I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
As several hon. Members will know, this is volunteering week, so I am delighted that we have the chance to discuss this important issue. Given the interest of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) in European matters, he will like to know that 2011 is the European year of volunteering. There is therefore a lot to celebrate about volunteering.
This simple Bill is designed to meet the concerns that have been expressed right across the House, and by no less a person than the Prime Minister, about the need to reduce the red tape and bureaucracy surrounding people’s ability to get access to volunteering. In preparing the Bill, I have been much assisted by working with the organisation WorldWide Volunteering, which is based in Somerset. Its chairman is John Dunford, whom many people may know as a former general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. WorldWide Volunteering is a national charity founded in 1994 which provides tailored services to inform, inspire and make it easy for people from all walks of life to volunteer. It has control over the United Kingdom’s most comprehensive and easy-to-use online database of volunteering opportunities, which offers over 1.6 million opportunities per year from over 2,500 different charities, and it provides a flow of much-needed volunteers to those charities at no cost to either party. It works in partnership with charities to achieve the best outcomes. It also works, to a great extent, within our schools.
WorldWide Volunteering has a number of people working for it whose job is to go out into schools—often schools that are not in the most privileged neighbourhoods of the country—to try to encourage youngsters to come forward as volunteers. One of those people said to me that it is sometimes difficult enough, in the sort of schools that she is going into, to get young people enthused about volunteering, but if one succeeds in doing so, they will probably, being young and impetuous, want to indulge in that volunteering sooner rather than later. They do not want to have to hang around for a lot of bureaucratic hurdles to be jumped before they can start what they have decided to do.
This week there has been a brilliant series of articles in London’s Evening Standard about volunteering to help with reading. The initiative was inspired by royal patronage. It is supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury and, notwithstanding that, by many of the newspaper’s readers. The articles asked why people do not get out there, go into schools and provide reading help to the disappointingly large proportion of youngsters who seem unable to read aloud and have not had that experience. What disturbed me was the emphasis placed on the requirements for doing this. One of the requirements was that the body organising it should interview the potential volunteers; there is no problem about that at all. Another requirement was that each person who wanted to engage in volunteering had to have a criminal record check. Why did they need a criminal record check? That seems quite unreasonable.
My hon. Friend is making an eloquent point, which he started to make in connection with young people. Many of my constituents reach the volunteering stage of their life in retirement, at the end of a full working life. A number of them have contacted me to make this exact point about volunteering in retirement. They say, “Mr Freeman, I have built a business, had a family and lived in my community. Why should I be assumed to be a criminal? Could we not have a simple way for my bona fides to be established in a single certificate that applies to all my volunteering activities in the community?”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. My Bill is designed to find such a simple solution. Clause 1 would establish a fit and proper person certificate. If an organisation or individual wanted to take on a volunteer, instead of having to get a criminal record check, they would be able to accept a declaration from the volunteer that they do not have a criminal record or any convictions. In the case of somebody under the age of 18, such a statement would have to be countersigned by a parent or guardian. Such a statement would, by definition, be up to date. A person could provide one this week to volunteer for reading in London and another next week to work with a diving company or the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
Criminal record checks do not necessarily identify someone who is weird at all, but just whether someone has a criminal record. Most of the people who wish to do harm are well under the radar because no one knows about them until suddenly they do something. I absolutely agree that criminal record checks are totally inappropriate in volunteering. We must get rid of this red tape so that people who want to help young people, for example, can do so almost instantly.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. People want to be able to get on with volunteering very quickly and with the minimum bureaucracy. Even if there are criminal record checks, what does that prove?
In the last week, there was the most horrific account in one of the national newspapers of a worker at a nursery who filmed the rape of a toddler and was involved in countless other ghastly offences. The nursery had been inspected by Ofsted some five weeks before the individual was arrested. The inspection concluded that the nursery offered a “safe and secure” environment for children, with
“appropriate recruiting and vetting procedures”
for staff. When challenged about what had happened, the spokesman for Ofsted said, I thought rather wisely:
“Inspection can only ever provide a snapshot of a nursery on the day of inspection.”
It can provide only a snapshot of what the inspector is shown or sees. The spokesman emphasised:
“It is the nursery’s responsibility to ensure it takes the necessary action to keep children safe and well looked after.”
My Bill would give that responsibility fairly and squarely to the people who recruit and supervise the volunteers.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in framing legislation to promote volunteering—I note that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who is responsible for the big society, is on the Front Bench—it is important that we embody notions of trust and responsibility in the culture of the revolution that we seek to trigger? Otherwise we are in danger of legislating for distrust.
