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Westminster Eye: An insight into the week of politics 19 - 23 March

Tuesday 20 March

On Tuesday Ian Paisley MP received an answer from the Minister on whether his Department has considered a cap on lifetime social care payments. Minister Paul Burstow said that the coalition agreement set out the Government's clear commitment to reforming the system of social care to provide much more control to individuals and their carers, and to ease the cost burden that they and their families face. This commitment to reform is why Government acted quickly to set up the Commission on Funding of Care and Support, which published its report in July 2011.

He added that the Commission recommended a "capped cost model", where people's lifetime care costs are limited at between £25,000 and £50,000. Once someone has accrued eligible care costs up to this level, the state would cover their remaining care costs. The Commission's report has formed the basis of Government's recent engagement with stakeholders. This engagement exercise examined the impact of these recommendations, and brought them together with other priorities for reform from across the social care system to look at the trade-offs between them. When the Commission published its report in July 2011, Government set out their commitment to publish a White Paper on social care and a progress report on funding reform in the spring-a timetable to which we remain committed.

Helen Jones MP asked the Communities Minister what estimate he has made of likely changes to the number of pensioners who will take up council tax benefit if localisation of the benefit is introduced. A reply is expected next week

Wednesday 21 March

On Wednesday during the Cabinet Office Commons oral answers session, Lilian Greenwood MP asked what recent discussions the Minister had had on the types of Government funding models available to the voluntary and community sector. The Cabinet Office Minister Nick Hurd said that the Government wanted to help the voluntary and community sector to become more resilient by developing three pillars of funding: traditional giving, income from the state including more opportunities to deliver public service and a new pillar, and the emerging market of social investment.

In her supplementary question Lilian Greenwood said that many local voluntary organisations were set up to complement statutory services. She believed that if the predominant funding source for the voluntary sector is now to be public sector contracts, thousands of valuable voluntary groups throughout the country be left high and dry, showing once again the Government's contempt for the big society that they championed. Nick Hurd said that the Government is developing three pillars of funding, with the encouragement of high levels of giving, including a very generous tax incentive introduced by the Chancellor in the previous Budget; a new source of funding, social investment; and the launch of the world's first social investment bank within a few weeks. The Government wants to do more with the sector to help deliver public services. The Government will be opening up new opportunities for charities and social enterprises to help with that aim.

In the same debate Phil Wilson MP said that a survey commissioned by Charity Bank had revealed that more than 20% of charities have suffered from the cancellation of contracts with businesses and Government bodies in the past year. He asked if the Minister agreed that the Government's refusal to recognise the needs and benefits of charities and voluntary organisations in policy formulation is preventing such organisations from getting vital funding to which they are entitled. Nick Hurd said that this was an important point and that any commissioner in the public sector needs to engage with stakeholders in communities before commissioning services, not least in the voluntary and community sector, whose stakeholders tend to have a much better understanding of the needs of the people the Government was trying to help.

Seema Malhotra MP asked what assessment the Minister had made of the change in the level of funding to the voluntary sector in 2011-12. Nick Hurd MP responded by saying that most voluntary sector organisations receive no public funding at all, but those that do cannot be immune from the need to reduce public spending. That is why the Government is taking active steps to help the most vulnerable organisations, to encourage more giving and social investment, and to create new opportunities to deliver more public services.

In the following question Seema Malhotra MP said that the most recent report by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations shows that, according to the Government's own figures, charities are facing cuts of £1.2 billion in public money per year. She asked if the Minister agreed that the Government need to do more to support the voluntary sector to address what the NCVO had described as a "toxic mix of circumstances" affecting charities. Mr Hurd replied by saying that almost 80% of charities receive no money from the state, but the Government has made it clear that those that do cannot be immune from cuts. This Government is taking action to protect the most vulnerable organisations, create new sources of funding and open up new opportunities for charities and social enterprises to deliver public services.

Yvonne Fovargue MP asked what steps the Minister is taking to ensure that the community and voluntary sector is considered in policy formulation in all Departments. In replying for the Cabinet Office, Oliver Letwin MP said that the Government’s agenda is to give community groups and other voluntary sector organisations a much wider role in fulfilling the demands and needs of the public than they have had in the past. That is why, in considering each of our public service reforms, the Government had paid particular attention to the question of how the voluntary and community sector can work through them and help them.

In her supplementary question Yvonne Fovargue MP said that research by the NCVO has shown that Government Departments plan to cut a further £444 million of funding from the voluntary and community sector. She asked if the Minister agreed that that is evidence of the complete disregard of his own Government for that sector. Oliver Letwin replied by saying that this was not the case. In 2010-11, the funding stood at rather less than £200 million, but in 2011-12 it went up and it has almost maintained the 2011-12 levels, still above those of 2010-11-for 2012-13. The Government is investing in the voluntary and community sector, not disinvesting in it.

On Wednesday several questions of interest were tabled and selected for Health oral questions scheduled for Tuesday 27 March. Nick Smith MP is to ask what recent assessment has been made of the performance of services for older people. Meg Munn MP is to ask what steps the Minister is taking to ensure that people receiving care at home funded by the NHS are involved in making the arrangements for that care. Finally Margot James MP will ask what assessment has been made of the conclusions and recommendations of the joint report by the NHS Confederation, Age UK and the Local Government Association on improving dignity in the care of older people.

Alun Cairns MP received an answer to his question to the Treasury asking if they will review the policy on VAT insofar as it affects charitable organisations who serve their local communities. Treasury Minister David Gauke replied saying that the Government valued the contribution of charities across a wide spectrum of national life and interests.

He added that the UK has one of the most generous tax systems for charities in the world. Existing reliefs for charities are worth over £3 billion a year. Within this, are existing VAT reliefs worth over £200 million per year. These include zero rates for charities on sales of donated goods, medical equipment and the construction of charitable buildings. In addition Gift Aid, the largest single relief, is now worth nearly £1 billion to charities each year. In terms of whether the Government could extend the VAT reliefs further; in many cases, EU VAT rules mean that it would not be necessary or possible to provide a refund scheme to any contracted provider of public services. The provision of any services under a contract, by a charity or a business, will normally be regarded as a business activity and thus within the scope of VAT. Therefore, if the services provided are taxable the provider will be able to recover their VAT costs through the normal VAT system. However, if the services provided are VAT exempt, any form of VAT refund is prohibited under EU VAT law. Where a provider does incur irrecoverable VAT in the provision of public services, these costs should be taken into account by the contracting public sector organisation when agreeing funding.

Diane Abbot MP asked what estimate the Health Minister has made of the number of NHS patients in England who are housebound. A reply is awaited.

Thursday 22 March

On Thursday Andrew Rosindell MP asked what steps the Health Minister is taking to increase the number of doctors specialising in geriatrics. A reply is awaited.