I beg to move,
That this House takes note of the immense contribution to society made by those honoured during the recent Volunteers Week and forthcoming Carers Week; recognises and values the significant economic and social benefits resulting from the work of volunteers and carers, often performed in difficult circumstances requiring the most selfless qualities; further notes the need to ensure that the fewest possible barriers are placed before those wanting to volunteer and act as carers; believes that encouragement should be given to all, especially the young, to consider volunteering as a contribution to the welfare of a healthy society; and expresses its thanks to all those who act as role models for volunteering and caring.
I am delighted to have the privilege of leading this afternoon’s debate on a matter close to the heart of virtually every Member. Its purpose is to honour those involved in volunteering and caring in society by using mainstream time on the Floor of the House to demonstrate how important their contribution is to all hon. Members. We have therefore taken the opportunity offered by volunteers week and carers week to do precisely that. We want to recognise the immense, varied and significant contribution made by individuals throughout the country who participate in volunteering and caring and to register the extent of their commitment and the contribution that they make.
I trust that we can explore current issues facing volunteering and caring, consider the barriers that still need to be overcome to make the most effective use of people and their time and examine how life can be made easier for those involved. Finally, I hope that we can look to the future and raise issues that the recently announced Commission on the Future of Volunteering will examine over the next 12 months. I have little doubt that the debate will be well informed by all hon. Members and that we will hear about the personal experiences of some of the remarkable people we have met who are involved in these activities. I intend to concentrate on volunteering, leaving my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) to talk in greater detail about the work of carers when he winds up the debate.
There is no typical volunteer in this country. People who give up their time to help others come from all sections of the community, are of all ages and come from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Despite the dreadful story in the newspapers this morning of the poor child left calling for help in the middle of the road after being struck by a car, the instinct to help one’s neighbour is one of the deepest human ones imaginable.
Members of Parliament have many privileges, as journalists are frequently keen to remind us, but one of the privileges rarely reported is the opportunity that we have to observe some of the finer instincts of members of our community. A typical MP’s diary of time spent in the constituency will reveal visits to those involved in some of the most selfless activities, which all too rarely command national headlines. Our local newspapers make an excellent, if too often unsung, contribution, and often provide the recognition necessary to enable a community to appreciate that the picture of national collapse—an inference too often drawn from some appalling incident—is not the reality of life for everyone.
Before we consider individual stories, let us gain some sense of how important the voluntary sector is to this country. I am indebted to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and Stuart Etherington for their statistical analysis and work on this matter. The latest information available shows that the voluntary and community sector, as best it can be defined, has an income of more than £26 billion. Its work force is sizeable, at some 600,000, but the number who volunteer—defined as giving unpaid help through groups, clubs and organisations to benefit other people or the environment—is staggering. Some 29 per cent. of our community take part in formal volunteering at least once a month and 44 per cent. at least once a year. Half of our population has volunteered, formally or informally, at least once a month, which is equivalent to more than 20 million people in England and Wales.
My hon. Friend’s support for the voluntary sector is renowned in the House and I am delighted that he is opening the debate. Will he recall that volunteers in the animal welfare sector—especially the 10,000 who do so for the organisation to which I am connected, Cats Protection—make a commitment not once a week or once a month but, because they are dealing with live animals, every day? Those who volunteer to help animals, especially cats and dogs, make a seven-day-a-week commitment, and it is all the more remarkable for it.
In a typically feline intervention, my hon. Friend uses his personal knowledge, as many other hon. Members will do in this debate, to highlight another corner of national life in which volunteers and carers are involved. It is remarkable that hardly any facet of our national and community life does not involve selfless giving by people, and my hon. Friend’s valuable work and expertise in his area is recognised. It is right for him to say what he said.
I do not wish to diminish the work done by a wide variety of organisations, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will mention many of them, but will he recognise that 26 per cent. of all volunteers work in sport? Some 6 million people volunteer in sport regularly, and I speak with a slight vested interest as chair of the National Strategic Partnership for Volunteering in Sport, which brings them all together. The hon. Gentleman could also give us some indication of his own prowess at sport with his run earlier today in the Westminster mile.
Unaccustomed as I am to talking of my activities in the parliamentary football team or other sports, I nevertheless seem to recall that I was a minute ahead of the hon. Gentleman this afternoon, in an event graced again by an astonishing performance by the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), who did the mile for Sport Relief in 5 minutes and 35 seconds—an extremely creditable performance.
Colleagues will know from their constituency work that remarkable things can be done with sport. It touches all parts of society, including the most needy people. Time given up for sport is exceptionally valuable, but that brings us to one of the problems of modern life. People used to live and work in more or less the same area, finishing work at a reasonable time and going home for tea at 5 o’clock. They were therefore able to go out and support a sports club or train a team in the evening. These days, however, people work further away and get home much later. They are more tired and more committed to their work, so it is harder for them to offer the support for sport that the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) mentioned. We should pay a special tribute to those who work with youngsters in sports teams and who thus make an immense contribution.
My hon. Friend has visited my constituency several times, and knows that it is a rural area that does not have as many sporting facilities as other places. However, we are rich in mums and dads and other volunteers prepared to give up their time in the middle of the week and at weekends, in all sorts of weather. I am thinking of George Hibbert of the Clitheroe Wolves, who helps more than 450 young boys and girls to play football on a regular basis, and of Farouk Hussain, who gives up his time in the middle of the week to help youngsters play cricket. Without such people, young people in rural areas would not have the same opportunity to play sport.
My hon. Friend is right. He makes the point that voluntary activity to help disadvantaged people is not confined to urban areas but is also effective in rural areas. He mentions the time commitment required of those who work and train with youngsters in the way described by the hon. Member for Loughborough. I pay tribute to the people in my hon. Friend’s constituency who devote so much time to that—and especially to those who are working to build up yet another wonderful Lancashire cricket team that will win more trophies.
What is the economic worth of voluntary activity, quite apart from the personal and social benefits that it confers? People who volunteer formally tend to spend about eight hours a month on voluntary work. That adds up to 1.9 billion hours of work—about the same as that done by 1 million full-time workers. At the national average wage, that contribution is worth £22 billion a year.
There is no possibility that that amount of effort could be taken over by the state or people in the paid sector. It could not be afforded, so the voluntary contribution that people make constitutes an exceptional addition to this country’s national life. We should all salute and celebrate it.
My hon. Friend has set out the undoubted economic benefit accruing from voluntary work, but does he agree that the long-term, one-on-one personal care devoted to some of the most vulnerable people in our society by people in the voluntary sector—including but not exclusively those in the faith communities— could never be replicated by the state? The voluntary sector provides a great saving, but the quality of the care that is given could never be delivered by the state, no matter how well it was intended. Is not that the real benefit of what the voluntary sector provides?
There are some remarkable examples of the personal care provided by people in both the voluntary and state sectors. Those of our public sector workers who work with the most distressed individuals make a substantial contribution, but there is something special about people who do something that is not part of their job. Volunteering adds an extra dimension to their lives, as we have all seen.
For two years in the 1990s, I had the great honour to be the Minister with responsibility for people with disabilities. In that role, I came into contact with some exceptional people. I met people struggling with disabilities and overcoming circumstances that would be unimaginable to most of us, and I also met their carers, who were prepared to put in an extraordinary amount of time. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) is absolutely right to recognise the contribution that such people make.
I have mentioned the economic impact of those who work in the voluntary sectors, but I now turn to carers specifically. About 6 million people in the UK look after someone who is frail, sick or disabled. The care that they provide is unpaid. Many do not identify themselves as carers because the care that they give is to a family member. Three in five of us will become a carer at some stage in our lifetime and 301,000 people are becoming carers each year. If each carer worked for 20 hours a week—1.25 million carers currently work for more than 50 hours a week and the Department of Health estimates that more than 400,000 carers combine a full-time job with more than 20 hours of caring a week—that collective output would dwarf the NHS’s 1 million-strong work force. That is how much we depend on our extraordinary carers.
Everybody in the House shares the sentiments that are being expressed on both sides of the House. I certainly agree with the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) about the special nature of voluntary care, but I hope that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) agrees that it is important to remember that people who work in the public services as a job also give unparalleled care, dedication and service.
Absolutely. I hope that I made that clear when I responded to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon. There should not be any sense of competition. We know that a number of people feel a calling to work in the public service. Some of us do that through politics, and we all know people in our constituencies who do it, whether in the health service, teaching or care. Some people feel called to give their lives in an extraordinary way and do so through their work; some people, because they work in a different sector, give their lives in a different way. There is no sense of competition.
That builds to an extraordinary national sense. We are talking about something that makes us the country that we are. That is why the story in the newspaper this morning was so shocking. It goes against everything in all our natures, and in the natures of the vast majority of people we come across, that someone in distress could be left. That still makes one stop and think when one travels abroad to a country where the extent of poverty is so great and the cheapness of human life is rather greater. One sees children in some degree of agony being left on the side of the road because no one can afford to care. That should not happen here. We build into our national life that sense of people being involved—either through their working lives or their voluntary lives.
Will the hon. Gentleman add to the story that he has outlined at the Dispatch Box this afternoon the fact that the little girl in question was hit and the hit-and-run driver could not be bothered to stop? That is despicable beyond words. We do not want to believe that that type of behaviour could take place in Great Britain today.
It is exactly as the hon. Lady says. It is still a sign of hope that the national reaction has been so intense and that we all recognise that behaviour as abhorrent. The worry is that, over the years, experience has tended to show that a dreadful story one year might become commonplace the next. We are all striving to avoid that.
