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Time Banking

Volume 746: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the potential merits of Government support for timebanking.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I was reflecting ahead of the debate about where and how we find community and how that might have changed over the years. In recent decades, many of the traditional sites and sources of community have become fragmented or disappeared entirely. The changing nature of careers in the workplace, a decline in the membership of religious and community organisations, and people relocating more often have perhaps all played a role, among other factors. It is ironic that in an era dominated by online social networks and mass communication, for all the many undoubted benefits, we are grappling with issues of social isolation, loneliness and declining community cohesion.

Office for National Statistics data from March 2021 shows a 7.2% decrease since 2014-15 in those who agree that people in their local area are willing to help their neighbours, and an 8% fall in the proportion of people who believe that others in their neighbourhood can be trusted. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, in 2022 nearly 50% of adults in the UK reported feeling lonely occasionally, sometimes, often or always. There are multiple reasons for these trends, and there is no one easy fix, but they clearly demonstrate that initiatives such as time banking are needed more than ever. I declare an interest as a long-serving member on the committee at Leith Time Bank.

Life has changed, and our friends and family do not always live nearby. It is not always easy to ask someone for help, especially if it brings with it a feeling that we cannot pay them back. Time banking is a fun, relaxed and informal way of enabling people to help each other and bringing out the best in us all. Time banking is essentially about neighbours being neighbours. It offers a slightly more formalised approach to creating and sustaining the bonds that have long been fixtures of our communities. It reaffirms the old adage that the most valuable thing a person can offer someone is their time.

We all have skills, knowledge and experience to offer that could be beneficial to someone. It could be gardening, sewing, simple repairs, language skills, running errands, tech skills or helping with shopping—whatever it might be. Time banking is a way for people to exchange their skills and experience. It is based on a simple premise: for every hour someone spends helping someone, they earn an hour back from their time bank. Everyone’s time is valued equally, whatever is being offered. Everyone is encouraged to spend their time credits to give others the chance to make a difference and feel valued.

Timebanking UK was founded in 2002, inspired by the growth of time banking in the US. Social activist Martin Simon opened the first bank in Stroud, four years after the concept was introduced to the UK by Fair Shares. Having visited Dr Edgar Cahn and witnessed the time dollars movement in America, Martin Simon was determined to bring that system to the UK. He began development work from an office at City Works in Gloucester, creating Britain’s first time bank.

Now, 22 years on, there are well over 100 time banks and around 25,000 time bank members across these isles, with an estimated 6.7 million hours of help exchanged. Timebanking UK helps communities to set up time banks by providing all the resources needed. It offers monthly training sessions and networking events, a software platform and start-up materials, as well as individual support, advice and guidance.

Time banks bring together people of different ages, cultures, backgrounds and abilities who interact with each other on an equal footing and with mutual respect and understanding.

I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate; I cannot help but be enthralled by how she has presented her case for time banking. Does she agree that the old Bible truth “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is at the very core of the idea behind time banking? It allows all people to acknowledge their strengths, and to get help in return. Taking my speechwriter as an example, she says to me:

“These fingers are designed for typing”—

but there are others who are unable to manage that skill but would be able to provide tuition for a new skill. The ability to share should always be encouraged, as long as safety is paramount. We need to be assured, so I ask: is there a safety aspect to what is being put forward?

Is the hon. Gentleman asking whether there is a safety aspect in terms of monitoring what happens to everyone?

Yes, there certainly is, and I will explain a little bit about the set-up of time banks as I continue. The hon. Gentleman has got to the heart of what makes time banks work: mutual respect and the feeling of giving as well as receiving. He has hit the nail on the head.

To return to what I was saying, a time bank member is not a volunteer in the traditional sense; they must be prepared to receive from others as well as to give to others. It is that reciprocity that makes time banks unique. Timebanking UK’s case studies show that joining a time bank really can change people’s lives. Time bank members learn new skills, meet new people who are often from different backgrounds, report better self-esteem and self-confidence, and feel healthier—both mentally and physically.

After six months as a member of a time bank, 80% of participants felt a greater sense of community belonging, 74% had made new friends, 74% experienced improved mood or reduced depression, 69% felt more comfortable asking for or receiving help, 66% experienced decreased loneliness and 60% noted improvements in their quality of life, health and wellbeing. Despite its considerable success over the years, time banking has not been raised in the House of Commons since 2011, so a chance to pay tribute to the movement and identify opportunities to grow it is long overdue.

As I mentioned, I have been a long-time supporter of the Leith Time Bank, which is part of Timebanking UK and Timebanking Scotland and has been running for more than a decade. Leith Time Bank’s development worker Mary O’Connell, and Anne Munro, the manager of Leith’s wonderful Pilmeny Development Project, along with my committed fellow committee members who sustain Leith Time Bank, have been at the heart of its burgeoning success. Its primary focus is to support older people, carers and adults with chronic health conditions, but many other demographics are represented among its 200 members. The skills one can offer or ask for are as numerous, if not more so, than the number of members, and include gardening, sewing, cooking, form filling and helping with the shopping—the list goes on and on.

