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Mr. Andy Reed: I have also visited the Eden project. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that one of the project’s most impressive points is that unlike some
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of us who volunteer—I help with my local Beavers group; we go in, we do it and we go away—the commitment shown by the volunteers whom we are talking about is that they live in the communities in which they aim to serve. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should try to replicate such a model as far as possible? It is not something that we can force, but would not it be great if the hope that such Christian groups have fostered in being part of the communities in which they serve could be models for the future?

Alistair Burt: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The commitment shown is extraordinary. The number of people who can make such a commitment is limited, but there is no doubt about what these people provide by physically being present in an area and staying in it. Those who live in some of the most difficult places in our society get used to seeing other people for a short period. A social worker moves on; someone who is trusted takes a different job. There is nothing wrong with that, but the more that people can stay and be consistently identified as points of stability in difficult areas, the better. If more projects can see that as a model, that will make a tremendous contribution.

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has referred to some young people involved in volunteering. Is that not an important point to be made in the debate? So much media coverage of young people is focused on antisocial behaviour, hoodies and all the associated problems. I acknowledge that these problems exist, but would it not be appropriate to have a more balanced view of young people, so many of whom, especially through school, perhaps, work hard to raise money and raise the profile of many issues? For example, in Bedfordshire we know of the tsunami appeal, Work Africa, African Children and teaching and work on AIDS. Is not that an important aspect of volunteering? Young people can involve themselves in thinking beyond their immediate needs and wants and take on board the needs and wants of others.

Alistair Burt: The hon. Gentleman correctly identifies one of the privileges that we have that all too often others do not. We are lucky in that we see many youngsters—good youngsters in our community—who far outweigh the number of those who cause difficulties. We are lucky enough to see them at work. I pay tribute to our local newspapers, which tend to highlight good youngsters rather more than national newspapers. It is always easy to criticise and to pick up the things that go wrong. Nationally, to value our youngsters who are working so hard, would do us all a great deal of good.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Right hon. and hon. Members often pay lip service in Treasury questions to a light-touch approach to regulation, monitoring and inspection of small and medium-sized enterprises for fear of stifling initiative. Is there not strong power in the voluntary sector as well, where legislators should step in with great reluctance, ensuring proportionate protection for
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children and others involved in voluntary bodies through the Criminal Records Bureau and other bodies? Is there not a risk that we can stifle community spirit by excessive interference and involvement from the centre?

Alistair Burt: The telepathy between good friends and near neighbours has worked again. The hon. Gentleman anticipates the next section of my speech, which will deal with some of the barriers and problems that affect those who volunteer. He is right to raise the issue and I shall now focus on it. I say a final thank you to those who I spent time with on Sunday and Monday, to the mums and toddlers’ clubs, to Nicky who reintroduced me to Play-Doh after many years of absence, as my own children have grown up. I thank all of those people in that community as an example of those who are doing so much.

As the hon. Gentleman has just said, there are barriers to volunteering. I shall touch on them briefly, as time is short. Surprisingly, one of those barriers is disagreement about the value of volunteering, as not everyone believes in the importance of volunteering. The “NCVO’s Vision for the Future”, which was published in September 2005, said that in many cases volunteers have accepted the role of junior partner when, in fact, they should have been prepared to make their case more strongly. It said:

We do not undervalue the sector, and it is important that we ensure that volunteering is not considered an amateur pursuit. People who volunteer should be proud to do so. They deserve our respect, and our debate should highlight that.

Regulation and bureaucracy are more difficult problems. The delicate issue of checks by the Criminal Records Bureau gives rise to a clash of principles, as no one would wish volunteers with access to some of the most personal aspects of people’s lives to misuse that confidence. People who rely on the services of volunteers should be sure about them, and a cloud of suspicion should not hang over them. CRB checks provide clearance, but the bureaucracy involved is sometimes overbearing. Many volunteering organisations do not know when or why they need to check volunteers, or when they do not need to do so.

There are different levels of CRB checks, and it is not always certain which level is necessary. My wife is not an untypical example: she has three separate CRB clearances—two at a high level, and one at a lower level. She chairs the Bedford branch of Home Start—an excellent scheme that assists vulnerable families nationwide—as well as working in the local church and at a school with children. A total of £100 has been spent on obtaining those clearances. That expenditure is multiplied for volunteers throughout the country, but it could be used for other purposes. At least two of the checks on my wife were unnecessary, and there should be a platform of check on which to build if someone needs to move from a lower-level clearance to a higher-level one. The cost and the obscure nature of the checks are a barrier to volunteers
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and voluntary groups. They are a barrier, too, to developing projects that involve contact with vulnerable groups.