I know that a number of Members will seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to talk about people in their constituency or their experiences of volunteering with others, so that the House can get a flavour of what is behind the statistics. Volunteers week has been taken up by colleagues on this side of the House—as I am sure that it has been on the other side—as a particular opportunity to take part in or support voluntary activities. My colleagues have been involved in quite a range of activities. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) has been helping West Norfolk Disability Information Service. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) is visiting her Sure Start project in Penge to catch up on progress. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) sent round a helpful note of international development organisations that were looking for support and he is contributing some time. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) has volunteered to help FARM-Africa. Colleagues have done a range of things.
My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), my boss, has given me information about supporting a trip to Germany by a football team—this one supported by newspapers—from the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Trust, which comprises those with mental health difficulties. They are playing in Germany in a round-robin tournament that involves other teams comprising fans supporting Germany or England. My hon. Friend lent a hand when some of that squad showed the giant banner that they have created in this country, which they intend to give to their German hosts. All of us in this place could come up with equally interesting stories and I hope that we do.
May I highlight another important benefit of volunteering? I spent Sunday afternoon helping on the Shipley Glen tramway in my constituency, which is an important part of the heritage in our part of the world. It is run exclusively by volunteers and would close without them. Does my hon. Friend agree that volunteers play a vital role in preserving and highlighting important aspects of our local heritage in all our constituencies that would otherwise be lost?
My hon. Friend has not mentioned this, but I spent my weekend finding good homes for well over 100 teddy bears on behalf of Barnado’s. Is he aware of the MPs heroes event of the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), which is being organised by the Experience Corps? The event will be held here on 27 June to honour those in our constituencies who do good work as volunteers, many of whom are elderly. Those people represent the British spirit and culture. However, is my hon. Friend also aware of the great problem that Members have in choosing one individual to receive the award as a hero from so many worthy, deserving causes? Did other hon. Members do what I did and ask their local paper to do that for them?
My hon. Friend’s expertise with his local newspapers is well known, especially by hon. Members who attend the end-of-term Adjournment debates, when he regularly wins the prize for naming the most constituents and linking them with his local papers. He makes a fair point about the difficulties that we have when choosing from among the causes that we are asked to support.
As far as my experience of support volunteering week is concerned—I raise this as an example of something in which we are all involved—I express my thanks to Gary Bishop, who is a church leader in Openshaw, Manchester, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd). Gary is involved in the Eden project, which is a Christian-based initiative that has been operating in Manchester for several years. The project is especially extraordinary because it has asked young people to commit up to five years of their lives to live and work in some of the most deprived communities in the city. That enables them to become part of the community so that they can stimulate and support the personal and human development that is often necessary in places where there has been little family stability and where hopes and aspirations can be low, with self-esteem lower still.
The name of Bob Holman is known to many hon. Members because of his work on poverty. He identified that one of the key features of estates in difficulty is that when anyone gets a job or tries to improve themselves, they move out of the estate, thus depriving it of natural community leaders and people who might provide stability and focus for others. His life of commitment in Easterhouse in Glasgow has been the inspiration for many, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), whose work on social justice is proving to be a significant contribution to politics.
Members of the Eden project are working in Manchester in much the same way. Two of the estates in the area are classified as the 11th and 12th most deprived areas out of the 32,482 in the United Kingdom. Through a series of projects—including supporting mothers and children, home visiting, parents survival and family intervention, working with youths in clubs and on the streets, and providing after-school clubs, Sunday supper clubs and other opportunities—the Eden project and those who work with it are putting their time and effort into unglamorous and difficult work. It can be harder to ask volunteers to give their time to some projects than others. There are six staff, but 30 volunteers. Each of their stories is inspirational, but they would acknowledge that they are only representative of many more people working throughout the country.
Pete had the call to move from Leicester to Manchester to be involved in the community. He works in a Sure Start project and gives spare time to the community. Hannah is married to Gary. She came to Manchester, where she qualified as a nurse. Her daily work is as a district nurse in the area of need, but she still finds time to volunteer as a family support worker, when she works mostly with people with drug or alcohol misuse problems.
Unlike those who have moved from other areas to Manchester, Sinead, at 18, has always lived in the community. She got involved with Eden when it began to work with her and her friends, and now she is qualified as a nursery nurse, but spends extra time volunteering with families and children in the community.
Shannon, at 15, is even younger and is still at school, yet she has learned that she has a gift for working with and leading other youngsters in the area. I think that the project, and the work being done by Andy Hawthorn and others in Manchester, is remarkable, given the commitment that they have shown in becoming embedded in an area.
What has brought these volunteers to work in that place is no different from what has brought others to work in other areas—they recognise the need to help others. At the same time, they say how much they themselves have grown and developed through contributing voluntarily: getting involved with a simple and often repeated statement. They aim to ensure that their work is sustainable. Being able to lead youngsters such as Shannon and Sinead into positions of responsibility is a key objective. It is not merely that an elastoplast is being applied to the wound. These volunteers are participating in long-term care and recovery.
Although the multiple problems that the estate and those who live on it may face can be daunting at times, volunteers gain strength from working with each other and supporting each other through difficult times. I suspect that that is a common feature among those who work in difficult areas of society.
I have also visited the Eden project. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that one of the project’s most impressive points is that unlike some of us who volunteer—I help with my local Beavers group; we go in, we do it and we go away—the commitment shown by the volunteers whom we are talking about is that they live in the communities in which they aim to serve. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should try to replicate such a model as far as possible? It is not something that we can force, but would not it be great if the hope that such Christian groups have fostered in being part of the communities in which they serve could be models for the future?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The commitment shown is extraordinary. The number of people who can make such a commitment is limited, but there is no doubt about what these people provide by physically being present in an area and staying in it. Those who live in some of the most difficult places in our society get used to seeing other people for a short period. A social worker moves on; someone who is trusted takes a different job. There is nothing wrong with that, but the more that people can stay and be consistently identified as points of stability in difficult areas, the better. If more projects can see that as a model, that will make a tremendous contribution.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to some young people involved in volunteering. Is that not an important point to be made in the debate? So much media coverage of young people is focused on antisocial behaviour, hoodies and all the associated problems. I acknowledge that these problems exist, but would it not be appropriate to have a more balanced view of young people, so many of whom, especially through school, perhaps, work hard to raise money and raise the profile of many issues? For example, in Bedfordshire we know of the tsunami appeal, Work Africa, African Children and teaching and work on AIDS. Is not that an important aspect of volunteering? Young people can involve themselves in thinking beyond their immediate needs and wants and take on board the needs and wants of others.
The hon. Gentleman correctly identifies one of the privileges that we have that all too often others do not. We are lucky in that we see many youngsters—good youngsters in our community—who far outweigh the number of those who cause difficulties. We are lucky enough to see them at work. I pay tribute to our local newspapers, which tend to highlight good youngsters rather more than national newspapers. It is always easy to criticise and to pick up the things that go wrong. Nationally, to value our youngsters who are working so hard, would do us all a great deal of good.
Right hon. and hon. Members often pay lip service in Treasury questions to a light-touch approach to regulation, monitoring and inspection of small and medium-sized enterprises for fear of stifling initiative. Is there not strong power in the voluntary sector as well, where legislators should step in with great reluctance, ensuring proportionate protection for children and others involved in voluntary bodies through the Criminal Records Bureau and other bodies? Is there not a risk that we can stifle community spirit by excessive interference and involvement from the centre?
The telepathy between good friends and near neighbours has worked again. The hon. Gentleman anticipates the next section of my speech, which will deal with some of the barriers and problems that affect those who volunteer. He is right to raise the issue and I shall now focus on it. I say a final thank you to those who I spent time with on Sunday and Monday, to the mums and toddlers’ clubs, to Nicky who reintroduced me to Play-Doh after many years of absence, as my own children have grown up. I thank all of those people in that community as an example of those who are doing so much.
As the hon. Gentleman has just said, there are barriers to volunteering. I shall touch on them briefly, as time is short. Surprisingly, one of those barriers is disagreement about the value of volunteering, as not everyone believes in the importance of volunteering. The “NCVO’s Vision for the Future”, which was published in September 2005, said that in many cases volunteers have accepted the role of junior partner when, in fact, they should have been prepared to make their case more strongly. It said:
“We have a tendency to undervalue ourselves, particularly our value to government. If we genuinely believe that we should have a voice on the biggest issues facing our society then we need to have the courage of our convictions. We need to break through the boundaries that others place around us.”
We do not undervalue the sector, and it is important that we ensure that volunteering is not considered an amateur pursuit. People who volunteer should be proud to do so. They deserve our respect, and our debate should highlight that.
Regulation and bureaucracy are more difficult problems. The delicate issue of checks by the Criminal Records Bureau gives rise to a clash of principles, as no one would wish volunteers with access to some of the most personal aspects of people’s lives to misuse that confidence. People who rely on the services of volunteers should be sure about them, and a cloud of suspicion should not hang over them. CRB checks provide clearance, but the bureaucracy involved is sometimes overbearing. Many volunteering organisations do not know when or why they need to check volunteers, or when they do not need to do so.
There are different levels of CRB checks, and it is not always certain which level is necessary. My wife is not an untypical example: she has three separate CRB clearances—two at a high level, and one at a lower level. She chairs the Bedford branch of Home Start—an excellent scheme that assists vulnerable families nationwide—as well as working in the local church and at a school with children. A total of £100 has been spent on obtaining those clearances. That expenditure is multiplied for volunteers throughout the country, but it could be used for other purposes. At least two of the checks on my wife were unnecessary, and there should be a platform of check on which to build if someone needs to move from a lower-level clearance to a higher-level one. The cost and the obscure nature of the checks are a barrier to volunteers and voluntary groups. They are a barrier, too, to developing projects that involve contact with vulnerable groups.