Leith in my constituency is a densely populated area, but folk do not always socialise locally, and particularly not across different groups and generations. Recent waves of gentrification can create tensions, but time banking has been remarkably effective at breaking down barriers and forging connections between old Leithers and new arrivals, forming friendships between people who might not otherwise have ever met.

Time banks thrive best at a local level where members can get to know one another. Leith Time Bank runs social activities to help to facilitate this, as well as activities such as a multicultural cooking group and home energy advice meetings. Every month it offers a programme of activities whereby members can get to know each other in a safe and comfortable environment, and they range from weekly language classes and culture group meet-ups to one-off events such as a gardening squad, through to attending football matches or museums.

At the height of the pandemic, communication with loved ones online was a godsend for many folk, but lockdowns also exacerbated the digital divide. Those without access to digital devices faced really increased social isolation. Leith Time Bank runs a project whereby people offer their digital skills, largely—although not necessarily completely—to support older people in learning about tech access, and they can then get something back in return.

Time banks also offer a lot of flexibility, which I know has worked well locally for students, those with irregular schedules or just folk juggling various commitments and responsibilities in busy lives who still want to put something into their local area. I mentioned Mary O’Connell from Leith Time Bank; I spent some time with her recently and she shared some examples of its positive impact. For instance, one of its members is an 80-year-old man who is visually impaired and lives alone, with no friends or family nearby. He earns credits by providing one-to-one Spanish and French lessons in a local café with other time bank members. In exchange, those members earn credits by accompanying him to medical appointments and social activities, or by providing practical help with day-to-day needs like shopping, as well as telephone and face-to-face chats.

Leith Time Bank also operates a community pot whereby people can donate credit virtually, and it can be used for those who cannot contribute, perhaps due to health issues. One gentleman wanted to see a film at the cinema but he was unable to travel there himself, so he used the community pot to find someone to buddy him for the film. Mary also told me about an older lady who had been receiving help through the community credit pot but felt she had no expertise to give back. During a group activity, she met young mums and realised that she did indeed have skills to offer as she was able to teach them all how to make soup.

Members have described time banks as a “lifeline”, spoken of how they have done wonders for their mental health, and reflected on the opportunity they give them to

“meet lots of interesting people with good values”,

and also, of course, to meet and befriend people from all sorts of different ethnic backgrounds. I have given small local examples, but there are many thousands more such interactions all across these isles. The Timebanking UK network has helped to create local mutual support structures that can work in tandem with statutory services as well. At a UK national level, it has worked on projects with organisations across the charity, public and private sectors, including the likes of Sport England, the National Lottery and Disability Rights UK.

I argue that expanding the time banking network further would have multiple benefits, and I urge the Minister to consider where the Government might be able to lend some support. Our ageing populations, the cost of living crisis and the challenges facing social care all make the case for time banking to play an enhanced role in our society. Timebanking UK proposes a three-year national programme to create multiple time banking networks, including a public awareness programme—part of the problem is that not many people are aware of time banking and its many benefits—and training in co-production for key members of the social care management and frontline workforce.

Additional funding would enable Timebanking UK to expand its operations and realise its vision of a time bank on every high street in every village, town and city, just as there are general practitioners and pharmacies. Under a social franchise model, Timebanking UK would set up delivery partnerships with stakeholders, including voluntary and support organisations, GPs, health centres and community groups.

Further support would also help Timebanking UK to implement a system for quality-effectiveness and to calculate the social return on investment. It would allow more detailed assessments of the impact of time banking for individuals and communities, and a focus on the amount that it saves for statutory services, as well as for the creation of an app for UK national interaction between participants and to engage the younger audience. To give a cost example, just £20,000 to £50,000 would enable the creation of complete start-up packs for 100 new time banks.

I strongly urge the Minister to check whether he has a time bank in or near his constituency, if he is not already in touch with one. I also thoroughly recommend that he consider meeting Timebanking UK—representatives of which are in the Public Gallery—to hear more about its proposals in detail.

I will conclude with a quote from Mary, that fantastic development worker at Leith Time Bank, which eloquently captures the essence of time banking:

“We think the reason Leith Timebank works so well is it offers opportunities for people of different ages, cultures and backgrounds to come together to share their skills, knowledge and experience with others. Everyone is valued equally, with everyone having something to offer and to receive. Timebanking is not just about exchanging services, it’s about building relationships—connecting with others in the community and creating a culture of mutual support and collaboration. This approach helps members and the community to connect, build resilience, and improve overall well-being.”

The value of time banking in fostering community cohesion and addressing social isolation is abundantly clear. Anything we can do to promote and expand the movement would be welcome. I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for securing this debate on the potential merits of Government support for time banking and for an insightful speech on the benefits that she has clearly witnessed herself.

For me, volunteering is vital to society. As a Government, we are strongly committed—and I am personally—to supporting volunteering in all its forms. I thank all volunteers who contribute their time and energy to support others. They make a real difference in their communities. Our latest figures show that about 25 million people in England had volunteered at least once in the previous 12 months. That is a huge number of people making a positive impact in their communities.

