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Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 21 June 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

It is an absolute delight to have the opportunity tonight to celebrate in the House the work of the hundreds, thousands and millions of volunteers who work throughout the country and whose work we simply could not function without. Volunteers add a commitment and level of care that money could never buy. Everyone should be encouraged to volunteer and people should not be put off by form-filling. I therefore say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I hope the Government will continue to do whatever they can to reduce the red tape around volunteering.

Having spoken to many charities, I know that they say that Criminal Records Bureau checks help them to protect vulnerable people from individuals who might be at risk, so I no longer think that that is the problem it originally was. However, it is clear that the Government should be encouraged to incentivise volunteering and encourage businesses to recognise the full benefits of volunteering. If businesses helped to promote volunteering and allowed their staff the time to train and undertake volunteering, there would no doubt be a significant rise in the number of volunteers. I know that my hon. Friend and other Members present would be the first to say that when we visit volunteering organisations, they tend to say that they are getting older and to ask where the new volunteers will come from, and that is what I hope we can achieve from this debate.

I make no criticism whatever of the honours system. I would simply say that all Members of Parliament are continually written to by constituents suggesting that fellow constituents should get an honour, but that is very difficult to achieve. I think of my friend Bruce Forsyth and the fact that it has taken him many years to get a knighthood. I want to mention some of my constituents whom I think should receive honours, such as Ivan Heath, a 95-year-old widower, who is going to leave all his money to charities and is doing so already, and Donald Neil Fraser, a member of Leigh town council, who is over 80 and works as a volunteer morning, noon and night. Con Donovan, the owner of a successful business—a Choice Discount store—does an enormous amount of volunteering, along with his family, and Mark Foster, the famous Olympic swimmer, who comes from Southend, is currently doing an awful lot of volunteering. Joan Alfreda Matthews, a remarkable woman in her 90s, who is the founding member of the Saint Francis hospice, has worked tirelessly as a volunteer for the hospice since 1978 and helps families to come to terms with limiting illnesses. The list is endless.

Some of us who have been here for a while recognise the frustration of getting honours for individuals. We used to have the opportunity to nominate local heroes through the Experience Corps. I telephoned that organisation to ask why we did not have the opportunity to do so this year. Unfortunately, this is the first year in which we will not have that opportunity because the Experience Corps is not doing it any more, so tonight I am announcing that if no one else is prepared to take on this particular exercise, I am more than happy to do it. I simply appeal to some businesses to help us, so that in future, we can honour our local volunteers—the heroes and heroines in our constituencies. I hope we can organise something by the autumn.

The hon. Members for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and for Colchester (Bob Russell) and I are officers of the all-party scout group. On 7 June, Mr Speaker hosted an event and the Deputy Speakers assisted with the presentations and the photographic opportunities afterwards, so I realise that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, have already heard what I am about to say. Four hundred thousand young people are scouts and they rely on 100,000 volunteers.

The scouting organisation is absolutely wonderful. Scouts are less likely to drink or smoke. They are more likely to participate in physical activities and they normally make a great success of their lives. Fifty-six per cent. of youth members volunteer for another charity. The number of adult volunteers in scouting is more than the combined work forces of the British Broadcasting Corporation and McDonald’s. If we paid them for their work, it would cost us about £500 million. They do a splendid job.

At the reception on 7 June, there was a suggestion, which I pass to my hon. Friend the Minister, that the Government consider brokering some form of volunteer incentive card that would entitle its holders to offers donated by businesses. One scout, Stefan Prest, mentioned the success of Orange’s RockCorps as an example of good practice.

This evening, I attended a charity event at Spencer House, which was a fantastic occasion sponsored by the Chinese company Huawei, in conjunction with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, to organise the relaunch of Childline. They appealed for the ambitious number of 5,000 volunteers. The appeal is backed by the Rothschilds and the Spencer family and I hope we will do whatever we can to assist in gathering the 5,000 volunteers.

How many events do we go to where the St John Ambulance is in attendance? Many people think the staff are paid. In Essex, Lord Petre is the president of St John Ambulance. Its members do a fantastic job. They administered first aid to 800,000 people last year and they can be the difference between a life lost and a life saved. There are 23,000 adult members and nearly 20,000 young members. The organisation trains 575,000 people a year and it has more than 1,000 ambulances and support vehicles.

A few years ago, through the Industry and Parliament Trust, I undertook a volunteer attachment with the WRVS. It coincided with the Queen Mother’s centenary. The WRVS does a wonderful job. It runs trolley services at Southend hospital and Southend meals on wheels. It has an emergency service and there are 45,000 volunteers.