That problem, among others, was picked up by the Better Regulation Task Force in its report of November 2005, “Better Regulations for Civil Society— Making Life Easier for Those Who Help Others”. Its seventh recommendation dealt specifically with the CRB checks, and I should be grateful if Ministers told us, either in response to my opening contribution or at the end of the debate, whether we can expect an explanation for the slow progress in responding to those recommendations. I have been in touch with the Better Regulation Commission, which is disappointed by the time it has taken to receive a response. We all appreciate that the Home Office is under pressure, but it would be helpful to reform CRB checks and implement the recommendations of the taskforce, so we would appreciate a progress report.
My hon. Friend’s remarks on the CRB checks are timely, as a few days ago I received a letter from a constituent who recently was subject to seven separate checks. That is not unusual, as many volunteers volunteer for many organisations, so any steps that can be taken to ensure that that needless duplication is ended would be welcome.
My hon. Friend is quite right. I cannot foresee any objections to his proposal—it is simply a matter of streamlining the system and making sure that each individual has a single reference number so that checks are carried through from one voluntary role to another. If they need to move up a level, they should be able to do so. The problem that my hon. Friend highlighted has been experienced by other people, so we must deal with it.
Closely related to issues opened up by the problem of CRB checks is the general culture of risk aversion, which now affects many organisations working with the public. In an excellent speech last year, Justin Davis Smith, the deputy chief executive of Volunteering England, addressed the problem directly. He said that
“we must avoid the temptation to overstate the case, but the warning signs are there…a volunteer movement without risk is a contradiction in terms and one not worth having.”
Volunteering England surveyed various organisations about the issue of whether compensation culture was a myth or reality. Nine in 10 voluntary organisations believed that the UK had developed a compensation culture.
Justin Davis Smith continues,
“given this belief in the shift towards a compensation culture, a majority of organisations—some two thirds—felt that issues of risk in relation to volunteering had become more of a problem in recent years.”
One result is the difficulty in recruiting volunteers. One in five organisations reported to Volunteering England that volunteers had stopped volunteering for them because of risk and liability fears.
The good news is that many organisations are coming to terms with this change in culture and want to fight back and put in place preventive strategies that allow them to continue to operate, despite the sense of risk. Politicians of all parties should work closely with them to do whatever we can to remove whatever fears are unreasonable. Risk management policies and strategies may seem tedious, but they can be reassuring and effective. Organisations share good practice among themselves, and Volunteering England’s own risk project funded by the Home Office is looking to develop a set of tools to help volunteer-involving agencies to develop their risk management policies. We collectively need to ensure that no more than is reasonable is demanded of organisations in the voluntary sector.
A less high profile issue but one that is just as real is the increased responsibility being attached to trustees and governors. Not too long ago, those were honorary positions often held by retired professionals who cast a benevolent eye over governance and financial matters—but no longer. Being held liable for significant financial sums or being embroiled in quite serious employment difficulties has made those jobs much more difficult and, for some, not worth the candle. We must make it easier for people to volunteer for such positions. It might be right to ask whether it is truly necessary to demand exactly the same rigorous standards in every organisation as might be expected from a major plc or an Enron.
Other problems that colleagues may wish to address when they get a chance to speak include the problem of recruiting people who are older, making sure there is no age discrimination, watching out for disability discrimination, and making sure that the pattern of funding is compatible with the work of voluntary organisations. All too many complain of the short-term funding problem. I was speaking to a charity for the homeless this morning and was told that it was involved in 47 local contracts with 16 different authorities, of which only one contract lasted for longer than a year. It is not possible to work that way. We are trying to work in a different way in the public sector, and I hope that that will extend more to voluntary bodies.
We need to make sure that everyone from all sections of society can contribute. It is true that those from a higher social class—a higher financial background—tend to be more involved in volunteering than others. Looking for ways to make sure that we break down the barriers and that people can afford to give time and effort to voluntary organisations is extremely important. We must continue to do that.
Finally, looking ahead, on 29 March Baroness Julia Neuberger launched the Commission on the Future of Volunteering. Following on from the success of volunteers year last year and the Russell Commission, over the next 12 months the commission will examine a range of issues, some of which I have touched on, to try and ensure that volunteering has a secure base for the future.
Baroness Neuberger recognises, as do many others, that volunteering has never seemed as important as it does today, and is keen that the heightened interest of political parties should not result in party or Government takeover of voluntary activity. I can assure her from the Conservative Benches that there is no intention or aim of that happening. We recognise, as I am sure does the Minister, that volunteers offer a valuable non-partisan service which he appreciates in government, and which we will equally appreciate when we sit on the Government Benches.
One of the key areas that we will be looking at is how we encourage young people into more voluntary activity. There is already quite a high level of participation, but as the Eden project shows, we want to encourage more. Growing people into voluntary organisations in their own areas is very valuable. I pay particular tribute to the Biggleswade sea cadets, of which I happen to be president. I have seen them being exceptionally active in the local community, and so many of those who have been in the sea cadets go on to give their time back to the local area and to the sea cadets and other voluntary organisations. The benefit to a small market town can only be imagined. When that is spread across the whole country, one sees how valuable the work can be.
We all have our stories about the value of carers and volunteers. We have seen them in every circumstance. We have seen them working abroad to teach, relieve pain and suffering or protect the environment. We have seen them at home, from joyful participation in local events in their communities to sitting down with hurt and miserable children with the direst of backgrounds, but who suddenly have hope and aspiration as a result of a kind word and skilled advice. From all of us in this place, to all of them, wherever they are, you have our hearty thanks.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). He spoke as someone who cares passionately about carers and volunteering, and he will no doubt make an important contribution to the Neuberger commission, the results of which we look forward to.
I have been in my job as Minister with responsibility for the third sector in the Cabinet Office for a month or so, and I am delighted to have this opportunity to set out the Government’s approach and future plans. We have good reason to be optimistic about the ethic of volunteering in this country. Next year, the new Office of the Third Sector will be investing £65 million a year directly in the infrastructure of volunteering programmes. Millennium Volunteers saw a transformation of youth volunteering in this country, engaging almost a quarter of a million young people. Today 20.4 million men and women in our country volunteer regularly, up from 18.4 million in 2001, a rise in both formal and informal volunteering.
We need to go further. We have just launched V, the independent body that will build on the work of the Millennium Volunteers and is tasked with recruiting a million more youth volunteers. For carers too, there is more to do. There are more resources and better legislation, and the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who has responsibility for social care, will have more to say about that when he replies to the debate.
For my part, I want to focus on the Government’s approach to volunteering, which is based on three principles. The first is that volunteering, including mentoring, is the bedrock of our society. The second is that the Government have an enabling role to play, investing in organisations with the expertise to make the best use of resources and breaking down barriers to volunteering, and I will deal with some of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised on that. The third—this is important—is that volunteering should be seen as complementary to state action, not a substitute for it.
I will deal first with the role that volunteering and mentoring play in our society. Almost 50 years ago, William Beveridge published a report—not his most famous—entitled “Voluntary Action” on the role of the voluntary sector in society. One phrase in it seems particularly apt as we meet in this House today. Voluntary action, he wrote, expressed
“the driving power of social conscience”.
I spent the first day of volunteers week last Thursday visiting and volunteering at different organisations, and for me they showed that driving power in action. They included the Whitechapel mission, serving breakfast to the homeless; Live magazine in Brixton, which is produced for and by some of the most disadvantaged young people in south London; the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, with its 140,000 volunteers across the UK, which is improving public spaces all round Britain; and Sixty Plus, in Kensington and Chelsea, which brings together young people and older citizens.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden), volunteered for the excellent senior citizens’ link line project in Bilston in his constituency, to which I pay tribute today, and the Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), visited a women’s aid project and volunteered there this morning.
What united the volunteers in those diverse organisations was both the individual fulfilment that people got out of their volunteering and the difference that they were making to their communities, as those to whom I spoke confirmed. As the hon. Gentleman and others have said, we see that all around the country, from the millions of volunteer sports coaches, to the hundreds of thousands of school governors, to the many thousands of volunteers who campaign for the causes in which they believe.
The Government, of course, do not create volunteers, and it is important to remember that, but they do have an enabling role, which takes me to the second principle of our approach. That is partly seen in the enabling role of the Government investing in our volunteering infrastructure, and I want to talk about our future plans in that regard.
Today, 47 per cent. of young people volunteer at least once a year. In the ways that they contribute—my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) made this point—they are a living contradiction to the stereotype of yobbishness with which too many young people are branded today. It is the responsibility of the media—which we often like to criticise—but also of politicians, to represent a balanced picture of young people. We want many more young people to have the chance to volunteer—1 million more young people over five years. We know that volunteering enables young people to develop new skills outside school and broaden their horizons. By working with the third sector, public services and the private sector, our aim is to transform the number of young people who get involved in volunteering in their communities.
Will the Minister visit Enfield, where there is a shining example of young people engaging in volunteering? Ofsted has lauded youth action volunteering in Enfield as a unique and valuable scheme, which sends 600 people to 230 placements each year. Those people all do 15 hours a week working in a variety of areas, not least the Leonard Cheshire home, which I visited this morning.
I have a two-for-one offer for the Minister, because my seat is next to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes). Will the Minister join me in recognising that every pound given to voluntary and charitable organisations generates huge value—sometimes 10 or 20 times the value of the donation?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and will look kindly on his invitation. Gift aid has improved the situation on tax relief, and the sum provided by the taxpayer has increased from £200 million to £600 million. We all know about the huge impact of volunteering, and I shall discuss that matter later.
