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Volunteer Groups in Rural Settings

Volume 734: debated on Tuesday 20 June 2023

I will call Anthony Mangnall to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. There will be no opportunity for the Member in charge to make a winding-up speech, as is the convention in 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the role of volunteer groups in rural settings.

This is not so much a debate, but a statement of appreciation and a tipping of the hat to David Cameron’s efforts around the big society. Those of us fortunate enough to live in a rural community are acutely aware that much of what takes place around us is done by the hard work of volunteers. From Dartmouth’s food and music festivals and royal regatta to the Kingsbridge show, Brixham’s pirate festival, Salcombe’s Crabfest and Totnes’ Christmas market, all are organised, operated and supported by legions of volunteers. Those successful events help to raise money, drive tourism and provide tailored experiences in keeping with the spirit and character of every location in which they take place.

For the purpose of this debate, I will specifically focus on the volunteering groups providing local services throughout the year to people across south Devon and, indeed, the whole country, often doing so under the radar, without thanks and making a huge difference. They are helping to decentralise the centralised bureaucratic model and provide services that operate effectively at a local level with long-term impacts. They are encouraging a new generation of volunteering and philanthropy and social engagement. They are helping to empower communities to take charge of their own future rather than waiting for the lumbering, clanking machines of state to catch up. Above all, they are providing local solutions to national problems.

For instance, south Devon is home to LandWorks, an extraordinary charity based in Dartington that seeks to provide a supported route back into employment and the community for those in prison or those at risk of going to prison. At its core, LandWorks provides a solution to reducing recidivism, which costs the UK £18 billion a year. It celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and thanks to the extraordinary work of Chris Parsons, Ted Tuppen and countless volunteers, it has grown into an organisation that is effectively changing the landscape when it comes to preventing reoffending.

The charity’s work in helping to equip trainees with skills and support to engage with society is helping to drive down reoffending rates. Compared with the national average, the figures are stark. In the UK, the reoffending rates for imprisonment and community sentences are 36.7% and 28.8% respectively. For prisoners released from sentences of less than 12 months, the reoffending rate is 53.9%. At LandWorks, the reoffending rate has never exceeded 6% during 10 years of operation.

This local solution may well offer a strong guide for how we can bring down reoffending nationally. Exploring the LandWorks model on a national scale could help to reskill and equip individuals with the skills necessary to lead successful, productive lives. The Minister is welcome to visit LandWorks, and I might encourage him to bring the Minister for prisons, parole and probation. LandWorks is a strong reminder of how some of the best and most effective solutions to national problems come not from Westminster or Whitehall, but from a small band of volunteers who set out to make a difference within their local community. Government would do well to look closely at the model.

It has been my pleasure and honour over the past three and a half years to visit and meet many extraordinary volunteering groups across south Devon, so forgive me for this rather lengthy list: Prickles in a Pickle, a hedgehog sanctuary; Till the Coast is Clear, an organisation dedicated to keeping our coastline plastic and rubbish free; Dart Sailability; Dartmouth in Bloom and Kingsbridge in Bloom; SASHA, a domestic violence prevention charity; Cued Speech; and all the local care groups, such as Totnes Caring, Dartmouth Caring, Kingsbridge Age Concern, Kingsbridge and Saltstone Caring, South Brent Caring and Brixham Does Care. From meeting all those groups, I have created working groups to enhance their activity, such as my social care group, where best practices and resources can be shared, common problems and difficulties can be discussed and solved, and I can be given my marching orders.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on bringing this forward; what an important subject it is. I would add to that list young farmers’ clubs, and I would do so for a purpose. Does he agree that isolation is prevalent among farmers, with data indicating that in Northern Ireland, for example, a third—33%—of all farmers express concerns about loneliness and isolation? There are organisations in my area—I know he has them in his area as well—such as young farmers’ clubs. They are a vital tool in the battle for good mental health for our farmers. The isolation of rural communities and the impact that loneliness and desolation sometimes have on people is hard to quantify, but it is real.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for continuing his record of intervening in nearly every one of my Westminster Hall debates. He does so with absolute accuracy and a commitment to raise important issues such as that. The National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association are fantastic organisations, but we need to look at how we can help within communities, such as in agriculture and fisheries in my community. During the pandemic, I saw fisheries groups, farming groups and young farmers band together to help in the community. It is right to use such a debate to discuss and contemplate how we can support those groups in turn, how we can reassess the structures that keep them going and ensure that we can tackle loneliness and, indeed, suicide, which is all too prevalent in the agricultural sector.

