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Volume 488: debated on Wednesday 25 February 2009

The Government recognise the role that volunteering can play in personal and professional development. Earlier this month, the Government announced a programme to provide access to around 40,000 work-focused volunteering opportunities, which is in addition to the Government’s £925 million Train to Gain scheme, which is available to build the skills of staff and volunteers.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. Given that we will need between 80,000 and 100,000 volunteers for the Olympics and 70,000 for the Commonwealth games, as well as more volunteers if we get the rugby and the football, is it possible to develop, through a national vocational qualification or the diplomas, a more professional volunteering system for people at school?

There are already a number of volunteering initiatives in schools, which have been highly successful. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government have invested a great deal in volunteering for young people through the v programme. His suggestion about qualifications is an interesting one that we should explore further.

Volunteers are the backbone of our society. Some organisations, such as the Scouts and the Guides, are experiencing great difficulties in getting people to commit to help. What more can the Government do to support efforts to establish regular volunteering as a social norm?

The Government are doing a great deal to encourage volunteering, including through our investment in the v programme for young people and the up to £10 million that was announced in the recession action plan to support volunteering for people who might become unemployed during the recession. I feel quite strongly that volunteering is a positive thing, not least because there were not many jobs in south Wales when I left university in 1982, in the depths of a different recession. For me, volunteering was a way to gain new skills and an opportunity to get into employment.

My right hon. and hon. Friends will be aware not only of the high levels of deprivation in Stoke-on-Trent, but of the fantastic work that the voluntary and third sector does and the extremely committed people who are part of it. However, a lot of the professionals, as well as the helpful and keen amateurs who are part of the voluntary and third sector, have been telling me recently that they are facing difficulties not only in identifying what funding is available, but when it is available, as they often discover that it has already gone because it was not advertised very well. What reassurances can my hon. Friends on the Front Bench give me that the funds that are made available, which are fantastic, will be advertised in a much more robust way?

We are in the process of developing a brand new portal of information about the funding that is available to voluntary organisations, the details of which we hope to announce in the near future. In my hon. Friend’s area of Stoke-on-Trent, the grass-roots grants programme—the innovative £130 million Government programme to get grants to small organisations—is investing more than £700,000. I recently announced some changes to the rules to make it easier for organisations to apply, including through matching funding backdated to the beginning of the financial year.

On behalf of my colleagues and myself, may I join those who expressed condolences earlier to the Leader of the Opposition?

Does the Minister agree that probably the most significant opportunity to promote volunteering in a generation will occur in the run-up to the Olympics? A crucial element of ensuring that volunteers come forward is that they should do so from across the nation—so that volunteers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland come forward to show that the Olympics are here for all the people of the United Kingdom.

I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. He will not be surprised by that, as just last week he attended, with me, the British-Irish Council in Cardiff, at which we discussed the voluntary sector and its importance to the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England. He is absolutely right: the Olympics are a one-off opportunity and we should ensure, as we are doing, that we spread that opportunity widely around the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland.

I acknowledge the Department’s support for organisations in my local authority area such as vflex, which is working on developing volunteering opportunities, but I would like to emphasise that in the current economic situation young people could well find it even more difficult to find suitable employment. It is therefore much more important than it might have been in the past to ensure that volunteering opportunities exist, so that those young people can maintain their social skills and business discipline. Will the Minister therefore make an assessment of the impact of the economic downturn on young people, and develop policies that will enable volunteering to help to meet those problems?

I can do better than that. I can tell my hon. Friend that we have announced in the recession action plan in the past couple of weeks investment of up to £10 million, in collaboration with the Department for Work and Pensions, to provide access to 40,000 work-focused volunteering opportunities, in particular for young people who find themselves out of work during the recession. Of course, we will monitor closely how that is working, and the impact that it is having on young people and on volunteering.

All of us are now seeing hundreds of people every week in our constituencies losing their jobs, in pretty well every sector of the economy. These are people who never, even in their wildest nightmares, expected to be out of work. They want to remain active, and to continue to be challenged intellectually, and one way of doing that is through volunteering. Will the Minister have a conversation with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that, if people can clearly demonstrate that they are looking for work, and accessing websites in an attempt to find work, the number of hours’ volunteering that they can do each week will not be restricted by artificial constraints? It can lead to enormous frustration for people who have lost their jobs and who want to volunteer when they are told by Jobcentre Plus that they cannot do so.

As I said earlier, I recognise strongly and personally how important volunteering can be at a time of economic downturn. We are working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that there are no restrictive rules to stand in the way of people who want to volunteer as a way of gaining confidence and skills and of making good use of their time if they happen to fall out of work. In addition, our recession action plan is offering a brokerage service to create 40,000 additional volunteering opportunities for people who become unemployed.