V is a new, independent organisation, and it embodies the Government’s enabling role. It will be led by young people through the youth advisory board, V20; it will be shaped by the needs of young people; and it will fund thousands of full-time youth volunteering opportunities, as well as many thousands more part-time opportunities. The Government have committed up to £100 million over three years to fund increases in youth volunteering through V, and I am pleased to say that 26 companies have already pledged their commitment to the project, contributing a total of more than £10 million.
We want more young people to have the chance to volunteer.
Before the Minister leaves the question of young people and volunteering, does he agree that it is important to consider those young people who have caring responsibilities thrust upon them, such as caring for ailing parents or for younger brothers and sisters? Will he pay tribute to the work of Brighton and Hove carers centre in supporting the needs of young carers in the Brighton and Hove area? Will he join me in hoping that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will discuss the needs of young carers in his response to the debate?
I am happy to pay tribute to the organisation in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Young carers are very important and the issue is particularly challenging. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will want to discuss that issue at the conclusion of the debate.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that the matter involves more than young people? In my constituency, there are special constables who are 40-plus. There are also people, some of whom are 50-plus or 60-plus, who work in a voluntary capacity on cardiac risk for the young and who provide enormous quantities of money and equipment for hospitals. We are discussing young people, but many ancients work very hard in the voluntary sector.
My hon. Friend has anticipated my remarks, because I was about to discuss older volunteers. Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to attend the Help the Aged and the Volunteering Initiative in the Third Age conference, where two older volunteers talked about their amazing work. We look forward to the VITA report in the autumn, which will address what more we can do to promote the role of older volunteers. I agree with my hon. Friend that older volunteers play an important role.
Before the Minister moves on to talk about older people’s volunteering, may I invite him to my constituency to visit the Bourne children and youth initiative and the Farnham youth project? I assure him of a very warm welcome should he find the time to visit those very worthwhile projects in an area of the country that has not traditionally been a stronghold for his party.
Order. Before the Minister responds, may I say to the House that interventions are becoming invitations and, to some extent, mini-speeches? I understand that all hon. Members want to contribute to the debate, but others are waiting to make speeches later and the clock is ticking. I know that the Minister has to make a full response, but if everybody else could make their speeches a little shorter than they had planned, more Members could speak.
The Minister will be aware that voluntary organisations often hold fundraising events such as garden parties. Will he clarify whether those are exempt from the provisions of the Licensing Act 2005, provided that alcohol is not sold and the money raised is for the good cause, not for profit? Is he aware that some local council licensing departments are making a perverse interpretation of this law, and will he encourage local councils to adopt a helpful attitude instead of discouraging such events?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who gives me the chance to say that a committee under Sir Les Elton is considering the whole issue of the implementation of the Licensing Act, particularly as it affects village halls and other venues.
There are different rules and procedures for those that serve alcohol as against those that do not, and it is very important that they are implemented properly. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point and would be happy to talk further with him.
As I said, we are working with VITA, but it is also important to give volunteering opportunities to those who are excluded and under-represented in terms of those opportunities, including disabled people, black and ethnic minorities and other socially excluded groups. I can announce today that we are allocating £3 million for a new partnership between the Media Trust and organisations representing disabled, black and ethnic minority and socially excluded groups to try to open up volunteering opportunities for them.
The Government’s role is not only about improving the volunteering infrastructure, but about removing barriers to volunteering. The new Office of the Third Sector, based in the Cabinet Office, offers an opportunity for greater co-ordination within Government of the effort to break down those barriers, three of which have been cited in particular as preventing volunteering. First, there is the deterrent effect of potential legal action for incidents involving volunteers. Several hon. Members raised that issue. Tomorrow, the Compensation Bill receives its Second Reading in the House. It represents an important response to concerns that have been raised, including in the private Member’s Bill introduced in 2004 by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). Part 1 of the Compensation Bill makes it clear that when considering a claim of negligence, courts will be able to consider the wider social value of the activity. That will help to ensure that voluntary organisations are not discouraged from taking on volunteers by the threat of legal action. It has been widely welcomed by many organisations that use volunteers. For example, the Scout Association has said that it welcomes the proposals.
Secondly, there is the operation of the Criminal Records Bureau, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire and by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), who is no longer in his place. Every year, about 500,000 checks on volunteers are processed by the CRB free of charge as a result of a decision made by this Government. That is a considerably higher number of applications than was expected. There have been concerns about delays in processing, but I am pleased to say that the situation has improved, with 93 per cent. of standard checks completed within two weeks and 88 per cent. of enhanced checks completed within four weeks. Of course, we recognise that there is scope for further improvement in this area, and we will continue to consult the sector and work with the CRB to bring about improvements. We are working on several matters, but I believe that the situation has improved.
Thirdly, concerns have been raised, including in the Russell report, about the benefit rules being a possible deterrent to volunteering. On examination, it turned out that many of those anxieties related to the implementation of the rules rather than the rules themselves. For example, those on jobseeker’s allowance can volunteer provided that they continue to look for work and can start a job within a week. That is why the Government have launched an updated guide to volunteering while on benefits. The task is now to ensure that it is implemented locally in jobcentres.
A final part of the enabling role of Government is to build an ethos of volunteering—the sense that we all have a responsibility to put something back into our society. That must start in schools, and that is why the Government have already piloted the active citizens in schools programme and are determined to do more to embed volunteering in the citizenship curriculum. We are also working with the private sector, through Business in the Community, and with the public sector to open up more volunteering opportunities and persuade more people to volunteer.
The third principle of the Government’s approach is that the role of the third sector in general, and volunteers in particular, must be seen as a supplement to and not a substitute for Government funding of public services. The relationship of state and the third sector has always been difficult for our society—we should be honest about that—and, indeed, for any major advanced industrial society that has a welfare state. The third sector can reach out to the disadvantaged, it is close to the communities that it serves and it has a deserved reputation for innovation. As we have already heard in the debate, the role of volunteers reflects the reality that there will always be ways in which Government provision and services can be supplemented by the engagement of volunteers. However, volunteering must not be seen as, and cannot be a cut-price alternative to Government. That is true of the third sector generally.
Before the second world war, the patchwork nature of the welfare state may have encouraged a spirit of charity and voluntary action, but Labour Members do not romanticise that era, for it was a time when services were frail and failed many people. For Labour Members, the significant increases in expenditure on public services—and the resultant improvements—are consistent with the increase in volunteering. Both contribute to a more just society.
Today’s debate is important because I hope that it might enable us to declare a happy consensus on the need for partnership between the state and the voluntary sector. That would be welcome. It would mark a major change from the position of the Conservative party in the 1980s, when the choice between state and volunteer was perceived as a zero sum game—more state provision meant crowding out the volunteer; less state provision was desirable because it would increase voluntary action.
Does the Parliamentary Secretary share my concern that today, many volunteers give much of their time to hospitals throughout the country serving tea, providing artwork and performing many other noble tasks? I was stunned by his party political point because my example shows the substitution of public expenditure for volunteer labour. Will he do something about that?
There has always been a tradition in our public services of people giving their time voluntarily. However, voluntary activity cannot be a substitute for the core part of the work that public services do.
I welcome the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) to the debate. He has taken a great interest in the voluntary sector and social justice. I feel some anxiety when reading some of the speeches that he has given on the issue and I hope that he will have the chance to speak in the debate. Last November, around the time when he was appointed to his new role, he made a speech in which he said:
“As big charity gets ever closer to big government, it increasingly mirrors its thinking and behaviour”.
I am worried and I believe that there is concern in the voluntary sector that that represents a 1980s view of faith in smaller government and belief that voluntary action should fill the gap.
The speech to which the Parliamentary Secretary refers dealt with the relationship between larger charities and the smaller voluntary groups. He should go back to his office and examine carefully what happens with some of the bigger charities. Approximately 5 per cent. dominate charitable giving to such an extent that many smaller groups cannot get money. At the same time, they dominate the relationship with big government, often dictating the pressure on it. Genuine voluntary effort in the community groups often gets crowded out by that combination of big government and big charity.
I have the utmost respect for the right hon. Gentleman, who is a much more senior Member of the House than I am. However, in the last part of his intervention, he again referred to crowding out by big government. He and I have a very honest disagreement—not about ends, because I completely respect the ends towards which he is working, but about means. I do not think that the role of the Government necessarily crowds out the work of voluntary sector groups. However, when we are considering ways in which the voluntary sector can carry out more public service delivery, big charities will inevitably be involved.
I really must take up this issue with the hon. Gentleman. I visit a lot of small community groups around the country, pretty much throughout the year now, as part of my work with the Centre for Social Justice. One of the abiding features of what the people working in those groups tell me time and again is that they do not want to access local or national Government money because when they do, they feel that their activities get taken over by the Government and they fall into the pattern of being “check-listed” by civil servants. They absolutely fear the hand of the Government. I did not make that up. The hon. Gentleman should come with me on some of those visits, and I will show him people in Glasgow, Manchester and Sheffield who all work hard and all say the same thing: that they fear big government because it tends to take them over. Those are not my words, but theirs.
Of course, the right hon. Gentleman is right. In a way, that is what I was talking about when I referred to barriers. The Government’s relationship with the voluntary sector needs to be conducted with a light touch, and we need to strike the proper balance between accountability and the flexibility to spend resources. I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman and I simply have a philosophical disagreement on this issue.
In the months and years ahead we will scrutinise the Conservatives’ proposals and intentions, and I hope that there can be consensus on this question. The relationship between state and voluntary activity is an important issue for our country, but it is not an easy one. There might be disagreements, but I hope that we can reach consensus.
