Previous Section Index Home Page

Alistair Burt: During the commission’s work, we picked up on continuing misunderstanding about the position of volunteers on benefits, so can the Minister reassure the House on the question of how the changes are being monitored? The feeling was that they are not being universally applied in the way that the Government would want, and that misunderstanding creates a barrier in places where the rules are not as effective as they could be.

Phil Hope: The hon. Gentleman is right. It is one thing to change the rules to ensure that individuals on benefits can continue to volunteer and claim expenses, but the guidance needs to get out to every single jobcentre and organisation that uses volunteers, who also need to know the rules themselves. We do need a good communications campaign. Part of my job as champion for the third sector in Government is to ensure that when that does not happen I talk to ministerial
4 Jun 2008 : Column 794
colleagues, Departments and others to ensure that they understand and implement the new Government policy.

We welcome the report by Baroness Morgan, which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Horsham, on volunteering by people on benefits. It includes further ideas and suggestions. We will consider them and see what more we can do to ensure that we ease volunteering into the role of a route into work for workless people. Many of us can think of projects and examples where that has been the case.

When it comes to expenses, benefits and CRB checks, volunteering is getting easier, but if one listens to the right hon. Members for Horsham and for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) one would sometimes think that the only thing the state should do is get out of the way. Those are almost the same words as were used earlier. I do not agree.

That takes me to my second point. We need actively to support volunteers and the small voluntary organisations that bring them together. Let me say how. Often, volunteers work for very small community organisations—we all have examples in our constituencies—often with no paid member of staff and little or no access to funds. For those very small volunteer-led community projects, a small amount of money can make a huge difference. That is why we now have a new programme, announced in last year’s Budget, to provide small grants to the smallest community organisations. The grassroots grants scheme will give grants of between £250 and £5,000 over the next three years to small volunteer-led organisations based in the heart of our communities. In July, we will announce the local partners who will give out the money, and I hope to see the first grants go out to those community groups in the autumn.

Embedded in the programme is an endowment component. Part of the money for the grassroots grants will create new endowments in every area of the country. That is a fundamentally new approach that has not been taken before by any Government and will create a sustainable source of small grant funding in every area of the country. The endowment funds will never be spent, but the interest generated by them will provide a supply of small grants to small community groups in every part of the country. That is an extraordinary new and ambitious way forward, and I hope that it has the support of the House.

Volunteers are often deeply rooted in their community. That is what makes them so effective. They do not always hear about the best ways to recruit other volunteers and to ensure they are used effectively. That is why in November 2007, as part of an overall £11 billion a year investment in education, employment and training, the Government opened up the flagship Train to Gain skills programme not only to paid staff of voluntary organisations but to volunteers. I want to use the debate to encourage all third sector organisations to access the Train to Gain funding pool to help to upskill their staff and volunteers.

Last March, we announced £4 million to train volunteers and those who manage them. That is why our GoldStar programme, which started in 2005, is working nationally and locally to spread good practice in volunteer management, going out to local and voluntary sector groups and providing them with training and support. I want to pay tribute to Baroness Neuberger for her work with the independent Commission on the
4 Jun 2008 : Column 795
Future of Volunteering—members of the commission have already spoken in the debate—which has drawn attention to these issues. She is a tireless champion for volunteering and is viewed with huge respect—some would say fear—across this House and in the wider volunteering community.

Not only small grants and training but active support can be needed when people want to volunteer but need an extra bit of help to do so. If someone is disabled, has no formal qualifications or faces other barriers, they can be left trapped and isolated without a helping hand. That is why Government programmes such as Volunteering for All are so important. They help to dispel the myth that volunteering is “Not for people like me”, spreading the message that volunteering is truly for all and that it should become part of the DNA of our society.

Our most significant investment is in the future of volunteering. Strong habits—such as volunteering, taking responsibility and taking part in the community—are best started early, so over three years the Government are investing £117 million in the independent charity v. The remarks made earlier by the right hon. Member for Horsham, which were critical, were unwise and, as he must know, inaccurate. So far, v has created more than 210,000 volunteering opportunities and it plans to deliver more than 500,000 more in the coming years—I hope that answers the question asked by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes). That is a way in which we can encourage hundreds of thousands of young people to engage in a variety of youth-led projects and initiatives across the country, to get involved in their communities and to make a difference. Once they have that habit, I think that they will keep it for the rest of their lives.

It is important that we reward and recognise the contribution made by volunteers. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green was wrong to say that we should not recognise and celebrate the work of volunteers, although I do not think that he quite meant it in that way. I was at Buckingham palace only a few days ago to watch the volunteers and groups of volunteers receive the Queen’s award for voluntary service. Those awards were presented by the Queen, and other members of the royal family were present, and those who came to the awards were over the moon at the recognition of the value of the contribution made by those often unsung heroes. Although it is not the only thing that we should do, we should not underestimate the importance of giving such recognition to individuals who play a part in their communities.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I did not say that volunteers should not be rewarded. I said that debates in the House tend to be about who celebrates them more. The truth is that they do not need that much celebration from politicians. They need a lot of action to help free them up to get on with things on the ground. That was my point.