The hon. Gentleman has not yet mentioned Church youth organisations, where many people volunteer. Does he feel that they need recognition and should also be considered for honours?

The hon. Gentleman is a wonderful attender and supporter on these occasions. He is right to remind me of that group. The only Church organisation I shall have time to mention is the Salvation Army, but I endorse everything he said.

With 16 other parliamentarians, I was recently made a national parliamentary patron of the YMCA, although we failed the audition for Village People. It does a fantastic job with housing and homelessness, promotes sport, health, exercise and fitness, works to combat crime, helps with safety, provides education and skills, offers advice on money, tries to get young people jobs and helps with citizenship, personal development, parenting and family difficulties. The YMCA reaches out to more than 1 million people each year, working with them at every stage of their lives and offering support when and where they need it most. The movement has grown to become one of the biggest Christian charities in the world, working in over 120 countries, with 30 million members worldwide.

The Salvation Army is a wonderful organisation. I happen to be a Catholic but I always say that the Salvation Army does a wonderful job. It certainly does in Leigh-on- Sea. It was founded in the east end of London, where I come from, in 1865. It has 50,000 members, 4,000 employees and 1,500 Salvation Army officers. It serves 3 million meals a year, carries out prison visits, helps 3,500 homeless people and runs 709 local church and community centres. It runs 636 centres for the elderly, 300 youth clubs and 120 drop-in centres. The list goes on and on. If ever we feel gloomy at Christmas, we go to the Salvation Army and it cheers us all up.

When Dame Cicely Saunders set up the hospice movement, did she ever realise what wonderful work hospices would do in the United Kingdom? All hon. Members have hospices in their constituencies. I have Fair Havens, which was founded in 1983. It employs an army of volunteers. Supporting families who have lost loved ones is very draining.

May I mention VSO—Voluntary Service Overseas? I was told tonight that the average age of VSO volunteers is 44, although many are young people. Those who are past their careers and are grandparents have an awful lot to give. Volunteers go overseas and give in a targeted and intelligent way, capacity building in other societies, and they deserve special mention for the work that they do.

I entirely agree. Believe it or not, VSO is on my list, but I will now shorten my comments on it.

When I was Member of Parliament for the area where St Luke’s hospice is situated, one of the miracles that happened there was that we built the hospice from nothing at all. Princess Diana came and opened it and it still does wonderful work.

This weekend in all our constituencies was armed forces weekend. I am president of our local branch of the Royal British Legion, as are other hon. Members in their areas. The Royal British Legion does a fantastic job. It was founded in 1921. We had the armed forces parade to Parliament today, and I know that the hon. Member for Colchester has a great deal to do with the Anglian Regiment. We salute the armed forces and thank them for their work.

On VSO, I declare an interest. Last year, VSO paid for me to do voluntary work in the Philippines. I was there as an advocate for Filipino nurses. One of my children, Sarah, has just come back from doing voluntary work in the Maldives as a teacher. It sounds glamorous, but when there are cockroaches coming into the rooms and all sorts of other things happening, it is quite a difficult job in a Muslim country. I agree that the work of VSO is first class. If any hon. Members have some free time this summer, I hope they will contact VSO and join it.

I echo the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments about VSO wholeheartedly. I had the privilege and the enrichment of a VSO placement in Cambodia in 2008. I hope more Members take up his suggestion and give time to VSO.

It was a wonderful experience for me. We went to Ifugao and we were stationed in Manila. For three days nurses were queuing up to get their qualifications—it is very tough to get jobs there. When one comes back to the UK, one realises how jolly lucky we are.

At the weekend we had a Southend community in harmony event.

Many of the voluntary groups that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, and indeed many such groups in my constituency, make a major contribution to economic well-being as well as social well-being. For example, in North Antrim we have the North West 200, which is the Coleraine and district motorcycle voluntary group, which we share with the adjoining East Londonderry constituency. It generates £6 million a year for the local economy. If that was not there, our economy would not be as strong as it is. He is absolutely right that those groups need more than a pat on the back; they need to be commended, encouraged, supported and endorsed.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is not a case of take, take, take, but of give, give, give, and they really do help business and other activities. I could not agree more. The Southend in harmony event was attended by Jewish people, Muslims and a whole range of other people, and it included an older people’s assembly and an army of volunteers, each and every one of whom I salute.

