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We fully support the idea that volunteers should get recognition for the skills that they acquire. However, as we discussed earlier with reference to job hunting and CVs, there is an element of tension in making sure that
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the volunteer is carrying out tasks important to the activity, rather than getting a paper national vocational qualification or whatever else.

Mr. Andy Reed: On the formalities of volunteering, we have to recognise that lots of people do not see themselves as volunteers. We had that debate during the Morgan inquiry, even though the word “volunteering” was used from the start.

Most people help; they do not necessarily want to be dragged into a volunteering system that has recognition and all the rest of it, through to formal qualifications. Most people are seeking to help the local Scout group, church or community group, for example. Is there not a better way of doing things? Without going through formal recognition, we could allow people to help a little, rather than have them get into all the formal structures, which can be a burden. The hon. Lady is going in the right direction on that issue, but we need to look much more closely—particularly in my own area of sport—at letting people help the local sports club, for example, without having to get formal qualifications to be able to continue to do that in the long term.

Susan Kramer: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. When we see something good, the risk is that we will try to find a way to structure it, put rules around it and formalise it; it then loses its spirit and spontaneity. At the same time, it is probably legitimate to encourage people to make sure that when they write a CV they stress not only their employment activities but their helping activities. We should get that into the culture and encourage employers and recruiters to recognise the value of it. Perhaps that could be done on a more conversational basis, without our trying to crystallise everything into an actual qualification.

A number of contentious issues have been raised. The issue of v is interesting. Unlike the official Opposition, I think that a lot of v’s work has been valuable and it strikes me as a very positive organisation. However, I confess that I still struggle with its fundamental structure. It was conceived and set up by the Government and its board was put in place by the Government. Essentially, it is funded by the Government, although it can raise funds from other sources. It strikes me that v is rather a different animal from what I would consider to be a typical charitable organisation; we do not have a category for it. I recognise the good work that it has done, but we must be careful about the route that it has taken. There is always a risk of trying to co-opt, for entirely good purposes and intentions, the energies, activities and roles that we want to be carried out by an entity whose character and associations are not part of the Government. Recognising the importance of that requires an act of self-restraint by the Government.

Tom Levitt: One element of the voluntary sector that no one has raised today is its ability to innovate and experiment, and thereby knowingly to risk failure. We like our public sector organisations to innovate and experiment, but we do not expect them to risk failure; the voluntary sector, however, can do that. Perhaps v is getting a bit of that voluntary sector feeling about it, in that it can be risky, innovate and do things that would
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not be done by a straight and narrow traditional organisation. Perhaps it is gaining from voluntary sector values in that way. Might that be an explanation of its history to date?

Susan Kramer: I do not question the intent or the fact that it has done good work. However, I am cautious because of a much broader, more fundamental point about the health of a democratic society. We live in an environment where the tendency for many decades has been to pull power to the centre. That has always been done with good intent—“We know better”; the removal of London government might be one of the dramatic examples, but centralisation has continued under the Labour Government in a number of ways. A healthy, democratic society needs centres of power and influence that are outside the remit of central or local government.

Yesterday, the Conservatives issued a paper in which they propose to replace the Office of the Third Sector—I agree that the name is perfectly meaningless—with an office of civil society. By definition, civil society should not be fully co-opted into Government. When we go overseas, we see civil society as key, for example, to delivering aid in a way that will not be influenced by the local Government—frequently because we think them corrupt, biased or whatever else. We see civil society as incredibly necessary as a mechanism for challenge; we want it to be an authentic voice of the people. There is real risk if we try to grasp it, draw it in and co-opt it. I am concerned about that and about the approach that says, “Let’s put civil society in the Cabinet.”

Mr. Maude: To set the hon. Lady’s mind at rest, I should say that we want the office to be for civil society, not of civil society. It is important that all the incredibly valuable activities that we all wish to flourish and prosper should get support from the Government; much of this debate has been about how that should happen. What we propose does not in any way try to co-opt civil society into the Government. In fact, the very reverse is true: we see the independence of the body as crucial to its future thriving.

Susan Kramer: I thank the right hon. Gentleman, but it would be a rare body that did not find itself instinctively—tiny step by tiny step—crossing the barrier between “for” and “of”. That is one of the dangers, and I raise it because we have to be conscious and aware of it.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): Is the hon. Lady surprised by the inconsistency of the Conservatives’ position? They call for Government support for civil society, but many Conservative councils, including Castle Point borough council and Essex county council, are cutting support, grants and provisions such as free room rents for many voluntary groups. They are putting those groups at risk. I am thinking, for instance, of the Phoenix club in my constituency.

