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4 Jun 2008 : Column 800

My point was that in the Conservative party’s policies, there is an absence of any mention of the other roles that volunteers play, for instance as advocates for users, and in being the voice of the voiceless. They do that both collectively and individually; people even come along to our constituency surgeries to act as advocates on behalf of individuals who are in need, and who are struggling with the local council’s systems. The absence of mention of that campaigning role tells me that the Opposition see it as the third sector’s part to be silent and grateful. That simply will not do. That is not the case for the third sector in the 21st century.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): The Minister will be aware that one of the proposals in our document is to strengthen and enforce the compact. The compact enshrines the right of charities to campaign. Will he condemn the Department for International Development, which, when it gives grants, has attempted to impose the condition that charities do not campaign?

Phil Hope: First, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. Secondly, the compact was introduced in 1998 by the Labour Government—10 years ago. We have appointed a new commissioner, Sir Bert Massie, who is hugely respected in the sector. I congratulate Richard Corden, the new chief executive of the commission for the compact team, who will drive forward ways of strengthening the compact, so that it works across Government and in local government, too. A key part of the Government’s contribution to strengthening the third sector’s ability to deliver was the introduction and promotion of the compact. I am glad that we might have cross-party consensus on that, at least. The hon. Gentleman is just wrong.

Tom Levitt: We have heard that it is Conservative policy to free up voluntary organisations to do what they do better, but we see in the document that has been published that under a Conservative Government, cognisance would have to be taken of the reputation of the lottery when it came to giving lottery funding. Does my hon. Friend think that those two policies combined would help organisations that set out to help asylum seekers, refugees or people with HIV/AIDS? Does he think that their cause would be enhanced by those policies? I certainly do not.

Phil Hope: My hon. Friend, with his wealth of experience, again speaks knowledgeably about the possibly unintended—I suspect that they are intended—consequences of policies that the Conservative party would put in place, were it ever in a position to do so. Those policies would not be in the interests of some of the most disadvantaged, alienated, disfranchised groups in our communities.

Mention of the Government’s track record in leading the way for improvements and support for volunteering and community action has been absent from this debate, and it was also absent from the Conservatives’ report. However, looking at the report, I say that perhaps that silence is better. We have waited a long time for the Conservative party’s ideas. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) started promising ideas on charitable giving for the new year in 2007; we have been waiting for them. The right hon. Member for West Dorset started promising a Green
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Paper in February, at a conference of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, but after all that waiting, when we finally read it, we can see that it is a rush job with heavy use of cut and paste, not least from Government policy on the third sector.

Let us take idea No. 1, which is to reduce administration on gift aid. I will send the right hon. Member for Horsham a copy of the Budget so that he can read for himself how charities can now bundle together donations under £10, so that they do not have to list all the individual donors on the claim form—a major step forward in reducing bureaucracy. Charities with small claims will no longer be penalised for errors in record keeping. Charities with a good record of bookkeeping may soon be able to self-certify. All that comes about after our discussions with charities on how to make the system work, and individuals can already give oral declarations rather than fill in a form. He and his party make warm noises about getting rid of paper trails, but they have no ideas to contribute. The truth is that we are cutting out unnecessary paperwork. I challenge him now: would he abolish the need for a record of declarations—for an audit trail for more than £800 million of public money—or does he admit that he was creating false expectations by promising action when there is nothing that he can deliver?

Or let us take idea No. 3, which is about giving “Direct support for volunteering” through real volunteering groups, not Government-controlled bodies. Let me send the right hon. Gentleman copies of the reports by v, the independent youth-led charity that we have already mentioned, which works with hundreds of other grass-roots volunteering organisations to deliver volunteering opportunities. Those opportunities are directed not by Government, and not even by organisations, but by young people themselves. I can send him our press release of 31 January on the small grants programme, which, as I said earlier, will support voluntary organisations, not through a Government body but through local funders with grass-roots knowledge and experience of grant-making in their area.

The Conservatives’ idea No. 5 is to introduce a volunteers’ hours scheme for central Government employees. As I said, we are already doing that. Every central Government Department now gives at least one day, and in many cases they give up to five days. Idea No. 6 is to improve Criminal Records Bureau checks. We have just had a debate about the fact that we have published a document on improving CRB checks.

Greg Clark: When?

Phil Hope: We announced our intention to do so months ago, and today we announced the details because it is national volunteering week. The list goes on; ideas Nos. 13 and 15 are on multi-year funding and community assets, and there are ideas about the compact. More than half the Opposition’s proposals are cut and pasted from Government reports.

