billion of health and social care service costs, and £88 billion a year from loss of employment. That figure can be compared with the £95 billion that we currently spend on the NHS each year.
Mental health is therefore a hugely important issue that will grow in importance over coming years. It is obvious that the loss of employment through poor mental health will have a serious impact on the income of a household in which a child is growing up, as well as possibly on the health of the parent and the quality of parenting that they can provide. Poor mental health in children has an effect on educational outcomes and school drop-out rate. It clearly has an impact on their life chances and ability to move out of poverty for good. I put it to the Minister that it would almost be perverse not to include mental health trusts as partner authorities when poor mental health will be one of the most significant determinants of household income and child welfare.
I now come to the succinct point that was well made by the hon. Member for Northavon about the logic that the Bill includes primary care trusts and strategic health authorities as partner authorities and that they are the commissioners of services. I put it to the hon. Gentleman and, most importantly, to the Minister that in reality that is not entirely true. In my area, there is an excellent local mental health trust that is seeking foundation trust status. It has members, a board and a chairman. The reality is that the services it provides[Interruption.] The Minister is looking dubious. The money flows through the primary care trust but I put it to the Minister that, in reality, local mental health services are chiefly commissioned by that mental health trust. It is the body with the expertise; it is not micro-managed. It gets on and provides the tapestry of services as it sees fit, working with its members, board and experts. It is not looking over its shoulder all the time to the PCT to tell it what to do, let alone to the far-distant strategic health authority whose main aim is to ensure that that trust is properly run and that its books balance. I will press the amendment to a Division and I ask Ministers to take it seriously.
The Campaign to End Child Poverty, which is run by Save the Children, Barnardos and Gingerbread, has submitted a memorandum stating:
The Campaign to End Child Poverty agrees with the Committee that parental mental ill health is a major contributing factor to child poverty. We note that Primary Care Trusts and Strategic Health Authorities are listed in Clause 19(2) as partner authorities, and suggest that these are the appropriate bodies to hold responsibility for setting out their role in the reduction of child poverty as they are commissioning bodies rather than providers.
That powerful contribution does not help my case, but I am not persuaded by this. I ask the Minister to reflect on the matter and to consider talking to others on the front line. I am convinced that mental health trusts are not merely providers at the behest of commissioners. They are effectively a real commissioner of services, and if they are not at the table when mental health has such a critical role in child poverty, there is a risk that the Bills central aims will be undermined and it will be a weaker piece of legislation. I hope that the Minister will consider that.
The Government reject the idea of including those authorities because they want things to be very local, yet they have strategic health authorities listed as partner authorities. That is rather peculiar. The hon. Member for Regents Park and Kensington, North talked about child care and also what the regional development agencies are there to do. The Learning and Skills Council is there to provide skills and promote enterprise. It was disappointing and slightly bizarre that the Government did not see fit last week to accept our amendment that would have put the promotion of enterprise as a route out of child poverty in the Bill.
This collection of amendments relates to clause 19, which sets out the partners that must work with local authorities to tackle child poverty at a local level. As child poverty is complex and multifaceted, it is clear that a range of partners must be engaged in local action on this issue. I remind the Committee that the clear message when we consulted on the content of the Bill was that measures to promote local action would succeed only if they covered action by all relevant partners in a local strategic partnership. We heard that again from the local partners who gave evidence to the Committee on 20 October. This is one reason why we have included police authorities and chief officers of police in the list of partners in the clause. Amendment 3, which was tabled by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire, would remove them from that list.
Everyone in the room will agree that crime blights the lives of many families living in the most deprived areas. For example, in 2008-09, the burglary rate for households in the most deprived areas was more than double that in the least deprived areas. Crime must therefore be tackled if we are to improve childrens life chances. The vast majority of poor families are hard working and law abiding. However, when parents do engage in crime, it increases the likelihood that their children will suffer from poverty and deprivation. I emphasise to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire that we are asking the police to be involved in the needs assessment and the strategy formulation. I am sure that he can see that the police are a centrally important partner in assessing what is going on in a local area and deciding what actions should be taken.