Susan Kramer: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I have little knowledge of his situation, but perhaps Conservative Front Benchers will have an opportunity to answer those questions later. Many of us, however, suck in breath as we see what our colleagues do from time to time.

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I should say that my party has pleasure in the Government’s decision to create a grass-roots grant programme—particularly in the endowment element of it. In my own constituency there are groups such as—they have these terrible, old-fashioned Victorian names—the Barnes Workhouse Fund and the Hampton Fuel Allotment Charity. They have been crucial to the survival of our small charities at a time when the large charities—the premier league of 18 or so major recipients of Government funds through various contracts to deliver services—have managed to use the increased base to thrive and grow, while many of the smaller and middle-sized charities have struggled, and a few in my community have closed. From time to time, charities will close. Their purpose will disappear, or somebody else may start to deliver the service better. However, that is not the case with these groups, and I am glad that there is a nod in the direction of creating an endowment body that can continue to give life to this sector, which has been generally under-recognised.

The Minister made a point of the importance of Government providing investment in and support for charities. However, let us all recognise that the requirements for monitoring and accountability, the application process and the ongoing reporting process are often such that they are virtually impossible to satisfy unless one has a significant staff of people merely to push the paper. I am thinking of inappropriate demands such as a charity for the homeless being required to justify its geographical reach by providing the addresses of the people who attend it—an inept monitoring mechanism if ever we were to choose one. Small charities probably use volunteers to the maximum because they use them in so many broad roles and because they are so often spontaneously driven by the concerns of local people.

I am glad to participate in the debate on this issue, which should not be hugely contentious. I slightly regret the tone that developed at some points, because this is an area where all of us—finger-pointing or not—essentially have our hearts in the same place. I hope that we can make this debate in large part a celebration of national volunteering week and a recognition of the extraordinary work that so many people do.

2.32 pm

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): This country has started a process of change—the change from analogue to digital broadcasting. Over the next couple of years, the digital switchover process will take place in every community with every television transmitter. A large number of people in our communities—elderly, alone, frail or disabled—will be particularly challenged as regards getting to grips with that, and they will need help and advice. It will not be ongoing, but they will probably need it once or twice over the next couple of years—for example, in the Borders region at the moment, in the South West region over the next few months, and in my Granada region in 2009.

If we are to get that help to them, what is the most cost-effective way of getting people into hundreds of homes in every community, where they are most needed, to deal with and to help the most frail and vulnerable people? The answer is to work with the voluntary sector, and the Government are doing just
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that. They have set up an organisation called Digital Outreach, which is a consortium comprising a private sector enterprise called Collective Enterprises Ltd. and three major national voluntary organisations—Community Service Volunteers, Age Concern and Help the Aged—which have come together to provide a service that only the voluntary sector can provide.

I am absolutely delighted that the sponsoring company and Digital Outreach are based in my constituency. I was very proud on Monday when the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport came to visit Digital Outreach and to meet representatives of the voluntary organisations on the ground, who, over the next couple of years, will work not only in my constituency but across the country with volunteers, voluntary organisations and statutory bodies. That is a unique collaboration: public sector responsibility, private sector organisation and third sector delivery coming together for a one-off cause—it will not be required again after a couple of years—to deliver something of great value to our communities. That is the epitome of partnership between the sectors these days, and it is only the latest of many examples of that to celebrate.

I welcome the motion tabled by the Conservative party, and the fact that there is not an amendment on the Order Paper simply for the sake of having one, so that we can, in volunteering week, coalesce around some values that are very important to us all. I welcome, too, the call from both Opposition parties for less bureaucracy and for encouragement and enjoyment of volunteering for its own sake, and, modestly, along with the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), the support from across the House for the report by the Commission on the Future of Volunteering. The Minister’s formal response to that report clearly shows that there is momentum for a healthy future for volunteering, if we can deliver together on our side of the bargain. We cannot guarantee outcomes for the sector, but we can make its life easier and give those in the third sector generally opportunities to succeed at what they have set out to do where they have chosen to match and to work with the statutory providers.

