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Volunteers and Carers

4.58 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I beg to move,

I am delighted to have the privilege of leading this afternoon’s debate on a matter close to the heart of virtually every Member. Its purpose is to honour those involved in volunteering and caring in society by using mainstream time on the Floor of the House to demonstrate how important their contribution is to all hon. Members. We have therefore taken the opportunity offered by volunteers week and carers week to do precisely that. We want to recognise the immense, varied and significant contribution made by individuals throughout the country who participate in volunteering and caring and to register the extent of their commitment and the contribution that they make.

I trust that we can explore current issues facing volunteering and caring, consider the barriers that still need to be overcome to make the most effective use of people and their time and examine how life can be made easier for those involved. Finally, I hope that we can look to the future and raise issues that the recently announced Commission on the Future of Volunteering will examine over the next 12 months. I have little doubt that the debate will be well informed by all hon. Members and that we will hear about the personal experiences of some of the remarkable people we have met who are involved in these activities. I intend to concentrate on volunteering, leaving my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) to talk in greater detail about the work of carers when he winds up the debate.

There is no typical volunteer in this country. People who give up their time to help others come from all sections of the community, are of all ages and come from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Despite the dreadful story in the newspapers this morning of the poor child left calling for help in the middle of the road after being struck by a car, the instinct to help one’s neighbour is one of the deepest human ones imaginable.

Members of Parliament have many privileges, as journalists are frequently keen to remind us, but one of the privileges rarely reported is the opportunity that we have to observe some of the finer instincts of members of our community. A typical MP’s diary of time spent in the constituency will reveal visits to those involved in some of the most selfless activities, which all too rarely command national headlines. Our local newspapers make an excellent, if too often unsung, contribution, and often provide the recognition necessary to enable a community to appreciate that the picture of national
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collapse—an inference too often drawn from some appalling incident—is not the reality of life for everyone.

Before we consider individual stories, let us gain some sense of how important the voluntary sector is to this country. I am indebted to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and Stuart Etherington for their statistical analysis and work on this matter. The latest information available shows that the voluntary and community sector, as best it can be defined, has an income of more than £26 billion. Its work force is sizeable, at some 600,000, but the number who volunteer—defined as giving unpaid help through groups, clubs and organisations to benefit other people or the environment—is staggering. Some 29 per cent. of our community take part in formal volunteering at least once a month and 44 per cent. at least once a year. Half of our population has volunteered, formally or informally, at least once a month, which is equivalent to more than 20 million people in England and Wales.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): My hon. Friend’s support for the voluntary sector is renowned in the House and I am delighted that he is opening the debate. Will he recall that volunteers in the animal welfare sector—especially the 10,000 who do so for the organisation to which I am connected, Cats Protection—make a commitment not once a week or once a month but, because they are dealing with live animals, every day? Those who volunteer to help animals, especially cats and dogs, make a seven-day-a-week commitment, and it is all the more remarkable for it.

Alistair Burt: In a typically feline intervention, my hon. Friend uses his personal knowledge, as many other hon. Members will do in this debate, to highlight another corner of national life in which volunteers and carers are involved. It is remarkable that hardly any facet of our national and community life does not involve selfless giving by people, and my hon. Friend’s valuable work and expertise in his area is recognised. It is right for him to say what he said.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I do not wish to diminish the work done by a wide variety of organisations, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will mention many of them, but will he recognise that 26 per cent. of all volunteers work in sport? Some 6 million people volunteer in sport regularly, and I speak with a slight vested interest as chair of the National Strategic Partnership for Volunteering in Sport, which brings them all together. The hon. Gentleman could also give us some indication of his own prowess at sport with his run earlier today in the Westminster mile.

Alistair Burt: Unaccustomed as I am to talking of my activities in the parliamentary football team or other sports, I nevertheless seem to recall that I was a minute ahead of the hon. Gentleman this afternoon, in an event graced again by an astonishing performance by the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), who did the mile for Sport Relief in 5 minutes and 35 seconds—an extremely creditable performance.

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Colleagues will know from their constituency work that remarkable things can be done with sport. It touches all parts of society, including the most needy people. Time given up for sport is exceptionally valuable, but that brings us to one of the problems of modern life. People used to live and work in more or less the same area, finishing work at a reasonable time and going home for tea at 5 o’clock. They were therefore able to go out and support a sports club or train a team in the evening. These days, however, people work further away and get home much later. They are more tired and more committed to their work, so it is harder for them to offer the support for sport that the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) mentioned. We should pay a special tribute to those who work with youngsters in sports teams and who thus make an immense contribution.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): My hon. Friend has visited my constituency several times, and knows that it is a rural area that does not have as many sporting facilities as other places. However, we are rich in mums and dads and other volunteers prepared to give up their time in the middle of the week and at weekends, in all sorts of weather. I am thinking of George Hibbert of the Clitheroe Wolves, who helps more than 450 young boys and girls to play football on a regular basis, and of Farouk Hussain, who gives up his time in the middle of the week to help youngsters play cricket. Without such people, young people in rural areas would not have the same opportunity to play sport.

Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend is right. He makes the point that voluntary activity to help disadvantaged people is not confined to urban areas but is also effective in rural areas. He mentions the time commitment required of those who work and train with youngsters in the way described by the hon. Member for Loughborough. I pay tribute to the people in my hon. Friend’s constituency who devote so much time to that—and especially to those who are working to build up yet another wonderful Lancashire cricket team that will win more trophies.

What is the economic worth of voluntary activity, quite apart from the personal and social benefits that it confers? People who volunteer formally tend to spend about eight hours a month on voluntary work. That adds up to 1.9 billion hours of work—about the same as that done by 1 million full-time workers. At the national average wage, that contribution is worth £22 billion a year.

There is no possibility that that amount of effort could be taken over by the state or people in the paid sector. It could not be afforded, so the voluntary contribution that people make constitutes an exceptional addition to this country’s national life. We should all salute and celebrate it.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): My hon. Friend has set out the undoubted economic benefit accruing from voluntary work, but does he agree that the long-term, one-on-one personal care devoted to some of the most vulnerable people in our society by people in the voluntary sector—including but not exclusively those in the faith communities—
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could never be replicated by the state? The voluntary sector provides a great saving, but the quality of the care that is given could never be delivered by the state, no matter how well it was intended. Is not that the real benefit of what the voluntary sector provides?

Alistair Burt: There are some remarkable examples of the personal care provided by people in both the voluntary and state sectors. Those of our public sector workers who work with the most distressed individuals make a substantial contribution, but there is something special about people who do something that is not part of their job. Volunteering adds an extra dimension to their lives, as we have all seen.

For two years in the 1990s, I had the great honour to be the Minister with responsibility for people with disabilities. In that role, I came into contact with some exceptional people. I met people struggling with disabilities and overcoming circumstances that would be unimaginable to most of us, and I also met their carers, who were prepared to put in an extraordinary amount of time. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) is absolutely right to recognise the contribution that such people make.

I have mentioned the economic impact of those who work in the voluntary sectors, but I now turn to carers specifically. About 6 million people in the UK look after someone who is frail, sick or disabled. The care that they provide is unpaid. Many do not identify themselves as carers because the care that they give is to a family member. Three in five of us will become a carer at some stage in our lifetime and 301,000 people are becoming carers each year. If each carer worked for 20 hours a week—1.25 million carers currently work for more than 50 hours a week and the Department of Health estimates that more than 400,000 carers combine a full-time job with more than 20 hours of caring a week—that collective output would dwarf the NHS’s 1 million-strong work force. That is how much we depend on our extraordinary carers.

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): Everybody in the House shares the sentiments that are being expressed on both sides of the House. I certainly agree with the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) about the special nature of voluntary care, but I hope that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) agrees that it is important to remember that people who work in the public services as a job also give unparalleled care, dedication and service.

Alistair Burt: Absolutely. I hope that I made that clear when I responded to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon. There should not be any sense of competition. We know that a number of people feel a calling to work in the public service. Some of us do that through politics, and we all know people in our constituencies who do it, whether in the health service, teaching or care. Some people feel called to give their lives in an extraordinary way and do so through their work; some people, because they work in a different sector, give their lives in a different way. There is no sense of competition.

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That builds to an extraordinary national sense. We are talking about something that makes us the country that we are. That is why the story in the newspaper this morning was so shocking. It goes against everything in all our natures, and in the natures of the vast majority of people we come across, that someone in distress could be left. That still makes one stop and think when one travels abroad to a country where the extent of poverty is so great and the cheapness of human life is rather greater. One sees children in some degree of agony being left on the side of the road because no one can afford to care. That should not happen here. We build into our national life that sense of people being involved—either through their working lives or their voluntary lives.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman add to the story that he has outlined at the Dispatch Box this afternoon the fact that the little girl in question was hit and the hit-and-run driver could not be bothered to stop? That is despicable beyond words. We do not want to believe that that type of behaviour could take place in Great Britain today.

Alistair Burt: It is exactly as the hon. Lady says. It is still a sign of hope that the national reaction has been so intense and that we all recognise that behaviour as abhorrent. The worry is that, over the years, experience has tended to show that a dreadful story one year might become commonplace the next. We are all striving to avoid that.