In our last debate on the subject, called for by the Opposition, they seemed unbriefed about the fact that the central thing for which they were calling—a civil service Bill—was already being taken forward. They
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are making a habit of not knowing what Government policy is, making policy up, announcing it and pretending that it is theirs. They are in denial about the need for Government funding. They are uncomfortable with charities’ disruptive, campaigning voices. They are unbriefed on the facts of Government policy. They can praise volunteers today, and we are happy to join them in doing so, but there is little doubt about which side of the House will support volunteers with action and which side is still playing catch-up.

2.6 pm

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I confess that I thought that this would be a worthy, celebratory but rather dull debate, but it is turning out to be anything but that. The Liberal Democrat party obviously supports the motion; it would be hard not to when many of the references in it are to well-known Liberals or Liberal Democrats. The motion uses a phrase from the Commission on the Future of Volunteering that we very much approve of; it calls for

It is part of the DNA of my party, both now and in the past.

At least we have all agreed today that the health of a society is largely to be judged by the commitment of its citizens to that society. That is incredibly well expressed through volunteering. For me, this is a relatively new area to focus on from a policy perspective, so I was pleased to have the opportunity earlier this year to attend a Volunteering England event with two hon. Members who are present today on different sides of the Chamber—the Minister and the hon. Member for West Dorset.

Greg Clark: Tunbridge Wells.

Susan Kramer: I got the constituency wrong again; I meant the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). I am terrible at constituencies. I sincerely apologise. The event was in Newcastle. It was more interesting to listen to the questions from the floor than to the discussion between the participants, because the participants shared so much common ground.

The first concern expressed from the floor was the potential for substituting volunteers and volunteer activity for public services. The feeling was that that line should not be crossed. We heard from volunteers and volunteer groups that the focus must be on additionality, not on substituting what professionals and public services should deliver. That is an important message to underscore, because it seems that there is tension in the way in which the Government relate to the public sector and public services. Voluntary sector organisations are trying to cope with that tension, and are working out what role they should play. The issue of independence has been stressed throughout the debate.

It was reiterated that there is confusion about how volunteering expenses should be paid. On that occasion, the Minister explained that changes have been made to clarify the fact that payment of legitimate and reasonable expenses should not compromise access to benefits or put at risk the ability to enter into job-seeking activities. That had not communicated itself to people at large, so
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the point was made that that crucial fact should be communicated far better. Perhaps at some point the Minister will clarify the position. I am not sure that he recognises the need for expenses to be paid up front. It does not work if someone who has no resources, particularly a young person, has to pay and go through a reimbursement cycle. The problem needs to be taken on more directly.

On Criminal Records Bureau checks, I can confirm that the Minister said on that occasion that changes in regulation were under way and would be announced shortly. We heard that repeated today. May I raise with him the issue of the Official Secrets Act? As other hon. Members will know, prison visitor volunteers struggle with requirements to sign the Official Secrets Act in the course of their activity. There are many small bureaucratic issues that interrupt the process of volunteering. CRB checks are only a small part of that.

The topic of full cost recovery was raised from the floor at the conference. I am not sure that I fully understand where the Government stand on that issue—whether that is a policy in process or whether it is being delivered.

Phil Hope: The Treasury has issued guidance on the importance of three-year funding and full cost recovery.

Susan Kramer: I thank the Minister for that. I hope he will follow it up. The Treasury’s policy on payment should be monitored and observed by other parts of Government. The subject is still an issue of contention for the major charities and has yet to be addressed.

We have had two superb reports on volunteering—the “Manifesto for Change”, chaired by Baroness Julia Neuberger, and the Morgan inquiry, published this week, which was chaired by Baroness Morgan of Huyton. The focus of both reports is on enabling people to volunteer and removing obstacles so that people can make a genuine choice whether to volunteer and how best to do so. I am glad to see from the Green Paper that they issued this week that the Tories have finally dropped the idea of compulsory volunteering, which always seemed to be a contradiction. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells says from a sedentary position that that was the Government’s idea, but the national citizen service proposal always seemed to contain the notion of compulsion, and I am glad that that has been dismissed.

Greg Clark: I am delighted that the hon. Lady has raised the matter, because it has always been clear that national citizenship service is a voluntary option for young people.

Susan Kramer: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information. It has probably taken the Green Paper to provide clarity. When I have had discussions with the voluntary sector, I did not find that it shared that perception. They have seen national citizen service as a step towards a compulsory strategy. It is important that that does not happen. Community service of various kinds and volunteering should not be confused.

