Previous Section Index Home Page

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): It is a pleasure to be able to mark national volunteering week with a debate on the subject. It is good that the Government did not table an amendment, thus enabling us to unite on a motion that draws attention to the contribution made by voluntary organisations, and specifically by volunteers, to our national life. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) quoted the NCVO’s figure of £27 billion. That is a colossal figure,
4 Jun 2008 : Column 824
but the real contribution lies in the transformation of the lives of the people whom we see in our constituencies.

The great attraction of today’s debate is that although not many Members have had a chance to make speeches or intervene, we have been given so many examples that capture in a microcosm the widespread contributions made by volunteers. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) spoke of the great work done in prisons to get people back on to the right road and to prevent recidivism. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) told us of the signal contribution that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, free of any requirement to do what it does, makes to our national life. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) talked about the Scouts.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) praised the work done by charity shops, but also referred to more quirkily named charities such as the Barnes Workhouse Fund. Its Victorian name may appear somewhat archaic, but I gather from the hon. Lady that it continues to do fantastic work. The hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) mentioned the RNID, a national charity. It was clear from what we heard that, from national level to a very small level, the sector makes a colossal difference. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) took the prize in listing the litany of organisations with which he is involved: the Sea Cadets, the Bedfordshire carers, Headway, the hospice movement, Sue Ryder Care and Home-Starts, with which his wife does such great work.

All that demonstrated the great variety of contributions that we have the opportunity to make through volunteering. One of the unsung contributions to our national life is made by volunteers in the public services. Aintree University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, for example, has pioneered the use of volunteers in the delivery of care and making life better for patients. The Kent and Sussex hospital in my constituency has just embarked on a pilot enabling volunteers to become “supper-time companions”, giving their time to be sociable with patients who may have no one to talk to during the day and ensuring that they have company, which is good for their morale.

The debate has given us an opportunity to record our appreciation of the work of the voluntary sector, and in that context I found the tone of the Minister’s opening speech slightly regrettable. We were careful to table a motion that was not partisan and reflected broad cross-party support, but he seems to have the knack of rendering divisive issues on which I think there ought to be a degree of consensus. I think he was wrong to ascribe to a Labour Government in particular the fact that the voluntary sector is flourishing; volunteers throughout the country may well resent the fact that their efforts, voluntarily given, have been described by a Minister as in some way down to the activities of the Government. Those people are there because they have the instinct to take voluntary action, and I do not think they will take kindly to having it usurped by the Minister, in words at least.

The Minister entertained us yesterday with his response to something that he had barely read. He said on the radio that our document represented a return to
4 Jun 2008 : Column 825
the Victorian age for charities, but that half what was in it had already been proposed by the Government. That strikes me as being in the long and admirable tradition begun by the former Deputy Prime Minister, who famously said that the green belt was a Labour achievement and that we must build on it. If the current Prime Minister is seeking a replacement for that much-missed figure, he may have found one in the Minister if he continues to make statements like that.

We have discussed the contribution that the sector currently makes, and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire spoke of the rude health that it enjoys, but there is still a shortage of volunteers. According to a survey of people who manage volunteers, 59 per cent. said that they experienced difficulty in recruiting enough of them. The Morgan report—an excellent report—said that that was particularly true of young adults, which was confirmed by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate. The Scout Association, a fantastic organisation, has a waiting list of 40,000 children and young people for the Beavers, Cubs and Scouts, because there are not enough adult volunteers.

Mr. Andy Reed: May I return the hon. Gentleman to what was said by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)? I took part in the Morgan inquiry, and have been involved with the Scouts and Beavers as a helper. I used to help to run a Friday night Beaver session. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many of the constraints that he has mentioned are social constraints relating to the work-life balance? Given that 65 per cent. of people now have an atypical working week, parents tend to do volunteer work for a shorter time before moving on with their children. A generation earlier, people such as my parents would volunteer for 20 years. The problems are social problems that we must work together to eradicate, not just through the voluntary sector but in the wider context of social mobility and the social contract that we have as a country.

Greg Clark: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. The commission has helpfully suggested, and spread the notion, that employers should play their part. If work life is impinging more on what was previously leisure time that could have been devoted to volunteering, perhaps a bit more give and take is required, and people, especially young adults, should be allowed to take time off. That is one of the more welcome contributions, which we have sought to echo.

