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4 Jun 2008 : Column 818

This has been a good debate, and we have broadly stuck to the convention of recognising that the major parties share a great deal on volunteering, rather than gleefully falling on our differences and spending a lot of time exploiting them. This debate has been given spice by the publication yesterday of the excellent paper by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) on volunteering, which threw those on the Government Benches into something of a tizz. Now that the Conservative party speaks extensively on social issues, the Government think that tanks are being parked on their lawn. They therefore respond, forgetting that it was not their lawn in the first place—it is more like a common, which we have all occupied, but on which the Labour party occasionally squats and pretends to claim exclusive rights, which it has never had.

Consequently, a frisson of excitement is still felt among Labour Members when we take them on, drawing on the vast experience of Conservative Members and representatives, and people throughout the country who support the Conservative party who have always been involved in social issues and are pleased to see their party speaking out on them.

I shall come to the Minister’s remarks shortly, because they have required me to alter somewhat those that I was going to make. I noticed that he fizzed like a decent bottle of Spanish cava when my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight talked about the need for the Government to stand back and not get involved. That reminded me of a quotation from someone who gave evidence to the commission. We spend a lot of time saying what we think about volunteering, but the commission amassed a great deal of evidence in the past 12 to 18 months from people actively engaged in volunteering. Their comments deserve a hearing, in order that they are not missed. I have a lovely quotation here, on page 39 of the evidence, from an elected member of a public sector organisation:

I suspect that the sentiment that my hon. Friend expressed is not held solely by him or Conservative Members, and that it was not the impression that the commission formed, either.

I shall return to the evidence later. By taking on my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), the Minister sought to project an image of the Government’s relationship with the voluntary sector with which he is entirely comfortable, but which is not shared by the sector. I do not minimise things that are going well or areas where the voluntary sector is working entirely comfortably, but the sector wants to take on the Government on a number of issues. I hate the phrase “a sense of complacency”, but there were elements in the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend that smacked a bit of, “I think we’ve got it right and I’m not listening to anything else.”

Mr. Andy Reed: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—I shall call him my hon. Friend, as usual, after our discussions last night. I worked with the voluntary sector before I came to this place, as a project officer for
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a local authority, and I was also on the Morgan inquiry. Most of the remarks in the document that he quoted are almost exactly the same as the sort of comments that I heard 20 years ago about local authorities or the Government getting off people’s backs. That is the nature of the voluntary sector. However, does he accept that it is also our responsibility, as the funders, to require a certain amount of accountability for those funds? If the voluntary sector wants us off its back, so that it can go its own way, that is fine—indeed, we should leave the sector alone as far as possible. However, we all have a responsibility, as parliamentarians and in local government, to require those projects to be accountable for the public funds that they use.

Alistair Burt: As the great Tony Hancock once said in “Hancock’s Half Hour”, “Do you know, that could’ve been me talking.” Of course, the hon. Gentleman gets it absolutely right. A lot of the comments made by the voluntary sector about the Government could indeed have been said about any Government, because there is a necessary tension in the relationship. I want to bring out the fact that, because the Minister sought to emphasise the difference in approach between the Government and us, he missed the fact that some of the issues being raised by the voluntary sector are partly due to the approach taken by the Government. Therefore, they have a special responsibility to deal with the situation. However, the hon. Gentleman is of course correct to say that there are always tensions and accountabilities.

Tom Levitt: I can confirm that the hon. Gentleman and I spent an enjoyable 18 months on the commission. I hope that he, like me, will welcome not only the outcome of the commission but the Government’s response, which was positive and supportive. To put the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) asked slightly differently, if the Government want something done and make money available to do it, it is surely quite legitimate for a voluntary sector organisation to have to make adaptations in order to take advantage of that funding. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that mission creep should only ever come from the voluntary organisations, rather than being imposed on them.

Alistair Burt: In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first point, the Government’s response to the commission was indeed good, but Julia spent so many hours with the Prime Minister that the dear man was probably browbeaten and could only respond generously to what she had said.

