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Mr. Breed: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Meacher: I cannot take any more interventions, but I am just coming to the hon. Gentleman's contribution. I was pleased that he said that there were some excellent policies in the rural White Paper. He spoke of quality parish councils, which we support. If they are to take on extra powers and responsibilities, they must show that they have the necessary skills. We are giving £2 million to strengthen training and support for those parish councils, and £5 million to help 1,000 communities develop their own village or town plan and carry it through. That is extremely important.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) made a speech that was clearly unpopular with the Opposition, because in many respects it got in the way of their fantasy that until 1997 everything was fine and dandy in the countryside, and since then it has all fallen apart.

The hon. Member for Cotswold rather unwisely criticised closures under the previous Labour Government. I will not go into the list of facts and figures that my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin produced about closures under the previous Tory Government, but they were at a considerably higher level than they are now.

I shall respond by letter to the hon. Member for Vale of York, as I want to spend just one minute on the excellent contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) and for Tottenham on community initiatives, the need for support for the suburbs and the need to deal with social exclusion. Those are central issues, and my hon. Friends made constructive, thoughtful and analytical speeches--

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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Motion made,

Line 37, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 46, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 48, at the end insert the words:--
'(4A) notwithstanding paragraphs (2) and (4) above, where more than two committees or sub-committees appointed under this order meet concurrently in accordance with paragraph (4)(e) above, the quorum of each such committee or sub-committee shall be two.'-- [Mr. Touhig.]

Hon. Members: Object.


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [23 January],

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

1. The matter of human rights and equality in Northern Ireland, being a matter relating exclusively to Northern Ireland, be referred to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee;
2. The Committee shall meet at Westminster on Thursday 8th February at 2.30 p.m.; and
3. At that meeting--
(a) the Committee shall take questions for oral answer; and shall then consider the matter of human rights and equality in Northern Ireland, referred to it under paragraph (1) above;
(b) the Chairman shall interrupt proceedings at 5 p.m.; and
(c) at the conclusion of those proceedings a Motion for the adjournment of the Committee may be moved by a Minister of the Crown pursuant to Standing Order No. 116(5) (Northern Ireland Grand Committee (sittings)).--[Mr. Touhig.]

Hon. Members: Object.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Touhig.]

2.30 pm

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): I have two objectives this afternoon. First, I wish is to place on record my appreciation of the nation's army of regular volunteers--perhaps as many as 3 million--who, in so many instances, are the unsung heroes of our nation. Secondly, I wish to encourage the Government to consider further ways to encourage the whole ethos of volunteering in today's society so that we can increase their number. After all, this is the international year of the volunteer.

It is difficult to be precise about how many people can be described as volunteers on a regular basis, but if my Colchester constituency is typical, it is likely to be about 4 per cent. of the adult population, with many others volunteering less frequently. What is a volunteer? The dictionary defines a volunteer as

However, that category is so wide that, at some time or another, most people will fall into it. To my mind, when we talk about volunteers and the voluntary sector, we mean those who offer their time and talents on a regular basis. Clearly, there is scope for considerably more people to volunteer "free, unpaid, willing", as the dictionary defines the word "voluntary".

Without more volunteers, the number of voluntary organisations and the level of effort in our communities will decline. Society will be the poorer in every respect. Research by the National Centre for Volunteering estimates the contribution of volunteering to the national economy to be worth £41 billion every year. I am told that that makes volunteering the third largest element of Britain's gross domestic product.

When word got around that I had been successful in securing today's Adjournment debate on the role of volunteers in promoting social inclusion, I was flooded with messages and background briefings from a wide range of voluntary organisations--national as well as from my own constituency. I regret that I do not have time to do justice to all the submissions that I received. All expressed the view that volunteering in this country looks to the Government for help. They do not necessarily expect direct financial support, welcome though that would be for many, but vocal and visible leadership, expressions of support and encouragement and the creation of a more favourable climate for voluntary organisations.