It is concerning that the number of young people who volunteer seems to be static. In an nfpSynergy study, between November 2006 and November 2007, the number of young people who said that they had not volunteered in the past three months had increased—it had done so only marginally, but it had not declined—from 79 per cent. to 80 per cent. It is important to get more people, especially young adults, involved in volunteering. That is particularly true in the volunteering deserts, as they have been described. The parts of the country that would benefit most from volunteering are those where the level of volunteering is half of that in less-deprived areas.

Committed volunteering is important. It will be fantastic if people try their hand at volunteering this
4 Jun 2008 : Column 826
week, in national volunteering week, but it is crucial to the running of Scout groups, and even more so for organisations such as the Bolton lads’ club, which my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire mentioned, to get people to commit to volunteering regularly. I completely agree with the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) that that will require a change in the work-life balance to which people are subjected.

Certain issues hold back further possibilities in the sector. For example, we have heard a lot about over-regulation. I assume that the Government agree on that point, put in a reasonable way, as it is in the motion, which mentions the

I hope that that issue is not in contention across the House.

The Commission on the Future of Volunteering, on which the hon. Member for High Peak and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire served with distinction, said time and again that it had heard stories of bureaucratic hurdles. The motivation for having those hurdles might have been good, but they have degenerated into caricatures of risk-aversion. We must act on that issue. CRB checks are a particular bugbear, so I am delighted to hear that the long-awaited reforms were published today, and I look forward to reading them.

The benefit system has been mentioned once or twice, but not too much. However, the Morgan inquiry, on which the hon. Member for Loughborough served, talked about the rigid package of bureaucracy that surrounds the unemployment benefit system and dissuades young adults from volunteering. It is important that we address that problem. The rules might have changed but the orders have not got out there. In a letter to the Prime Minister, the volunteer centre in Nuneaton said:

despite completing the necessary forms. The letter went on to say:

We need to change the way in which we communicate people’s entitlements.

On Government initiatives, the commission highlighted the views of many in the sector. For example, it picked up a lot of criticism about several aspects of the Government’s initiatives to promote volunteering. I do not doubt that those initiatives had the best of purposes, and I shall not repeat the quotes that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire gave from the groups that took the trouble to give evidence to the committee, but it is wrong for the Minister to dismiss that point so readily as having being dreamt up or motivated in a partisan way.

When it comes to solutions, we need to do exactly what the Neuberger commission recommended, which is ensure that volunteering

A culture change is needed, but it must be voluntary. We cannot compel people to volunteer. Members on
4 Jun 2008 : Column 827
both sides of the House made the point that it is important that the party in government should draw back from seeming to suggest that volunteering might be compulsory. We want to spread a social norm of volunteering, so that it happens in all sectors. There are some fantastic examples of companies that give time to their employees to volunteer, and they benefit substantially from that. We have heard that KPMG gives three and a half hours a month, and we have suggested that there should be a minimum commitment across government for eight hours a year. The Cabinet Office rightly makes a commitment to do that, but we need to make sure that, at the very least, everyone knows, across government, that they have the right to take eight hours a year to make a difference to their communities. It is empowering that they should know that.

We need to get rid of bureaucratic checks. CRB checks have been mentioned, and we will look at the matter with great interest. Benefit complexity has also been mentioned in that regard. It is also important to recognise training. The Morgan inquiry recommended that the skills that young adults can gain from volunteering should be recognised. In response to the comments of the hon. Member for High Peak, I point out that when we say that that should be owned by the sector, we do not mean to say that it should not relate to the world of employment—far from it. However, we do not think that it should be imposed on the sector by the Government. It should be driven by the sector and by the enthusiasm of those in it.

Tom Levitt: Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree with the recommendation of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering regarding the importance of training?

Greg Clark: I do agree with that recommendation. We have made a suggestion in our report that we should work with the sector to see whether we can develop a system for recognising that training. Training is absolutely key.

The question of investing directly in the grass roots has come up, and v has also been mentioned. That organisation has a particular responsibility, because the £117 million of public funds that is going into it over three years is a lot of money. It needs to demonstrate that the value that it offers is proportionate to the amount of public support that it is receiving. The alternative would have been to put that money into existing organisations, such as the Scouts. The Scouts would benefit from having access to even a fraction of that amount, to enable them to employ more development officers in areas where there are not enough volunteers to lead Scout groups, and we need to be convinced that that would not be a more effective use of the money. We wish v well, but the evidence to date is far from conclusive. A lot of the evidence given to us and to the various commissions suggests at least that the jury is still out in regard to v. In particular, over the past year, the fact that there has been no material increase in youth volunteering, despite the considerable funding that has gone into the organisation in its first year, gives cause for concern.

