Friday, 11 March 2011

Betts slams Pickles over charity funding confusion

The chair of the Commons local government select committee has accused ministers of ‘making it up as they go along’ in their drive to prescribe council funding to the voluntary sector.
Clive Betts wrote to Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles last week calling on him to clarify comments he made recently at a conference. Pickles had declared that Westminster was prepared to legislate immediately to stop councils inflicting ‘disproportionate’ cuts on charities. Pickles has so far failed to respond to Betts’ letter, dated March 4.

But a spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government today told Public Finance:  ‘Such changes can potentially be delivered through secondary legislation and statutory guidance – rather than primary legislation. This would be quicker to implement.’ But it is unclear whether the Localism Bill as it currently stands would permit such powers, or whether an additional clause would be required. 

Speaking to PF today, Betts said: ‘I think they are making it up as they go along... This leaves it as cloudy and confused as ever. It’s really unhelpful for local authorities and voluntary bodies trying to draw up their budgets.’

Pickles originally set out the idea during a speech at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ annual conference on March 1. He said: ‘It is reasonable to expect that councils will not pass on disproportionate cuts to local voluntary and community groups, that they will not inflict bigger reductions to your budgets than they take on themselves... If councils are being high-handed, I'll consider giving our reasonable expectations statutory force.’

Local government minister Greg Clark later threw up confusion about what exactly was meant by ‘unreasonable’ when in a statement to the Commons this week he claimed: ‘The worst-run councils are targeting the [voluntary] sector for cuts’. This was at odds with Sheffield City Council, in Betts’ own constituency, which Pickles had recently praised for prudent budgeting yet was making a 15% cut in cash terms to its total grant for voluntary organisations.
Betts said it was ‘totally unreasonable and unfair’ not to spell out further details at a time when councils and voluntary sector organisations were finalising their budgets.
The Labour MP added: ‘It sits along with telling local authorities how often they should empty their bins. It’s simply not localism, it’s telling them what to do. ‘ 

NCVO deputy chief executive Ben Kernighan said: ‘It will be useful for DCLG to clarify their plans, and we await developments with interest.’

In his letter to Pickles, Betts wrote: ‘If, as you suggest, you intend to legislate on this issue in the Localism Bill with such provisions to have effect in 2011/12, surely it is incumbent on you to announce the detail of such proposals immediately in order that local authorities can take account of them in setting their budgets for next year. I believe members, across all parties, would expect a very early announcement of the details of your intention with regard to the funding of the voluntary sector if there is not to be chaos in budgetary decisions by councils and to avoid further chaos in the budgetary and service decisions by voluntary organisations throughout England.’