I wondered whether it might be helpful to intervene after another intervention, but the hon. Gentleman is being very generous. I congratulate him on all that he has said; he is making really important points and delivering them well. B4RN—Broadband for the Rural North—is a wonderful community interest company that has connected thousands of homes in rural Cumbria and north Lancashire to the internet, ensuring that there is connectivity. It is basically run by volunteers on the ground. The volunteer groups in Warcop, Sandford, Coupland Beck, Bleatarn and Ormside have done brilliant work alongside B4RN to bring hyper-fast broadband to their communities, but at the eleventh hour, the Government pulled the rug from under them by saying that their communities are no longer a priority area. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should rethink and back these volunteers and their communities?

I am always concerned about any platform that might help the hon. Gentleman to get his message out to his constituents. In this instance, however, he is absolutely right. When living in a rural constituency, as I do in south Devon, internet connectivity is absolutely essential. We have upgraded our internet in south Devon through volunteer groups working together with state and private enterprise—something I will touch on later—and we absolutely need to look at how we can find the balance between private, public and charitable to ensure that people are getting the services they need, especially in the new working environment post pandemic. I thank him for his intervention.

Volunteer groups are the fabric of our society in rural settings, and we must do all we can to sustain, encourage and learn from them. In 2020, I visited Hope Cove lifeboat station, and I was made aware of the UK’s 54 independent lifeboat stations. These non-Royal National Lifeboat Institution stations operate at a local level, staffed by volunteers and funded by local donations. They do not benefit from being part of a wider system, at least until now. From seeing the vital work of Hope Cove’s independent lifeboat station and speaking with volunteers, I was energised into action. I am pleased to inform the Minister—and you, Mr Sharma—that since that meeting with Hope Cove lifeboat station, my colleague Rachel Roberts in south Devon and I have worked extremely hard to create the National Independent Lifeboat Association, known as NILA. I am grateful to some Members here who helped me in that process.

NILA seeks not to take away the independence of independent lifeboat stations, but to promote and highlight their work while ensuring that the machinery of state is taking notice of its work and using these vital stations to keep people safe on our waterways. Since its establishment, a board has been appointed, with myself as president—that is, until I am usurped by someone important. The Charity Commission has registered it as a national charity, and just last month, United Kingdom Search and Rescue admitted it to its ranks. Once again, this is an example of where local organisations and volunteer-led services can provide a national service without huge costs and bureaucratic rigmarole to deliver an important and necessary service.

Beyond LandWorks and NILA, I will mention one group in detail, I believe for the first time in the House of Commons: the Rapid Relief Team. I am grateful that some of them are in the Gallery today. The RRT was born out of the work of the Plymouth Brethren, and I confidently suggest that it has helped people in nearly every constituency across the country. I had my own dealings with the RRT a few weeks ago, when a constituent was in dire need of medical equipment. I did not know where to turn; I asked integrated care boards and local healthcare groups, but I found myself being continually rebuffed—that is, until I spoke to the RRT. Within a day of contacting it about my constituent’s concerns, my constituent was greeted and given the medical equipment he needed. He is now living a life where he can even get out and about, and I am particularly grateful to the RRT for its efforts in that case.

Across the UK, the RRT has 3,302 approved volunteers, and its most recent impact report shows how it has effectively set about helping in the community. It has supported more than 366 events, served 95,027 meals and gifted 22,571 volunteer hours. In south Devon and across the country, the RRT has helped to deliver incident and training exercise support to emergency services, and relief at home and abroad. It is a flexible organisation that can meet the need from unexpected events.

The work of the RRT takes it across Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the UK. It has effectively harnessed the power of teamwork by working with the private sector to encourage philanthropy and volunteering. It is even more remarkable to consider that its work has focused on emergency and disaster relief, homelessness, poverty and hardship, youth, and health and disability, and that it has been able to effectively move the dial in those areas without a single penny of Government funding.

We owe those organisations, and all the ones that I have not mentioned, a huge debt of thanks and gratitude for their work. The three examples I have given remind us how to solve local problems from a grassroots perspective, as well as how to empower communities and encourage greater private sector involvement. They also remind us that the state does not have all the answers, nor does it always need to be involved. However, although fantastic organisations such as the RRT, LandWorks and NILA all depend on volunteers, the statistics since the pandemic have shown a concerning decline in the number of people willing to volunteer. We need to consider how we can encourage a return to volunteering. Failure to do so will irreparably impact the fabric of rural and, indeed, urban communities, and only cost the Government more in the future.

Several funds have been made available through national and local government. For instance, the £5 million platinum jubilee village hall fund was announced, and the bidding in for the funding process ended in January this year. May I ask the Minister how much of that money has been allocated to date, and whether any extension is being considered? The UK search and rescue volunteer training fund helps organisations such as NILA and the RRT to train their volunteers to go out and be as effective as possible. It would be interesting to have the statistics on how many people are being trained every year, and to know how the bidding process can be streamlined to ensure that it is as effective as possible.