Order. I will explain to hon. Members why it is necessary to face the Chair. The rule of the House is that when the Speaker or Deputy Speaker is on his or her feet, no other Member will stand. If a Member has their back to me, they will not see whether I am standing. It has been some time now—let us try to ensure we get it right.
Perhaps it is my fault, Madam Deputy Speaker, for sitting right at the back so that others have to turn around. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the interest that the debate is generating among my hon. Friends.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of responsibility. The Minister for Equalities, who has been dealing with the Protection of Freedoms Bill in Committee, has made it clear on a number of occasions that the ticking of boxes cannot be a substitute for people taking responsibility for their charges or for volunteers who should be under their supervision and control, and whom they are responsible for recruiting.
Why have we suddenly got into the situation whereby it is thought necessary to have a Criminal Records Bureau check for tens or hundreds of thousands of volunteers? I examined the coalition agreement after the general election and saw that we were promised the Protection of Freedoms Bill. That has now come forward, but I am not sure that it goes far enough in introducing simplicity and common sense. There is a lot of talk about common sense and, indeed, “A Common Sense Approach” is the title of the report carried out for the Government by Sunita Mason, the independent adviser for criminality information management, on the impact of the vetting and barring system on volunteering and other activity. She recognised that there was far too heavy a hand in relation to all this, but I am not sure that the solutions that the Government have come up with in their Bill are not still unnecessarily complex.
We know that 95% of people who have CRB checks are cleared. An individual knows whether they have a criminal record, so they should be quite capable of signing a declaration of whether they do. If they do not, and they sign a declaration to that effect, on the face of it that should be sufficient evidence that they are a fit and proper person to engage in volunteering activity.
I totally agree with the sentiment that my hon. Friend is outlining, but I very much hope that his Bill will also explain how volunteers can navigate through all the health and safety red tape that has been put into place over the past 13 years. A lot of people in my constituency are put off voluntary work because of the inordinate amount of health and safety regulation and the tick-box mentality that they have to go through in order to volunteer.
The subject that we are discussing at the moment is the need for people to get a criminal record check before they can even have their application considered, and that is one of the biggest deterrents to volunteering. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has had the chance to read the text of my Bill, but my approach to Friday Bills has always been, as far as possible, to keep them simple. Like most of my Bills, this one is on one side of paper. It basically proposes the fit and proper person certificate as a substitute for a CRB check, which takes time—many weeks—and costs money. The price has gone up to £44, and somebody must pay for that.
I am very grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, for this third opportunity to intervene correctly. I will not take my eyes off you, which is my gain and my hon. Friend’s loss.
Does my hon. Friend think that volunteers for schemes such as the community car schemes in my constituency—a number of elderly volunteers help out in their community through such a scheme—should be subject to the CRB checks to which they are currently subjected? A number of people in my constituency have contacted me to say that they have taken part in volunteering activity all their lives, and that they resent, at this late stage, being required to prove that they are not criminals. What does he make of that situation?
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. I must congratulate the Government and the Chancellor of the Exchequer on raising from 40p to 45p the allowance for volunteer drivers, and also on including the 5p per passenger addition, which means that someone can claim 50p per mile for taking one person to or from hospital and 55p per mile for taking two people. That is an important and useful initiative, but I am not sure—I hope the Minister will have a chance to respond to this point—that under the current law, such volunteers need a CRB check. It is absolute madness if they do.
Here’s looking at you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Without wishing to give the House the impression that I am a great proponent of pettifogging CRB checks, may I ask my hon. Friend about his proposed declaration certificate? How should somebody who signs such a certificate erroneously be sanctioned, because if there is no sanction, surely there is no point in those certificates?
I am not sure that that is correct, because obviously, making a false statement is potentially an offence. However, my hon. Friend gives me the opportunity to tell the House where I got the idea of the fit and proper person certificate from. I got the idea from none other than Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. You will know about this, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you perhaps invented it when you were a distinguished Treasury Minister.
HMRC decided that people who run or who are trustees of small charities might run off with the funds or take advantage of charitable exemptions under tax law. It therefore introduced a fit and proper persons test and declaration for people who run charities. The test applies essentially to managers, trustees of charities, directors of corporate charities and so on. In a typical smaller local charity, a manager, for the purposes of the fit and proper persons test, could include the chairperson, the treasurer, the secretary or someone on the management committee who has control over expenditure.
