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David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op):
Before the Minister leaves the question of young people and volunteering, does he agree that it is important to consider those young people who have caring responsibilities thrust upon them, such as caring for ailing parents or for younger brothers and sisters? Will he pay tribute to the work of Brighton and Hove carers centre in supporting the needs of young carers in the Brighton and Hove area? Will he join me in hoping that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will discuss the needs of young carers in his response to the debate?
Edward Miliband: I am happy to pay tribute to the organisation in my hon. Friends constituency. Young carers are very important and the issue is particularly challenging. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will want to discuss that issue at the conclusion of the debate.
Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that the matter involves more than young people? In my constituency, there are special constables who are 40-plus. There are also people, some of whom are 50-plus or 60-plus, who work in a voluntary capacity on cardiac risk for the young and who provide enormous quantities of money and equipment for hospitals. We are discussing young people, but many ancients work very hard in the voluntary sector.
Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend has anticipated my remarks, because I was about to discuss older volunteers. Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to attend the Help the Aged and the Volunteering Initiative in the Third Age conference, where two older volunteers talked about their amazing work. We look forward to the VITA report in the autumn, which will address what more we can do to promote the role of older volunteers. I agree with my hon. Friend that older volunteers play an important role.
Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): Before the Minister moves on to talk about older peoples volunteering, may I invite him to my constituency to visit the Bourne children and youth initiative and the Farnham youth project? I assure him of a very warm welcome should he find the time to visit those very worthwhile projects in an area of the country that has not traditionally been a stronghold for his party.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before the Minister responds, may I say to the House that interventions are becoming invitations and, to some extent, mini-speeches? I understand that all hon. Members want to contribute to the debate, but others are waiting to make speeches later and the clock is ticking. I know that the Minister has to make a full response, but if everybody else could make their speeches a little shorter than they had planned, more Members could speak.
Edward Miliband: Perhaps I should take further invitations in writing rather than in person during the debate.
Edward Miliband: Of course I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is much concerned with the charity sector.
Bob Spink: The Minister will be aware that voluntary organisations often hold fundraising events such as garden parties. Will he clarify whether those are exempt from the provisions of the Licensing Act 2005, provided that alcohol is not sold and the money raised is for the good cause, not for profit? Is he aware that some local council licensing departments are making a perverse interpretation of this law, and will he encourage local councils to adopt a helpful attitude instead of discouraging such events?
Edward Miliband: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who gives me the chance to say that a committee under Sir Les Elton is considering the whole issue of the implementation of the Licensing Act, particularly as it affects village halls and other venues.
There are different rules and procedures for those that serve alcohol as against those that do not, and it is very important that they are implemented properly. I take the hon. Gentlemans point and would be happy to talk further with him.
As I said, we are working with VITA, but it is also important to give volunteering opportunities to those who are excluded and under-represented in terms of those opportunities, including disabled people, black and ethnic minorities and other socially excluded groups. I can announce today that we are allocating £3 million for a new partnership between the Media Trust and organisations representing disabled, black and ethnic minority and socially excluded groups to try to open up volunteering opportunities for them.
The Governments role is not only about improving the volunteering infrastructure, but about removing barriers to volunteering. The new Office of the Third Sector, based in the Cabinet Office, offers an opportunity for greater co-ordination within Government of the effort to break down those barriers, three of which have been cited in particular as preventing volunteering. First, there is the deterrent effect of potential legal action for incidents involving volunteers. Several hon. Members raised that issue. Tomorrow, the Compensation Bill receives its Second Reading in the House. It represents an important response to concerns that have been raised, including in the private Members Bill introduced in 2004 by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). Part 1 of the Compensation Bill makes it clear that when considering a claim of negligence, courts will be able to consider the wider social value of the activity. That will help to ensure that voluntary organisations are not discouraged from taking on volunteers by the threat of legal action. It has been widely welcomed by many organisations that use volunteers. For example, the Scout Association has said that it welcomes the proposals.
Secondly, there is the operation of the Criminal Records Bureau, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire and by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), who is no longer in his place. Every year, about 500,000 checks on volunteers are processed by the CRB free of charge as a result of a decision made by this Government. That is a considerably higher number of applications than was expected. There have been concerns about delays in processing, but I am pleased to say that the situation has improved, with 93 per cent. of standard checks completed within two weeks and 88 per cent. of enhanced checks completed within four weeks. Of course, we recognise that there is scope for further improvement in this area, and we will continue to consult the sector and work with the CRB to bring about improvements. We are working on several matters, but I believe that the situation has improved.