I do not dispute for one moment that crime is a blight on every community in this country and that it often impacts disproportionately on the poorestthe Minister is absolutely right to say that. However, coming back to the Bill and the targets in clause 2 to 5, the only one she can hang this on is material deprivation because all the others relate to specific levels of income. Looking again at the list of questions to adults and children about material deprivation, I cannot see one that relates to crime. How will we tie in the police if they are not on the Ministers list in the area that she claims is important?
Let me give another example, which is connected to something that one of my hon. Friends said. It is well known that children whose parents have been found guilty of criminal activity are themselves far more likely to be found guilty of such activities. That clearly impacts on their capacity to find work, better themselves and move out of poverty. Over the last three weeks, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire has repeatedly emphasised the importance of getting to the root of the problem. I would have thought that he would acknowledge this to be one area where we are doing just that.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, police forces play an active role in LSPs and the delivery of local area agreements across the country. That partnership working is a key element of the Bill. We expect local child poverty strategies to be developed and delivered through the existing structures, and will make that clear in the guidance. The Bill requires partners to strengthen their partnership working in order to offer families in poverty the most effective service possible. The police are an important part of existing partnership structures, so such arrangements should not place undue burdens on them. I hope that hon. Members will recognise the crucial role played by the police in supporting our communities and delivering effective local child poverty strategies, and I hope that the Committee will agree that we should not remove the requirement on police authorities and chief officers of police to co-operate with local authorities, and their partners, to tackle child poverty.
Amendment 62 has been tabled by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness.
Any other body can be involved under clause 20(1)(c), if that is believed to be helpful to the delivery of the strategy. I have not considered the case of prisons before now, so I will not make any commitments to my hon. Friend on that point.
Let me return to the issue of mental health trusts. Nobody doubts the significant link between mental health issues and the causes and consequences of child poverty. In preparing the Bill, we considered including mental health trusts in the list of named partner authorities. However, after discussions with stakeholders, we concluded that it was important to commit those bodies with strategic influence, including those with responsibility for commissioning services, to the requirements in part 2 of the Bill. Strategic health authorities and primary care trusts are listed as partner authorities.
I am sorry, but I do not accept the hon. Gentlemans description of the institutional architecture. Mental health trusts may provide good services and be imaginative and creative, but the commissioning body is the PCT.
I am doing my best to be helpful this morning, but I cannot keep it up. The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness makes an important point. The Minister refers to institutional architecture. Presumably, when every trust is a foundation trust, it will be even more the case that such bodies are free-standing and able to set their own agenda and priorities. If there is a problem with a constituent regarding mental health issues, one does not on the whole go to the PCT, but to the mental health trust. Given that the Government thought about doing that in the first placeit is not an off-the-wall suggestionwill the Minister think about it again and perhaps return to the matter later?
No. Although foundation trusts can raise money from other sources, they may use that only for the purpose of providing the goods and services agreed on with PCTs. It would, in any event, constitute only a minor proportion of a foundation trusts income and would not deflect from the PCTs requirements under the Bill.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the role of the PCT in mapping out mental health needs for communities is particularly important? She has pointed out, as I think others have, that people move in and out of mental illness. Therefore, the role of the body with a wider remit for mapping out the commissioning is particularly important, because it will be much more accurate in picking up the real needs and impact of mental health on the community and on child poverty. It is therefore right to have the PCT as a partner authority.
My hon. Friend has expressed the position beautifully; I wish I had been as clear myself.
I also want to pray in aid the wonderful clause 20(1)(c). It states that in a local area, if it is decided that there is a particular problem, it will be possible to co-opt a mental health trust. We seek, as I have said, to reproduce the arrangements, which we have, in the local strategic partnership for the sustainable communities strategy. We are not trying to set up a whole new bureaucratic system, or a whole new set of burdens on local authorities, and I would have thought that Opposition Members appreciated that point.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. I understand her logic, but, speaking to local authorities and other agencies, one of the hardest groups to deal with is health. It is very hard to get health to work in such partnerships as it tends to bounce off. Mental health is so critical to child poverty that I ask her to think again. We can say that health may get involved, but it is difficult to get it to come to the table if it is not under a duty to do so.
I have explained that the Bill adequately covers the planning and delivery of mental health services. We will publish statutory guidance on part 2 and consult on the preparation of that guidance. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to look at the guidance. We can then take account of his views. With that reassurance, I hope that he will not press his amendment to a Division.