Those voluntary organisations catering specifically for young people--including the Amateur Swimming Association, the Boys Brigade, the Girl Guides Association, the Scout Association, the National Association of Clubs for Young People and St. John Ambulance--are unanimous in their call that a £10 fee, to be introduced later this year by the Criminal Records Bureau to check on new volunteers, should be waived, as it has been in Scotland.

I could devote my whole debate to that single issue, but I shall refrain from doing so because it will shortly be the subject of an inquiry by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. However, I draw attention to early-day motion 101,

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in my name, which has so far been signed by some 90 hon. Members on both sides of the House. It calls on the Government to follow the example of the Scottish Parliament and make the checks free in England and Wales, as they will be north of the border.

I must declare an interest, as I am secretary of the parliamentary all-party scout group, and a member of the guide group. The Scout Association, which has 250,000 adult volunteers, estimates that fees to the Criminal Records Bureau will cost the movement about £750,000 every year. The association's chief executive, Mr. Derek Twine, states

Mrs. Terry Ryall, chief executive of the Guide Association, told me:

Getting volunteers is becoming more difficult, as is keeping them.

The chief executive of the Boys Brigade, Mr. Sydney Jones, is reported to have said:

The sort of attitude that Mr. Jones so sadly describes cannot be allowed to continue. Ministers, hon. Members of all parties, council leaders, the media and other opinion formers throughout the country must be more vocal in encouraging the ethos of volunteering and in proclaiming time and again the importance of voluntary organisations and volunteers in our modern society.

Lack of volunteers is typified by the closure of the 4th Leigh Scouts in Pennington, Lancashire. The award- winning troupe, which had existed since 1916, disbanded at Christmas. Appeals for new leaders went unanswered. The local vicar, Rev. Peter Leakey, observed:

It is not all gloom, however. I salute Mr. Richard Tyrrell, who has been nominated for a "heroes of Gloucestershire" award. When he took over Cheltenham sea cadets seven years ago, it had dwindled to just three members. Now it has 70.

We need to encourage more people to follow the excellent example of volunteers such as Mr. Tyrrell and to work not only on one or two days a year, welcome though such efforts are, but on a more regular basis. There is a place for the less regular volunteer, although it is to be hoped that the experience and personal fulfilment that are to be gained will encourage such people to do more in future.

Last June, the AXA group in the UK organised the AXA 2000 community challenge, whereby 2,800 employees were granted a day's paid leave to volunteer

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to help in a wide range of community projects. There were 251 projects in total and each employee gave a second day of his or her own time. Several of the projects were in my constituency. Marks & Spencer's encouragement of volunteering is another example of best practice. It has provided 100-hour part-time secondments to community projects as one of the range of training and development options that is open to its staff. The secondments are a pioneering method of staff development that is linked with a voluntary community contribution. It is such initiatives that all companies, large and small, should encourage, and--dare I say it?--the Government should lead by example. Words are not enough; action is required.

On 2 March last year the Prime Minister challenged employers at the active community convention to give all employees one day's paid time off to volunteer. Almost a year later, may I ask how many Departments have complied with the Prime Minister's challenge? How many staff at No. 10 have been given one day's paid time off to volunteer?

I know that the Government would like more volunteers. They have said so. Indeed, as recently as 11 January, a press release issued jointly by the Cabinet Office and the Home Office declared:

It went on to say that, at a volunteering seminar at No. 11 Downing Street, the Chancellor, accompanied by the Ministers with responsibility for active communities, Lord Falconer and the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), announced a £300 million package to develop volunteering in certain specified ways over three years.

So why are the Government so determined to suck £15 million every year away from the nation's established youth movements by introducing checking fees for volunteers? The fees are a tax on volunteering that operates through the Criminal Records Bureau. If the Prime Minister really wants an extra 1 million volunteers recruited, he should bear it in mind that that is not helping and that the likely outcome will be more social exclusion.

Those of us who reject the notion that there is no such thing as society are grateful that the current Government are at least aware of volunteers and that they express a desire to promote the concept of volunteering. But come on--they are spreading across the whole country the selective distribution of an extra £2 million a week on top of the combined £8 million that is currently provided by central Government, local government, health authorities and the national lottery. That must be put in the context of the value of volunteering to the nation, which is estimated at £40 billion a year.