The HMRC leaflet on the test states:
“The ‘fit and proper persons’ test exists to ensure that charities,”
community interest associations
“and other organisations entitled to charity tax reliefs are not managed or controlled by individuals who might misuse the valuable tax reliefs the organisation receives. Unfortunately fraudsters have been known to exploit charity tax reliefs so the fit and proper persons test exists to help prevent that”.
What does ‘fit and proper’ mean?
“An individual is ‘fit and proper’ if they ensure that charity funds and tax reliefs are used only for charitable purposes.”
What must a person do to satisfy HMRC that they are a fit and proper person? The guidance states that they must sign a declaration that sets out the name of the organisation, the name of the individual and their role in the organisation. The person must declare that they are not disqualified from acting as a charity trustee; have not been convicted of an offence involving deception or dishonesty; have not been involved in tax fraud; are not an undischarged bankrupt; have not made compositions or arrangements with creditors from which they have not been discharged; have not been removed from serving as a charity trustee in the past; and that they have not been disqualified from serving as a company director. They must also assert that at all times they will seek to ensure that the charity’s funds and tax reliefs are used only for charitable purposes. So that is all right for managers of charities handling probably quite substantial sums of money. The Treasury is saying, “We will take these statements on trust”. If we are to have a responsible society, we have to trust people. People say, “Well, what happens if the person turns out to be a rogue?” Exactly the same thing would happen as happened in the ghastly Plymouth day nursery case or in the case I cited earlier: the person would be brought to justice, although probably not until after a lot of damage had been done.
However many controls and regulations we bring in, we cannot pre-empt the activities of fraudsters, villains, inherent, compulsive liars, paedophiles or whoever. We have to be proportional and say, “What is the benefit of having CRB checks, bearing in mind that they do not prevent somebody who clears one from subsequently going off the rails?” What would be the benefit of not having those checks and having a much simpler system? My Bill, which adopts a simple system rather along the lines of the fit and proper person test for charity trustees, would meet the principle of proportionality. It deals only with volunteers. We are not talking about people engaged in full-time or part-time employment; we are talking about volunteers and people who, by their very nature, want to make a difference and add something to the equation. It is important for society not to deter, but to encourage those volunteers to come forward, so by removing the need for CRB checks, and making it nice and simple and easy, we will promote volunteering, which is the whole purpose of the Bill and volunteering week.
And I will get on with it. I am a 61-year-old father of young children, and I want to take my children from school to sports matches, but I am told by the school that I have to have a CRB check to take two or three people in my car. I am hoping that this sort of red tape can be done away with. I think that I am a fit and proper person.
I am grateful once again for my hon. Friend’s support.
The Bill would reduce bureaucracy and costs, and promote volunteering. If for some reason—I am sure there may be all sorts of technical reasons—my hon. Friend the Minister cannot accept the Bill, perhaps because it is inadequately drafted, it would be possible to introduce new clauses on Report of the Protection of Freedoms Bill to deal adequately with these concerns. The Government have—this is the substance of my remarks—made some welcome statements pointing in the right direction of reducing the burden of bureaucracy, and have said on a number of occasions that they do not want people who volunteer to be viewed as suspects until proved otherwise, and that they want to encourage as much volunteering as possible.
Clause 2 makes some technical changes to ensure that those under 21 would not have to get criminal records checks in any circumstances and that the Police Act 1997 would not apply to volunteers, but only to paid employees.
Having said all that, and being grateful to all my hon. Friends who have shown support for the Bill, I move that it receive its Second Reading.
Let me say to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) that, just because in some cases people fall through the current safety net, it is not rational to argue that we should get rid of the safeguards altogether. However, I shall also challenge some of the premises underpinning the Bill.
Members from all parts of the House will know from their constituencies just how fantastic and inspirational the work of volunteers is. Whether in a local homework club, at a homeless shelter or in a voluntary group that encourages reskilling and training, volunteers add an immeasurable amount to our neighbourhoods and communities. I am personally greatly encouraged by their enthusiasm and energy. For that reason and a host of others, it is vital to encourage people to become involved in their communities and take up voluntary work whenever and wherever they can. To that extent, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Recent research shows that 54% of people volunteered informally at least once in the last year, with 29% volunteering informally at least once a month.