My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North tabled amendment 73, which would add regional development agencies and learning and skills councils to the list of partner authorities. As she pointed out, RDAs have an important role to play in driving regional economic activity, increasing employment opportunities and supporting businesses through the current economic climate. Regional activity is important and sets a framework for local action.
However, following the recommendations of the review of sub-national economic development and regeneration, we are actively seeking to strengthen the role of local authorities in promoting economic regeneration, including the introduction of a new duty to conduct an assessment of local economic conditions. Local action on economic development has greater potential to have a direct impact on child poverty by focusing the efforts of partners on employment for parents, as part of economic and community regeneration in disadvantaged areas. As responsibility for economic development and funding is being actively devolved to local authorities, including RDAs as statutory partners, it would detract from that enhanced role to add an additional layer of bureaucracy, which would not necessarily add value to local decision making.
I know that my hon. Friends amendment is supported by London Councils. Of course, arrangements can vary in different parts of the country, depending on circumstances, and we have set up the arrangements to achieve that. I hope that the flexibility we are offering in clause 20, which would enable London local authorities to go down a slightly different route from others, is sufficient to enable her to withdraw her amendment relating to the RDAs.
In respect of learning and skills councils, we recognise that addressing the skills agenda is crucial to tackling poverty in a sustainable way. Indeed, the Bill refers to that. The LSC has not been included in the list of partners as under the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which is currently going through the House, it is proposed that the LSC will be disbanded in 2010, with responsibility for the planning, funding and commissioning of skills provision for 16 to 19-year-olds shifting to local authorities. It is therefore not necessary to engage an additional partner.
Responsibility for funding adult skills provision will move to the new national body, the Skills Funding Agency. As the arrangements for co-ordinating adult skills provision locally emerge, local authorities may choose to use clause 20(1) to engage additional local partners such as local employment and skills boards. Consultation on the Bill demonstrated that it is important that local partners are able to deliver its requirements through existing partnership arrangements. We were therefore concerned to avoid compiling and prescribing an excessively lengthy list of partner authorities. Child poverty is a pervasive and significant issue of interest to a wide range of individuals and organisations, but the list could have become unworkable. That is why we have focused on the key influencers in local strategic partnerships, which allowed the flexibility to co-opt further partners in clause 20.
I hope that hon. Members are satisfied that, for the reasons I have set out, the current list of statutory partners is appropriate. Police forces should not be removed from the list as they are already a key partner within local strategic partnerships, but the local commissioning role of PCTs means that it is not necessary to add specific health providers such as mental health trusts. Finally, the enhanced role for local authorities in managing the skills and economic development agenda means that adding RDAs and the LSC would introduce an additional layer of bureaucracy to partnership working. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
The Minister did not mention this, but the first thing I said was that amendment 3 was a probing amendment to tease out the Governments thinking about the inclusion of police authorities and chief officers of police. Should the Government continue to ask the LSP to undertake a further range of different functions, we may have to revisit the question whether the LSP, as currently constituted, is always the correct body of organisations to confront every issue that the Government throw at it. I will say no more than that. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
I will speak quickly and then do so. I am grateful for the Ministers comments about statutory guidance. If the Government persist in their current line that mental health trusts should not be included in the list of partner authorities, I hope that the guidance will provide added traction to make it likely that they will participate in a local strategy. However, I do not accept the point that the PCTs are the effective local commissioners of mental health services. I have a local mental health trust in my area that goes across more than one PCT. It is a powerful institution in its own right. It is going for foundation status. It is an effective commissioner of services and is critical to child poverty issues. Therefore, I wish to press my amendment to a vote.
I want to ask the Government to say a little about clause 19(3), specifically in relation to Jobcentre Plus, which, the helpful explanatory notes tell us, is covered by the subsection. We have the list and we have heard a lot about the local strategic partnership but, if we are dealing with child poverty in an area, one of the key players must be Jobcentre Plus. How will things be different in future with Jobcentre Plus? My experience locally, and what I hear from colleagues across the House about the involvement of Jobcentre Plus at a local level
So that we can have a more efficient debate, could the hon. Gentleman flesh out a little more detail about what sort of flexibilities he is looking for? Then I could respond on whether we are going to go down that path.