We all agree that volunteers have a key role in promoting social inclusion. Mr. Nigel Hook, of the Central Council of Physical Recreation, told me:

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Observing that sport accounts for a quarter of all volunteers, Mr. Hook added:

Mr. Brian Rockell from St. John Ambulance told me:

The scale and variety of volunteering in my constituency is impressive. I pay especial tribute to the estimated 5,000 or so volunteers who regularly give their time in many different ways, which varies from volunteering for the Samaritans to running majorette troupes, to make life better for others in our town and district. It is amazing how much time some people devote not only to the well-known charities and organisations, but in support roles for statutory organisations, such as the national health service. Volunteering and voluntary organisations are indeed a great British tradition.

Although I have been active in Colchester life for more than 40 years, I never cease to be amazed by the variety of voluntary organisations that exist in Britain's oldest recorded town. For young and old, for those with disabilities, and with subject interests from the "A" of Age Concern to the "Y"--there is sadly no "Z"--of the YMCA foyer, the umbrella organisation Colchester Community Voluntary Services has more than 100 affiliated organisations. However, when it is noted, for example, that not a single scout or guide group is listed separately, even the impressive list held by the CCVS, headed by director Samantha Drummond, understates the true extent of volunteering in Colchester.

Furthermore, Colchester and District Sports Council has identified more than 60 different sports played in the area. In the words of its Secretary Nikki Richardson,

I also want to mention the CCVS volunteer bureau, under the leadership of Jane Snowdon. It brings together people who wish to volunteer and organisations that are seeking volunteers. Today, I am advised that the bureau has vacancies for 38 new volunteers.

Mr. Bill Tucker, who was made an MBE for his half-century of voluntary service with Colchester organisations--he has also been granted the honorary freedom of the borough--told me:

I invite the Minister to send all hon. Members full details of the active community initiative--I am advised that it was launched by the Prime Minister in January 1999--and a report on its achievements over the past two years. I understand that its aim is to get more people involved in their communities.

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I applaud Lord Falconer's comments at the volunteering seminar to which I referred. He said:

Last June, the Minister, who also has responsibilities for active communities, said in a debate in Westminster Hall on the voluntary sector:

At least Ministers are saying the same thing at different times. So much for the glue: the Government now need to get stuck in, with action to go with the words.

Positive ways in which the Government could help voluntary organisations include amending the uniform business rate, requiring all local authorities to give maximum relief and exempting voluntary groups and clubs from paying VAT. How about grants to youth organisations to offset the cost of hiring school and church halls for meetings?

People do not do voluntary work for the money. At best some of their expenses may be covered, but there can be few volunteers who are not out of pocket. When I was elected a councillor 30 years ago, we received no allowances. That was wrong, but I think the allowances councillors receive now are much too high, and that is equally wrong. It also contrasts with the unfair treatment of an army of volunteers who beaver away in their communities, often putting in more hours than councillors.

Although payment for volunteers is the last thing I want, I feel that some financial recognition for the expenses they incur would not go amiss. Will the Minister and his colleagues consider allowing a tax allowance for regular volunteers, as a recognition of the valuable contribution that they make to society? It is only a suggestion. I have not considered the details, and I acknowledge that the process might not be straightforward; I merely ask for the concept to be considered.

Each place in a young offenders institution costs about £20,000 a year. We know that most prisoners began their life of crime when young. The cost to the public purse of keeping 40 adults in prison for a year is £1 million. If we could encourage more people to volunteer--I suggest that a tax break could make the necessary difference for cash-strapped people who are currently deterred from volunteering for financial reasons--the payback to society would be more than achieved. Fewer young people would drift into anti-social ways in the first place, because, with more volunteers running clubs and other organisations, there would be more outlets enabling them to occupy their time and energies productively.

I have tried to cover a lot of ground, but although I may have spoken for longer than I should have, I do not think I have done justice to volunteers and voluntary organisations. I hope that there will be another opportunity for that to be done; in the meantime, I trust that the Government will give serious consideration to the points I have raised.

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