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7 Jun 2006 : Column 352

We would not have a sports structure without the voluntary sector—without the coaches, the groundsmen and the honorary secretaries, treasurers, presidents and chairmen of the sports clubs in our constituencies. Those who work for the environment and conservation give up their time to make their communities that little bit better. But it is pointless to highlight particular organisations or individuals, because the list is endless.

The Minister may be relieved to hear that I am not going to invite him to my constituency—not because I would not be delighted to see him there, and not because I do not have a huge array of local organisations that I think would be worthy of his attention, but simply because I recognise that he has new responsibilities in his Department. Let me say how glad I am that responsibility for voluntary work has been removed from the maw of the Home Office and its tottering empire and given to the Cabinet Office, where I hope more attention will be paid to it.

Last, but certainly not least, are carers. No doubt attention will be paid to them later. They are, by definition, volunteers. They probably do not think of themselves as such but rather as people who provide care either because of an obligation or out of love for the individual on whom they are bestowing that care. However, they are part of the voluntary sector. What does the sector provide? It adds value to statutory activities and fills the gaps that the statutory providers will never fill. It also strengthens communities, supports families and reduces crime.

I want to highlight the effect of the sector on rural areas. We often think of urban volunteers as providing services, but that activity is often even more important in rural areas because of the lack of statutory provision. If the statutory bodies and local authorities do not provide various functions, it is left to the volunteers to fill those gaps. I applaud the point made about the Licensing Act 2005 and its effect on village hall committees. Village halls are often key components of voluntary activity in local areas.

Volunteering is done for a mixture of motives. Altruism is one. Care and love for individuals is another. The feeling that one has skills that are unused and can be put to better use for the community is a third. The fourth, and not to be forgotten, motive is fun. It is fun to do a lot of the activities, and people engage in voluntary activities for that purpose.

Ms Dari Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear, or join me in saying, that volunteers do many things that the state in no way, shape of form gets involved in? Alan Wade, a farmer in my constituency, is putting together eight very large lorry loads of clothes and medical equipment to go to Chernobyl. No one else is going to do that. He is valiant—a superb man. There are many Alan Wades in Great Britain, and we should celebrate them again and again.

Mr. Heath: I share the hon. Lady’s sentiments. The voluntary sector provides things that the state cannot. The key point, which was made by the Minister, is the need for complementarity—one adds to the other, not replaces the other. However, I say in parenthesis that I share some of the concerns expressed by the right hon.
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Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) about the Government taking what is effectively an agency approach to the voluntary sector, which changes the relationship between the voluntary sector and the community it serves. Sometimes that relationship is disturbed. We need to act with extreme care.

Alistair Burt rose—

Mr. Heath: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman but I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak so I will not take any more interventions.

Alistair Burt: The Minister referred to the Conservatives being stuck in a particular pattern of thinking. As I listened to him, I was worried that he had a particular pattern of thought as well, which is about the superiority of public service delivery. If he retains that view and does not see that there are flaws in public service delivery that voluntary agencies sometimes highlight, he is missing something, which betrays a pattern of thought that he needs to change.

Mr. Heath: I thought that the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that I held that view. I emphatically do not. However, I now understand that he was referring to the Minister. That debate can be resolved during the course of the evening.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire is equally right to point out the barriers. We should be concentrating on those. It is not enough simply to applaud what is done, but to say how we can enable that to happen in a better and more effective way. There are some aspects of voluntary work in which people are prevented from doing their best, sometimes by a lack of facilities, such as sports fields, and the lack of investment in local communities that provides the wherewithal for people to offer their services effectively. Sometimes it happens because of bureaucracy. The Criminal Records Bureau is still a live issue for many people. I welcome what the Minister said about improvement, but I recognise, because I have come across it in my constituency—all hon. Members must find the same thing—that the inevitable checks have a depressing effect on the preparedness of people to volunteer.

The checks and balances that we put in place must be proportionate. Of course we must protect the young and the vulnerable, but we need to do so in a way that is consonant with people still providing the levels of support that they themselves can offer. That also applies to the area of risk aversion, which has been mentioned. The Compensation Bill goes some way toward dealing with that.

However, the problem is often not the so-called compensation culture—I have never been convinced that such a culture exists—or litigation being carried through into court; rather, it is the interpretation by organisations of their liability through litigation that prevents them from doing things that they would otherwise do. A huge educative process is needed in order to tell organisations, “Yes, you can expose people to appropriate risk in carrying out outdoor activities in particular. That is not a wrong thing to do—it
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strengthens people and their prospects for the future— provided that you take reasonable precautions and measures to ensure that they do not come to harm.”

It worries me that support for the voluntary sector, particularly from local government, is always vulnerable. By definition, it occurs in marginal areas of statutory duties, which means that when times are hard in local government, such support is cut. That principle even extends to social services and support for carers in many parts of the country, which is in any case a patchwork of provision and is now under real threat.