I believe that it is right to celebrate the work of volunteers. In small ways and large, they are making a huge difference to our country. Forty years ago this month, the American politician Robert Kennedy said in a speech to young people in South Africa that the biggest danger facing our society was the sense of futility, and the belief that
“there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills.”
Every year, millions of British volunteers are the living answer to the danger of futility. They are active citizens changing our country for the better. They have a Government on their side, and I salute their work today.
I very much welcome the debate and the tone in which the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) opened it. I suspected from the start that this would be one of the most consensual debates of the year, and, so far, that has been borne out by the words of the hon. Gentleman and of the Minister. I think that this is the first time that I have had the opportunity to welcome the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband) to his new responsibilities, after he was so cruelly robbed of that opportunity during the course of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. I congratulate him, and warmly welcome him. I also thank him for what he has said today. If he makes a habit of quoting that great Liberal, William Beveridge, in his speeches, he will maintain a welcome from these Benches.
Although the contributions to the debate will probably follow more or less the same lines—albeit with some areas of tension, such as the one that was explored in the latter stages of the Minister’s speech— we need to recognise that the warm feeling that comes from congratulating the voluntary sector from the Chamber is insufficient to its needs. To use the time-honoured phrase, fine words butter no parsnips. The requirement is not only to feel well disposed towards the voluntary sector, but to help it to do its essential job and to recognise some of the barriers that stand in its way.
We have already heard about the huge range of activities across the country that are covered by the voluntary sector. Those activities are all done for the greater public good. The citizens advice bureaux, for instance, do a marvellous job in many of our communities. Those who work with elderly people are doing work that would otherwise not be done, because it would not be done by the statutory sector. There are also the special constables, who were mentioned by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor).
Those who work in the artistic and cultural heritage sectors are important to the life of our communities, not only adding to but maintaining that which we have. The industrial heritage sector in particular is often unsung. In that sector, people devote their lives to maintaining things that give instruction and pleasure to people in our local communities.
We should not forget those in local government, who are often forgotten in their role as volunteers. In fact, local government is made up of volunteers, particularly at parish council level. Many parish councillors take on considerable responsibilities in return for few thanks and little reward, and I am grateful for the work that they do. Those who volunteer to work for political parties certainly do not often receive thanks publicly, but they are volunteers none the less. Many of them give their time because of their commitment to a principle. They are prepared to do that day after day, week after week and year after year, and we should say thank you to them. We may feel that a number of them are mistaken in their political beliefs, but they are all doing what they do because they believe it to be for the common good.
School governors, who have been mentioned today, take on an extraordinarily responsible task nowadays, which is probably far beyond what they thought they were taking on in the first instance. I am worried by some of the responsibilities that now fall on their shoulders.
We should also take account of youth work, in its widest context. I am glad that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire mentioned his sea cadets, because I think we should pay special regard to the inestimable value of the work of the cadet force with young people. It does not merely provide them with the experiences that it is traditionally so good at providing. Earlier today, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) told me that at the weekend he had presented awards for community service to a number of cadets who had been not climbing mountains, sailing ships or flying planes, but helping the elderly as part of their training. That strikes me as an extremely valuable contribution.
There are those who raise funds for all sorts of purposes: organisations such as rotary clubs and, in my part of the world, carnival associations. Carnivals are not, in fact, a Notting Hill phenomenon; they are a Somerset phenomenon. We have the largest and best carnivals in the country, although they are not known to a great many people. The work of carnival associations continues throughout the year. They produce the floats for carnivals such as the Bridgwater carnival, which is attended by a quarter of a million people. Such carnivals raise a phenomenal amount of money for good causes.
We would not have a sports structure without the voluntary sector—without the coaches, the groundsmen and the honorary secretaries, treasurers, presidents and chairmen of the sports clubs in our constituencies. Those who work for the environment and conservation give up their time to make their communities that little bit better. But it is pointless to highlight particular organisations or individuals, because the list is endless.
The Minister may be relieved to hear that I am not going to invite him to my constituency—not because I would not be delighted to see him there, and not because I do not have a huge array of local organisations that I think would be worthy of his attention, but simply because I recognise that he has new responsibilities in his Department. Let me say how glad I am that responsibility for voluntary work has been removed from the maw of the Home Office and its tottering empire and given to the Cabinet Office, where I hope more attention will be paid to it.
Last, but certainly not least, are carers. No doubt attention will be paid to them later. They are, by definition, volunteers. They probably do not think of themselves as such but rather as people who provide care either because of an obligation or out of love for the individual on whom they are bestowing that care. However, they are part of the voluntary sector. What does the sector provide? It adds value to statutory activities and fills the gaps that the statutory providers will never fill. It also strengthens communities, supports families and reduces crime.
I want to highlight the effect of the sector on rural areas. We often think of urban volunteers as providing services, but that activity is often even more important in rural areas because of the lack of statutory provision. If the statutory bodies and local authorities do not provide various functions, it is left to the volunteers to fill those gaps. I applaud the point made about the Licensing Act 2005 and its effect on village hall committees. Village halls are often key components of voluntary activity in local areas.
Volunteering is done for a mixture of motives. Altruism is one. Care and love for individuals is another. The feeling that one has skills that are unused and can be put to better use for the community is a third. The fourth, and not to be forgotten, motive is fun. It is fun to do a lot of the activities, and people engage in voluntary activities for that purpose.
Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear, or join me in saying, that volunteers do many things that the state in no way, shape of form gets involved in? Alan Wade, a farmer in my constituency, is putting together eight very large lorry loads of clothes and medical equipment to go to Chernobyl. No one else is going to do that. He is valiant—a superb man. There are many Alan Wades in Great Britain, and we should celebrate them again and again.
I share the hon. Lady’s sentiments. The voluntary sector provides things that the state cannot. The key point, which was made by the Minister, is the need for complementarity—one adds to the other, not replaces the other. However, I say in parenthesis that I share some of the concerns expressed by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) about the Government taking what is effectively an agency approach to the voluntary sector, which changes the relationship between the voluntary sector and the community it serves. Sometimes that relationship is disturbed. We need to act with extreme care.
The Minister referred to the Conservatives being stuck in a particular pattern of thinking. As I listened to him, I was worried that he had a particular pattern of thought as well, which is about the superiority of public service delivery. If he retains that view and does not see that there are flaws in public service delivery that voluntary agencies sometimes highlight, he is missing something, which betrays a pattern of thought that he needs to change.
I thought that the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that I held that view. I emphatically do not. However, I now understand that he was referring to the Minister. That debate can be resolved during the course of the evening.
The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire is equally right to point out the barriers. We should be concentrating on those. It is not enough simply to applaud what is done, but to say how we can enable that to happen in a better and more effective way. There are some aspects of voluntary work in which people are prevented from doing their best, sometimes by a lack of facilities, such as sports fields, and the lack of investment in local communities that provides the wherewithal for people to offer their services effectively. Sometimes it happens because of bureaucracy. The Criminal Records Bureau is still a live issue for many people. I welcome what the Minister said about improvement, but I recognise, because I have come across it in my constituency—all hon. Members must find the same thing—that the inevitable checks have a depressing effect on the preparedness of people to volunteer.
The checks and balances that we put in place must be proportionate. Of course we must protect the young and the vulnerable, but we need to do so in a way that is consonant with people still providing the levels of support that they themselves can offer. That also applies to the area of risk aversion, which has been mentioned. The Compensation Bill goes some way toward dealing with that.
However, the problem is often not the so-called compensation culture—I have never been convinced that such a culture exists—or litigation being carried through into court; rather, it is the interpretation by organisations of their liability through litigation that prevents them from doing things that they would otherwise do. A huge educative process is needed in order to tell organisations, “Yes, you can expose people to appropriate risk in carrying out outdoor activities in particular. That is not a wrong thing to do—it strengthens people and their prospects for the future— provided that you take reasonable precautions and measures to ensure that they do not come to harm.”
It worries me that support for the voluntary sector, particularly from local government, is always vulnerable. By definition, it occurs in marginal areas of statutory duties, which means that when times are hard in local government, such support is cut. That principle even extends to social services and support for carers in many parts of the country, which is in any case a patchwork of provision and is now under real threat.
The key issue, however, is the financial consequences, and here I shall concentrate on carers. For many, the restrictions on the carer’s allowance are a real difficulty. An example is the 35-hour restriction, which rules out many people. Moreover, when people become statutory pensioners, they lose the carer’s allowance. I understand the financial consequences of taking a different view on this issue; nevertheless, that restriction represents a horror story for many elderly carers, particularly those who are caring for their even more elderly parents. People can earn up to a limit of £84 a week, which is not very much, before they start to lose their carer’s allowance. Those who are at school, university or college for more than 21 hours a week do not qualify for carer’s allowance. These are all restrictions on people who are desperate to support their loved ones in their homes, and who, in doing so, are saving the state vast sums of money. In addition, such caring is to the advantage of the individual being cared for.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper) was right to draw attention to child carers, who are the forgotten carers. I hope that schools and colleges become much more aware of this issue, spot the stress experienced by young people who are caring for a parent or an older sibling in the home, and make arrangements to support them through their schooling, so that their education does not suffer, and to support them socially by acting as mentors and helping them deal with the problems that inevitably lie in their way.
We have a pension reform programme, which recognises the difficulties faced by carers, but does not propose to do anything about them during the lifetime of those who are currently carers. That is an issue of huge concern.
We have very limited time and other Members will not get a chance to speak if I give way.