I know that a number of Members will seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to talk about people in their constituency or their experiences of volunteering with others, so that the House can get a flavour of what is behind the statistics. Volunteers week has been taken up by colleagues on this side of the House—as I am sure that it has been on the other side—as a particular opportunity to take part in or support voluntary activities. My colleagues have been involved in quite a range of activities. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) has been helping West Norfolk Disability Information Service. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) is visiting her Sure Start project in Penge to catch up on progress. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) sent round a helpful note of international development organisations that were looking for support and he is contributing some time. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) has volunteered to help FARM-Africa. Colleagues have done a range of things.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), my boss, has given me information about supporting a trip to Germany by a football team—this one supported by newspapers—from the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Trust, which comprises those with mental health difficulties. They are playing in Germany in a round-robin tournament that involves other teams comprising fans supporting Germany or England. My hon. Friend lent a hand when some of that squad showed the giant banner that they have created in this country, which they intend to give to their German hosts. All of us in this place could come up with equally interesting stories and I hope that we do.

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Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May I highlight another important benefit of volunteering? I spent Sunday afternoon helping on the Shipley Glen tramway in my constituency, which is an important part of the heritage in our part of the world. It is run exclusively by volunteers and would close without them. Does my hon. Friend agree that volunteers play a vital role in preserving and highlighting important aspects of our local heritage in all our constituencies that would otherwise be lost?

Alistair Burt: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and he is right to bring that example to the attention of the House. Those of us who know west Yorkshire are aware of how important such a contribution can be. Other hon. Members will have further examples.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): My hon. Friend has not mentioned this, but I spent my weekend finding good homes for well over 100 teddy bears on behalf of Barnado’s. Is he aware of the MPs heroes event of the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), which is being organised by the Experience Corps? The event will be held here on 27 June to honour those in our constituencies who do good work as volunteers, many of whom are elderly. Those people represent the British spirit and culture. However, is my hon. Friend also aware of the great problem that Members have in choosing one individual to receive the award as a hero from so many worthy, deserving causes? Did other hon. Members do what I did and ask their local paper to do that for them?

Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend’s expertise with his local newspapers is well known, especially by hon. Members who attend the end-of-term Adjournment debates, when he regularly wins the prize for naming the most constituents and linking them with his local papers. He makes a fair point about the difficulties that we have when choosing from among the causes that we are asked to support.

As far as my experience of support volunteering week is concerned—I raise this as an example of something in which we are all involved—I express my thanks to Gary Bishop, who is a church leader in Openshaw, Manchester, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd). Gary is involved in the Eden project, which is a Christian-based initiative that has been operating in Manchester for several years. The project is especially extraordinary because it has asked young people to commit up to five years of their lives to live and work in some of the most deprived communities in the city. That enables them to become part of the community so that they can stimulate and support the personal and human development that is often necessary in places where there has been little family stability and where hopes and aspirations can be low, with self-esteem lower still.

The name of Bob Holman is known to many hon. Members because of his work on poverty. He identified that one of the key features of estates in difficulty is that when anyone gets a job or tries to improve themselves, they move out of the estate, thus depriving it of natural community leaders and people who might provide stability and focus for others. His life of commitment in Easterhouse in Glasgow has been the
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inspiration for many, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), whose work on social justice is proving to be a significant contribution to politics.

Members of the Eden project are working in Manchester in much the same way. Two of the estates in the area are classified as the 11th and 12th most deprived areas out of the 32,482 in the United Kingdom. Through a series of projects—including supporting mothers and children, home visiting, parents survival and family intervention, working with youths in clubs and on the streets, and providing after-school clubs, Sunday supper clubs and other opportunities—the Eden project and those who work with it are putting their time and effort into unglamorous and difficult work. It can be harder to ask volunteers to give their time to some projects than others. There are six staff, but 30 volunteers. Each of their stories is inspirational, but they would acknowledge that they are only representative of many more people working throughout the country.

Pete had the call to move from Leicester to Manchester to be involved in the community. He works in a Sure Start project and gives spare time to the community. Hannah is married to Gary. She came to Manchester, where she qualified as a nurse. Her daily work is as a district nurse in the area of need, but she still finds time to volunteer as a family support worker, when she works mostly with people with drug or alcohol misuse problems.

Unlike those who have moved from other areas to Manchester, Sinead, at 18, has always lived in the community. She got involved with Eden when it began to work with her and her friends, and now she is qualified as a nursery nurse, but spends extra time volunteering with families and children in the community.

Shannon, at 15, is even younger and is still at school, yet she has learned that she has a gift for working with and leading other youngsters in the area. I think that the project, and the work being done by Andy Hawthorn and others in Manchester, is remarkable, given the commitment that they have shown in becoming embedded in an area.

What has brought these volunteers to work in that place is no different from what has brought others to work in other areas—they recognise the need to help others. At the same time, they say how much they themselves have grown and developed through contributing voluntarily: getting involved with a simple and often repeated statement. They aim to ensure that their work is sustainable. Being able to lead youngsters such as Shannon and Sinead into positions of responsibility is a key objective. It is not merely that an elastoplast is being applied to the wound. These volunteers are participating in long-term care and recovery.

Although the multiple problems that the estate and those who live on it may face can be daunting at times, volunteers gain strength from working with each other and supporting each other through difficult times. I suspect that that is a common feature among those who work in difficult areas of society.

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