Phil Hope: Let us hope that we can agree on that one. We should be doing more; that was the next point I wanted to mention. Volunteers need freedom, with as little bureaucracy as possible, but they also need active
4 Jun 2008 : Column 796
support: small grants, training, and help for those who face barriers. They also need leadership from the public sector.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): Before the Minister leaves the point about on-the-ground assistance to small voluntary organisations, will he deal with this point? I am sure that he will accept and appreciate the huge contribution that community amateur sports clubs make to local communities by encouraging participation in healthy pastimes, particularly for young people, who are diverted from antisocial behaviour. Will he join those Members, some of whom are in the Chamber today, who are campaigning for tax relief on junior sports club contributions?

Phil Hope: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I regret the fact that as a Member of the Government I am unable to speak on behalf of the Chancellor, but my hon. Friend has made a powerful point that I am sure will be heard in the Treasury as a proposal for encouraging more people to volunteer, not least in the world of sport. Volunteers in sport and the arts play a huge role through not only increased participation, but the wider benefits that that participation brings. Young people become engaged, gain greater skills and are diverted from antisocial behaviour into social behaviour. They learn to gain skills and self-confidence as a result. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the wider benefits of volunteering in a range of ways.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister give way?

Phil Hope: Yes, I will. My hon. Friend has a track record of campaigning on behalf of the world of sport and volunteers in sport that is second to none.

Mr. Andy Reed: Follow that, as they say. I chair the national strategic partnership for volunteers in sport, which represents 3 million to 5 million sports volunteers across the country. Does the Minister recognise that most organisations that are set up to look after the voluntary sector do not necessary regard sport as part of the traditional voluntary sector, and vice versa? Most of us in sport tend to regard ourselves as helpers rather than volunteers, so some of the structures do not quite match. I know that some work is being done, but we need to look further at bringing that right down to the grass-roots level so that voluntary sector organisations are cognisant of that slight difference of approach to volunteering and what it means to individuals.

Phil Hope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to find better ways to connect those in the world of sport who are involved with not-for-profit organisations in sports clubs up and down the country that take part in and encourage participation in sport to be seen as part of the whole community of the third sector. We must ensure that our policies and programmes reflect that. In a debate only yesterday, the point was made to Stuart Etherington, the chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, that organisations such as the NCVO could see how they could look at themselves as part of
4 Jun 2008 : Column 797
a large infrastructure body that we support and fund as a strategic partner to embrace a whole wealth of organisations in not only the world of sport but the world of art.

The Conservative party has been talking about leadership. The right hon. Member for Horsham concluded his speech by talking about volunteering by civil servants. Indeed, I think that he briefed the Daily Mail that

He talked about eight hours today. However, on that first step, he has fallen over. Every civil servant in every central Government Department already has the right to paid time off for volunteering. Those in the Cabinet Office have the right to three days a year and in some Departments, such as the Home Office, the right is to five days a year.

The right hon. Member for Horsham will have welcomed our moves to help not just central civil servants but all public sector workers, including doctors, nurses, police and teachers. Thanks to a new £13 million fund that we announced in March, they can now volunteer in some of the poorest countries in the world without losing their pension contributions. I am sure that he will welcome today’s announcement by the Cabinet Secretary that we have established a cross-Government working group to promote volunteering in the central civil service. I am delighted that, rather than our adopting Conservative party policy, the Conservative party has caught up with something that has been Government policy for some time.

We have a great track record on volunteering, and we are working with volunteers and voluntary organisations to push back the frontiers of what they can do. However, volunteering does not exist in isolation. There are two debates that affect it deeply, but they have met only silence from the Conservative party. The first is on money. When questioned, the right hon. Member for Horsham felt unable to tell the House that total public funding for the third sector has more than doubled in real terms over the past decade from less than £5 billion in 1997 to more than £10 billion according to the latest figures. That record investment is a proud achievement of a Government who are working in partnership with the third sector to ensure that it continues to thrive and succeed.

There is more than that, however. This comes down to a philosophical divide: do volunteering and the ethic of volunteering get weaker or stronger when public services are well funded? Labour Members know the answer. Volunteers complement good funding. If one talks to them and hears what they are working to achieve, there is no doubt that they are helped, not harmed, by good public services. Indeed, the Conservative party’s publication shows that countries with high public spending have lots of volunteering. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Norway. Volunteers add most to gross domestic product in the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway, and the countries with the largest number of volunteers are Norway, the UK and Sweden.