I was delighted to take part in the launch event for this year’s Big Help Out campaign, which will take place from 7 to 9 June. It will help to raise awareness of volunteering throughout the United Kingdom and will provide opportunities for people to experience volunteering, often for the first time. Without doubt, the British public’s enthusiasm for volunteering was evident in last year’s campaign, during the celebration of the coronation of His Majesty the King, with more than 6.5 million people volunteering on that day. I hope that we can see even more people take part this year. I am sure that hon. Members present will join me in supporting the campaign.

I am also grateful to all those who did so much during the pandemic. Many people in our country would not have had the help and support that they needed, were it not for amazing volunteers up and down the country. We must not forget, however, that quality volunteering requires effort and support, so I also take this opportunity to put on the record my thanks to the people who make volunteering happen and who work tirelessly for volunteers every day.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith for highlighting the vital work that time banking plays in volunteering. As she rightly pointed out, recruitment and retention of volunteers is an increasing problem for charities, in particular the small local ones. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ “Time Well Spent” survey, which was funded by my Department, indicated that the primary barrier to volunteering among non-volunteers is not wanting to make an ongoing commitment. That is where offering incentives can be an excellent way to encourage people to try out volunteering. Who knows, they might then want to make an ongoing commitment.

As the hon. Lady mentioned, she has sat for more than seven years on the advisory group of Leith Time Bank in her constituency. Reading about some of its work, it is good to see that from its inception her work has helped to promote the time bank concept to a wider audience. I, too, read the story of the 80-year-old man who is visually impaired. It is fascinating to listen to his experience, providing one-to-one Spanish and French lessons in a local café, which is amazing. She also gave an example of someone who is clearly a master of making soup—maybe I should try some.

What the hon. Lady highlighted throughout her contribution was the true two-way nature of volunteering, and how it can bring communities together. That is why, in recognising the value of volunteer rewards schemes, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has had a hand in supporting their development. Between 2017 and 2020, Tempo Time Credits received a DCMS grant to help it to scale up from its origins in Wales, to pilot three new hubs in England. As the hon. Lady said, volunteers involved in the time credits programme felt more involved in community activities, healthier and more socially connected.

Tempo has continued to do magnificent things, and now has more than 15,000 volunteers registered on its platforms. Similar initiatives have had equally significant impacts in other sectors, including the arts and the creative industries. In West Yorkshire, in my area, the Leeds Creative Timebank, established in 2010 with Arts Council England funding, has helped to create a thriving social economy for the arts across Leeds, by facilitating the exchange of information and support among its members.

There is no doubt that time banking can be fantastic for rewarding and recognising volunteers. It is truly striking to see how time banking can help to foster those social connections and help local communities and economies to thrive. Funding from the Government in that space has helped to test this innovative model.

I know that there are barriers still to overcome, to ensure that everyone who wants to can volunteer. We are committed to encouraging and enabling volunteering across the country, and to improving volunteering experiences. That includes supporting the next generation of volunteers and enabling them to create a lifelong habit of volunteering. Rewarding and recognising volunteers is a pivotal way to encourage more people to get involved and volunteer.

My Department works closely with No. 10 to co-ordinate the Points of Light awards, whereby the Prime Minister recognises outstanding individuals and volunteers who are making real changes in their communities, inspiring others. Those awards are an essential part of telling the story of the impact of volunteering across the UK. Beyond our work to recognise volunteers, we are providing funding, and working with an extensive range of partners, to ensure that there are clear entry points for volunteering.

Another key initiative is the Vision for Volunteering, which is a voluntary sector-led initiative to develop volunteering in England over the next 10 years. The Government supported the Vision from the outset, sitting on its advisory boards and lending support to voluntary organisations that are taking the work forward. One of the themes of the Vision is to increase equity and inclusion, ensuring that volunteering is accessible and welcoming to everyone, wherever they may be.

Last year, we announced the Know Your Neighbourhood fund, with a funding package of up to £30 million, including £10 million from the National Lottery Community Fund. That funding is widening participation in volunteering and tackling loneliness in 27 of the most disadvantaged areas of the country.

I am glad that the hon. Lady mentioned loneliness. I have the pleasure of being the Minister for loneliness, and I have seen how important volunteering is as a tool for making social connections and tackling loneliness in all the age groups that suffer from it. I have given a brief glimpse of the vast work that is going on to support volunteering; I am immensely proud of what we are doing to back volunteering and enable more people to benefit from activities.

I am really glad that we have had this debate, because we all share the same ambition to support volunteers to make a real difference in their communities. We will continue to test and support many ways to encourage and enable people to take part. It is heartening to see how time banking can successfully incentivise and reward volunteers. I thank everyone who is involved.

I extend an offer to meet, as the hon. Lady requested, because I am always interested to hear about innovative ways to get all our communities working together. Day in, day out, I see the value of people volunteering, whatever form their role may take. It is a crucial tool for getting communities working together, making social connections and breaking down the barriers to talking about loneliness. The stigma around loneliness is still one of the biggest issues we face. I would be more than happy to meet to discuss what can be done. I make the caveat that I do not have a great big pot of money at my disposal, but I am sure there are innovative things that we can think about to spread the gospel about how people can get involved in their community. I thank the hon. Lady sincerely for her debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.