To respond to the hon. Gentleman’s second point, yes, but it is all a question of degree. If the parameters are set and the voluntary sector is given the opportunity to take on a role that has been broadly set out by the Government, that is all well and good. However, we have picked up a concern that the requirements, rules and targets set out under a Government course of action for which money is available to the voluntary sector have gone a little too far. The Government should be warned about that, and I hope that my colleagues have picked that up as something that we would not do when we get the opportunity.

In the relatively brief time available to me—I know that both Front-Bench spokesmen will want to respond
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to what has been a good debate—let me say that, like most colleagues, I draw much of my experience of the voluntary sector from my constituency. It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to those who work in our constituencies in a voluntary capacity.

Among those that I know best are the Sea Cadets in Biggleswade, a uniformed organisation of which I am the president that does remarkable work in the town and represents well the uniformed organisations that do so much good work throughout the country. Carers in Bedfordshire is a service set up by Yvonne Clark, a dedicated woman, to look after those who care not only in my constituency but throughout the country, and to provide a meeting point where best practice can be spread for such work. Headway is the organisation that looks after those with head injuries. Chris Batten does remarkable work with them. I was fortunate to run this year’s London marathon on behalf of St. John’s hospice in Moggerhanger and Sue Ryder Care. My wife has chaired Home-Start in Bedford for many years.

A variety of organisations are involved, and I suspect that I am not unique in my experience. Every Member of the House will know half a dozen organisations well, and even more tolerably well, because of personal connections, which we all attract. We know that they give us the sense of what voluntary organisations do in our constituencies, and how remarkably valuable they are.

Sport is greatly important to the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed). The Bedfordshire football association does good work through football and my friends Phil Dean and Martin Humberstone do a great deal through Biggleswade swimming club. Sport does so much for so many people who are looking for guidance, and I echo the comments made by a number of others about the need for more adult volunteers to coach and to get involved. What youngsters need most is for grown-ups to be involved in what they are doing; that is what they are looking for.

I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight, as we would all do, in thanking the volunteers who work for us on the street, supporting political parties. That is not the most popular form of voluntary activity. I regret the fact that MPs being the target for popular attacks reflects on those who give their time to work for political parties, making it harder to recruit them and making it difficult for them to feel valued for what they do. Those who put many pieces of paper through people’s doors, as they have recently in Crewe and Nantwich and as I believe they will do shortly in other parts of the country, are to be immensely valued. We very much appreciate what they do.

I would like to spend a few minutes discussing the commission and thanking it for the work that it did, as well as those who contributed to it. We found volunteering to be in rude health throughout the country, and we found exactly what hon. Members have spoken of—tremendous commitment from individuals to what they are doing and no need for direction from any great authority. Those people are committed to what they are doing because of their wellspring of need to respond to their neighbours and build a better society.

People know that what they are doing is not just about them; it is about what they can give to others. In
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volunteering, they have found an opportunity to train, give to others and ensure that a cohesive society, which is not the same thing as the state, is working effectively. We are all delighted that we found that, and I have no wish to go over the statistics that colleagues have already referred to.

Psychologically, volunteering is crucial for a society that is obsessed with work and the working culture, as well as the number of hours that people devote to them. It is essential that there is another outlet for our energy, and volunteering fulfils that remarkable need.

A number of barriers were mentioned by those we spoke to, which have nothing to do with the Government and are not their responsibility. Lifestyle is one. I represent a rural area and a rural community. There are fewer jobs in rural areas than there were. Think of the change in the nature of society over the last 50 or 100 years. People commute more and spend more time travelling. No longer do they finish work locally at 5 or 6 o’clock, have their tea and get ready to go out and contribute to local activities. They get home at half-past 7 or 8 o’clock. They are tired. After they have eaten, the evening is gone. We are all suffering from the problem that that causes, in that there are not enough people who are able to commit themselves to such activities.

The problem of sustainability was mentioned earlier. People cannot make a long-term commitment to do something day after day. I spoke to the leader of Bolton lads’ club, who told me that the club, which has about 3,000 members, is successful because, “We operate whenever the schools don’t. Every night of the week, every day during the holidays, we’re there, because we can rely on a large number of people to give us time day after day.” It is not like running a youth club once a week or once a fortnight, with attendance inevitably dropping off. There is that commitment from volunteers, which means so much.