If one listens to the Conservative party, one hears this:

4 Jun 2008 : Column 798

Those are the words of not some off-message Back Bencher but the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the Conservatives’ policy chief, who is writing the party’s manifesto. He let the cat out of the bag while speaking to the NCVO in February. The Conservatives do not believe in a strong society that supports services that enhance that society being paid for fairly through taxation, even though the international comparisons suggest that volunteering thrives in societies in which public services are strong and collectively paid for.

Mr. Jamie Reed: Does my hon. Friend share my concern and that of many commentators on this entire debate that we are talking about a fundamental difference of opinion on the role of the state in society? Does he believe that we are hearing from Conservative Members a proxy for compassionate conservatism, the like of which is espoused by George W. Bush? My hon. Friend does not have to take my word for it. The man who coined the phrase “compassionate conservatism”, Michael Gerson, said in the Washington Post in March that what the Conservatives were doing was the “reincarnation of compassionate conservatism”.

Phil Hope: There is a philosophical divide, not least when we think about the wider role of volunteers. When volunteers see for themselves that something needs to change, do they feel able to have their voices heard and to campaign for those changes, or do they worry that if they speak up against the way in which law works or public policy affects the people whom they help, they will find themselves on the wrong side of the law or cut out from decision making regarding the public services about which they care so much? Volunteers are not motivated by plugging the gaps where public services fail. They are motivated to change those services through speaking up for the people affected, campaigning to change the law, being involved in the design of services that could make all the difference, and working towards ensuring that new services are the right ones that are properly funded by all of us through taxation.

When we have clashed with the Conservatives here and in other places on campaigning, their discomfort has been palpable and their silence deafening. Although there is no mention of the issue in the report that they published yesterday, we remember when charities such as Oxfam were afraid to campaign because the Conservative Government were disapproving. I see volunteers acting as advocates for those whom the system has let down, and acting not only as individuals but as a group, to change the system altogether. One great example was the mass movement of volunteers who were mobilised through the Make Poverty History campaign.

Alistair Burt: The Minister talks about philosophy, but before he gets too carried away with the way in which volunteers see the Government, will he explain why there is so much criticism from the grass roots of volunteering about how the Government are handling volunteers, using them in the public services and pushing them towards targets? Will he explain why those people complain about how they are being controlled, and why volunteers feel that they are unable to contribute to their fullest because of the way in which the public sector drives them at the Government’s command?

4 Jun 2008 : Column 799

If everything is as good as the Minister says, why is there page after page of criticism? That criticism indicates that there is a philosophical difference. We want to give charities and volunteers more freedom to do what they do best, but there is a sense among those volunteers that the Government are using them to plug the gaps. I am not sure that they would appreciate the way in which the Minister is trying to set out a difference between his party and ours, because I do not think that they would agree with him.

Phil Hope: The hon. Gentleman cannot deny what his party has published about the future role of volunteers and the third sector. The publication makes it clear that the approach is not about setting volunteers and the third sector free, but about abandoning them to work in some of the areas of the country with the greatest challenges. That is the wrong way to go about things. The philosophical divide between us is on whether volunteers and voluntary organisations should be left to cope on their own—isolated and without support—or whether there should be a genuine partnership among ourselves, the third sector and volunteers to create new ways of responding to needs, not least those of the most needy individuals and families in our society with the most challenges.

Mr. Duncan Smith: There is a fundamental difference, and I welcome a debate on it. The Minister has just let the difference slip out. In all his extolling over the past five minutes of the virtues of the voluntary sector, he concentrated hugely on its ability to campaign for change in the public sector. At no point did he address the point of delivery and what people are doing to change radically what is happening on the ground by changing and saving lives. He did not talk about the small voluntary sector that works against the odds because local government and its officials are often inconsiderate of what it does and do not take a huge interest. Those involved fight to get funding from the sector because they cannot control it, or the organisations are subjected to tick boxes, targets and lists, and feel that they are taken over. The fundamental difference is that Conservatives say that these people need to be set free and to be given real opportunities and access to money, but not to be lectured to and directed by the Government, whereas Labour talks about direction and campaigning at the top.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Before the Minister replies, may I say that I have noticed that interventions are getting longer? Several hon. Members hope to participate in the debate before it concludes.

Phil Hope: The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has listened to what I have said. He will know that I have just described how we have reduced bureaucracy and made volunteering easier by enabling people on benefits to volunteer, and how volunteers can claim expenses. I see volunteers every day of the week; one of the great privileges of being the Minister for the third sector is that I spend a lot of my time with volunteers, as well as users and staff of third-sector organisations, and see the remarkable work that they do on the ground, changing and transforming people’s lives.

Next Section Index Home Page