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Crime and Security Bill (Programme)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, (Standing Order 83A(7)),

18 Jan 2010 : Column 128

Question agreed to.

Crime and security Bill (Money)

Queen's recommendation signified.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) ) ,

Question agreed to.

Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Health Care and Associated Professions

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Social Security

Question agreed to.

Sections of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

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SCience and Technology


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Charity Trustees

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Mr. Watts.)

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before I call the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, so that we can hear the oration of the hon. Gentleman.

10.15 pm

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

We all know that being the trustee of a charity or community organisation is a responsible and important role. Indeed, trustees are the keepers of a charity's soul. They define and perpetuate its mission and direction; they are its ultimate managers; and they uphold standards of good governance. They do not run their charities on a day-to-day basis. Nor do the vast majority of trustees gain financially from their involvement. They take an interest, however. They care about those who work for their organisation, as either employees or volunteers, and for the charity's beneficiaries.

Trustees have duties that are laid down in law. They have a duty of prudence: to ensure that the charity is and will remain solvent; to use charitable funds and assets reasonably, and only in furtherance of a charity's objects; to avoid undertaking activities that might place a charity's endowment, funds, assets or reputation at undue risk; and to take special care when investing the charity's funds or borrowing funds for it to use.

What I have described sounds like a very tall order, and a very responsible, if not daunting, position. That need not be the case, however. Trustees act collectively, sharing those burdens of responsibility. It is what is in their hearts and their heads, not what is in their wallets or their diaries, that makes a good trustee. Having said that, everyone knows that if we want something done, we ask a busy person.

In England and Wales today, there are 816,825 known charity trustees, and probably many more, according to the Charity Commission. They are busy people, and a small number are trustees of more than one charitable body. They are divided roughly equally between males and females and their average age is 57. Only one in three are under the age of 50, and just 2 per cent.-one in every 50-are under the age of 30. One in 20 are from a black or ethnic minority background.

A typical board of trustees will have six members-three is the minimum-although larger organisations have correspondingly larger trustee numbers. Perhaps 2,000 trustees are appointed or re-appointed to their posts every week. That is not a large number, when we consider that, on average, eight brand-new charities are created in every constituency in the country each year, each with its own board of trustees. I am a trustee myself; I chair the board of trustees of the Community Development Foundation.

We know that three quarters of our population engage in volunteering and voluntary activity at some point each year, many of them on a regular basis. But, when asked how they might act to support a local charity, fewer than one person in 20 responded with the idea of becoming a trustee. Four out of every five charities say
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that they recruit trustees principally by word of mouth. Is it therefore any surprise that there are reckoned to be 1 million vacancies for trustees in Britain today? According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, almost half of all trustee boards say that it is more difficult to recruit trustees today than it was a year ago.

My purpose in stimulating this debate today is to ask the Minister-a good friend with a real feel for the third sector and volunteering-what she is doing to support, recruit and retain trustees, without whom our voluntary organisations simply would not exist. I put it to her that charities need to plan to replace existing trustees when they retire and to attract people with a range of skills, experience and perspectives that can contribute to the successful running of their organisations, while at the same time understanding and reflecting the communities they serve.

We need to invest in trustee recruitment for the sector to ensure that there are enough people to run our voluntary and community organisations across the country. Charities need to use open and broad selection methods to reach out to an ever wider group of people as potential trustees. Word of mouth is not enough. Professional recruitment, newspaper advertising and head-hunting do not always feel appropriate for, say, a charitable endowment trust with a just few hundred pounds to give away to young people in a particular parish each year.

I commend to the Minister the work of the charity trustee network-an organisation that does what it says on the can. Its trusteefinder website is excellent, a great facility for putting the right potential trustee in touch with the right charity. Within five miles of where we are sitting tonight, I found easily 100 opportunities to volunteer as a trustee or a chair of trustees or a treasurer for a voluntary organisation. When I put my home postcode of Buxton into the search engine, I found just six vacancies, three of which were with the same charity. Toy libraries are valuable institutions, I am sure, but they are not everyone's cup of tea. I do not believe that six is a true representation of the number of the vacancies on trustee boards in my constituency.