Of course; the Minister is right to press me on that. I am talking about engagement, not about dismantling the whole benefits structureit would not be appropriate to talk about that, although we might come on to it in our discussions today.
I am talking about real engagement with local authorities on what is happening in an area in respect of job creation, the skills agenda and the quality and type of courses to which Jobcentre Plus sends people. Only last week I had an e-mail from a constituent who is furious that Jobcentre Plus has sent his engineering graduate son on a wholly inappropriate coursehe had less access to computer facilities to look for work than he would have had at home. That is, frankly, a waste of money and has discouraged that individual.
I am talking about a range of issues with Jobcentre Plus. How does it engage with local authorities? It is not always as good as it should be at sitting down with local authority leaders, councillors, council officers and the economic regeneration department of a local area, and getting stuck in at the local level. I visit my local jobcentre regularly. Excellent, dedicated, hard-working people work for Jobcentre Plus. My impression is that they report up to their district manager, who in my area covers the whole of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. The district managers look up to the Minister and her ministerial team, but are not as good as they could be at looking outwards in the local area. I think that part 2 of the Bill is about getting all the playerswe have heard about the role of the local strategic partnershipto be fully effective at a local level.
In addition, Jobcentre Plus is not good at engaging with the voluntary sector in local areas, and in some cases it is a hindrance to effective engagement. It has stopped the co-operation that used to exist, and which still exists between other organs of the state such as social services, the probation service and health visitors. Jobcentre Plus just says, No, we cant signpost, we cant do that work. I am talking about basic things such as the provision of emergency food supplies.
I do not know what the Minister does in her constituency on a Friday night when constituents come to her and say that they have no money or food in the house. I ring up my local Salvation Army, because I know that it has food and will take it to that family over the weekend. Why can Jobcentre Plus not signpost that type of service, to tell people that it is available? It is reluctant to do that. I have engaged with the issue for about a year, and have teased it out through a series of parliamentary questions and letters to some of the Ministers departmental colleagues.
There is great scope for that sort of partnershipworking better with local authorities, the local business community, local colleges and training providers, and voluntary agencies specifically helping in that area. Such work needs to be different and better. If the Bill makes no difference and the situation continues as it is, I am not filled with hope that we will achieve the Bills worthy aims. I hope that fleshing out my concerns has been useful to the Minister, and I will be grateful for her response.
I am a bit frustrated with clause 19, and with part 2 of the Bill as a whole, because they do not seem to relate in any sensible way to what happens on the ground. I wish to probe Ministers more on what they think local strategic partnerships do. If the list of commissioning organisations that we have discussed is supposed to represent the bodies that sit on a local strategic partnership, I should say that it does not. The local strategic partnership that I sat on had representatives from the voluntary sector, the Churches, and other bodies that were there because in the mind of that local authority they had a role in addressing the areas problems.
I cannot see why it is necessary to have a list in this part of the Bill at all. I think Richard Kemp said in his evidence that what was needed was not a duty and all that comes with that, including listing the people who have to co-operate, but a general encouragement for all organisations, including local and national ones, to co-operate in dealing with the child poverty strategy. That would be better.
It is also a bit strange to consider that the child poverty agenda is taken down just one avenue within a local authority. There is not just one channel. I refer Members to my speech on Second Reading, in which I listed seven strategic partnerships, of one sort or another, that the county council in my constituency has, and through which the issue of child poverty runs. The issues that that council has identified as the hotspots in its area for tackling child poverty are in many ways particular to it, and would not be the same for another local authority, even a neighbouring one. I do not see why we are restricting, trying to hem in and make incredibly bureaucratic something that we should trust local government to do. In the evidence sessions, the local government authorities gave enough evidence to show that they are already doing it, and are in many ways streets ahead of national Government, particularly in getting to grips with tackling the real effects of child poverty and producing successful outcomes.
The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire asked about the role of the DWP and jobcentres, as set out in subsection (3). Clearly the legislation makes a difference as it ensures that jobcentres are partner authorities, so the duties to co-operate in making the needs assessment, in setting out the strategy and in taking subsequent responsible action will move from a can do to a must do. That is a very significant change in the Bill.