The key issue, however, is the financial consequences, and here I shall concentrate on carers. For many, the restrictions on the carer’s allowance are a real difficulty. An example is the 35-hour restriction, which rules out many people. Moreover, when people become statutory pensioners, they lose the carer’s allowance. I understand the financial consequences of taking a different view on this issue; nevertheless, that restriction represents a horror story for many elderly carers, particularly those who are caring for their even more elderly parents. People can earn up to a limit of £84 a week, which is not very much, before they start to lose their carer’s allowance. Those who are at school, university or college for more than 21 hours a week do not qualify for carer’s allowance. These are all restrictions on people who are desperate to support their loved ones in their homes, and who, in doing so, are saving the state vast sums of money. In addition, such caring is to the advantage of the individual being cared for.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper) was right to draw attention to child carers, who are the forgotten carers. I hope that schools and colleges become much more aware of this issue, spot the stress experienced by young people who are caring for a parent or an older sibling in the home, and make arrangements to support them through their schooling, so that their education does not suffer, and to support them socially by acting as mentors and helping them deal with the problems that inevitably lie in their way.

We have a pension reform programme, which recognises the difficulties faced by carers, but does not propose to do anything about them during the lifetime of those who are currently carers. That is an issue of huge concern.

Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: We have very limited time and other Members will not get a chance to speak if I give way.

Finally, it should be made easier for businesses to release people to allow them to take part in voluntary activity, and it should be in their interests to do so. That brings me to a specific question that I would like the Minister to respond to, if he can. There is a concern about the definition of carers in clause 12 of the Work and Families Bill. The Minister will be aware that although this is to be settled by secondary legislation, the intimation is that the definition of carers will be restricted to those with a familial connection with the person being cared for. That is alarming many people in the sector, who realise that carers can comprise a much larger group. This definition is too narrow and
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restrictive, and even if it is appropriate in the context of the Bill, its use outside that context and in other aspects of the Government’s programme would be counter-productive.

Because of the lack of time, I feel that I should shorten my remarks at this point. To some extent, it is a platitude to express a debt of gratitude to carers and volunteers in this country, but it is necessary to do so. We owe them an enormous amount. In cash terms, too, the state owes them an enormous amount for their work. That makes it all the more necessary to reduce the barriers in their way and to promote and encourage their work, which has not always been the case. I am encouraged by the Minister’s views, but I now want action taken to reduce the barriers and really encourage those people.

6.15 pm

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I wish to declare a number of relevant interests, as a former carer, as vice-president of Carers UK, as chair of the all-party carers group and as the sponsor of the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004. I begin by congratulating the official Opposition on proposing the debate. I particularly welcome the positive comments made by all three speakers so far. This debate is a measure of the progress made in the country and across the House in advancing the cause of carers and volunteers. It is commendable that those issues have moved much higher up on all our political agendas.

The official Opposition threw down an intriguing gauntlet by linking volunteering with caring. I am sure that no one would suggest that carers carry out their work as volunteers, as I believe that they undertake their responsibilities out of love for family members. However, many carers are volunteers above the call of duty when they work in carers’ organisations. We have already heard about many such excellent organisations and the carers who work in them.

In my own county borough of Neath Port Talbot, there are more than 20,000 carers—the highest proportion in any county borough in the UK. Serving those areas are some admirable carers’ organisations, too numerous to mention, but I will refer to as many as I can in the limited time available—the epilepsy support group, Cancer Challenge, the Special Needs Activity Club, Age Concern and, perhaps most intriguingly of all, a new carers action movement, chaired by my friend, Mr. Ray Thomas, who with his wife Margaret has been a carer for 40 years. Alongside that, he has now formed his own carers action movement. Another interesting initiative involves former carers coming together to support new carers in the upper Afan valley.

The Government—my Government—have done a great deal to enhance the lives of carers from the launch of the national carers strategy in 1999 and the introduction of the carers special grant to more recent recognition of the right of carers to request flexible working in the Work and Families Bill and, even more recently, in respect of the right to decent pensions for carers, particularly women, in the new White Paper on pensions.


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This debate affords Members the opportunity to raise some important policy issues relating to the link between caring and volunteering. Young carers provide one example. In my county borough, there are 600 such carers under the age of 16. How can both the Welsh Assembly Government and the Government in Westminster help those young carers to become volunteers, beyond their own caring responsibilities and their school work? I hope that Education Ministers will deal with that when the Education and Inspections Bill returns to the House.

Beyond the Bill, I believe that young carers could benefit more if family support were provided by the expansion of such remarkable schemes as the Winged Fellowship Trust and the Shared Care Network. More respite care of that kind is essential for all carers, but particularly for young carers. Additional funds and awards to such admirable bodies as Crossroads and the Princess Royal Trust for Carers and local authorities would greatly assist young and older carers. All that could be part of the implementation of the Russell Commission recommendations on volunteering.

As carers’ rights become more central to public policy in all Departments, would it not be appropriate to appoint a carers’ champion—a specific Minister, with cross-cutting departmental responsibilities to enhance and advance the rights of all carers? It would be admirable, in advance of next week’s carers week, if we were to hear today some kind of commitment from the Government to create such a position.