However, there is not only a social and ethical case for volunteering and encouraging it in the community; there is a serious economic case for it. Volunteering not only helps the voluntary group concerned, but creates a greater sense of community life and a more cohesive social fabric, and it is a fundamental part of living in a better society. However, volunteers need to be supported, trained and managed. It is wholly unclear how the Bill’s proposal for a system of fit and proper person certificates would work. The Bill does not say who would run it. Perhaps most importantly, there is a serious danger that such a system would undermine the current safeguards, putting extremely vulnerable people at risk. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman’s intention may be to encourage people to volunteer, but this Bill has neither the capacity nor the ability to do that; indeed, it actually introduces a serious element of risk into the system. I am afraid that the Bill gives no serious consideration to the issue of safeguarding vulnerable people, creating a huge danger that it will put people at risk.
The hon. Lady seems to be incredibly negative about the Bill, but can she answer this question? My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile)—he apologises that he cannot be here for this debate—told me yesterday that he had to have a CRB check to become a school governor. Surely that is unnecessary bureaucracy. Why does he need a CRB check to become a school governor?
I can indeed answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, because I am a school governor and have just completed a CRB check myself. It was amazingly straightforward, and I understand absolutely why one was carried out: because we want to ensure, as far as that is possible, that people working with or alongside children have nothing in their past that would put those children at risk.
I want to talk about the reasons and motivations behind people becoming involved in volunteering, and what holds them back from doing so. In so doing, I shall challenge some of the hon. Gentleman’s assertions. There is a great deal of research into the reasons why people volunteer and what holds them back. Those reasons are multifarious in nature. The document “Why participate? Understanding what motivates people to get involved”, produced by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, presents an excellent picture of the reasons that people seek out voluntary work in their communities. The research suggests that the reasons are complex and diverse, and that they vary according to the personal, cultural, environmental and structural circumstances of the individual in question.
Similarly, in the Helping Out survey, volunteers reported a wide range of reasons for starting to volunteer. The most popular reason, given by 53% of those surveyed, was to improve things and help people. That was followed by two more reasons, each given by 41% of respondents. The first was that the cause was important to them; the second was that they had spare time. This research presents an interesting and complex picture. There are many other reasons for volunteering. In the survey, 30% of people said that they wanted to meet people and make friends; 29% said that there was a need in the community; 27% said that they wanted to use their existing skills; 19% said that they wanted to learn new skills. On and on it goes. There are lots of reasons for people volunteering.
Research carried out by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations also shows what prevents people from volunteering. It suggests that it is usually related to a lack of resources, and that there might be problems related to education or a lack of training, time or disposable income. The regulation involved is not, however, at the top of any list of barriers, and there is little evidence that that would be the primary reason that people might be put off.
I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady’s argument, and I appreciate that a CRB check would not present a problem to the innocent prospective volunteer who had committed no crime. It does, however, present problems for the small charities who want lots of volunteers. They have to pay for the checks, and the cost is prohibitive if they want to engage lots of volunteers.
Is the shadow Minister saying that she completely disputes the evidence that I adduced from WorldWide Volunteering? It shows that there are real difficulties in encouraging young people from schools to volunteer in deprived areas because the present procedures prevent them from translating their enthusiasm into an immediate act of volunteering and make them wait many weeks to be approved.
I am querying whether that is the major disincentive. I have already been through the list of other barriers that affect the group of people that the hon. Gentleman describes. What I am suggesting is that regulation might not be the primary barrier. Indeed, across the sector, a great deal of information and research backs up my point.
What, then, do we know from the sector about how to promote volunteering and remove barriers? Paul Emery, head of community and social organisations at Zurich tells us:
“Choose a cause that people really care about. Our research shows that people do want to volunteer and take on more in the places they live, but they don’t want to be used as a resource to replace public services.”
That is something that we have not heard much about in the debate so far. He also stressed the importance of people being able to
“show communities what they can do”,
for which they need to acquire additional skills. It is necessary to keep people informed and to work with local authorities and other local bodies to do so.
Similarly, Brian Carr, chief executive of the Centre for Voluntary Action says that it is really important to offer people opportunities and that it is necessary to “build volunteers’ confidence”. For him, one of the biggest barriers to volunteering was not regulation, but “lack of confidence”, which is
“exacerbated for individuals who’ve experienced exclusion in other areas of life.”
It is essential that volunteering opportunities provide the necessary support and that there are procedures in place to boost mental health—if necessary—employability and self-esteem. It is therefore essential to increase the support available in organisations.
David Hopkins, the national programme manager at Catch 22, says it is absolutely essential if we are to get people volunteering to promote a strong support network. As he says, people do not want to
“undertake social action in glorious isolation”.
