Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

Community Fund: Review of Grants made to the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (1229-I)

Public Accounts Committee 27 Oct 2003

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Evidence presented on Monday 27 October 2003 by Mr Richard Buxton and Mr Richard Martineau.

Mr Steinberg's questions were in the context of preceding questions. Therefore, some of these questions and replies are given before Mr Steinberg's session to create the context for the reader.

Q1 Chairman: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Committee on Public Accounts. This afternoon we are looking at the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on the Review of grants made to the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns. We welcome Mr Richard Buxton, who is the Chief Executive of the Community Fund, and Mr Richard Martineau, former Chairman of the England Grants Committee at the Community Fund.

Q26 Mr Bacon: It does not have to be verbatim, a rough idea.

Mr Buxton: A rough indication. They were making statements that in principle the deportation of any asylum seeker was always wrong. They were making certain personal comments about the Home Secretary and the Home Secretary's views. They were making comments about issues relating to the Sangatte refugee centre. I think those were three of the areas broadly speaking, I just cannot give you the absolute word for word quote.

Mr Buxton: With the NCADC we are monitoring their website every week to make sure that there is nothing that goes on there that is actually going to cause them to be in breach of their terms and conditions of grant.

Q51 Mr Rendel: So the website is being monitored but no other tests are being done?

Mr Buxton: The website these days is a pretty good indication of the type of communication work that an organisation is doing.

Q61 Chairman: Are they now being more polite about the Home Secretary?

Mr Buxton: I do not believe that they have made any negative comments since we began the period of intensive monitoring and additional conditions.

Mr Steinberg

Q72 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Most of the questions I want to ask have been covered. I think it was the Chairman, it might have been Mr Bacon, who asked you what was actually said originally on the website and you mentioned two or three things. Could you repeat them again?

Mr Buxton: Yes. I think that there were some comments about the Sangatte refugee centre and I think they were working to do some campaigning in relation to the Sangatte refugee centre.

Q73 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I think you said that they were very critical of Blunkett.

Mr Buxton: They made some direct comments about ----

Q74 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): What did they say?

Mr Buxton: What did they say?

Q75 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Yes.

Mr Buxton: I think they associated the word "fascist" with the Home Secretary. I do not think they directly called him a fascist but they used a sentence in which the words "fascist" and "Home Secretary" were linked.

Q76 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): This was not picked up by yourselves clearly?

Mr Buxton: We did not do a website check. We did not find that until that was drawn to our attention. That was a failure.

Q77 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): When was this drawn to your attention?

Mr Buxton: This was drawn to our attention initially ----

Q78 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Before the second bid?

Mr Buxton: No. This was shortly after we had made the second grant.

Q79 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Because you did not visit the scheme, did you, after the first grant, even though you were invited to go? Have you visited it since?

Mr Buxton: I am sure we have visited it since, yes.

Q80 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You either know or you do not.

Mr Buxton: The answer is I could not tell you who and when but it has been visited.

Q81 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You did not think we were going to ask you that question today?

Mr Buxton: That is clearly one that I did not prepare for.

Q82 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I would have thought it was obvious.

Mr Buxton: With hindsight it is clearly an obvious question.

Q83 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I was going to ask, but I am not sure that I can now, what did they find when they went on the visit?

Mr Buxton: I am not sure that necessarily a visit would be that revealing of an organisation that has perhaps got an office, that is why we have been doing the website checks every week since we made the grant, because we think that is the way they communicate.

Q84 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): They do not have an office?

Mr Buxton: They do have an office, yes.

Q85 Mr Williams: It sounded as if you said that they did not have an office.

Mr Buxton: No, visiting an organisation that has an office, you simply do not see ----

Q86 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): If you went into my office you could tell that I do not particularly support the Conservatives or the Liberals. What action have you taken to see that they do not repeat what they were putting out last time on the website?

Mr Buxton: As I say, we have been doing a weekly website check ever since as that is the main way in which organisations communicate. There have been one or two occasions when they have said one or two things in a newsletter produced on the website and we have immediately had a word with them and pointed out this was in breach of the draft conditions and they have withdrawn it.

Q87 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Funnily enough, I went on their website yesterday afternoon when I read the report to see if there was anything untoward. The one thing that I pulled off was a note which says - I am not making any judgement on this but perhaps you would though - "Giving with one hand and taking away with the other - Blunkett style", and then it goes on to say, "Up to 15,000 families with children who have applied for asylum before 2 October 2000 will be considered for amnesty and indefinite leave to remain. NCADC are more than happy for all those families who benefit. But, the bad news is David Blunkett intends to starve out of Britain any families who claimed asylum....". Would you describe that as acceptable?

Mr Buxton: No. I think that probably crosses the line, to me.

Q88 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I would have thought so as well. Clearly you are not monitoring it very well, are you?

Mr Buxton: As I say, we do a weekly website check. I am very glad that you have drawn it to our attention and we will make sure that we take that up with them.

Q89 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Is that the point though? That is now on the website and I might disagree with you, I might think that is perfectly acceptable, but all I am saying is you say it is not.

Mr Buxton: I think that is emotive language which I would not support.

Q90 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It might be acceptable, it might not be acceptable, but you are saying it is not. The only time that you are taking any action is when this appears on the website and you warn them off. That seems to me to be a cockeyed way of doing things. They publish things on the website that could be libellous or slanderous, whatever the word is, and after they have made the statement you tell them they are naughty boys and you slap their hands. Why did you not put into the grant some sort of recovery where if they broke the conditions you reclaimed the grant?

Mr Buxton: We have exactly that condition in ----

Q91 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Have you used it then?