The Minister’s Department has also announced the volunteering futures fund; I believe that £7 million has been made available to volunteering funds across the country. May I ask the Minister how much of that money has been allocated, whether the funding will be continued over the next few years, and whether we can provide certainty to local organisations, where necessary, that it will be available in the next five and 10 years? Of course, other methods can be used, such as local authority funding, section 106 funding and allowances within councils to be able to talk about these issues.

Time, job constraints and now costs are putting off volunteers. We need to think about how we can encourage more people to take up the worthy work of volunteering, not necessarily through regulation, but through encouragement and co-operation with fantastic organisations such as those represented by the people who are attending the debate. We need to think carefully about how we support volunteer groups across this country. I suggest that by encouraging private sector involvement, as well as Government adoption of local solutions, we can empower local communities and deliver across the country. Finding the balance between state, private and charitable sectors is the answer to addressing many of the challenges we face.

If Members will forgive me for recommending a book, this is well presented in “The Third Pillar: How the State and Markets are leaving Communities Behind” by Raghuram Rajan, the former Indian central bank leader. The case is made about ensuring that the balance is found between each of the three core structures in our society and ensuring that we can get the resources to where they need to go. We need to reset the balance and make the case for better co-operation between the three pillars so that we can meaningfully ensure that our volunteer groups can effectively deliver on their objectives, and support our rural communities.

There is, as ever, more work to be done in this field, but I conclude by saying that I owe a debt of gratitude to the extraordinary volunteers who have done so much in my constituency and across south Devon, and to all the volunteer groups who have done so much across all of our respective constituencies and, indeed, the country. Whether they worked during the pandemic, work abroad or work in the United Kingdom, they do so because they have pride in the work that they do and because they feel a need to take a part and a hand in society. As politicians, as Government and as officials watching this debate, we must do all we can to encourage that work and action. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this important debate on volunteering in rural settings. I mean that most sincerely. Having spent most of my life working in the charitable sector, I know that we could not have provided anything like the services that we did in the hospice movement without a band of volunteers not just providing excellent support to the hospice staff but raising significant amounts of money.

Volunteering is vital for society and provides enormous benefits both to the volunteer and to the community that they serve. It connects communities, builds people’s skills and networks, boosts their wellbeing and improves their physical health. My hon. Friend rightly pointed out the issues around loneliness. That is an important part of my portfolio, and I see a strong link between tackling loneliness and the opportunities created through volunteering.

The Government are committed to supporting volunteering. I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss such an important issue today and to highlight some of the many ways in which we are supporting volunteers across the country. However, first I would like to thank all the volunteers who contribute their time and energy to support others and make a real difference in their communities. They are ordinary people doing extraordinary things to help others. Our latest figures show that around 25 million people in England volunteered at least once in the previous 12 months.

I was delighted to take part in the celebration of Volunteers’ Week at the start of the month. I had the pleasure of presenting a Points of Light award to Joana Baptista, a youth activist who set up her social enterprise, “She Dot”, to encourage girls to pursue traditionally male careers. I also met the amazing and brilliant team and young people at the Active Communities Network in Elephant and Castle, which combines arts, sports and volunteering to create transformative opportunities for young people.

The British public’s enthusiasm for volunteering was self-evident during the Big Help Out on 8 May, which formed part of the celebration of the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III. The campaign organisers estimate that more than 6.5 million people took part by volunteering in their communities. I am proud that we were able to support that campaign. Many organisations with a large rural presence took part and provided volunteering opportunities on the day, including the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs.

Volunteers support society and their communities in a wide range of ways each and every day: they support the health and wellbeing of the nation by giving their time to health charities and the NHS, and we will always be grateful to the hundreds of thousands of people who stepped forward during the pandemic; they are the lifeblood of community sports and large events such as the Commonwealth Games; and they are also the people who see changes that are needed in their communities and go about making those changes. That is why we shine a light on those people through the Prime Minister’s daily Points of Light award.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the vital role that volunteering plays, particularly in rural areas. People in rural areas such as those in his constituency can face particular challenges associated with geographical isolation, such as the sparsity of public transport and access to public services. He rightly gave some excellent examples of the work that people do to tackle some of those issues. For example, the South Western Ambulance Service covers one of the most rural areas in the UK, and every day volunteers from across the south-west support their local communities. That ranges from supporting someone before an ambulance arrives, as my hon. Friend mentioned, to saving someone’s life. Of course, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the independent lifeboat organisations that he mentioned—and I congratulate him on his election as president of the national association—are critical, as I know from my time growing up in Anglesey. They all rely on volunteers, who do some outstanding work and put their own lives at risk to save others.