Finally, it should be made easier for businesses to release people to allow them to take part in voluntary activity, and it should be in their interests to do so. That brings me to a specific question that I would like the Minister to respond to, if he can. There is a concern about the definition of carers in clause 12 of the Work and Families Bill. The Minister will be aware that although this is to be settled by secondary legislation, the intimation is that the definition of carers will be restricted to those with a familial connection with the person being cared for. That is alarming many people in the sector, who realise that carers can comprise a much larger group. This definition is too narrow and restrictive, and even if it is appropriate in the context of the Bill, its use outside that context and in other aspects of the Government’s programme would be counter-productive.
Because of the lack of time, I feel that I should shorten my remarks at this point. To some extent, it is a platitude to express a debt of gratitude to carers and volunteers in this country, but it is necessary to do so. We owe them an enormous amount. In cash terms, too, the state owes them an enormous amount for their work. That makes it all the more necessary to reduce the barriers in their way and to promote and encourage their work, which has not always been the case. I am encouraged by the Minister’s views, but I now want action taken to reduce the barriers and really encourage those people.
I wish to declare a number of relevant interests, as a former carer, as vice-president of Carers UK, as chair of the all-party carers group and as the sponsor of the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004. I begin by congratulating the official Opposition on proposing the debate. I particularly welcome the positive comments made by all three speakers so far. This debate is a measure of the progress made in the country and across the House in advancing the cause of carers and volunteers. It is commendable that those issues have moved much higher up on all our political agendas.
The official Opposition threw down an intriguing gauntlet by linking volunteering with caring. I am sure that no one would suggest that carers carry out their work as volunteers, as I believe that they undertake their responsibilities out of love for family members. However, many carers are volunteers above the call of duty when they work in carers’ organisations. We have already heard about many such excellent organisations and the carers who work in them.
In my own county borough of Neath Port Talbot, there are more than 20,000 carers—the highest proportion in any county borough in the UK. Serving those areas are some admirable carers’ organisations, too numerous to mention, but I will refer to as many as I can in the limited time available—the epilepsy support group, Cancer Challenge, the Special Needs Activity Club, Age Concern and, perhaps most intriguingly of all, a new carers action movement, chaired by my friend, Mr. Ray Thomas, who with his wife Margaret has been a carer for 40 years. Alongside that, he has now formed his own carers action movement. Another interesting initiative involves former carers coming together to support new carers in the upper Afan valley.
The Government—my Government—have done a great deal to enhance the lives of carers from the launch of the national carers strategy in 1999 and the introduction of the carers special grant to more recent recognition of the right of carers to request flexible working in the Work and Families Bill and, even more recently, in respect of the right to decent pensions for carers, particularly women, in the new White Paper on pensions.
This debate affords Members the opportunity to raise some important policy issues relating to the link between caring and volunteering. Young carers provide one example. In my county borough, there are 600 such carers under the age of 16. How can both the Welsh Assembly Government and the Government in Westminster help those young carers to become volunteers, beyond their own caring responsibilities and their school work? I hope that Education Ministers will deal with that when the Education and Inspections Bill returns to the House.
Beyond the Bill, I believe that young carers could benefit more if family support were provided by the expansion of such remarkable schemes as the Winged Fellowship Trust and the Shared Care Network. More respite care of that kind is essential for all carers, but particularly for young carers. Additional funds and awards to such admirable bodies as Crossroads and the Princess Royal Trust for Carers and local authorities would greatly assist young and older carers. All that could be part of the implementation of the Russell Commission recommendations on volunteering.
As carers’ rights become more central to public policy in all Departments, would it not be appropriate to appoint a carers’ champion—a specific Minister, with cross-cutting departmental responsibilities to enhance and advance the rights of all carers? It would be admirable, in advance of next week’s carers week, if we were to hear today some kind of commitment from the Government to create such a position.
In conclusion, I warmly welcome the comment made by my hon. Friend the Minister when he said that there is much more to be done for carers. The debate is worth while in recognising and valuing the indispensable role of carers and volunteers and the collective commitment of hon. Members on both sides of the House to achieve more respect, more recompense and more respite care for carers. I congratulate the official Opposition on their initiative, and I urge the Government to endorse the spirit behind it.
I did not intend to speak and I hope that I can keep my words fairly limited. I congratulate my hon. and good Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing the debate and on his opening remarks, and I want to try to keep mine in the spirit of non-partisan-style politics. Although I will not quite follow the Minister down that road, I want to make a couple of points. Ever the politician, I do not want to miss the opportunity to respond to a couple of quick points that he made.
One of the biggest problems that I see from the work that I do with the Centre for Social Justice relates to the big difference between the concept of charity and that of volunteering. The reality for many people who volunteer to do important work in the community, such as getting kids off drugs, helping pensioners who have difficulty getting out or sorting out problems in the aftermath of family breakdown—I am sure that all hon. Members will have seen such things every day in their work—is that they find that there is a growing divide between their activities and those of the bigger charities, most of whose work is done by paid people, who earn a salary and come to work much as many other people do. Worthy as that may be, there is a big disparity in their access to money and that of many small community groups.
Some national charities sit on very large reserves of money, while still collecting donations. In some cases, as much as half their national requirements are held in reserves worth millions of pounds. Many of the groups that I talk to live from hand to mouth. They struggle every day; they literally go out with the begging bowl. Sometimes, visiting them as a politician is one of the ways of getting them publicity, so that people donate some money to them. Let us never underestimate the worth of that publicity to those groups.
In a sense, there is in part a divided world. Small groups doing all the work find it more difficult to provide real access to the welfare society. They often find themselves crowded out by the activities of the national charities, whose dominance in fundraising squeezes out other charities. People who have already committed money to the bigger charities find it difficult to give money to the small community groups. Some of those things need to be thought through. The national charities need to rethink their relationship on giving with the smaller communities groups, and the Government need to do so, too.
I want to speak about a couple of problems, the first of which is the relationship with the Government. A number of issues have been raised and the Minister has made some observations—I congratulate him on trying to deal with some of these things—but many Government agencies find it very difficult to deal with small community groups and charities. He is right: he and the agencies like working with the bigger charities. It is always easier to work with big organisations that are well-organised and have marketing directors, chiefs of staff and all those other things. They can talk almost on even terms. Small community groups—I call them the awkward squad—often involve people who are challenging opinions and attitudes, sometimes doing things that others are not sure are right, and they can be more difficult to deal with.
I remember visiting Connexions in my area and asking what it was doing as part of its brief to support some of the smaller community groups and charities. Most of its work seemed to be supporting the local government work in the area, because that was so much easier. The staff were scared stiff of committing to small community groups because they were worried about what might happen if they failed or went wrong, or problems occurred. Therefore, the lion’s share of the money that the Government had intended to go to some of the small community groups ended up going to projects set up by the local council. I asked the staff about one specific project and they said that they had had no take-up from local sports groups, but they could not understand why. I asked what requirements they laid on such groups, and it turned out that they had to have a full personnel check and full liability insurance before their bids could be assessed. I threw up my hands and asked how many of those one man and a dog operations that ran two football teams on a Sunday could afford liability insurance before they could make a bid for funds.
I am not blaming the staff, because they were good people trying hard to find a solution, but it had not occurred to them that people were working hand to mouth and struggling to run football teams through pure voluntary work. Everybody involved was giving up time and often money.
The attitude of the Government and civil servants to such issues is ingrained. They like dealing with organisations that are sizeable, orderly, working well and structured. They find it really difficult to work with small groups. I urge the Minister to think outside the box and find ways to deal with those groups, which are doing wonderful work in our community and include some of the most inspirational people I have ever met. Such organisations are more like small businesses, with all the same awkwardness and peculiarities, and they fail at the same rate—but they can also inspire and grow at the same rate. Unless we get our thinking around the fact that those social entrepreneurs are every bit as important to us as economic entrepreneurs, we will not begin to realise why so much in our society is challenging and broken down.
I do not wish to labour the point about big charities, but we need to rethink the situation when so many big charities collect vast amounts of money—and many do very good work with it—and sit on vast reserves. I visited a charity which received some publicity as a result. Someone who had grown up in Gallowgate and gone on to great things in London read about the charity—it is run by Jim Doherty and is a local community charity that helps people get off drugs—and offered it £10,000 a year. That is a lot of money for such a group, but larger charities can have £50 million or more in reserve. Just a tiny proportion of that would go so far towards helping others out. The same goes for the Government, because small amounts of money can make a massive difference.
We have talked a lot about how much volunteering saves the nation and delivers services. What we have not mentioned is that volunteering benefits the individuals who do it. It makes them better people, and that improves our society. It is an immeasurable element, but the less volunteers work in our society, the less we are as a nation. Therefore, encouraging people to volunteer is arguably every bit as important as the most encouraging work we do in economics.
I support the main thrust of the motion, especially where it talks of the care and dedication of carers, but we need to be clear about the definition of carers. They can be relatives, friends or neighbours who look after someone who cannot manage without help because of sickness, age or disability. Carers look after people of all ages and can be of all ages themselves. They can be male or female, although they are more often women. Parents who care for a child with a long-term illness or disability are also carers. Some carers look after someone for a few hours a week; others do so for 24 hours a day, every day. Many carers care in their own homes, while others support friends living nearby or miles away.
My constituency is located in the Dudley area, where there are 35,000 carers, of whom 7,500 provide more than 50 hours a week. In addition, there are 900 young carers between the ages of five and 17. That caring support is given willingly, but it must never be taken for granted.
It has been said that carers need society’s support as well as its thanks, and that support has led to a great deal being achieved by the combined efforts of organisations campaigning on carers’ behalf. Those achievements should also be considered alongside the raft of progressive policy initiatives introduced by this Labour Government.