Thirdly, concerns have been raised, including in the Russell report, about the benefit rules being a possible deterrent to volunteering. On examination, it turned out that many of those anxieties related to the implementation of the rules rather than the rules themselves. For example, those on jobseekers allowance can volunteer
provided that they continue to look for work and can start a job within a week. That is why the Government have launched an updated guide to volunteering while on benefits. The task is now to ensure that it is implemented locally in jobcentres.
A final part of the enabling role of Government is to build an ethos of volunteeringthe sense that we all have a responsibility to put something back into our society. That must start in schools, and that is why the Government have already piloted the active citizens in schools programme and are determined to do more to embed volunteering in the citizenship curriculum. We are also working with the private sector, through Business in the Community, and with the public sector to open up more volunteering opportunities and persuade more people to volunteer.
The third principle of the Governments approach is that the role of the third sector in general, and volunteers in particular, must be seen as a supplement to and not a substitute for Government funding of public services. The relationship of state and the third sector has always been difficult for our societywe should be honest about thatand, indeed, for any major advanced industrial society that has a welfare state. The third sector can reach out to the disadvantaged, it is close to the communities that it serves and it has a deserved reputation for innovation. As we have already heard in the debate, the role of volunteers reflects the reality that there will always be ways in which Government provision and services can be supplemented by the engagement of volunteers. However, volunteering must not be seen as, and cannot be a cut-price alternative to Government. That is true of the third sector generally.
Before the second world war, the patchwork nature of the welfare state may have encouraged a spirit of charity and voluntary action, but Labour Members do not romanticise that era, for it was a time when services were frail and failed many people. For Labour Members, the significant increases in expenditure on public servicesand the resultant improvementsare consistent with the increase in volunteering. Both contribute to a more just society.
Todays debate is important because I hope that it might enable us to declare a happy consensus on the need for partnership between the state and the voluntary sector. That would be welcome. It would mark a major change from the position of the Conservative party in the 1980s, when the choice between state and volunteer was perceived as a zero sum gamemore state provision meant crowding out the volunteer; less state provision was desirable because it would increase voluntary action.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): Does the Parliamentary Secretary share my concern that today, many volunteers give much of their time to hospitals throughout the country serving tea, providing artwork and performing many other noble tasks? I was stunned by his party political point because my example shows the substitution of public expenditure for volunteer labour. Will he do something about that?
There has always been a tradition in our public services of people giving their time
voluntarily. However, voluntary activity cannot be a substitute for the core part of the work that public services do.
I welcome the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) to the debate. He has taken a great interest in the voluntary sector and social justice. I feel some anxiety when reading some of the speeches that he has given on the issue and I hope that he will have the chance to speak in the debate. Last November, around the time when he was appointed to his new role, he made a speech in which he said:
As big charity gets ever closer to big government, it increasingly mirrors its thinking and behaviour.
I am worried and I believe that there is concern in the voluntary sector that that represents a 1980s view of faith in smaller government and belief that voluntary action should fill the gap.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): The speech to which the Parliamentary Secretary refers dealt with the relationship between larger charities and the smaller voluntary groups. He should go back to his office and examine carefully what happens with some of the bigger charities. Approximately 5 per cent. dominate charitable giving to such an extent that many smaller groups cannot get money. At the same time, they dominate the relationship with big government, often dictating the pressure on it. Genuine voluntary effort in the community groups often gets crowded out by that combination of big government and big charity.
Edward Miliband: I have the utmost respect for the right hon. Gentleman, who is a much more senior Member of the House than I am. However, in the last part of his intervention, he again referred to crowding out by big government. He and I have a very honest disagreementnot about ends, because I completely respect the ends towards which he is working, but about means. I do not think that the role of the Government necessarily crowds out the work of voluntary sector groups. However, when we are considering ways in which the voluntary sector can carry out more public service delivery, big charities will inevitably be involved.
Mr. Duncan Smith: I really must take up this issue with the hon. Gentleman. I visit a lot of small community groups around the country, pretty much throughout the year now, as part of my work with the Centre for Social Justice. One of the abiding features of what the people working in those groups tell me time and again is that they do not want to access local or national Government money because when they do, they feel that their activities get taken over by the Government and they fall into the pattern of being check-listed by civil servants. They absolutely fear the hand of the Government. I did not make that up. The hon. Gentleman should come with me on some of those visits, and I will show him people in Glasgow, Manchester and Sheffield who all work hard and all say the same thing: that they fear big government because it tends to take them over. Those are not my words, but theirs.