Mr Buxton: We have not used it in this particular instance, no.

Q92 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Might you use it in this one?

Mr Buxton: It is something that I would do reluctantly on any grant, to withdraw the grant. Clearly, you are right, there comes a point when you cannot allow an organisation to continue to do things that are not acceptable. That is a judgement that I have to make.

Q93 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): The one time that I do have to congratulate you for was when you actually ignored counsel's advice and put some conditions in because if counsel had had their say and you had taken their advice you were going to allow it to continue as it was the first time, is that right?

Mr Buxton: That is right.

Q94 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I do congratulate you there, that you had the guts to say that the lawyers were wrong, and mostly they are, are they not? I have a daughter who is a lawyer and a son who is a barrister and more times than not they are wrong. You talked about village halls, not me, and the subject itself was clearly very delicate. Richard mentioned that, Frank mentioned it and David mentioned it. As politicians, perhaps we are in more of a position to regard what is politically sensitive than you may well be, I do not know, but if we go to our surgeries or look at our postbags, asylum is one of the most controversial issues you can get. It is quite clear that, I suspect, the majority of British people are not anti-asylum but anti those who are abusing the asylum system. It riles me very much, and did people at the time when they saw, for example, this organisation getting nigh on £200,000 or whatever it was, and their own local organisations put in for a few quid and they do not get it. The point that I am coming to is in my constituency, which has not done very well out of the Community Fund, there is an organisation called Belmont Community Association who have put in for £200,000 and the application is next week. They have raised £200,000. I shall be watching very carefully to see how much they get. Would you like to write it down: the Belmont Community Association? As I say, I shall watch with great interest when that award is given. Mr Martineau, you have had a very easy time this afternoon and I was amazed that you got away with it when the Chairman said it did not seem to be your responsibility and went back to Mr Buxton. I would argue with the Chairman and say you have got away with it a little too easily because it might have been your responsibility. Presumably you, as a taxpayer - I do not know whether you play the Lottery or not - must know the feeling of the British people. Did you not smell a rat when it came in front of you?

Mr Martineau: No. I smell lots of rats now but when I read these papers, no, I did not smell a rat. The one thing that perhaps influenced me was it is called the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns and has been taken to be a national campaigning organisation but in the papers it was very clear that what they were running were individual campaigns for individual people who were subject to deportation orders. The figures they gave about those were quite impressive and, indeed, one of them had full parliamentary support and I believe even the Prime Minister supported. The campaigns consist of helping people to write to the Home Secretary and other bodies asking for their case to be reviewed.

Q95 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I am not trying to be rude, do not get me wrong, but looking at your CV you are a very busy man. Were you too busy to have a look at it?

Mr Martineau: No.

Q96 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Are you still the Chairman?

Mr Martineau: The actual England Committee has now been merged into another one. I still chair the Eastern Region Committee.

Q97 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Did you lose your job because of this?

Mr Martineau: No. Interestingly enough, the committee was already going to be dissolved before this grant was given. This was going to be the last meeting - it was the last meeting - of that committee.

Q98 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Okay. The National Audit Office and this Committee work extremely hard, particularly the National Audit Office, to ensure that public money is not wasted or abused, and the result of their work in particular, and our work in supporting them, I understand, and I am sure Sir John will confirm this, is that they save the taxpayer an average £3 billion a year because of the work that they do.

Sir John Bourn: We save eight times the cost of funding the office each year, yes, which does mount up.

Q99 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): The way that he does that is by making recommendations to this Committee and the Committee endorses his recommendations and we expect those organisations to implement the recommendations being made. Clearly when you read the report there are organisations who take notice of what we say and there are organisations who ignore what we say and the organisations who ignore what we say tend to come backwards and forwards. In a previous report that this Committee made about the Lottery fund, we made certain recommendations and that was about four years ago.

Mr Buxton: Well before my time as Chief Executive.

Q100 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You are responsible whether it was done before your time or not.

Mr Buxton: I accept that.

Q101 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I am quite sure you read the report we made four years ago. We made three recommendations that were very, very important at the time: the need to improve weaknesses in risk assessment; that visits should be made to recipients; and there should be self-assessment reports. But your organisation ignored those recommendations. If you had not ignored those recommendations it is possible that you would not be sitting here this afternoon having to answer questions from ourselves because of the failure of your organisation to actually look at the situation you are in. Why were those recommendations ignored?

Mr Buxton: I do not think it is fair to say that they were ignored. On the issue of risk, at that time, going back and having reread the papers, what was identified then was not particularly about the reputational risk issues that confronted us in the NCADC situation, they were recommendations to do with other aspects of our risk assessment. In terms of the monitoring reports and so on, those changes were implemented. I think the changes were implemented but perhaps they were not implemented in a way which picked up the full breadth of the issues as thoroughly as all of us would now have wanted to have seen them, but they were not ignored.

Q102 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): They were not put into being, were they, they were not implemented? You did not visit, I do not think there has been a self-assessment report, and certainly the need to improve weaknesses in risk assessment has only just been put in recently.

Mr Buxton: Self-assessment reports by the organisations are required, and were required and have been required for some time. In terms of the changes to the risk assessment, yes, we have only just put in the changes in relation to risk assessment with regard to the reputational risk, but that was not something that had come out of the original NAO report.

Q103 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): The last question I want to ask you, and again the National Audit Office have produced an excellent report, they have made a number of recommendations that I am quite certain this Committee is going to endorse if a final report is produced, is how far down the line have you gone to implementing the recommendations that have been made in this report?

Mr Buxton: I think they are either all implemented or very close to being implemented.

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