They want to be “supported by like-minded individuals”.
In a similar vein, Alison Blackwood, head of policy at the London Voluntary Service Council, says that it is important to design specific programmes for volunteers:
“There is evidence from Greater London Volunteering that volunteer centres are better at engaging people who don’t normally volunteer or who are at risk of social exclusion.”
She then mentions some Government suggestions that might undermine the very volunteering centres that are necessary to support our volunteers. It is of great significance that she, as someone who supports a large number of small voluntary organisations, says that
“Time not bureaucracy is the problem”,
and that the
“red tape barrier is a bit of a red herring: as the top barrier to not getting involved, 82% of those surveyed… stated it was lack of spare time—
and not regulation—that was “the main barrier” to involvement in the local community and taking up whatever volunteering opportunities might be available.
Before I move on to clarify what should be done, it is worth setting out the legislative context of the Bill. We should remember that the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 was enacted in response to the inquiry following the Soham murders. It established a vetting and barring scheme for those who wished to undertake the two types of regulated activities that are controlled. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Christchurch mention that the entire legislative context is now being reviewed by the Government under legislation currently going through the House. I am somewhat surprised that the Bill was not framed more exactly in terms of, first, the Protection of Freedoms Bill that is currently going through the House, and secondly—and perhaps more significantly in this context—the taskforce established by the Government to consider how to cut red tape for small charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises. I do not necessarily agree with the proposals in the Protection of Freedoms Bill or from the taskforce, but nevertheless I would have thought that the Bill would refer specifically to them.
I start with the relevant proposals under the Protection of Freedoms Bill, which seeks to merge the Criminal Records Bureau and the Independent Safeguarding Authority to form a streamlined new body. The Bill, it is said, is proportionate in terms of barring and the criminal records checking service; it will bring about a large reduction in the number of positions requiring checks, so that only those working closely and regularly with children and vulnerable adults will need CRB checks; there will be portability of criminal records checks between jobs to cut down bureaucracy; there will be an end to a requirement for those working or volunteering with vulnerable groups to register with the vetting and barring scheme and then to be monitored; and it will stop employers knowingly requesting criminal records checks on individuals who are not liable for to them.
It seems, therefore, that the Bill currently going through the parliamentary system goes some way towards addressing the issues that the hon. Member for Christchurch has raised today. That is acknowledged, to some extent, by voluntary sector organisations. For example, Volunteering England has said that it welcomes the broad proposals to revise the safeguarding systems announced as part of the Protection of Freedoms Bill. It says that the portability of criminal record checks would be widely seen by volunteers and volunteering organisations as helpful, and that the lower level of involvement for people and roles will also reduce a significant barrier to volunteering. Today’s announcement is beneficial for the volunteering movement.
However, Volunteering England also expresses some concerns. Justin Davis Smith, its chief executive, has said directly in response to the Volunteering Bill:
“Whilst we welcome the move to reduce the red tape surrounding volunteering, we do not believe the proposals in Mr Chope’s private member’s bill are the answer. Safeguarding is an important issue, and we hope that reforms to the current CRB system within the Protection of Freedoms Bill will strike the appropriate balance—ensuring vulnerable people are protected whilst making sure volunteers aren’t put off.”
Interestingly, he also mentions the deregulation taskforce, to which I will refer in a moment:
“Volunteering England has worked with Lord Hodgson’s De-Regulation Taskforce to identify the barriers to volunteering and how we can work together to overcome them. Our campaign to Free Volunteering from Red Tape is underway”,
and he says that Volunteering England will continue to do all that it can to support the taskforce.
We have the first report from the taskforce, entitled, “Unshackling Good Neighbours”. It is interesting that, after taking extensive evidence from the sector, including large and small charitable organisations, and interviewing many people across the voluntary and community sector, the taskforce does not find that red tape is the major barrier to volunteering, even though the taskforce was established to consider how to cut red tape for small charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises.In fact, fear of litigation is at the top of the list. The first answer to the report’s question, “What stops people giving time?” is “Risk of litigation”.
The report goes on to make some suggestions, referring to “Commissioning”, “Withdrawal of Cheques”, “The Role of Local Government”, whether people are employed, whether there are training opportunities, and the role of the planning system. However, it neither mentions the bureaucracy that currently exists nor suggests any ways of getting rid of it. If the
“Report of the Task Force established to consider how to cut red tape for small charities”
does not refer to the requirement for CRB checks and for some regulation to protect vulnerable children and adults, why do the hon. Member for Christchurch and the supporters of his Bill think that it is the No. 1 disincentive and barrier?
