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5.45 pm

I understand the Government's point that the certificates are intended to be personal certificates for personal use, and that there is therefore a risk that a number of people who received their certificates free, as volunteers, would use them for other purposes. There must clearly be a mechanism whereby organisations can

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be reimbursed for the cost of volunteers who can be shown to have made a contribution, and are not simply cheating in order to obtain free certificates. In principle, however, we cannot expect volunteers to multiply--especially among the lower paid and those with no income--if we are going to strap them for cash by imposing this financial disadvantage.

I do not very much care whether we have an affirmative resolution, or a negative resolution against which we can pray, I am certain that we should debate the matter in the new Parliament. I believe that the Secretary of State, whoever that may be--I am sure that it will be one of us--will be expected to find money to make reimbursement possible, and I firmly believe that the Government must take into account the real apprehension among a large number of organisations that their bills will be forced up for no other reason than their enthusiastic embracing of the Government's own policy of increasing the number of voluntary helpers.

Sir Michael Grylls (North-West Surrey): Important points have been raised. As others have said, the voluntary movement is a hugely important part of our national life.

I should like to say a little about the Prince's Trust, which has done much to help people start their own businesses--especially disadvantaged people who do not receive much help from other sources, and do not have much capital. The trust does a wonderful job encouraging people from disadvantaged homes to set up businesses: I believe that it helps tens of thousands every year. It would be sad if there were any deterrent to that wonderful, constructive work.

Interestingly, this has become--in a sense--an all-party debate. We have heard important contributions from hon. Members representing Northumberland, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northern Ireland and other, obviously English, constituencies. The House seems to be saying that we should consider the charges carefully, and do our best to ensure that they do not deter volunteers. Organisations such as the Prince's Trust are providing the future lifeblood of our country by encouraging people--who may not have a family history of entrepreneurism--to become entrepreneurs. I hope that that will indeed be looked at carefully, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will take account of what is being said.

I think that the idea of the Bill is very good, but I hope that we will examine this part of it.

Mr. Michael: I welcome the debate, and the concern for the voluntary sector that has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I, too, was involved with the Prince's Trust in its early days, and chaired its Wales committee: I know something about the work involved in getting money to, in particular, the youngsters on street corners whom other trusts--and, indeed, the public sector--have sometimes found it difficult to help. Such work is extremely important.

Opposition Members will also know of my personal interest in the voluntary sector and of the Labour party's commitment to volunteering in particular and to the voluntary sector generally. This week, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition launched a policy document that offers new encouragement and a new

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relationship of partnership between government and the voluntary sector. We will be determined to implement that document in government.

The policy document makes clear our commitment to nurturing the voluntary sector and to encouraging volunteering as an essential act of citizenship for people of all ages and from all sections of society, and it follows from a concern that the relationship between government and the voluntary sector had increasingly been one of government taking for granted the work of volunteers, charities and voluntary organisations. We have sought to put that right through a period of consultation and discussion in every part of England, in Wales, in Scotland and in Northern Ireland, and we will seek to address the matter in government.

I share the concern of hon. Members that there are dangers of a disincentive to volunteering if the Bill were introduced without sensitivity and without the greatest care. As was said in the discussion on an earlier amendment, the priority must be the protection of children, young people and vulnerable adults. That must be addressed in the way in which the Bill is implemented. The amendment has stimulated a useful debate, but it would be cynical of the Liberal Democrats to push it to a Division, because it appears to support voluntary organisations without actually delivering anything.

I have spent my life involved with volunteers. As a Queen's scout and a former scouter, I referred in Committee to the concerns of the scout movement. I understand it because I have been involved and have seen it at first hand. I was subsequently involved in other forms of voluntary youth work. For some 16 years, I worked as a youth and community worker involved in the recruitment, training and support of volunteers in all aspects of voluntary work. For that reason, I understand the importance of providing support to those organisations.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I am listening with bated breath to understand how this Parliament can justify the Scout Association, Barnardo's and other organisations, or their volunteers, being charged. I am still waiting to hear the justification for that. It is indefensible. As for making declarations, I was leader of the Rams patrol and, in this place, I am vice-chairman the all-party Scout Association group, for which I am proud to speak on this occasion.