I end with these thoughts for my hon. Friend the Minister. I ask the Government to do all they possibly can to help youth organisations such as the scouts to attract more volunteers. The national citizen service, which will begin in just a few weeks, offers an ideal opportunity. If those young people who complete the eight-week national citizen service schemes are then signposted to organisations like the scouts to continue their community involvement and enhance their skills as young leaders, everybody would benefit. That would ensure that the NCS is not simply an eight-week long experience, but an excellent start to a young person’s volunteering journey, which can be enhanced by the range of opportunities that scouting and other youth organisations offer.

Another way that the Government can support organisations such as the scouts is through their considerable influence with business and employers. More than 80% of employees, when questioned, said that they would like to get involved in a staff volunteer scheme if their employer allowed it. The Government should consider whether a person who devotes time to volunteering should be entitled to a small amount of time off to fulfil their obligations, similar to that which is afforded to councillors and magistrates.

This is the toughest time, certainly in my lifetime, for young people to get a job, despite their wonderful qualifications. Having worked in recruitment for many years before becoming an MP, I know that it is far better for young people to do some volunteering, rather than have a blank space on their CV, as that will go a long way in assisting them to get a permanent job.

I ask the Government to consider where they stand on the right to take time off to train. Many organisations offer first-class training schemes for volunteers and support them to improve their performance both as volunteers and in their professional careers. In a survey, the Scout Association found that 93% of volunteers believed that the skills, training and experienced gained through scouting had been relevant to their working and personal lives. Businesses should be encouraged to see the benefits they gain from their employees’ volunteering interests and to enable them to take a reasonable amount of time off to train, safe in the knowledge that the skills they will acquire will benefit the business in the longer term.

Let the House unite in thanking all our volunteers in our constituencies for the wonderful work they do, and let the Government support us in encouraging a new generation of volunteering.

I start by offering my utterly genuine congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) not only on securing the debate but on the passionate way he used it to celebrate people who give time to help others in our communities, because their contribution is absolutely enormous. It is right that we celebrate them and take the opportunity to ask what more we can do to encourage, support and value them.

My hon. Friend knows that this question is central to our vision of a society in which people feel more power and responsibility not only for their own lives but for the communities they live in and the services they use. It is the big society vision. Of course, we are not inventing something. As his powerful speech and the contributions of other Members made clear, there is already a huge range of amazing voluntary work being undertaken by individuals and groups across the country.

My hon. Friend referred to several organisations very worthy of mention and celebration in this place, including the scout movement and its work to engage and develop young people in communities, to which my hon. Friend has contributed throughout his chairmanship of the all-party scout group. It is genuinely impressive to see how the movement goes from strength to strength with the essential support of its volunteers.

We cannot be complacent or take the movement for granted, however. Statistics demonstrate that giving has flatlined and shows some worrying signs of decline. In all our constituencies, we wonder how we will replace the people who have taken a lead in our communities, but the Government are ambitious and we do not accept that decline is inevitable. We want to work with the voluntary community sector and, critically, with business, as my hon. Friend mentioned, to connect more people with the opportunity to make a difference.

I will set out some of our initial plans, which I hope will give my hon. Friend some reassurance that the Government are ambitious and extremely committed to the agenda, and perhaps address some of his specific issues.

Last month we published a giving White Paper, which sets out our stall. We want to focus on three things: making it easier to give; making it more compelling to give; and giving better support to the charities and voluntary groups that channel our generosity. That involves public investment, so we have said that we will invest more than £40 million in volunteering and social action over the next two years.

That investment will include a new social action fund to support some of the most creative and effective schemes that are being developed to inspire more giving in priority areas and to inspire groups, including young people. My hon. Friend suggested new incentives to get more people involved, and he may be interested to know that that includes piloting such initiatives as Spice “time credits”, which introduce new incentives for people to give time, including discounts and preferential access to local services. We are piloting, because new incentives may be required just to tip new people over the edge and into giving time.

We are also announcing challenge prizes to reward the best solutions for breaking down the barriers that get in the way of more giving, and we have announced a local infrastructure fund to help the amazingly valuable and important infrastructure that is out there to support community organisations and volunteering, and to help it become more efficient and more effective. Further details of how organisations can apply to those funds will be announced over the coming months.

I am delighted to say that the White Paper has received significant support from key figures in the voluntary and community sector. Sir Stuart Etherington, the chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, says:

“This Paper draws together a wealth of intelligence on what can be done to stimulate greater levels of giving…in the UK.”

The chief executive of Volunteering England says:

“The White Paper deserves to be warmly welcomed by the…movement. It promises to make a positive advance in how people volunteer in our society and in how organisations support them.”