The last Government had a strong record of developing and encouraging volunteering and voluntary groups. An estimated 778,000 people were employed in the voluntary and community sector in 2010, some 17% more than in 2004. As I said earlier, we know that a large number of adults volunteer formally at least once a month. If the number of volunteers is to continue to increase, which is what the Government want—it is part of their big society programme—the Government must support voluntary organisations so that they can not only give their volunteers a helping hand, but encourage those volunteers to do the same for other members of the community.
What is thought to be having a negative impact on volunteering opportunities is not lack of regulation but other factors, which are causing great concern. They may be to do with individuals, but they may also be to do with charities themselves. Many have commented. The Charity Commission, for instance, says that it faces a 33% real-terms spending cut over the next four financial years, and is worried about whether it will be able to perform its functions as it currently does. The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations have developed a website referring to the amount of money being taken from the voluntary and community sector. People in the sector are saying that the real challenge is posed not by red tape, but by funding cuts and the money being taken out of voluntary organisations.
Another challenge is being presented by the fact that the whole landscape of training for volunteers is under review. Julie Wilkes, chief executive of Skills—Third Sector, has said:
“Charities have been holding their breath on staff cuts in the last quarter, waiting to hear if their contracts with government will be renewed. The next two quarters will be the real test of the state of the sector as they include the end of the financial year.”
As the House can see, there is clearly a danger that the Government’s public spending cuts of more than £3 billion to charities could drive many to the wall. The Government talked time and again about the transition fund for community and voluntary organisations, but that does not reach all charities and, in any case, is hugely oversubscribed. A number of organisations have been dealing with the impact of announcements made in the emergency Budget in June 2010. They were doing that and experiencing difficulties in advance of the most recent round of cuts. There is also a great deal of concern that, across the country, the impact of the cuts varies according to the area where the voluntary organisation is located. Analysis from NCVO shows that northern local authorities have been hit hardest by the reductions.
The organisation Skills—Third Sector, which as I said earlier is the strategic body for developing skills in charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations, has said that good-quality training programmes, linked to standards where possible, are needed to encourage volunteering, and that as it is facing rising demands across the board, with less money available, it does not know whether it will be able to continue to deliver services.
I suggest to the hon. Member for Christchurch that in order to encourage volunteering, rather than imposing additional or alternative processes and requirements on those wishing to become involved he should engage with the organisations doing that work, which are facing difficulties in encouraging the retention and support of volunteers across the country.
I cannot let the hon. Lady traduce my Bill by suggesting that it will create additional burdens for volunteers. It will eliminate the need for a mass of volunteers to get Criminal Records Bureau checks. Instead, they will be able to produce a certificate which they will simply sign and present to the voluntary organisation for which they want to work. It will reduce the burden on volunteers, thereby encouraging them.
What I am suggesting to the hon. Gentleman is that his Bill does not address the real barriers to people volunteering in their communities, and that if he wants to address those barriers, he should persuade those on his Front Bench to put more money into the voluntary and community sector, or at least stop taking quite so much money out of the sector so quickly, leaving it unable to respond to the demands not only of its volunteers but of the communities that it seeks to represent.
To sum up, I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman, like all Members of the House, wants to encourage higher levels of volunteering, but the Bill does not do that. It presents something of a circular argument. It is not clear who, if anybody, would check the background of the people who signed the statement or what system would be in place to verify what they had stated, who would administer the certificate system, how long the so-called fit and proper person certificate would last, and whether it would need to be updated after a number of years. Given the questions still outstanding, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that a rethink on the Bill is needed.
May I add my voice to those wishing the Duke of Edinburgh a very happy birthday today? May I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on his prodigious fertility in terms of private Members’ Bills in this Session, but also, in the case of this particular baby, on its characteristic simplicity in terms of its structure? The Government cannot support it, for reasons that I will go into in whatever detail I can in the time that we have, but it is, as the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) also took the opportunity to say, a welcome opportunity to recognise the astonishing contribution of millions of people in constituencies throughout the country who give time to help others, and those groups, such as WorldWide Volunteering, but there are many others, which help people to use that time and inspire and connect them with opportunities to help others. It is that generosity in that landscape of that ecosystem of civil society organisations that is one of the things that makes this country great, and we should absolutely recognise it.