Mr. Michael: I make no comment on the name of the patrol that any particular hon. Member might have represented. My hon. Friend has misunderstood the nature of the amendment and of the debate. The debate is important, but I was coming precisely to the point about how the issue has been addressed during our debates. In bringing forward their plans and in planning the establishment of the agency, the Government failed to think through the impact that the Bill might have on volunteering and voluntary organisations, but they have gone some way to meet our concerns, and amendments were agreed in Committee that addressed that precisely.

The Government originally intended to delete the amendment proposed by Lord Weatherill and agreed in another place, but, instead of simply deleting it and returning the Bill to its original form, the Minister agreed in Committee to introduce an element of flexibility, which

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allows discussion with the voluntary sector, proper consideration of the issues that have been raised by hon. Members during the debate and, therefore, arrangements to be made that take those points into account. That is precisely the point.

That was a victory for common sense, and the change in the Bill is extremely important. Certainly we would be committed to meeting voluntary organisations and, in particular, volunteering organisations to discuss their concerns and to ensure that things are thought through before the flexibility that has been achieved by the amendments that were agreed in Committee lead to the Bill's implementation. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will support that approach. It came as a result of amendments in another place, followed by discussion in Committee.

As I said to the Minister in Committee, I welcome the greater flexibility that results from the amendments that were agreed in Committee, and I hope that he agrees that we need to be very careful about how the charging system is developed and implemented to protect, wherever possible, the interests of volunteers and volunteering organisations.

Mr. Kirkhope: I am well aware of the fact that hon. Members do not like the idea of fees for groups such as volunteers. I suppose that none of us does ideally, but we have already agreed, as the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) said, to provide for the possibility of introducing free checks for certain groups if it is considered appropriate in future. As he said, that was accepted in Committee when the amendments inserted in another place to provide free checks for volunteers were overturned.

Mr. Mackinlay: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kirkhope: I have only just started.

Mr. Mackinlay: It is very important and it is on that point.

Mr. Kirkhope: I must give way to a leader of scouts.

Mr. Mackinlay: The Minister said that free checks might be introduced if they were deemed appropriate. His colleague said in parliamentary replies that that would happen as and when resources permit. Frankly, hell will freeze over before that happens. If this goes on the statute book, this Government, if they are returned to office, or another Government, will find it difficult to find the money. We have to establish the point now that there should be free checks for these very important voluntary organisations.

Mr. Kirkhope: The hon. Gentleman is being pretty fierce for a patrol leader, but I am coming to the points that he has raised.

Let me stress that we recognise the enormous amount of good work done by volunteers. Over the years, I have been involved in quite a number of voluntary organisations. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Surrey (Sir M. Grylls) referred to the Prince's Trust, as did the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. I am very keen on it as well. It is an excellent organisation.

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Our opposition to Lord Weatherill's amendments does not undermine the Government's long-standing commitment to volunteering, which was encapsulated in 1995 in the "Young People Make a Difference" initiative. As I am sure hon. Members are aware, that document made it clear that the Government encourage preferential treatment for volunteers in relation to, for instance, youth work development grants, the Millennium Commission giving priority to programmes for bursaries and grants to help young people to volunteer, and employers allowing employees to be involved in volunteering without cost or expense.

The Government have done many things to encourage volunteering. I assure the House that, before introducing the Bill, we carefully considered whether voluntary organisations should be afforded free checks but, as I explained to the Committee yesterday, responsible Governments have to make tough choices. We rejected the idea on the grounds of equity, practicality and--for the benefit of Opposition Members--cost.

The Criminal Record Agency, which will issue the certificates, has been planned on the basis that it will be self-financing. At the moment, therefore, there are simply no funds available to pay for free checks for volunteers. I do not want to become embroiled in an argument about numbers, but it is necessary to do so to give an idea of the financial effects of Lord Weatherill's amendments.

Between 8 million and 20 million people act as volunteers--I cannot give a more accurate assessment, and I do not believe any other hon. Member can--so it is difficult to estimate precisely what the cost of free checks would be.

Assuming that checks were restricted to new volunteers, and that only those eligible for the higher level of checks--enhanced criminal record certificates--were included, the minimum sum likely to be needed would be about £10 million a year. However, that could increase considerably if demand for checks was stimulated, as it could be, if they were free and were sought in a blanket way, rather than after careful consideration of whether they were really necessary for each organisation.

If there were a requirement that existing volunteers be checked, as was suggested in another place, the sums involved would be between £40 million and £200 million in the first year. We do not believe that it would be right to commit ourselves to providing a blank cheque when we are trying to hold down public expenditure.

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