Edward Miliband: Of course, the right hon. Gentleman is right. In a way, that is what I was talking about when I referred to barriers. The Governments relationship with the voluntary sector needs to be conducted with a light touch, and we need to strike the proper balance between accountability and the flexibility to spend resources. I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman and I simply have a philosophical disagreement on this issue.
In the months and years ahead we will scrutinise the Conservatives proposals and intentions, and I hope that there can be consensus on this question. The relationship between state and voluntary activity is an important issue for our country, but it is not an easy one. There might be disagreements, but I hope that we can reach consensus.
I believe that it is right to celebrate the work of volunteers. In small ways and large, they are making a huge difference to our country. Forty years ago this month, the American politician Robert Kennedy said in a speech to young people in South Africa that the biggest danger facing our society was the sense of futility, and the belief that
there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the worlds ills.
Every year, millions of British volunteers are the living answer to the danger of futility. They are active citizens changing our country for the better. They have a Government on their side, and I salute their work today.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I very much welcome the debate and the tone in which the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) opened it. I suspected from the start that this would be one of the most consensual debates of the year, and, so far, that has been borne out by the words of the hon. Gentleman and of the Minister. I think that this is the first time that I have had the opportunity to welcome the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband) to his new responsibilities, after he was so cruelly robbed of that opportunity during the course of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. I congratulate him, and warmly welcome him. I also thank him for what he has said today. If he makes a habit of quoting that great Liberal, William Beveridge, in his speeches, he will maintain a welcome from these Benches.
Although the contributions to the debate will probably follow more or less the same linesalbeit with some areas of tension, such as the one that was explored in the latter stages of the Ministers speech we need to recognise that the warm feeling that comes from congratulating the voluntary sector from the Chamber is insufficient to its needs. To use the time-honoured phrase, fine words butter no parsnips. The requirement is not only to feel well disposed towards the voluntary sector, but to help it to do its essential job and to recognise some of the barriers that stand in its way.
We have already heard about the huge range of activities across the country that are covered by the voluntary sector. Those activities are all done for the
greater public good. The citizens advice bureaux, for instance, do a marvellous job in many of our communities. Those who work with elderly people are doing work that would otherwise not be done, because it would not be done by the statutory sector. There are also the special constables, who were mentioned by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor).
Those who work in the artistic and cultural heritage sectors are important to the life of our communities, not only adding to but maintaining that which we have. The industrial heritage sector in particular is often unsung. In that sector, people devote their lives to maintaining things that give instruction and pleasure to people in our local communities.
We should not forget those in local government, who are often forgotten in their role as volunteers. In fact, local government is made up of volunteers, particularly at parish council level. Many parish councillors take on considerable responsibilities in return for few thanks and little reward, and I am grateful for the work that they do. Those who volunteer to work for political parties certainly do not often receive thanks publicly, but they are volunteers none the less. Many of them give their time because of their commitment to a principle. They are prepared to do that day after day, week after week and year after year, and we should say thank you to them. We may feel that a number of them are mistaken in their political beliefs, but they are all doing what they do because they believe it to be for the common good.
School governors, who have been mentioned today, take on an extraordinarily responsible task nowadays, which is probably far beyond what they thought they were taking on in the first instance. I am worried by some of the responsibilities that now fall on their shoulders.
We should also take account of youth work, in its widest context. I am glad that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire mentioned his sea cadets, because I think we should pay special regard to the inestimable value of the work of the cadet force with young people. It does not merely provide them with the experiences that it is traditionally so good at providing. Earlier today, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) told me that at the weekend he had presented awards for community service to a number of cadets who had been not climbing mountains, sailing ships or flying planes, but helping the elderly as part of their training. That strikes me as an extremely valuable contribution.
There are those who raise funds for all sorts of purposes: organisations such as rotary clubs and, in my part of the world, carnival associations. Carnivals are not, in fact, a Notting Hill phenomenon; they are a Somerset phenomenon. We have the largest and best carnivals in the country, although they are not known to a great many people. The work of carnival associations continues throughout the year. They produce the floats for carnivals such as the Bridgwater carnival, which is attended by a quarter of a million people. Such carnivals raise a phenomenal amount of money for good causes.
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