Volunteers deserve the recognition that they are getting this week, and I am pleased that we have had the opportunity to express that recognition in Parliament. I believe that volunteers are both the beginning and the
4 Jun 2008 : Column 828
end for us in civil society. Volunteers were always the first to open schools and hospitals, and the first providers of relief to the poor. Today, they are still the first to spot patterns of deprivation developing, and problems that need to be resolved. They are still the first to take action on some of the sources of social breakdown. They have always been there first.

It is also important to reflect that volunteers are always there at the end. Often, it is volunteers who are there as a last resort when all else fails. They are the last resort for the vulnerable and marginalised people who slip through the net that the state erects to catch them. Outside this country, volunteers are the last gasp of civilisation when Governments have ignored and turned their back on their own people. No sector is more central to our national life, and it is important that we have recognised it today. We have made some suggestions in our Green Paper on how we can strengthen the support and help that the Government can give to the sector. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the debate and thank him for his agreement to make this a cross-party motion today.

3.47 pm

Phil Hope: With the leave of the House, I would like to respond to the debate. We have had a good, robust discussion today about volunteering. Last week, I had the privilege of joining users, volunteers and staff at Newark Mind, and of preparing, cooking and eating lunch with them. I experienced at first hand the difference that such an organisation can make to people with mental health problems—the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) mentioned such people in her speech—who are endeavouring to get back into society and to develop their self-esteem and self-confidence. Organisations such as Mind are doing terrific work to bring about a transformation in people’s lives.

This afternoon, Members on both sides of the House have recognised the value of the contribution that volunteers, charities and third sector organisations are making to communities in their constituencies. I am worried, however, that we are seeing a new tactic being used in the House. The Conservatives published a controversial policy document on the third sector. They then tabled a motion on volunteering, about which there is genuine consensus. But they are expecting to use this consensual debate as a cover for a debate on their policy, because they know that we do not want to break the consensus on volunteering that clearly exists. Well, they are not going to get away with that. If they publish a policy document, their proposals are going to get robust scrutiny, not least from Labour Members and from me, as Minister for the third sector. I believe that their policy is, at worst, flawed and damaging to a thriving third sector, and that it would take us back to a Victorian era of silent and grateful charities.

Greg Clark: The Minister has said that he wants a robust debate. He has also said that our policy would take us back to Victorian times. Can he tell me which of the 20 main policies that we have put forward would result in a return to Victorian times?

Phil Hope: The complete absence of any acknowledgement of the campaigning role that volunteers individually and collectively play in changing society is
4 Jun 2008 : Column 829
exactly where the Opposition’s policy is fundamentally flawed, because it does not embrace the full range of volunteering opportunities and the role that the third sector has played in bringing about massive changes over the last century and a half.

The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) criticises me, as did the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), for putting on record the success of the Labour Government, under whom volunteering and third sector organisations have genuinely flourished over the decade. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells even suggested that I should be appointed Deputy Prime Minister. That particular suggestion may have some merit.

Without wishing to be too tendentious, let me say that the number of registered charities has risen over the last decade from 120,000 to 160,000. The number of people volunteering formally or informally at least once a month has risen from 18.4 million in 2001 to 20.4 million in 2005. Research into charities estimates that turnover has increased from around £16 billion to more than £27 billion over the last decade. The work force has increased by around a fifth. I cannot agree with the hon. Members for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), for Tunbridge Wells or for North-East Bedfordshire that we do not have a strong and flourishing third sector, brought about by the policies to create the environment in which it can flourish.

Alistair Burt: Will the Minister give way?

Phil Hope: I shall address some of the hon. Gentleman’s points in a second.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight confused grants and contracts. The point about contracts is that they specify outcomes and services because they are part of a wider commissioning strategy in which third sector organisations are involved at every stage, identifying user needs, talking about user outcomes and designing services. Where the third sector wants to engage in bidding for contracts, it can deliver those services while holding all providers—third sector, public sector and private sector—to account for their performance. That is why those systems exist.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park asked about expenses. Volunteers can get expenses up front, and DWP guidance has stated that. I very much agree that young people in particular need their expenses up front, which is why v has an allowance scheme that has enabled expenses to be paid up front to young people on their full-time volunteering programmes.

Next Section Index Home Page