That problem, among others, was picked up by the Better Regulation Task Force in its report of November 2005, “Better Regulations for Civil Society— Making Life Easier for Those Who Help Others”. Its seventh recommendation dealt specifically with the CRB checks, and I should be grateful if Ministers told us, either in response to my opening contribution or at the end of the debate, whether we can expect an explanation for the slow progress in responding to those recommendations. I have been in touch with the Better Regulation Commission, which is disappointed by the time it has taken to receive a response. We all appreciate that the Home Office is under pressure, but it would be helpful to reform CRB checks and implement the recommendations of the taskforce, so we would appreciate a progress report.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): My hon. Friend’s remarks on the CRB checks are timely, as a few days ago I received a letter from a constituent who recently was subject to seven separate checks. That is not unusual, as many volunteers volunteer for many organisations, so any steps that can be taken to ensure that that needless duplication is ended would be welcome.

Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend is quite right. I cannot foresee any objections to his proposal—it is simply a matter of streamlining the system and making sure that each individual has a single reference number so that checks are carried through from one voluntary role to another. If they need to move up a level, they should be able to do so. The problem that my hon. Friend highlighted has been experienced by other people, so we must deal with it.

Closely related to issues opened up by the problem of CRB checks is the general culture of risk aversion, which now affects many organisations working with the public. In an excellent speech last year, Justin Davis Smith, the deputy chief executive of Volunteering England, addressed the problem directly. He said that

Volunteering England surveyed various organisations about the issue of whether compensation culture was a myth or reality. Nine in 10 voluntary organisations believed that the UK had developed a compensation culture.

Justin Davis Smith continues,

One result is the difficulty in recruiting volunteers. One in five organisations reported to Volunteering England that volunteers had stopped volunteering for them because of risk and liability fears.

The good news is that many organisations are coming to terms with this change in culture and want to fight back and put in place preventive strategies that
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allow them to continue to operate, despite the sense of risk. Politicians of all parties should work closely with them to do whatever we can to remove whatever fears are unreasonable. Risk management policies and strategies may seem tedious, but they can be reassuring and effective. Organisations share good practice among themselves, and Volunteering England’s own risk project funded by the Home Office is looking to develop a set of tools to help volunteer-involving agencies to develop their risk management policies. We collectively need to ensure that no more than is reasonable is demanded of organisations in the voluntary sector.

A less high profile issue but one that is just as real is the increased responsibility being attached to trustees and governors. Not too long ago, those were honorary positions often held by retired professionals who cast a benevolent eye over governance and financial matters—but no longer. Being held liable for significant financial sums or being embroiled in quite serious employment difficulties has made those jobs much more difficult and, for some, not worth the candle. We must make it easier for people to volunteer for such positions. It might be right to ask whether it is truly necessary to demand exactly the same rigorous standards in every organisation as might be expected from a major plc or an Enron.

Other problems that colleagues may wish to address when they get a chance to speak include the problem of recruiting people who are older, making sure there is no age discrimination, watching out for disability discrimination, and making sure that the pattern of funding is compatible with the work of voluntary organisations. All too many complain of the short-term funding problem. I was speaking to a charity for the homeless this morning and was told that it was involved in 47 local contracts with 16 different authorities, of which only one contract lasted for longer than a year. It is not possible to work that way. We are trying to work in a different way in the public sector, and I hope that that will extend more to voluntary bodies.

We need to make sure that everyone from all sections of society can contribute. It is true that those from a higher social class—a higher financial background—tend to be more involved in volunteering than others. Looking for ways to make sure that we break down the barriers and that people can afford to give time and effort to voluntary organisations is extremely important. We must continue to do that.

Finally, looking ahead, on 29 March Baroness Julia Neuberger launched the Commission on the Future of Volunteering. Following on from the success of volunteers year last year and the Russell Commission, over the next 12 months the commission will examine a range of issues, some of which I have touched on, to try and ensure that volunteering has a secure base for the future.

Baroness Neuberger recognises, as do many others, that volunteering has never seemed as important as it does today, and is keen that the heightened interest of political parties should not result in party or Government takeover of voluntary activity. I can assure her from the Conservative Benches that there is no intention or aim of that happening. We recognise, as I am sure does the Minister, that volunteers offer a
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valuable non-partisan service which he appreciates in government, and which we will equally appreciate when we sit on the Government Benches.

One of the key areas that we will be looking at is how we encourage young people into more voluntary activity. There is already quite a high level of participation, but as the Eden project shows, we want to encourage more. Growing people into voluntary organisations in their own areas is very valuable. I pay particular tribute to the Biggleswade sea cadets, of which I happen to be president. I have seen them being exceptionally active in the local community, and so many of those who have been in the sea cadets go on to give their time back to the local area and to the sea cadets and other voluntary organisations. The benefit to a small market town can only be imagined. When that is spread across the whole country, one sees how valuable the work can be.

We all have our stories about the value of carers and volunteers. We have seen them in every circumstance. We have seen them working abroad to teach, relieve pain and suffering or protect the environment. We have seen them at home, from joyful participation in local events in their communities to sitting down with hurt and miserable children with the direst of backgrounds, but who suddenly have hope and aspiration as a result of a kind word and skilled advice. From all of us in this place, to all of them, wherever they are, you have our hearty thanks.