We have some good experience. In parts of the country, for example, we have a work-focused services child poverty pilot in which people from jobcentres are working within Sure Start centres to engage with and help peopleparticularly mothersback into work. We have just launched a school gates project to improve partnership working between schools and jobcentres, which again is to help mothers back into work. Data-sharing pilots in three local authoritiesLiverpool, Kent and Leedstest the current process for local authorities.
City strategy pathfinders are developing strategic plans to address problems in their areas. For example, in east London we are bringing together local services through pooled funding so that childrens centres, schools, youth offending teams and others are brought alongside the worklessness, skills and FE teams. We also have joint working with Her Majestys Revenue and Customs. In Cornwall, a beacon authority has been joint-working with the DWP, pooling budgets and data sharing, and the £600,000 Real Choices child poverty programme. I could go on about Lancashire, Waltham Forest and so on, but I will not. Those are examples of good practice. I am perfectly well aware that good practice does not exist throughout the country, but we are going to put new responsibilities on the jobcentres and our objective is to build on those places where there is good working.
I am grateful for that and I do not doubt that there are good examples of best practice across the country. Where it is relevant to meeting some of the deprivation issues that we have been discussing, will she also refer briefly to Jobcentre Pluss co-operation with the voluntary sector?
I must admit that I was slightly concerned by what the hon. Gentleman said on that score. As someone who used to work in the voluntary sector, I favour its involvement and co-operation with local authorities on anti-child-poverty initiatives. That seems to be rather different from what he suggested, which was that it should signpost people who phone up the DWP to the voluntary sector rather than to statutory provision. He mentioned the instance of people phoning up; in my constituency I signpost them to the crisis loans facility in the social fund, and I think that all hon. Members ought to do the same. I would be extremely concerned if he was suggesting that instead of signposting people to the social fund, which is meant to be the safety net at the very bottom of the social security system, we should divert them to the voluntary sector.
Of course I recognise the important work that the social fund does and of course I direct my constituents there. I hope that the Minister recognises that the benefits system, comprehensive as it is with wonderful aspirations, is not perfect, and that people fall through the net of crisis loans and the social fund.
I would not be surprised if, like me, the Minister has constituents who find over a weekend that the social fund or the Jobcentre is not always able to helpperhaps because a decision maker is still looking at their case. It is fairly regular in my casework to find constituents who, for whatever reason, have no money and no food over the weekend, notwithstanding the best efforts of the social fund and the staff in the Jobcentre. In those circumstances, does the Minister not think it sensible for Jobcentre staff to have a list of voluntary organisations that could help over the weekend?
Again, I do not share the hon. Gentlemans conception of the appropriate role of the voluntary sector.
The point about such emergencies, which we all experience, is important. Although charitable enterprises can be vital in helping people, if I was confronted with the case of a parent and children who had no money to feed themselves over the weekendas I have been on occasionI would get in touch with the duty social worker and ensure that there was a guarantee of help, rather than relying on the possibility of a voluntary or charitable organisation filling the gap, however good they might be.
My hon. Friend demonstrates immense common sense. We now direct people to the voluntary sector on things such as debt advice. However, the route to which my hon. Friend pointsthat of relying on the statutory servicesis the proper approach. I do not think that I can add any more to what I have said.
I will come back one more time as this is an important issue. The hon. Member for Northavon often asks for numbers when talking about these issues, and he is right to do so as he wants to know the scale of the problem. I do not know whether the Minister is aware of the food bank network up and down the country. It provides the sort of assistance that I mentioned is provided by the Salvation Army and others. Last year, 24,000 people in this country went to food banks. That indicates that these are not isolated cases, and that up and down the country there are instances where such measures are needed, notwithstanding the best efforts of staff at Jobcentre Plus and the social fund, the call centres, emergency social workers and so on.
I do not for a moment suggest that we should sweep away any of the statutory provision. The first duty is for the statutory services to work well and properly. I ask the Minister to look at the evidence and the facts, and perhaps to reconsider the issue.
I know very well that the voluntary sector plays a fantastic role in this country. It innovates, provides examples of best practice and, by co-operating locally on the child poverty needs assessment and strategy, it has a significant role to play. However, my view remains that we should not rely on, co-opt or drive the agenda of the voluntary sector. It should remain what it is: voluntary and independent. I do not agree with the picture drawn by the hon. Gentleman, and I am not sure that it is strictly relevant to the clause.