We have heard much about the benefits that come from volunteering, the way in which volunteers can build confidence and pride in their communities, and that volunteering across communities helps bring people together. I shall focus on the need to embed the culture of youth action and youth volunteering. That
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should become part of our education system, but there is a tension that needs to be recognised.

My children grew up in the United States. In order to graduate from high school, it is necessary in many schools there to perform what is called voluntary service, but it is not very voluntary. As it is regarded as part of the curriculum, most youngsters find some way to do it more in the breach than by actively engaging. When volunteering becomes embedded as a necessary part of the curriculum, there is always the risk that that will undermine the spirit of community and engagement that should be part of a healthy volunteering community. Opportunity within the education system makes an enormous amount of sense, but compulsion, whether it is back-door compulsion or front-door compulsion, is not a particularly attractive characteristic.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that, as the Morgan inquiry, in which I was lucky enough to take part, recognised, getting young people to recognise the benefits of volunteering for their CVs and training and employment opportunities is an important factor? Without in any way undermining her points about the need to promote volunteering in its purest sense, those benefits could be emphasised as a further dimension of volunteering.

Susan Kramer: I fully accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but I would caution him in this respect: we have many youngsters in our community, and I can think of many in mine, who have extensive responsibilities in their own families—for example, young carers. There is no formal recognition of the contribution that they are making. I would hate to see them lose out because that cannot be captured in the same way on a CV.

Let me give my son as an example. He chose as his route to go and play with puppies once a week—apparently socialising them. I honestly cannot say that that was of serious educational benefit or an addition to his skills, but he was able to craft it in such a way that it probably sounded quite good when the written CV was issued. I ask for an element of common sense in the way we deal with youth volunteering, although, as we know, common sense is hard to deliver.

I would like much more opportunity for family and intergenerational volunteering in my community. That might require some different thinking by organisations. I hope that part of our discussion of volunteering is addressed to the voluntary sector, encouraging it to think of ways of structuring opportunities so that they strengthen our communities generally. Sometimes the view seems to be, “Here’s the task. Now let’s find the volunteers.” It becomes more interesting when organisations look at the volunteers and think of ways of structuring their activities to meet broader social needs.

In the world in which we live, with the stress arising from our work-life balance, when parents and grandparents find it difficult to spend the time that they wish with children, volunteering should be not an additional challenge but a mechanism to let people spend time together. I have been impressed with voluntary groups in my community that have seen the opportunity for young people—sometimes young people who, we sense, might be involved in antisocial behaviour—to be brought in to spend time with older people. The young people
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have taken the opportunity to flower, because for the first time they are met by people who have no preconceptions about them and who are delighted that they are coming in to spend time with them. Mutual respect begins to grow out of those circumstances.

Like many people, as I reach my current age I would like to dispel the image of the volunteer as the elderly lady in the charity shop, but let us not denigrate the elderly lady in the charity shop, who does an enormous amount of work in our community.

Many of the statistics on volunteering suggest that people often look at the different activities of ethnic groups. We need to tackle that before the perception develops that people from various ethnic groups do not participate. The statistics tend to show that people not born in the UK are less likely to volunteer. Perhaps that suggests a weakness in reaching out to those groups and giving them a sense of inclusion and welcome.

Like many hon. Members in their constituencies, in my own community I meet a number of asylum seekers, who do volunteer, but their activities tend to be restricted to organisations structured by the local church or mosque or some faith group. There is a hesitation on the part of charities and voluntary groups more broadly to engage those individuals. I hope that we can get better guidance to make it clear that that is a resource that we can turn to, because there are often incredible skills in the asylum community. We can argue about issues of immigration and asylum, but we have not used the skills of people willing and sometimes almost desperate to become engaged in some way, because the boredom of living day to day with no activity is utterly shattering and destroying.

I have been fascinated, too, by some of my local mental health charities and my local primary care trust, which has been working with people recovering from mental illnesses and helping them use volunteering as a way to regain their confidence and self-respect; contributing can help the individuals themselves.

There has been discussion of employer-supported volunteering. The Government are to be congratulated on making time available for civil servants to participate in voluntary activities and it would be excellent if the initiative were strengthened. However, should we not consider not only giving time but matching time? That might be much more palatable to the private sector, part of which still resists the notion of giving time for volunteering.

If people are willing to give a day of their own holiday, giving a matching employment day can become a much easier strategy. We have missed a trick in not looking at the potential of that. Obviously, the issue would be difficult for small businesses. Ironically, however—the statistics do not bear this out, perhaps because of a flaw in statistics—small businesses in my community value volunteering because they already see themselves closely engaged with the community. I do not find resistance from small businesses; the large business organisations, which feel that things have to be put on a more formal basis, struggle rather more.

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