5.34 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). He spoke as someone who cares passionately about carers and volunteering, and he will no doubt make an important contribution to the Neuberger commission, the results of which we look forward to.

I have been in my job as Minister with responsibility for the third sector in the Cabinet Office for a month or so, and I am delighted to have this opportunity to set out the Government’s approach and future plans. We have good reason to be optimistic about the ethic of volunteering in this country. Next year, the new Office of the Third Sector will be investing £65 million a year directly in the infrastructure of volunteering programmes. Millennium Volunteers saw a transformation of youth volunteering in this country, engaging almost a quarter of a million young people. Today 20.4 million men and women in our country volunteer regularly, up from 18.4 million in 2001, a rise in both formal and informal volunteering.

We need to go further. We have just launched V, the independent body that will build on the work of the Millennium Volunteers and is tasked with recruiting a million more youth volunteers. For carers too, there is more to do. There are more resources and better legislation, and the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who has responsibility for social care, will have more to say about that when he replies to the debate.

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For my part, I want to focus on the Government’s approach to volunteering, which is based on three principles. The first is that volunteering, including mentoring, is the bedrock of our society. The second is that the Government have an enabling role to play, investing in organisations with the expertise to make the best use of resources and breaking down barriers to volunteering, and I will deal with some of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised on that. The third—this is important—is that volunteering should be seen as complementary to state action, not a substitute for it.

I will deal first with the role that volunteering and mentoring play in our society. Almost 50 years ago, William Beveridge published a report—not his most famous—entitled “Voluntary Action” on the role of the voluntary sector in society. One phrase in it seems particularly apt as we meet in this House today. Voluntary action, he wrote, expressed

I spent the first day of volunteers week last Thursday visiting and volunteering at different organisations, and for me they showed that driving power in action. They included the Whitechapel mission, serving breakfast to the homeless; Live magazine in Brixton, which is produced for and by some of the most disadvantaged young people in south London; the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, with its 140,000 volunteers across the UK, which is improving public spaces all round Britain; and Sixty Plus, in Kensington and Chelsea, which brings together young people and older citizens.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden), volunteered for the excellent senior citizens’ link line project in Bilston in his constituency, to which I pay tribute today, and the Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), visited a women’s aid project and volunteered there this morning.

What united the volunteers in those diverse organisations was both the individual fulfilment that people got out of their volunteering and the difference that they were making to their communities, as those to whom I spoke confirmed. As the hon. Gentleman and others have said, we see that all around the country, from the millions of volunteer sports coaches, to the hundreds of thousands of school governors, to the many thousands of volunteers who campaign for the causes in which they believe.

The Government, of course, do not create volunteers, and it is important to remember that, but they do have an enabling role, which takes me to the second principle of our approach. That is partly seen in the enabling role of the Government investing in our volunteering infrastructure, and I want to talk about our future plans in that regard.

Today, 47 per cent. of young people volunteer at least once a year. In the ways that they contribute—my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) made this point—they are a living contradiction to the stereotype of yobbishness with which too many young people are branded today. It is the responsibility of the media—which we often like to criticise—but also of
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politicians, to represent a balanced picture of young people. We want many more young people to have the chance to volunteer—1 million more young people over five years. We know that volunteering enables young people to develop new skills outside school and broaden their horizons. By working with the third sector, public services and the private sector, our aim is to transform the number of young people who get involved in volunteering in their communities.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Will the Minister visit Enfield, where there is a shining example of young people engaging in volunteering? Ofsted has lauded youth action volunteering in Enfield as a unique and valuable scheme, which sends 600 people to 230 placements each year. Those people all do 15 hours a week working in a variety of areas, not least the Leonard Cheshire home, which I visited this morning.

Edward Miliband: I am in the early phase of being a Minister, which means that I accept all invitations. I am therefore delighted to accept the hon. Gentleman’s invitation and look forward to visiting Enfield. That said, I fear that another invitation is approaching.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I have a two-for-one offer for the Minister, because my seat is next to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes). Will the Minister join me in recognising that every pound given to voluntary and charitable organisations generates huge value—sometimes 10 or 20 times the value of the donation?

Edward Miliband: I agree with the hon. Gentleman and will look kindly on his invitation. Gift aid has improved the situation on tax relief, and the sum provided by the taxpayer has increased from £200 million to £600 million. We all know about the huge impact of volunteering, and I shall discuss that matter later.

V is a new, independent organisation, and it embodies the Government’s enabling role. It will be led by young people through the youth advisory board, V20; it will be shaped by the needs of young people; and it will fund thousands of full-time youth volunteering opportunities, as well as many thousands more part-time opportunities. The Government have committed up to £100 million over three years to fund increases in youth volunteering through V, and I am pleased to say that 26 companies have already pledged their commitment to the project, contributing a total of more than £10 million.

We want more young people to have the chance to volunteer.

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