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I am sure that my right hon. Friend will wish to take this opportunity, as I do, to say thank you to that band of almost 1 million people who give up their time and energy to be a trustee. Many, if not most, volunteer in other ways too, and their organisations really are part of the glue that holds our society together. For them, the activists' talk of "broken Britain" is inaccurate, misplaced and insulting. They know that what they are doing is right and in a noble cause, and that their motives are unselfish in the extreme. They know what would happen without them; the voluntary organisations on which we increasingly rely to deliver sophisticated and personalised services, on both informal and formal levels, depend on them. They know that being a trustee means that when someone brings their skills and experience to an organisation, they not only bring comfort to its beneficiaries, but they personally gain more skills and experience at the same time. They know that they do not deserve to have to struggle to recruit trustees and that they should not need to pay or to travel excessively to gain the skills their organisations need. They also
know that they currently have a Government who are well disposed towards the third sector generally, who regard the public sector and the third sector as partners and who believe that together we can achieve more then we do apart.
Although, on the face of it, there is cross-party agreement on the value and role of charities themselves, underneath the water line the similarities in the approach of the main parties are perhaps less obvious. But whether the trend towards partnerships, co-working between sectors and generous funding continues, or whether charities find themselves standing on their own two feet and working more independently, without the support, funding or structures that partners can bring, the role of the charity trustee is likely to become even more important in the future than it is today. I hope my right hon. Friend will now take the opportunity to assure our army of trustees that such challenges are opportunities for us to work on together, rather than threats to them alone.
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Angela E. Smith): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) on securing this debate and thank him for doing so. You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that he commands huge respect and affection in the sector for his work over many years and for his support for the sector throughout his time in the House and previously. I pay a personal tribute to him for his enthusiasm and, in particular, for his support for, and role on, the commission on the future of volunteering. He will recall that when we were both new to this place, we joined the all-party group on the community and voluntary sector-he has become its distinguished chair.
My hon. Friend knows that this Government have a long and proud track record of supporting the third sector. I am pleased that he has chosen trustees as the subject of this debate, because, as he has outlined, although they often play a crucial role, it is too often uncelebrated and unrecognised in the sector. I have no hesitation in placing on the record my thanks and appreciation for all the work that they do. I hope that this debate will assist in raising awareness of the vital role that they play.
I know that my hon. Friend is, as he said, a past and current trustee, so he speaks on this issue with authority and personal knowledge. He has given us some statistics, such as the number of trustees. The Charity Commission estimates that there are more than 800,000 charity trustees in the country. Although a trusteeship may be viewed by some as perhaps less exciting than some other volunteering opportunities, no third sector organisation, from the smallest community group to the largest brand-name charity, could operate without the leadership, commitment and strategic direction of their trustees. I loved the phrase that he used for them: the "keepers of a charity's soul".
Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend has said, when we hear the word "trustee", we often hear about bureaucracy and difficulty, but we hear less about the rewards. We should celebrate the rewards of being a trustee. I wish to say a few words about that before discussing some of the Government action to support some of the issues that he has raised. Trustees freely give their time and
talent to be rewarded not financially but by seeing the difference that their charity makes. Whether it works on a local, national or international issue, they get huge personal benefits from the activity.
A good example is a young person I spoke to who became a trustee of a charity. The skills and experience that that young person gained helped to provide a platform for employment or further education. My hon. Friend will recognise those benefits from his experience as a trustee. Let me share a quotation from a young person who is on the board of the Government-funded youth volunteering charity, v. He is 25 and he said:
"I really like the fact that I am equal at the meeting and the other trustees see me as an equal. I enjoy seeing the impact that I have."
My hon. Friend asked about measuring the skills and experience gained. Some interesting work has been undertaken on this by the volunteering charity, v, which enables young people to record those skills and experience. It is new, but it shows us how other volunteers can have their skills and experience measured.
I could easily spend the rest of my speech talking about the virtues of trustees, but I want to turn to the questions and issues raised by my hon. Friend. There were three main themes. The first is the need to make it easier to find opportunities to be a trustee. As he said, about 58 per cent. of people who volunteer hear about opportunities from somebody who is already a volunteer. That shows the power of recruitment by word of mouth, but how does an individual who is interested in volunteering or being a trustee but who does not have links to an existing volunteer, trustee or organisation find opportunities? How does someone easily find an opportunity that meets their interests and motivation? That is a particularly important focus of Government work, as a survey of organisations showed that 17 per cent. did not have sufficient trustees to meet their objectives.
In response to that problem, as my hon. Friend will know, since 2001 the Government have funded the national volunteering database, "Do-it", which contains more than 900,000 opportunities. They include many trustee roles and, crucially, in order to aid searching for opportunities the "Do-it" database is searchable by postcode and also by interest so that individuals can find opportunities to volunteer quickly and simply.
Trustee opportunities from "Do-it" are also provided to the charity trustee network's trusteefinder service, as my hon. Friend said. On his specific questions, the CTN does not capture information on how long vacancies are advertised for. I can report that nearly 1,500 searches of vacancies are made each month using the service and that almost all users of the service have said that they will use it again. We are continuing to work with CTN on the development of this service. Let me share with my hon. Friend a quotation from a user of the service that I received this week. A lady called Selima Gurtler, who is the founder and chief executive of East meets West-The Peace Charity, said:
"I know you will be really pleased to know that I have found two fantastic trustees via your website. I am absolutely thrilled!"