My hon. Friend mentioned the national citizen service, which is a hugely important initiative. It was launched this year, with more than 10,000 places available for 16-year-olds this summer, and is a fantastic opportunity to connect young people with their own power to make a contribution to their communities. Of course my hon. Friend is right: once we have lit the spark in those young people, as we hope to, we must ensure that it is the start of a journey into other opportunities to develop skills and experiences and to make a positive contribution. So, yes, we do want to work with our providers to signpost those opportunities, and I have personally delivered that message to the scouts and to Youth United, because they are entirely complementary to the national citizen service.

It is not just young people we want to inspire, however. We believe that throughout communities in Britain there are people who would get more involved in changing things in their neighbourhood if they were encouraged and supported to come together. That is especially true of relatively disadvantaged neighbourhoods where there is less obvious so-called social capital, and that is why we are investing in training 5,000 community organisers, who will bring people together in their areas and encourage and support them to make the differences they want to see in their communities. That is why we are also launching a new neighbourhood grants fund, Community First, which will incentivise local people to work together to create the change they want to see.

As my hon. Friend says, we should look to cut some of the red tape that gets in the way, while making sure that we continue to protect the vulnerable. That is why I asked Lord Hodgson to lead a joint Cabinet Office and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills red tape taskforce. Part of the role of that taskforce was to look at how to remove barriers to those wishing to become more actively involved. He recently published his report “Unshackling Good Neighbours”, and we are reviewing the recommendations that relate to addressing barriers to the giving of time. I heartily recommend the report to my hon. Friend, because I think he will appreciate that it oozes common sense from every page. It is a thoroughly good read. As I said, we are reviewing the recommendations and seeing what we can action as quickly as possible.

My hon. Friend mentioned CRB checks. He will be aware that we have completed reviews of the criminal records and vetting and barring regimes. As outlined in our programme for government, the aim of the reviews was to scale back these regimes to common-sense levels. It is clear from my conversations with the sector and across communities that there is still frustration about how the CRB process works in relation to the time it takes and the restrictions on portability around the system. The main recommendations of the reviews, which are being taken forward under the Protection of Freedoms Bill currently going through Parliament, are to reduce the coverage of the schemes to individuals who have close and regular contact with vulnerable groups; to place a greater onus on employers and voluntary organisations to decide when to carry out checks and to make it easier to carry them around the system; and to introduce continually updated CRB checks to reduce the need for employees and volunteers to have new checks when they move positions.

In addition, we announced in the Budget—this is all in the context of trying to make it easier to volunteer—that all drivers who use their vehicle for work or volunteering will now be able to claim 45p per mile for the first 10,000 miles, an increase of 5p per mile. I am sure that my hon. Friend will know that there was frustration across constituencies about the rising cost of giving time in this regard, and we think that this will help. The Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus have been working with the Cabinet Office and key representatives of the voluntary sector to tackle the real and perceived barriers to unemployed people volunteering.

We are very conscious of the need to lead by example. That is why we are encouraging civil servants to volunteer by turning the civil service into what we call a civic service. They will spend more time out of Departments and in communities working with organisations, and we believe that we will get better civil servants as a result. We are taking a lead in encouraging civil servants to do at least one day of volunteering each year using special leave. We hope that this sets a good example to other employers. One of the reasons I am so optimistic about this agenda is that increasingly businesses are recognising that it is in their commercial interests to encourage their human resources to give time and stretch themselves in different contexts. It is not just about PR value or community value but about developing their most important assets, which are human. We want to lead by example with the civil service, and we are very much encouraging business to follow.

I recommend to my hon. Friend an excellent speech made by the Prime Minister—of course, every speech that he makes is excellent, but this one is particularly good—called “Every Business Commits”, which speaks very strongly to businesses about what we expect as regards encouraging more social responsibility.

My final point concerns a matter on which my hon. Friend placed a lot of importance. In addition to implementing these programmes, it is essential that we recognise and reward inspirational examples of good practice in volunteering and social action. To achieve this, the Government have created the big society awards. I do not know if he is aware of that, but I can write to update him on how every single Member of Parliament can nominate individuals and organisations in their constituencies for these awards. We also continue to support and promote the Queen’s award for voluntary service. I was delighted to hear about his own personal initiative on celebrating local heroes, and I wish him every success with that.

I would again like to thank my hon. Friend for calling this debate this evening. As I highlighted, there is already a lot of excellent voluntary work taking place across the country. In the years to come, we hope to grow volunteering and social action and enable the existing good practice to become the norm. I hope that I have reassured him that the Government are extremely ambitious about and very committed to encouraging more people to get involved in their communities.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.