I was encouraged that the most recent community life survey showed that, despite the challenges faced in rural areas, volunteering rates in rural areas are actually higher than in urban areas. That demonstrates the commitment and willingness of people to support their neighbours and local communities. We are committed to growing the number of volunteers and improving the volunteer experience across the country, including in rural areas. That includes supporting the next generation of volunteers and enabling them to create a lifelong habit of volunteering. An example of this is the #iwill fund, which is a joint initiative between the Government and the National Lottery Community Fund that has funded a number of projects that support young people volunteering in rural areas. For example, in Derbyshire, the #iwill fund has partnered with the Pears Foundation and other local partners to create a new young people’s forest that is situated on the site of two former coalmines. The funding enables young people to design and create the new 400-acre woodland, and over 250,000 new trees have been planted.

There are, however, barriers to overcome to ensure that everyone who wants to volunteer can volunteer. There has been a dip in volunteering following the pandemic, which is why we are providing funding and working with partners to ensure that there are clear entry points for volunteering, more flexible volunteering roles that fit with people’s work and life demands, and help for people to identify available volunteering opportunities. One key initiative is Vision for Volunteering, which is a voluntary sector-led initiative that aims to develop volunteering in England over the next 10 years. One of the vision’s themes is to increase equity and inclusion by ensuring that volunteering is accessible and welcoming to everyone, everywhere.

In March, we announced the Know Your Neighbourhood Fund, which is a funding package of up to £30 million, including £10 million from the National Lottery Community Fund, that will widen participation in volunteering and tackle loneliness in 27 disadvantaged areas in England. It is designed to generate learning about how people in those communities can be supported to volunteer and boost their social connections. Those communities include areas that are predominantly rural, including areas in Devon.

In his opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes referred to the Rapid Relief Team, which provides essential support in the event of emergency. It is a fantastic organisation that delivers practical support including, as he mentioned, food parcels for people in need, hot meals for emergency responders dealing with crises and a multitude of other types of support, including support for refugees from Afghanistan who are settling here in the UK. We are incredibly grateful to the Rapid Relief Team and all their volunteers for the tremendous work that they do. As my hon. Friend mentioned, it was established by the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, and I take this opportunity to thank faith-based charities for their wonderful volunteering. When a major factory in my constituency caught fire, it was exactly those teams that were there to support the people putting their lives at risk as they tried to control the fire.

The voluntary sector has a vital role to play in the event of emergencies, such as flooding and heatwaves. Those organisations have unique local insights into the needs of their communities and, as my hon. Friend rightly said, they can sometimes adapt much quicker. Given the sector’s unique capabilities, it is encouraging to see local resilience forums work collaboratively with it to support their local response to such events. The Government are strengthening the links between emergency responders and the voluntary sector through the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership. That partnership is co-chaired by the British Red Cross and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and it brings together organisations, ranging from large household names to micro local community organisations, that can assist in the event of emergencies. I am delighted that we are continuing our work with it, including by funding it to increase the effectiveness of the sector’s emergency preparedness, planning and response.

My hon. Friend mentioned LandWorks. I spent a short six weeks in the summer of last year as the Prisons Minister, so I know how important that work is. He is right that it supports people in prison or at risk of going to prison. I congratulate it on its vital work in supporting those who might otherwise take a different path; it is a great example of an organisation funded by the National Lottery Community Fund.

My hon. Friend asked about the platinum jubilee village halls fund. As he is aware, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that £3-million fund last year, and it is designed to support the modernisation and improvement of village halls. I understand that it has been extremely popular. The last funding round closed in March. I am happy to write to DEFRA and update my hon. Friend when I have more information.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the volunteering futures fund. As he rightly said, more than £7 million was made available to improve the accessibility of volunteering. That funding is now fully allocated, and we are currently evaluating that scheme to see what worked and identify where we can make improvements. I see community wealth funds, which make use of dormant assets, as an opportunity to build up skills in areas where there is not the infrastructure that is needed to bring about more volunteering and community work. I look forward to updating Members as we develop that policy.

This debate has demonstrated that we share the ambition of supporting volunteers to make a real difference in their communities, including in rural areas, such as my hon. Friend’s constituency. I am proud of the Government’s record in developing volunteering in England, whether by supporting our strategic initiatives such as the vision for volunteering, or directly funding projects through the funds I mentioned. I thank my hon. Friend again for listing a whole raft of organisations in his constituency—he listed them so fast that I could not write them down. I thank him for proposing this valuable discussion to highlight the unique challenges faced in rural areas and, crucially, the role that volunteers play in addressing societal change in those wonderful settings. I thank every single one of them for their contribution to our society.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.