In slight contrast, I found it a little disingenuous that this debate comes alongside the publication of a major policy report by the Conservative party. As that 90-page document was issued less than 24 hours before the debate, only its authors will be completely au fait with it. Even I, with my commitment to the subject, only got to read two chapters, but they were quite interesting. There is no reference to the report in the motion, and I wonder whether the Conservatives were entirely pleased with its reception in the press. I noticed yesterday’s whirlwind tour to Harlow and other places picking out different bits of the report. The Medway Messenger sums it up in one phrase with its headline, “Tory leader follows Gordon Brown to Gillingham.” As they say, “You can’t win ’em all.” I only had a chance to look at chapter 2, on volunteering, and chapter 3, on grant funding, but I want to comment on some of the issues that I found there. On page 22, there is a dismissal of Government programmes as

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When I asked the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) whether he could provide an example of that, he came up with the one that I expected—that of the Experience Corps, as featured in the document—and I demonstrated why he was completely wrong. That was a classic example of seedcorn funding that has led to a crop that is only now being harvested. Nevertheless, we have an organisation that was funded for three years and is still going strong after eight years, encouraging older people and celebrating their contribution to society.

Alistair Burt: Let me say to the hon. Gentleman as gently as I can that perhaps my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham was taking information from those who contributed to the commission’s work. I quote from page 90 of the report, where it says:

a quote from an employee of a national voluntary sector network organisation. I think that my right hon. Friend could be excused for saying that the inauguration of the Experience Corps did not go quite as well as the Government might have wished. He had some evidence for that, and his comments were fair.

Tom Levitt: I am aware that those comments were made in years two and three of the Experience Corps’ work. I know that they were made while the Experience Corps was under the auspices of the Home Office, and people clearly have long memories. I have not heard such things said about the Experience Corps in recent years when it has been an independent organisation. It may be that someone giving evidence has recalled it as such, but in my work with the Experience Corps, I have found it to be a thriving and excellent organisation.

When I asked the right hon. Member for Horsham about professionalisation, he said that he was not opposed to it. On page 24, however, the Conservative document is somewhat ambiguous. It points out that the Directory of Social Change says that

However, it also says that there is a higher level of paid people in the voluntary sectors in countries where the voluntary sector is successful. I welcomed the right hon. Gentleman coming off the fence in his response and saying that professionalisation was necessary. It is not the be all and end all—of course, it must not be that—but a professional hub for the sector is necessary.

There are eight or 10 lines on page 30 of the document on the question of training and recognition dealing with support for sector-led investment and volunteer training and recognition. I reiterate that we must recognise that people have all sorts of different motives for volunteering. One of those motives—I suspect that this is increasingly the case—is to gain experience and qualifications that they can put on their CV and use in future work. If they are going to have that experience and gain those qualifications, it must be possible for it all to be accredited in a way that is acceptable to other sectors. I am not saying that every volunteer has to undergo training or be examined on what they have done—of course not—but if people
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wish to use their volunteering experience as a way of making themselves more employable, employable at a higher level, or to enable them to branch out into something new in their career, that is a perfectly valid reason for volunteering. They should be able to access accredited training, but definitely not training that is, in the words of the Conservative document,

That would mean that they had skills that could not be transferred, leading them to a dead end.

On page 37 of the document, reference is made to council funding. I was going to point out that the experience of Conservatives taking control of councils throughout the country during the past few years has been one of cuts to spending. Why? They always tell us that it is to reduce the council tax. What is the first bit that gets cut? It is the non-statutory funding, which means funding for the voluntary sector. I was going to go into that, but the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) put it so succinctly that I will let his comments speak for themselves. We must bear it in mind that we are told in the document that ring-fencing of council funding will take place

That will set off alarm bells among those in the voluntary sector because they know what Conservative councils do when they

That will all take place against a background of the Conservatives being committed to at least £10 billion of cuts in public spending, which will mean a lack of money for partnerships and joint enterprise, and cuts to the non-statutory elements of local authority work, which is essentially the work with this sector.

One thing I found amusing about the document, under the heading “Restoring the lottery” on page 41, was how it deals with a bĂȘte noire of the Conservative party. Ever since the Conservatives established the lottery in 1994, many of them seem to think that they have created a Frankenstein’s monster that has gone out of control. They really do not like the Big Lottery Fund, do they? They are going to replace it with a voluntary action lottery fund. Their justification for that, however, does not make sense. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) has corrected me on this matter in the past, but at the last general election they were committed to 25 per cent. of lottery funding going to each of the four good causes, which would have led to a reduction in funding for voluntary sector causes. I understand that that is no longer the policy, and I accept that, but that is part of the heritage of the process.

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