In conclusion, I warmly welcome the comment made by my hon. Friend the Minister when he said that there is much more to be done for carers. The debate is worth while in recognising and valuing the indispensable role of carers and volunteers and the collective commitment of hon. Members on both sides of the House to achieve more respect, more recompense and more respite care for carers. I congratulate the official Opposition on their initiative, and I urge the Government to endorse the spirit behind it.

6.21 pm

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): I did not intend to speak and I hope that I can keep my words fairly limited. I congratulate my hon. and good Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing the debate and on his opening remarks, and I want to try to keep mine in the spirit of non-partisan-style politics. Although I will not quite follow the Minister down that road, I want to make a couple of points. Ever the politician, I do not want to miss the opportunity to respond to a couple of quick points that he made.

One of the biggest problems that I see from the work that I do with the Centre for Social Justice relates to the big difference between the concept of charity and that of volunteering. The reality for many people who volunteer to do important work in the community, such as getting kids off drugs, helping pensioners who have difficulty getting out or sorting out problems in the aftermath of family breakdown—I am sure that all hon. Members will have seen such things every day in their work—is that they find that there is a growing divide between their activities and those of the bigger charities, most of whose work is done by paid people,
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who earn a salary and come to work much as many other people do. Worthy as that may be, there is a big disparity in their access to money and that of many small community groups.

Some national charities sit on very large reserves of money, while still collecting donations. In some cases, as much as half their national requirements are held in reserves worth millions of pounds. Many of the groups that I talk to live from hand to mouth. They struggle every day; they literally go out with the begging bowl. Sometimes, visiting them as a politician is one of the ways of getting them publicity, so that people donate some money to them. Let us never underestimate the worth of that publicity to those groups.

In a sense, there is in part a divided world. Small groups doing all the work find it more difficult to provide real access to the welfare society. They often find themselves crowded out by the activities of the national charities, whose dominance in fundraising squeezes out other charities. People who have already committed money to the bigger charities find it difficult to give money to the small community groups. Some of those things need to be thought through. The national charities need to rethink their relationship on giving with the smaller communities groups, and the Government need to do so, too.

I want to speak about a couple of problems, the first of which is the relationship with the Government. A number of issues have been raised and the Minister has made some observations—I congratulate him on trying to deal with some of these things—but many Government agencies find it very difficult to deal with small community groups and charities. He is right: he and the agencies like working with the bigger charities. It is always easier to work with big organisations that are well-organised and have marketing directors, chiefs of staff and all those other things. They can talk almost on even terms. Small community groups—I call them the awkward squad—often involve people who are challenging opinions and attitudes, sometimes doing things that others are not sure are right, and they can be more difficult to deal with.

I remember visiting Connexions in my area and asking what it was doing as part of its brief to support some of the smaller community groups and charities. Most of its work seemed to be supporting the local government work in the area, because that was so much easier. The staff were scared stiff of committing to small community groups because they were worried about what might happen if they failed or went wrong, or problems occurred. Therefore, the lion’s share of the money that the Government had intended to go to some of the small community groups ended up going to projects set up by the local council. I asked the staff about one specific project and they said that they had had no take-up from local sports groups, but they could not understand why. I asked what requirements they laid on such groups, and it turned out that they had to have a full personnel check and full liability insurance before their bids could be assessed. I threw up my hands and asked how many of those one man and a dog operations that ran two football teams on a Sunday could afford liability insurance before they could make a bid for funds.

I am not blaming the staff, because they were good people trying hard to find a solution, but it had not
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occurred to them that people were working hand to mouth and struggling to run football teams through pure voluntary work. Everybody involved was giving up time and often money.

The attitude of the Government and civil servants to such issues is ingrained. They like dealing with organisations that are sizeable, orderly, working well and structured. They find it really difficult to work with small groups. I urge the Minister to think outside the box and find ways to deal with those groups, which are doing wonderful work in our community and include some of the most inspirational people I have ever met. Such organisations are more like small businesses, with all the same awkwardness and peculiarities, and they fail at the same rate—but they can also inspire and grow at the same rate. Unless we get our thinking around the fact that those social entrepreneurs are every bit as important to us as economic entrepreneurs, we will not begin to realise why so much in our society is challenging and broken down.

I do not wish to labour the point about big charities, but we need to rethink the situation when so many big charities collect vast amounts of money—and many do very good work with it—and sit on vast reserves. I visited a charity which received some publicity as a result. Someone who had grown up in Gallowgate and gone on to great things in London read about the charity—it is run by Jim Doherty and is a local community charity that helps people get off drugs—and offered it £10,000 a year. That is a lot of money for such a group, but larger charities can have £50 million or more in reserve. Just a tiny proportion of that would go so far towards helping others out. The same goes for the Government, because small amounts of money can make a massive difference.

We have talked a lot about how much volunteering saves the nation and delivers services. What we have not mentioned is that volunteering benefits the individuals who do it. It makes them better people, and that improves our society. It is an immeasurable element, but the less volunteers work in our society, the less we are as a nation. Therefore, encouraging people to volunteer is arguably every bit as important as the most encouraging work we do in economics.


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