[Dame Caroline Dinenage: ... That is why this decision to close down every single one of the five Girlguiding activity centres across the United Kingdom is so bizarre. Girlguiding is closing down opportunities for young women and girls who would otherwise struggle to afford them. This decision comes after the body blow to Girlguiding that is the move to end their overseas operation, which serves thousands of girls across the world and has been doing so for decades. Both of these utterly bizarre decisions came after no real warning and no consultation with members.]
Sir Julian Lewis: I have been watching this developing disaster with increasing horror. The reason that may lie behind some of it appears to be a disastrous venture into property investment. Does my hon. Friend know about the headquarters of the girl guides, which spent millions on itself, and millions more on a hotel venture that went bust, owing unpaid rent to the girl guides of nearly £2.8 million? All that is alleged to be completely unconnected to the decision to close the overseas activities and the training and activity centres, one of which, Foxlease, is in my constituency. This reminds me of the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, with the exception that it is cutting its own limbs off and not waiting for other people to do it.
Dame Caroline Dinenage: I was not aware of that. My right hon. Friend has been a great friend to Girlguiding in Foxlease in his constituency and a great champion of Girlguiding across the country. What he says is incredibly worrying; there has been very little information at all about the thinking behind these decisions, so his comments about the potential reasons are interesting.
As my right hon. Friend says, one of the centres to be sold is Foxlease in Clay Hill in Hampshire, which is the closest one to my constituency. There is also Waddow Hall in the Ribble Valley, which is very close to the heart of our much-loved Mr Deputy Speaker; Blackland Farm in Mid Sussex; Glenbrook in High Peak, Derbyshire; and Ynysgain in Montgomeryshire on the edge of the Snowdonia national park.
These decisions do not merely affect Girlguiding members, but many others across the country. The closing activity centres do not just serve young girls in Girlguiding; they run courses and activities and provide opportunities for all sorts of groups of young people, including scouts, schools and many others. If the activity centres are sold off, there is no bringing them back – that’s it. They will be gone and will not be providing opportunities for young women and countless other young people. They will simply be turned into another relic of a wonderful past where children could be children.
* * *
Sir Julian Lewis: I am grateful to my hon. Friend [Dame Caroline Dinenage] for giving way; she is being generous with her time. Does she agree that it is almost as if the people at the top of the organisation, who do not seem to be answerable even to their own council, still less their own mass membership, are determined to take steps that are bound to lead to the closure of the organisation? Given that the organisation seems to have a very undemocratic structure, does my hon. Friend agree that we ought to look to the Minister for support for the idea of the Charity Commission investigating what has been going on in the organisation, which appears to have strayed far from its founding objectives?
Dame Caroline Dinenage: I thank my right hon. Friend for that sensible suggestion, to which I am sure the excellent Minister will respond. It sounds as if the upper echelons of Girlguiding are standing around with their fingers in their ears, humming loudly; they have rejected applications for an extension to continue discussions, they have rejected the request from British Girlguiding Overseas to become a charity in its own right, and they have rejected British Girlguiding Overseas’ request to set up a separate franchise. …
* * *
Sir Julian Lewis: I fully recognise that this matter falls outside the Minister’s responsibilities, but does he agree that where millions of pounds appear to have been fire-hosed away from the objectives of the organisation, and where there is clearly a lack of internal democratic accountability, we have to look to the Charity Commission as a last resort to see whether the mismanagement can, even now, be limited in its terrible effects?
[The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Stuart Andrew): My right hon. Friend raises a very important point. Of course, as a registered charity, Girlguiding is obliged to do the usual reporting. Anybody can raise any case with the Charity Commission, and colleagues may feel that they want to take that step.
I will outline a bit more what we have heard from Girlguiding. I understand that its decision to close the five activity centres is due to the significant capital investment required to ensure that they are fit for purpose, but it also reflects the ongoing running costs in the light of low levels of demand from Girlguiding groups. It is anticipated that funds from the sale of the activity centres, valued collectively at around £10 million, will be invested in a range of activities to support the future of Girlguiding and its members, including adventures away from home.]
* * *
Sir Julian Lewis: I will take the opportunity to stress that when Girlguiding UK says that only 10% of the movement uses the five centres, we are still talking about tens of thousands of young people. The response to the situation has been not, “We have to close one centre in order to subsidise the others”, but, “We have to close the whole lot while simultaneously losing millions upon millions of pounds on inappropriate investment in property hotel ventures.” That has to be questioned. The reason for donating Foxlease to Girlguiding 101 years ago was not so that it could be used for commercial development; it was donated to be used by young people.