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2.47 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) on raising the subject of volunteers, who play an important part in contributing to the fabric of our society. It is agreed on both sides of the House--although I note that no Conservatives are present--that there is such a thing as society. The voluntary sector plays an enormously important part in maintaining a mesh of mutual obligation and self-help, which contributes to the existence of a secure, sustaining and sustainable society.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of important points and suggestions. He will forgive me if I do not deal with them all today; I will write to him about a number that I consider to be worthy of further exploration. I am bound to say that his little venture into fiscal policy was as misjudged and misplaced as most of what members of his party say on the subject, but I do not say that in a spirit of party political acrimony; I say it in the friendliest of ways.

Although I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any comfort on that score, I can say that we recognise the need to encourage giving, and to create a tax framework for the voluntary sector that supports their efforts and the contribution that they make to society. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has taken a number of steps in that regard in successive Budget and other financial statements. That has been widely welcomed by the sector.

Volunteering, or community action, serves as a tool for people who would otherwise be socially excluded. It serves not only to meet their needs, but to ensure that, rather than simply being seen as a problem, they form part of the solution. We are determined to ensure that communities exist in which all people--regardless of age, race, colour, creed or social background--feel that they have a stake in society, that they can make a contribution and that their views matter. They must be communities in which people can make a meaningful contribution, and in which everyone feels free and able to give of their time and talents to help and support one another.

It is the proper role of the Government not to preach or moralise, but to create a framework within which it is possible for people to maximise the contribution that they make to their community, and to use the voluntary sector for that purpose. That is why we established the compact to create a framework of relationships between central and local government and the voluntary sector, recognising that the most important thing about the voluntary sector is its robust independence. That independence must be safeguarded as it embodies the sector's capacity to involve people at grass roots level, and to innovate and take risks--which is difficult for central and local government to do--in terms of developing new ways of approaching the delivery of services and creating those sustaining and sustainable communities that we all agree are so important.

The Government recognise the importance of the independence of the sector, and have sought to give volunteering and volunteers a higher profile. That applies to the active community convention to which the hon. Gentleman referred, in relation to which the Prime Minister laid down a robust challenge to business, to society and to Government in terms of promoting volunteering. I am able to report a degree of progress in

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the contributions of different Departments to that initiative, and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with details in due course.

From my own experience at the Home Office, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the former permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir David Omand, set a real example of administrative and moral leadership through his approach, as administrative head of that Department, to volunteering. The House should recognise that, and we certainly value the contribution that he made throughout his time as permanent secretary.

There is a role for the Government in these matters, in that we must ensure that we put our own house in order in terms of volunteering. There is a role for business, and I am glad that we have been able to work successfully with organisations such as Business in the Community, and collaborate with the exciting developments that have been embraced by the city cares initiative. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Marks & Spencer. One might also mention Asda and Tesco, as a number of high profile high street employers have played an important role in ensuring that corporate responsibility plays a part in the promotion of successful communities and in encouraging individuals to volunteer.

The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that a real issue for the voluntary sector is how one ensures that, in an increasingly busy and demanding business and professional environment, men and women feel able to take the time to contribute to their communities. We must explore innovative, flexible ways of enabling people to do that: the internet is one; utilising new technology is another. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the volunteer bureau in his constituency. That bureau will have been the beneficiary of a Government initiative that has funded the means by which volunteer bureaux are able to access the web, and through it a whole new avenue of enabling volunteering opportunities and potential volunteers to be brought together. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that.

We want to encourage the older generation of volunteers--the post-war baby boomers, in particular--of which the hon. Gentleman is such a noticeable example. Well, who would have thought that he started so young? There is a generation of baby boomers out there and we want to help them to give some of their experience and skills back to the community. That is why we have launched the older volunteer initiative.

On 11 January, we announced that we had asked a group of experts, led by Baroness Greengross, to help to develop ideas on that subject and to advise us on how to enable more over-50s to become active in their own communities. It is also important to recognise the investment that we have made. A funding package of some £300 million was announced on 11 January as part of our neighbourhood renewal initiative, and the hon. Gentleman was good enough to mention the £120 million of new funding for volunteering opportunities in the public sector over the next three years, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, my noble Friend Lord Falconer and I announced just last week. All that contributes to the Government's initiative on volunteering.

I want to mention in particular my own responsibility--as Minister with responsibility for young people--for the children and young persons unit and the children's fund: £450 million will be distributed to combat poverty among

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children and young people. The voluntary sector lies at the heart of what we seek to achieve in turning around the lives of children and young people. Volunteering has an enormously important role to play through mentoring, peer group mentoring and the work being done by scouts and guides, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Last summer, with my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), I had the pleasure of visiting the scouting jamboree in Essex. I was enormously impressed by the work that the scouts in Essex are doing to combat social exclusion. Yes, there is an issue in relation to the Criminal Records Bureau, but we are considering it and we are determined to find a way forward. I was glad to attend the Duke of Edinburgh's award scheme conference last year to see for myself the exciting work that is being done. Again, that is self-help, but it recognises the mutual bonds of obligation that bind us all together. A balance must be struck between rights and responsibilities.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the role of sport, which is very important. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport volunteering programme will run from 2002 to 2004, with £4 million of Exchequer funding and £3 million from the active community unit. In each of its two years, it will include opportunities for 4,500 older volunteers to act as mentors and coaches to the main core of young 14 to 19-year-old volunteers. That is very important.

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I should also mention the millennium volunteers, who have made such a valuable contribution in communities such as that represented by the hon. Gentleman and Brent, South, which I represent. At Alperton school, I recently saw for myself the valuable work being done by millennium volunteers.

The initiatives are exciting and innovative, although I do not pretend that there no obstacles to overcome. However, I know that we are determined to overcome them together in a spirit of partnership between the voluntary sector and central and local government. It is important for local government to consider the voluntary sector as a genuinely equal partner. To a certain extent, central Government are sometimes slightly ahead of local government in that regard--some local authorities still harbour suspicion of the voluntary sector that is quite unfounded. I hope that the existence and development of local compacts will help to overcome that.

We are indebted to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. We shall take it forward--the community champions initiative, for example, will play an important role--but we also recognise that our goal is to build active, healthy communities and to help people overcome the evils of social exclusion. The voluntary sector and volunteering make an enormously important contribution to helping us to achieve that. The whole House will wish the voluntary sector and volunteers well and offer them a big "thank you". They deserve no less.

Question put and agreed to.

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