It is also right regularly to be asking ourselves the question: what can we do to make it easier in 2011 in modern Britain, with all the pressures on people’s time and, at the moment, money, to get involved, to support each other, to help to create the changes that people want to see? It goes to the heart of how we build a stronger sense of community where people have more power and responsibility for their lives, their communities and the services they use—the absolute aspiration of the big society vision. When it comes to encouraging and supporting social action, which is the context of the Bill, it is clear that we need to do something. We are a generous country—the statistics show that clearly—but it is also clear that giving has flatlined and there are worrying signs of decline, not least in terms of the giving of time. We have a sense of this from our own constituencies and community associations, and the difficulties that they have in finding new people to come forward. The charity world is increasingly concerned. Some people say that we cannot change this, that it is as good as it can get, but we do not accept that decline is inevitable, and our research and consultation suggest that there are people and organisations who would like to do more and could do more, but too many things get in the way.
As the hon. Lady said, there is an issue around lack of time in 2011, or perception of lack of time for many people. Often people find it difficult and complicated. For too many, the experience of volunteering, given time, is not as rewarding as it could or should be. There is a lack of awareness of opportunities, or where to start looking. There is an issue around bureaucracy—I do disagree a little with the hon. Lady here—and there is an issue around the CRB. She tried to make a case about why Lord Hodgson ignored this issue. There is a simple explanation: he recognised that other reviews of vetting and barring and of the CRB regime were going on and he took a view, I think quite sensibly, that he needed to focus the efforts of a limited resource exercise on areas where he felt that he could add more value. But his report “Unshackling Good Neighbours”—I recommend it to all colleagues—is a dose of common sense, when common sense is needed.
There is an issue around the CRB checks. I remember going to talk at a forum in Westminster and a gentleman coming up to say that he had 80 people waiting to volunteer, but they were being frustrated and held back because of the time it was taking for their CRB checks to come through. As the hon. Lady knows, there is frustration out there with the lack of opportunities to carry CRB checks around the system—the portability issue.
That brings me to the Bill. There are reasons why we cannot support it, however well intentioned it is. I hope to have the chance to summarise those reasons and our preferred approach. I hope that I can satisfy my hon. Friend about two things. In the specific context of the Bill we want to reduce bureaucracy and the cost attached to it, but without diminishing public protection, because we have duties in this regard that we cannot trivialise or walk away from. Secondly, we are fully committed to promoting volunteering, which is the Bill’s stated aim.
We have considered the Bill carefully in the time that we have been allowed and, although we welcome its aims, we oppose it principally for three reasons, the first of which is the most important; the other two flow from it. The first reason is that for the proposed fit and proper person certificate to be successful, a means of independent verification and checking for accuracy would be required. We simply could not, with any sense of responsibility, leave that as a free-for-all. There is of course a balance to be struck between protection and trust, but we think that a basic level of protection and independent verification of claims is necessary and believe that the CRB check fulfils that role, although we are very clear that it needs to be reformed and retuned in terms of proportionality and a return to common sense.
I am not surprised that that is the Minister’s approach, although I am disappointed. How, then, does he think it is reasonable that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs can allow trustees of charities to deal with large sums of money on the basis of a mere declaration that is subject to no independent verification?
I think that the contexts are completely different. As I go on to explain what we are doing to reform the CRB process, I hope I will go some way towards satisfying my hon. Friend that we intend to reduce bureaucracy without undermining basic protection.
Our other concerns flow from the premise that some form of independent verification is required, and the Bill is silent on how that will work. Our concern is that we will be replacing one form of bureaucracy with another, and with costs attached. I will set out briefly a summary of what we are doing in relation to the existing CRB system in the light of the concerns that have been expressed.
We announced in the coalition programme for government a commitment to
“review the criminal records and vetting and barring regime and scale it back to common sense levels.”
The outcomes of the reviews were published on 11 February and three of the recommendations are particularly pertinent to the Bill. First, CRB checks will in future be provided only to the applicant, which will enable them to challenge any disputed or inappropriate information before it is seen by an employer or volunteering organisation. That is an important issue. I had a constituency case only two weeks ago in which a gentleman was appalled to see the information on his statement, so this change is important.
Secondly, and critically, CRB checks will be made more portable between different employers by introducing an updating service. This will enable employers to check whether a previous disclosure certificate is still valid, reducing the need for repeat checks. Thirdly, CRB checks will not be provided for anyone under the age of 16, an important point relating to clause 2, which proposes that CRB checks be restricted to those over 21. As my hon. Friend knows well, these recommendations require legislation and are being taken forward in the Protection of Freedoms Bill, which is currently going through the House. The Government believe that the current CRB check process and the implementation of the February 2011 recommendations provide the fit and proper person certificate process described in the Bill.