I shall come to rules and regulations, red tape and health and safety in a moment. The onus placed on trustees is much greater than it used to be. It is harder for some people to accept the obligations, because they suddenly realise that they might end up more committed—financially and in other ways—than would have been the case some years ago. Being a trustee of a voluntary group is no longer the job it was. That issue ought to be looked at by Members on both sides of the House to see whether we can in some way relieve people of those responsibilities. That matter was referred to more than once in the evidence given to the commission.

May I say a word about Government responsibility? As I said, to some degree I have changed what I was going to say. I think that the Minister was too defensive, perhaps because he was stung by the document that we have produced. He deserves to listen a little to what those involved in voluntary activities think of what is happening out there. A section in the results of the public consultation is entitled “The relationship between Volunteering and Government”. Some of it is positive. Page 88 deals with positive experiences. However, pages 89 to 113 set out a rather different story of problems that volunteers experience, which they put down to things that the Government might do something about. They include the planning
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process, continuity between initiatives, consultation and communication with volunteer-involving agencies, funding time scales, reporting and monitoring time scales, focus on targets, lack of resources to capitalise on initiatives, the nature of the volunteering placements available and the focus of some programmes.

Let me quote, if I may, people who spent their time and gave their commitment to contributing to the consultation process. They deserve to be heard. On the planning process, an employee of a national voluntary sector organisation said that

A local branch of a national charity considered that there is

We have already discussed one or two individual initiatives. I quote an employee of a national voluntary sector network organisation:

There is no criticism of that investment being made, but there is criticism of failure to recognise what was already there and, therefore, money committed. So often, for the Government it is all about how much money has been spent, not necessarily what has been done or achieved. The concern is that money and time are being spent that need not be.

The document also says:

It goes on to supply quotes from various people.

On the focus on targets, Minister, the document says:

Another employee from a public sector organisation said:

I shall refer to a final quote on volunteering policy, which will be of interest to the Minister because it is rather wide-ranging. An employee of a national voluntary organisation for older people said:

That is a selection of quotes; there are a lot. Of course, a lot has been done that is positive—we
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understand that—but the Minister, in his determination to have a go at a document produced by my colleagues, which he has barely had a chance to consider, was over-optimistic in his view of how the voluntary sector views the Government.

As the hon. Member for Loughborough rightly pointed out, much of this criticism could be directed at any Government. If we were in government we would have to take full note of the views of people who spend their lives in organisations, either as volunteers or as employees. I would be disappointed if we glossed over criticisms and did not accept them as being genuine.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) observed that the philosophical difference between our parties related to the intention of volunteers. It seems to me that the Government focus on their importance in relation to the process of delivering services, while we concentrate on their importance in relation to the end product. What matters is the quality of services delivered to the people for whom we are concerned and for whom we have responsibility. Are those services effective? In broken-down families, is the necessary work being done to mend people and keep them together? Are old people helped by what we are trying to do? This is not about a process, but about outcomes. I think that too often the Government concentrate on the process—hence their self-admiration in the context of the amount of money given rather than what is actually delivered.

My colleagues’ approach to the document published yesterday indicated our interest in using the freshness of voluntary groups—large and small, but in many instances community-based—to deliver what they do best without being excessively trammelled by Government targets, regulation and direction. Yes, there must be accountability, but we must not lose that freshness of approach. According to what we hear from voluntary groups, they feel that the Government have overdone it—for all sorts of reasons, but perhaps because they cannot quite let go in this sector as in others. That is the main difference between us. My hon. Friends have responded to that desire for freshness—the desire to allow people to do what they do best; the desire for the professionals to be professional in public services, and for the volunteers to deliver what they know so much about.

I believe that we can set those people free. If the Government do not listen to the criticisms coming from the sector, they will miss an opportunity to do something rather better in the couple of years remaining to them. We will make the very most of that opportunity on the basis of the information that the voluntary sector has already given us.

3.32 pm

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