What I am saying is that this is London-a city full of volunteering opportunities, not least as trustees, with a strong element of competition for people's time and energy, with millions of people packed into a relatively small area. That there are hundreds of known vacancies for trustees here reflects the low awareness and possibly low prestige that the trustee role enjoys as well as a lack of volunteers ready to fill the vacancies.

In Buxton, I guess that six reflects not a calm complacency in a quiet trustee marketplace, but a lack of awareness of the trusteefinder facility, even though there are typically 5,000 trustee vacancies advertised on it at any one time. I am sure-indeed, I know, having been for a time a trustee of my local citizens advice bureau and of an endowment trust-that the right trustees with the right blend of skills are difficult to come by.

These observations are broadly backed up by the experience of the trusteebank page of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations website. The NCVO believes that about half of all boards have between one and five vacancies for trustees. In its report "Board
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matters", the organisation New Philanthropy Capital reported that the marketplace in which new trustees are to be found is fragmented and very difficult to navigate.

The NCVO is the lead partner for the leadership and governance national support service, funded by Capacitybuilders, which aims to increase the supply of board members and improve the recruitment and induction processes of front-line organisations. It is working with local organisations to launch local trustee recruitment campaigns, increase the awareness of trusteeship among the public, and work with boards to prepare them for recruitment.

Given that trusteefinder is partly funded by the Cabinet Office, will the Minister look at the various ways of recruiting trustees and assess whether the geographical spread of trustee vacancies reflects the true position; how long trustee vacancies are advertised for on average and what conclusions can be drawn from that; and how awareness of trusteefinder and other recruitment processes can be raised throughout the country?

Perhaps I am putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps we need to consider why people might want to become trustees in the first place, before they find out about what vacancies exist. Pushing people towards a website is all very well, but there are other ways of promoting trusteeship. People become trustees for a number of different reasons. It might be, for example, to acquire transferable skills, or as a result of the desire to do something different or because of the inspiration one gets from working with staff, trustees and service users.

The NCVO found that 81 per cent. of trustees said they became a trustee to help the good cause associated with the organisation, while 56 per cent. had a particular skill they felt would be of use to the organisation; 37 per cent. wanted to shape how things happened; and others gave other reasons, including their own personal development-and why not? Rodney Buse, the chair of the charity trustee network, also reports that both the Institute of Chartered Accountants and the Whitehall and Industry Group actively promote trusteeship among their members. Whether they use another website in which the NCVO is involved-Trustees Unlimited-for this purpose, I do not know, but they should, as it acts as a brokerage for trustees seeking charities and vice-versa, as well as a source of good practice and information for trustees.

The Cabinet Office has a good reputation generally for promoting volunteering within its own work force. I understand that employees are encouraged to take several days off work each year to carry out voluntary work, but may I ask my right hon. Friend whether this specifically includes trusteeship? Are opportunities for trusteeship brought to employees' attention within the Cabinet Office and Government service generally?

Let us consider for a moment these two fictitious adverts. The first is: "Come and be a trustee at our charity. Four times a year, you will sit in a cold church hall with half a dozen others who share the same sense of obligation. You'll be told about the crumbling fabric of the building, which is your responsibility. You'll be told about the finances which are dire, thanks to the low interest rates affecting the endowment fund-also your responsibility. You may have to take difficult decisions about the future of a couple of employees, something which you consider yourself totally unqualified to do-and all of this for no money."

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Now let us compare that with: "Come and be a trustee at our charity. At least four times a year, you'll meet with a diverse group of other community members who share your passion. You'll be presented with an opportunity to turn our centre into a real community asset as you take collective decisions on key areas of activity, working closely with a professional manager who is responsible for day-to-day affairs. Although as a body trustees may have to take difficult decisions from time to time, training and support are available. Your reward: knowing you're making a real difference to your community." It is important to talk-up and sell the idea of trusteeship, and to provide the resources for the training and skills acquisition that trustees need.