This Government are the first to recognise the needs of carers as well as the needs of those who are cared for, and I have seen the effects of their progressive policies on the lives of carers in Dudley. Those carers are also assisted by a dedicated and well organised network that is most ably co-ordinated by a great lady named Christine Rowley.
In addition, we in Dudley are fortunate to have a dedicated helpline that gives carers the opportunity to talk to other carers. That excellent service is staffed by volunteer carers, whose experience ensures that they understand what callers are going through. The aim is to provide a listening ear, carer to carer, and the service is invaluable to many people in my constituency.
As well as the advice line, carers have access to a vast amount of information on financial matters, health, respite care and employment issues. That access to information is vital, and it is a matter that comes up again and again when I talk to carers in my constituency. They want to be recognised for the care that they provide: they make a strong plea that they should not be called informal carers but that they should be considered to be the real professionals.
I want to highlight the vital area of training opportunities for carers. In Dudley, we have established the care link scheme, which is aimed at people who want to find work in health and social care. Its dedicated team gives full support to job seekers, providing them with the skills needed for a satisfying role in the care industry. The scheme is also open to anyone between the ages of 24 and 59, and full support is given throughout.
Carers can also work for the City and Guilds learning for living certificate, a personal development and learning qualification for unpaid carers. The expert patients programme helping people with long-term illnesses has been welcomed by local carers, and a new programme, “looking after me”, has been developed specifically for carers who themselves have long-term illnesses. Tutors are just finishing their training, and the first course will be offered shortly.
Dudley is well served by a service called Crossroads—named after the much loved soap opera based in a midlands motel—that provides caring for carers. The service was praised in 2005 by the Commission for Social Care Inspection for the work that it does in providing sitting services to help carers take a break. It is fully funded from Dudley council’s carer’s grant, and is backed by the Big Lottery Fund.
All of the carers grant is still allocated to carers in Dudley. The money is directed specifically at carers who want to use it to enable them take a break. Flexibility is the key, and some 200 carers will benefit from the funding next year.
I also want, however, to draw attention to the needs of parents of children with disabilities. Those of us who are parents of able-bodied children generally expect our responsibilities to decrease over time, but that is not so for the parents of children with disabilities. Their caring responsibilities generally increase as their children get older and less help is provided by the support services.
In that connection, I want to pay particular tribute to the Orchard partnership, based in Stourbridge. That unique and vital service for vulnerable children with disabilities and their families was set up by a group of parents co-ordinated—and, as is often of the case, chivvied and coerced—by one parent in particular. That parent is Madeleine Cowley, who is now the chairman of the organisation—a volunteer, of course.
Many children now survive illnesses that they would not have survived even 10 years ago, and the Orchard partnership was set up to address their needs and those of their carers. It helps them to have the same quality of life that other children enjoy. I have paid several visits to the Orchard: I have watched its Saturday club run drama workshops, met parent and carer support groups and seen children and carers benefit from short breaks. There is also a special youth forum that is focused on raising the profile of the issues facing young disabled people and their families during the vital period of transition to adult life. The parent-led committee continues to support the services offered by the Orchard partnership and all the services benefit from the contribution of volunteer support workers. All the volunteers are a valuable asset and really enhance the services provided to the children and their families. The Orchard provides a toy library and I was proud to become patron of that last year, at the launch of the story sacks. That is a great initiative that allows parents to use puppets when they are telling stories to their children. I do not quite know who enjoyed that more—me or the children—but it is certainly a brilliant initiative.
On a more serious note, I draw the Minister’s attention to the problem that such services face when funding streams approach their end. Lengthy waits are often endured before hearing about confirmation of continued funding for future development. Perhaps he can offer some hope of stability or ring-fencing of funding for such projects in the future.
To sum up my contribution to today’s debate, I will paraphrase my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister: a lot done, a lot more to do. I am proud to have been part of a Government who recognise that caring can affect both the health and the financial status of carers and their families, that access to employment opportunities helps to maintain financial security and self-confidence, that training and education enables people to return to work when they want to or to work flexibly according to their needs, and that access to leisure services gives carers time to themselves to recharge their batteries. It is vital that that is where we target this support. Carers are entitled to the same benefits as anybody else. Put simply: they have earned them. Some ask, “Can we afford to support carers?” We should answer, “Can we afford not to?”
I have scythed through my speech and will get through it in seconds. I just want to touch on some of the points that have been raised and add a few of my own. In west Berkshire, I am lucky to have an excellent volunteer centre, which is run by its director, Garry Poulson. He and I talk regularly about what encourages people to volunteer and what makes the voluntary sector tick. He keeps interesting statistics showing who walks through his door and the different areas of volunteering that he guides them towards. It is fascinating to see the number of young people who are volunteering, the gender difference and the type of activities that people wish to go towards.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) touched on the important subject of what prevents people from volunteering. I will touch on that in the few minutes that I have left. As the vice-chairman of our local citizens advice bureau, I completely take the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I have spent hours discussing governance issues such as the accounts, the reserves policy, and whether we should be incorporated. All those sort of things sap one’s enthusiasm for volunteering. We are interested in what the organisation does and not necessarily how the mechanics of administrating it work. We have to look seriously at the pressure that we put on volunteers in terms of the administration of voluntary bodies—whether we are talking about the Criminal Records Bureau, the fear of litigation, the cost of insurance, compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, or all the financial regulations that are involved.
There is a wonderful book by Robert Putnam called “Bowling Alone”, which looks at the problems of American society—many of which are reflected in this country, as well. He identifies one of the key factors—it was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire—that limits people’s availability to volunteer: time. Professor Putnam has calculated that every 10 minutes of commuting cuts all forms of social engagement by 10 per cent. That is 10 per cent. fewer family suppers and 10 per cent. fewer local club meetings and other community activities. So, the knock-on effect of the successful battle that we fought in west Berkshire to protect our rail service was to increase to a small degree, or at least sustain, the amount of volunteering. Professor Putnam makes the poignant point that people who want to volunteer get home from work exhausted and it is easier to sit down and watch “Friends” than go out to find and interact with real ones.
Can Government make more people volunteer? Of course, in a direct sense, the answer is almost universally no. However, they can incentivise and make it easier for people to volunteer. I want to point to one key example in my constituency: Vodafone. Vodafone has not had a very good press in recent days, but it continues to be a force for good in west Berkshire. There is scarcely a voluntary body that it does not help financially and, matching that, it encourages employees to participate in environmental working parties and community reading projects. It creates a virtuous circle of a diminution in sickness and increase in productivity. I thus urge the Government to examine the incentives that they can give to companies.
In conclusion, I ask the Government to accept that it is crucial to understand the difference between the voluntary sector and the not-for-profit charitable sector. The latter is an arm’s length deliverer of Government services, with a huge call on financial resources, while the other is a wonderfully anarchic network of social and emotional interaction. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) said, the voluntary sector should be allowed to exercise its will—sometimes in the wrong direction, but always with enormous enthusiasm and in the direction of ultimate right—within the framework of the Government’s plans for the sector.
We have had an excellent and brief debate, during which we have heard good and succinct—in most cases, I am glad to say—contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I welcome the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband), to his post. I welcomed many of the comments that he made in his maiden speech from the Dispatch Box, especially when he talked about the Government’s enabling role and said that the work of volunteers should be complementary to state action, not a substitute for it. However, some of his other language betrayed the perception among many in this country that volunteers and carers are too often used as cheap labour, or that we have volunteering and caring on the cheap.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) rightly said, with his great expertise in the area through the Centre for Social Justice, too many volunteers are discouraged by the fear of the heavy hand of big government and the box ticking and regulation that goes with that. Additionally, too many small volunteer groups are crowded out by a higher tier of the bigger charities, which seem to be perhaps too close to the Government in many cases.
There are also worries about the complementarity of funding. The national lottery has not been mentioned today, but there is a real feeling that many of the things that are funded by the various national lottery funds should be paid for with mainstream funding for the health service or education. This week, I was at the annual general meeting of the Friends of Worthing hospital, of which I am vice-president. Half the money that we raised in the past year was spent on equipping bathrooms in the local hospital. That is not complementary funding, but core funding, and there is thus a worry about the way in which volunteers’ time and effort are used.
We have had a good debate on a subject that is important to everyone inside and outside the House. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) should be rightly congratulated on moving the motion without a bead of sweat on his brow after completing the mile in six minutes 22 seconds—I am afraid that he was way ahead of me.
The timing of our debate on this worthy subject is good, given that we had volunteers week last week and it will be carers week next week. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have been involved in all sorts of projects. I have been asked to point out that Conservative Welsh Assembly Members have recently visited hospices, the ChildLine operations in Wales, projects promoting Welsh produce and superb projects operating with some of the least privileged and most at-risk children in the United Kingdom—there is a plug for Wales.
I declare an interest in that I have been a national trustee of Community Service Volunteers since 2001. The body has operated for more than 40 years as the largest volunteer organisation in the country and is under the excellent leadership of Dame Elisabeth Hoodless. The body is responsible for make a difference day, with which I am sure most people are familiar. I am sure that hon. Members have participated on the day by working in charity shops, on environmental projects and with social workers or NHS hospitals. This year, 100,000 volunteers contributed to make a difference day.
For the past five years, as the shadow children’s Minister, I have been to the young carers festival in Southampton. Some youngsters do the most remarkable jobs in enormously stressful situations. They need to be congratulated, but also helped. However, I shall concentrate on corporate volunteering, and on young carers in particular. I will not go into all the figures about the number of people who volunteer and why they are motivated. It should be noted that 45 per cent. of people who volunteer have a disability. Of people who volunteer, 44 per cent. are from the black and minority ethnic communities, while 38 per cent. of those who volunteer are without formal qualifications. It is an inclusive activity. Volunteering is a great leveller and a great satisfier for people who involve themselves in it.