My understanding is that there are three levels of criminal records check: a basic disclosure, a standard disclosure and an enhanced disclosure. I may be corrected, but I do not believe that there is any proposal to change those. The changes we are making are those I have just summarised, and the most important one in this context is the one relating to portability, because that is something I hear a great deal of frustration about in the system. In summary, the most important point is the need for independent verification. Those are the reasons why we cannot support the Bill and believe that reform of CRB is preferable to abolition.
Let me close by updating my hon. Friend and the House on what the Government are doing to promote the giving of time and of money. We published a Green Paper in December 2010, to which we have received 400 written responses, and following that we published a White Paper in May, the premise of which is that everyone can make a difference.
Our approach to supporting more giving is based on three strands of activity. The first is about making it easier to give by helping it to fit into everyday life, so the White Paper sets out new ways we will support the giving of money, such as through donations at ATMs. In terms of time, we explicitly support the pilots of flexible, self-managed volunteering platforms, which allow people to give small amounts of time. Time can be a major constraint, but entrepreneurs are developing models that allow people to control and to deliver time in more flexible packages, and we want to support more of that.
We want also to give people better information about opportunities, which is why we are spending £1 million on the Do-it volunteering database and working with it to open up those data so that they can be accessed more widely. We are using challenge prizes to stimulate innovation and giving people new ways to access opportunities through mobile phones in order to give time—a critical development, particularly in relation to inspiring and connecting young people.
We are also investing in community organisers— people who are literally going to walk the streets, knock on doors, find out what people care about and get them together to take action, connecting them with local support and, not least, local businesses, which in my experience want to do more but want to be connected with the right opportunities that really meet local need.
We are, as I have laboured to make clear in this debate, looking at bureaucracy and red tape—the things that frustrate—through CRB reform and the red tape review that I have mentioned. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend refer to the Budget and the changes to the volunteer expenses allowance, because that was definitely a real frustration in constituencies. Making it easier to give is the first strand; the second is about making it more compelling to give. The Budget introduced new incentives to give money, but we also want to support new models that incentivise people to give time, such as what are known as complementary currencies, which give people credits for volunteering. That is why we are investing £400,000 with the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts in developing a pilot of Spice “time credits”, whereby in return for giving time people get discounts on local services.
Through the social action fund that we announced in the White Paper, we are looking to support the best ideas because, as I said, it is quite clear that many social entrepreneurs are building fantastically exciting platforms to make it easier and more compelling for people to give time and money. This Government want to support that entrepreneurial energy through the social action fund.
We have an £80 million community grant programme called Community First, which is focused on deprived neighbourhoods—and that is a match fund. The proposition is to put money into the hands of neighbourhood groups to help them to implement their own plans, but it will be matched—partly in time, not just in money. The fund is about incentivising people to step up, get involved and create the change that they want to see locally.
We are strong believers in leading by example, which is why we are introducing new proposals to encourage civil servants to spend more time in their communities, not just because it ticks a box on corporate responsibility, but because we expect better civil servants to result from the initiative and because we want to send a strong signal to other employers that encouraging employees to give time in their communities is a very good thing to do and in the employers’ commercial interests. Leading by example extends to an expectation that Ministers will give one day a year—the one-day challenge—to volunteering. It is sometimes dismissed as a gimmick, but it is not, because leadership by example is hugely important in that context.
The third and final strand, which the hon. Member for City of Durham touched on, is better support for those who provide and manage opportunities to give—the civil society ecosystem that I mentioned. Such individuals often perform heroic tasks locally, trying to connect people and to support front-line organisations. It is a terribly difficult operating environment, as we well know. Resources are often spread too thinly across too many organisations, and we want to use public investment as a catalyst for more efficiency in the sector, so that such individuals can be more effective with the front-line organisations in their communities. That is why we have announced £30 million as a local infrastructure fund, the details of which will be announced shortly. That follows a recommendation by the NCVO funding commission. It is about trying to support the development of more efficient local hubs, a better online resource bank for front-line organisations, and much more effective local partnerships between business, statutory agencies and local charities. I know from my own constituency that we have barely scratched the surface of what can be achieved, and we can do more.
Alongside these programmes, we are supporting the European year of volunteering, Her Majesty the Queen’s award for voluntary service, and the National Citizen Service.
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 17 June.