We should use this as a way to publicise the value to organisations of seeking trustees as well as to get the better geographical spread to which my hon. Friend referred. A good opportunity to promote the website will be the fact that next year is European year of volunteering. I think that we should use that further to promote trusteeship and trustees.
Of course, as my hon. Friend said, online methods rely on an individual's having positively decided to become a trustee. The evidence shows that one of the main reasons that people do not volunteer is that they are not asked. In 2005 the Charity Commission, working with a number of partners, did just that and asked people to become a trustee through the "Get on Board" campaign: 900 people registered an interest in becoming a trustee in the first three weeks and more than 7,800 people have now registered an interest in becoming a trustee through the campaign. Leading on from that work, we are also providing help for organisations to review the make-up of their boards and develop better recruitment and induction procedures, including local and regional training, as well as to develop simple tools and best practice information.
May I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about promoting volunteering in the Cabinet Office? Civil servants in the Cabinet Office are encouraged to volunteer for up to five days a year. That is organised through the organisation TimeBank, which I know that he knows. The scheme offers civil servants a range of opportunities including trusteeship and I will look for opportunities to promote trusteeships further in that scheme.
As crucial as it is to recruit new trustees, it is equally important to retain the expertise of existing trustees and to provide support to them. My hon. Friend was part of the 2008 commission on the future of volunteering and will know that one issue raised by organisations and individuals consulted by the commission was the "legal responsibilities of trustees" and their "increasingly demanding role". Being a trustee is not to be undertaken lightly, but I assure my hon. Friend that where the Government can take action to support trustees and make their role easier, we will do so.
Prior to the commission's report in 2008, as my hon. Friend knows, the Government introduced the Charities Act 2006, which brought into force a number of provisions to address concerns about the potential legal responsibilities and liabilities of trustees. The Act granted the Charity Commission a new power to relieve trustees from personal liability for breach of trust or duty where they have acted honestly and reasonably and ought fairly to be excused. The Act also recognised that it is reasonable for charities to buy trustee indemnity insurance, and it removes most of the obstacles to this. Trustees may pay the premiums with the charity's money, subject to certain limitations and conditions.
As well as these legislative changes, the Government have worked closely to ensure that practical support is available to trustees in three ways. In my hon. Friend's comments, he specifically asked about training and support being made available online and not being so expensive that it excludes those whom it would benefit. I know that he is aware of the Charity Commission's excellent publication, "The Essential Trustee", which sets out in plain language the key points and information that all trustees should know. That has been made widely available in different formats. A version for people with learning difficulties will be available soon.
The Government also fund the charity trustee network, which supports charity trustees across England and promotes good practice in trustee recruitment and retention. Membership of the organisation provides access to events, support networks, legal advice and extremely useful publications. I will look again at the geographical
spread and see whether there is more that we can do to address the points that my hon. Friend raised on that issue.
The Office of the Third Sector funds activity to help trustees understand governance roles and to help organisations identify the governance system that is proportionate and appropriate to meet their individual needs. These are specific ways in which we are supporting trustees, but I would like to highlight our work to reduce unnecessary burdens, particularly in the context of reporting and monitoring. Two examples are the changes that we have made to charity law and accounting and reporting thresholds, and the joint Office of the Third Sector/ National Audit Office guidance to reduce red tape associated with the £12 billion a year that the sector gets from the Government.
The opportunity to be a trustee should be as open as possible. My hon. Friend spoke of the make-up of trustees in society, and I know that he shares my concerns on the issue. The Charity Commission's research shows that trustees are predominantly over 30 and male. Given that charities deliver support to a wide range of different people within our society, it would be good to see this reflected in the people setting the direction of the organisations. In many ways this is an issue for the sector itself, but the Government's role is to provide support to the sector in this area, and we want to continue to do so.
My hon. Friend spoke about the compact and the need to ensure that trustees are aware of its value. I am sorry that he was not successful in the recent ballot for private Member's Bills, and I can confirm that the Government have the issue on their radar, support the commission for the compact being placed on to a statutory footing and are looking for a legislative vehicle for that. Given that the passage of legislation takes time, we are looking at the changes and improvements that can be made in the implementation of the compact without the need for legislation. I am happy to discuss that further with him.
I opened my speech by stating that without trustees we would not have the vibrant and healthy third sector that we have in this country. Trustees of many organisations have even more important roles to play as their organisations face the challenges of the recession. My hon. Friend raised some issues along those lines. To support these trustees the Charity Commission has begun an initiative called the "big board talk". This asks 15 questions to help trustee boards look at the options and opportunities available to them in the recession. It is intended to be a practical tool that can be used by all charities, particularly small to medium-sized ones, to help inform their board and planning discussions.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising what I believe is a very important matter, and place on record his commitment to the third sector, which has been unstinting throughout his time in Parliament and before. I can assure him that by raising the debate tonight, he has drawn attention to the value of trustees and the need to encourage and support them, and allowed me to place on record my thanks and appreciation. I have outlined some of the action that the Government are taking, and I assure him that I share his commitment and that we will remain focused on the issue.