There is corporate social responsibility. Recently, we had the Edith Kahn memorial lecture, during which Jeff Schwartz , the chief executive of Timberland, made an enormously inspiring speech about how volunteering has worked in his corporation and in other companies in America. Every employee of Timberland automatically receives 40 hours of paid time to do volunteering work. That is from the chief executive right down to the person working on the front desk. That time is shown on their pay slip every month—how much time they have used and how much time they have still got. Everyone is encouraged—it is not compulsory—to take up volunteering.
On one day last year, across eight different countries, Timberland alone contributed 50,000 hours of human service for volunteering. Other companies in the states had similar big programmes. Hallmark has recently hired a senior leader to be involved in market-based solutions to social challenges. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) about the work that Vodafone does. Many of our big companies do a great deal of work in this area, but we need to do a lot more. Jeff Schwartz said:
“Corporate citizenship must be more demanding than merely complying with all relevant laws.”
He had a vision that commerce and justice are not just antithetical notions. His definition of citizenship allowed a business run for profit to demand that sustainable returns were generated from shareholders, and also that business should be actively implicated in the strengthening of the civic square. He talked about inviting the engine of commerce to fit into the chassis of civic society. There is great complementarity, and it is a rich vein of volunteering, along with help and persistence for the advancement of all that we should be doing in this country. How do we go about it? We need to encourage more corporate schemes. We need to encourage more people to become involved individually. We need to make it easier and more convenient for people to become involved.
I move on briefly to young carers. One in eight people in England is a carer. Three in five carers look after someone with a disability. There are 855,000 carers who provide more than 50 hours of caring per week. The 2001 census estimated that there were just 17,000 young carers. The real estimates from the Princess Royal Trust for Carers suggest that the total is nearer 100,000. People are doing remarkable work in looking after, in most cases, relatives with serious physical and mental disabilities.
Sixty five per cent. of UK carers believe that their career prospects have been affected. Seventy four per cent. of carers are currently in paid employment and use their annual leave for caring. As the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) mentioned, the effect on carers’ health is considerable and we need to do more about that. Any projects that are designed for carers caring for carers should be applauded. Young carers come to Parliament, as they did recently with the all-party children’s group. They face a problem with their school careers. In most instances, there is not an understanding linked teacher in a school who can appreciate the particular needs of a young carer.
A young carer may need access to a phone at work because mum or dad, for whom they are caring, needs to have a visit or needs to be checked on at various times during the day. Young carers do not have time to grow up. They do not have the opportunity to spend time with their friends and to participate in a normal social life that any normal teenager would hope and expect to enjoy. They chose—often they did not have any choice—to look after their parents. We should be in the business of making that job easier, not in the business of putting obstacles in their way.
There is so much that we can do and I have so little time to set things out. Certainly, we should have a linked person in each school. Ofsted should have a role in examining young carer strategies in schools. Best practice should be disseminated more widely to make the role of young carers easier, and the Minister could make a start by attending the young carers weekend later this month, where he will learn that impressive work is under way.
Finally, the strength of volunteering is its independence, the harnessing of people’s good will, freely given, and the diversity of their interests and involvement. We must appreciate volunteers and carers more. We must make their jobs easier, not put obstacles and bureaucracy in their way, including Criminal Records Bureau checks, which are necessary but must be balanced. Government Departments should do more to promote volunteering, and they should sign up to a code of practice on volunteering. We should streamline funding, as hon. Members have said, as there is too much paperwork for voluntary organisations, which constantly have to reapply for funds.
There should be a level playing field for partnerships with volunteer organisations, and we must acknowledge young carers and do much more for them. We should offer assistance in schools, and make genuine provision for respite care. Hon. Members have had a good opportunity to plug voluntary organisations in their constituencies, and the whole House has had good opportunity to thank the millions of volunteers and carers up and down the country who do an invaluable job, day in, day out, that would otherwise cost the Government an enormous amount. It is time, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, to butter parsnips and do more than offer warm words. Hon. Members should look beyond the House and acknowledge the contribution of volunteers and carers, as well as the serious problems that they face, and produce a timetable for action.
Everyone would agree we have had an excellent debate in which right hon. and hon. Members have rightly paid tribute to the many unsung heroes who make us proud of our constituencies and of our country.
In a world of perpetual change, the selfless dedication of volunteers and carers is a beacon of light that keeps alive the timeless values of compassion, solidarity and service. Those individuals shatter the cynicism of people who portray today’s society as one in which violence, antisocial behaviour and abuse are rife. Carers enable older and disabled people, as well as people with long-term chronic conditions, to remain at home with the dignity, autonomy and security that the rest of us take for granted. Whether it is the adult daughter or son caring 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for an ageing parent, or the friend who makes daily visits to an adult with a learning disability, carers are in the front line in ensuring that all our citizens have the quality of life that we demand in a civilised and fair society.
It is right to recognise that carers have their own practical and emotional needs, distinct from those of the people for whom they care, although that recognition is long overdue. We must strive to ensure that statutory and voluntary sector providers treat carers as equal and valued partners in the care and support offered to vulnerable people in all our communities. Volunteers are the living, breathing embodiment of a healthy civic society. Whether working under the auspices of a voluntary organisation, or simply making their own personal contribution, they are frequently at the heart of their communities. This month in my constituency, the Radcliffe carnival took place only because of the voluntary commitment of Ray and Hilda Veivers and Colin Jones. Next week’s Prestwich carnival has been made possible by David Curtis and his Sunshine Team of volunteers. Every day in every community, volunteers make a difference to the lives of vulnerable people. The much maligned younger generation is often at the forefront of that service. Through Millennium Volunteers, faith groups, schools and universities, young people demonstrate their idealism, responsibility and commitment to helping others, shattering the illusion that the vast majority of young people are engaged in antisocial behaviour—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband).
The Government believe that the state alone cannot transform communities. We are committed to an enhanced role for third sector organisations in the development and delivery of high quality public sector services. The restoration of community solidarity and civic pride requires new, authentic partnerships between the state, third sector organisations, the private sector and active citizens. Professionals, volunteers and carers all have a distinct but crucial role to play in ensuring not only that we care for vulnerable people, but that they have a quality of life fitting in a civilised modern society.
I come to some of the excellent contributions made by right hon. and hon. Members. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), as usual, presented his argument in a reasonable and fair way, reflecting great credit on his contribution over many years, first in Bury, before he went, not entirely voluntarily, to North-East Bedfordshire. He rightly highlighted the contribution of sports volunteers. We ought to reflect on the massive contribution that volunteers made to the success of the Commonwealth games, which my home city, Manchester, was so proud to host. As we think about the World cup and our hosting of the Olympics, the careers of many of the successful footballers and athletes will start on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when volunteers enable young people to participate in sport. For many of our sporting heroes, that is how it all began.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned his pride in being Minister with responsibility for disabled people for some time. He did not refer to his time as Minister with responsibility for the Child Support Agency, which I know was a stretching and challenging period for him. He rightly drew attention to the success of the Eden project, which is an excellent example of best practice in terms of involving young people.
In debates such as this, I always say that at the age of 14 I became involved in voluntary work with people with learning disabilities. By the time I reached the age of 16 or 17, I had decided that I wanted to work professionally in the voluntary sector in social care. I do not believe that I would ever have gone into politics or that I would be standing at the Dispatch Box making this speech if I had not been connected at the age of 14 with that voluntary work with those people with learning disabilities, which made me think very differently about the kind of society I wanted to live in and the kind of contribution I wanted to make. That applies to large numbers of young people, who become involved on a voluntary basis and then decide that they want to make a contribution through public service. It is not just a matter of what people give, but of what they get through their own personal development and sense of satisfaction.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper) and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) rightly spoke about young carers and our responsibility to identify their distinct needs, understand the pressures that they face daily, and recognise that in the education system and the health service we need to be better at identifying those young carers and providing the necessary support.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) spoke about the definition of carers under the Department of Trade and Industry flexible working legislation. The Department is consulting on that legislation and will take account of views about such a definition before reaching a final decision. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) has made a massive personal contribution in advancing the cause of carers during his period as a Member of the House. That was based on his own experiences. The Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004 will make a tremendous difference to carers’ lives.
The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) made some valid points about the difference between small and large charities, but I do not believe there is any need to attack larger charities. We must build the capacity of smaller charities in local communities. I remember that when I worked in the voluntary sector we had a slogan: “Voluntary does not have to mean amateur”. Vulnerable people depend on the activities of charities, so it is important that we do not think that voluntary organisations should not be accountable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) spoke about the contribution of the Orchard partnership in her constituency, which sounds extremely innovative in its work. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) raised a number of issues relating to work-life balance and family-friendly policies. I am sure he welcomes the Government’s contribution in that respect.
As we look ahead to the future, carers and volunteers know that the stakes are high. The Labour party in government is strengthening Britain with social justice as our eternal mission and as an integral part of our national success, whereas the Conservative party views the word “compassionate” purely as a political strategy to win power, not as the expression of common values. It is right that today, from all parts of the House, we pay tribute to the contribution of carers and volunteers.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of the immense contribution to society made by those honoured during the recent Volunteers Week and forthcoming Carers Week; recognises and values the significant economic and social benefits resulting from the work of volunteers and carers, often performed in difficult circumstances requiring the most selfless qualities; further notes the need to ensure that the fewest possible barriers are placed before those wanting to volunteer and act as carers; believes that encouragement should be given to all, especially the young, to consider volunteering as a contribution to the welfare of a healthy society; and expresses its thanks to all those who act as role models for volunteering and caring.