I looked on the charity trustee network website again to search for trustee training. Of the nine courses available from different providers in the first week of December alone, eight were in London. In the category "north of England", which appears to include both Manchester and Middlesbrough, there were just six courses spread over the next six months. Typically, they cost £200 or more to attend, which is a lot of money if someone is considering becoming a trustee on a small community board. There are courses available from councils for voluntary service at considerably lower cost, but I ask my right hon. Friend to make sure that training for trustees and would-be trustees is available online throughout the country and at a realistic price so that those from low-income backgrounds can benefit from it.

I have already said-and it is blindingly obvious-that members of boards of trustees need to come from diverse backgrounds, not only in order to reflect the communities, real or virtual, that they represent, but so that we bring forward the right combination of skills to their roles. Those skills need to be diverse. Not all members of a board need to be financial whizz kids, nor do they all need to be good people managers or experts in the core mission of their organisations.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that not just the skills that trustees bring but those they acquire as trustees are valuable and should be measurable? These skills and expertise may be in the fields of finance, company, employment and charity law, health and safety, equal opportunities and an almost endless list of further skills. Becoming a trustee can, and should, be encouraged as a valuable entry on a CV.

My final point is about the challenges that trustees face, other than those of recruitment and skills. Whatever those challenges are, trustees have a friend in the Charity Commission. Over the years, but perhaps especially under the wise leadership of Suzi Leather and Andrew Hind, the commission has become less of a burden, and more of a critical friend to the sector: less distant and more engaged; less of a regulator and more of a mentor to the sector generally and to trustees in particular. I recommend guidance leaflet CC3a, "The Essential Trustee: an introduction".

Last month, we celebrated the re-launch of a compact for the 21st century. The new compact will help trustees in their relations with partner organisations, protecting the interests of both public and third sector bodies when they come together in partnership, and in this age of commissioning-to which I shall return in a moment-it is vital that the compact is relevant and appropriate and that all trustees are aware of it. Comments from all sides of the debate following the launch of the refreshed
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compact on 16 December give reason to believe that the compact is still relevant and appropriate, and we must make sure that all trustees are aware of it. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the measure that I put forward in an unsuccessful ten-minute Bill in the previous Session to put the Commission for the Compact-not the compact itself-on to a statutory footing still has Government approval and is still on Ministers' radar?

Government are, and always have been, one of the voluntary sector's biggest funders, both through grants and tax concessions. At a time when Government funding to the sector has been both growing and changing in nature towards the contractual commissioning of services, trustees face challenges. How far, for example, should taking up funding opportunities determine what services they provide? How can the temptations of "mission creep" be avoided in these circumstances? How do we develop the skills for working in a more competitive, contractual environment? Can we afford to say no?

There is no single or simple answer to these questions, but trustees must work together collaboratively and either stick to their historical mission-which is, after all, one of their fundamental responsibilities-or change it on their terms, at a time of their choosing, while taking the organisation with them. These decisions are big challenges to trustees, and so is surviving an economic recession. At a time when interest rates on endowments are low, borrowing is difficult and charitable donations are not flowing as well as they did, trustees are presented with new challenges. Growing organisations may have to check their growth. Static ones may find themselves asking real questions about their future. Questions of merger and the protection of assets present new and real difficulties to trustees.

A third challenge is professionalisation. As organisations grow, their operation becomes more sophisticated, they take on employees as well as volunteers and they operate in a different market, albeit with the same core mission. The small-time trustee may get left behind as a different mix of skill and experience may be required on the board of a growing organisation. Organisations may outgrow their trustees and, indeed, ambitious trustees may outgrow their organisations. The one consolation is that the bigger the biggest players grow, the more room there is for new saplings to germinate, and so the cycle turns.

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