I beg to move,
That this House has considered connecting communities by supporting charities and volunteers.
I am delighted that the House has this opportunity to discuss a subject so close to the nation’s heart: charities and volunteers. I am sure that everyone across the House will agree that these incredible people and organisations are the bold, brave, beating heart of our communities. And they are not alone. They work alongside the social enterprises, mutuals, community groups and socially responsible businesses that help to make up our civil society.
This country’s civil society is a force to be reckoned with. It has a proud heritage and is admired across the globe. It is everything from a voice for the voiceless to an incubator for innovation. It provides a space for us to display the very best of ourselves and a desire to help and support others. We all know of superhuman efforts that people have made in our constituencies and communities on behalf of charities—running, skydiving, sponsored swims, sponsored silences, with groups, individuals and children all raising millions, thousands or hundreds of pounds for causes they care about.
Only a few years ago, the eyes of the world were on London for the Paralympic and Olympic games. People were amazed by the athletic achievement, but what also made an impact on millions of people were those who came from our shores: our volunteers, the games makers, selflessly giving their time, energy and expertise so that others could have a brighter and better future and an enjoyable time.
We will see that again: with Birmingham 2222, the Commonwealth games, on the horizon, we have a chance to do it all again. Our experience, in London 2012 and beyond, has shown that we can create the right opportunities and environment for volunteers. They will come and step up to the challenge. That energy and that sense of momentum are vital if we are to continue to have a happier and healthier society.
What is the Government’s vision for civil society? Three elements are particularly important to me as we chart this new path. The first is the building of communities that are connected: tackling loneliness, helping people to feel attached to the places where they live and empowering people of all ages to build an even better society. The second is the establishment of a socially responsible business and finance sector that can act as an even greater force for good in our society and tackle, creatively, some of its most entrenched problems.
Does the Minister agree that charities should remain autonomous and should not be interfered with politically? I am greatly concerned about a charity in Morecambe that is undergoing that process at this moment.
I thank my hon. Friend for referring to something that is happening in his community and may be a worry. The Charity Commission plays an important role in giving us comfort in that respect. It is an independent registrar, and it is the regulator of charities. The Government have recognised the demand for its services by granting it an extra £5 million a year to help our charities to be at their best. If my hon. Friend has any concerns about that specific case, I shall be happy to meet him.
The Minister has rightly paid tribute to the hundreds of thousands of volunteers—long may they continue, and I pay tribute to the volunteers in my own constituency—but does she think it right that voluntary organisations, including charities such as the Trussell Trust and other food banks, are in effect replacing statutory services, although they are not equipped in the same way as a statutory service?
Order. May I have just one second to help the House? There are 17 speakers besides the Front Benchers, so may I encourage Members to try to help each other?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising the importance of working across communities to support people in need. It is absolutely right for food banks to play their part, as they have for many decades through churches and local organisations. It is absolutely right that when people are in need, we have the opportunities and the partnerships to reach out to them.
I was talking about my vision, and the Government’s vision, for civil society. My third focus is on harnessing the energy of our young people and ensuring that there are plenty of opportunities for them to contribute in their communities. We want to create the conditions for a bold and bright future in which civil society is able to play an even greater role than it does today. Those themes are captured in our civil society strategy, published six months ago. I will briefly update the House on how we are pursuing our vision, but let me first thank my team of officials for their incredible outreach and dedication in supporting the sector and connecting communities through the strategy and for working so well.
The United Kingdom is already one of the most generous places in the world. Last year, the public donated £10.3 billion, and we have heard about millions of people who volunteered in our communities on each and every day of that year. Gift aid is now worth more than £1.2 billion to charities. Since 1990, when John Major was Prime Minister, £15 billion more has been given to good causes. That is the most successful charity tax relief in the world, and I am delighted that the Treasury has announced that the small donations gift aid limit has been raised to £30.
To support even more people giving back to their local area, I am today awarding a further £3 million to communities that need it most. Some £770,000 is going to six places to boost fundraising directly to local good causes. This investment will unlock funds for Britain’s most deprived communities, improving social mobility from Bristol to the Yorkshire coast. Some £2.3 million will go to 10 more places to put community at the heart of tackling local issues, from the Onion Collective in Somerset addressing skills gaps in the county to Lincoln’s hometown football club building on cohesion in the community. This investment in communities the length and breadth of the country will help even more people take action on the issues they care about most, including helping more volunteering, giving more money directly to local causes that people feel connected with in their community and supporting even more simple neighbourly acts, which can mean so much.
The Government are also helping connect communities by tackling loneliness. We are the first country in the world to have a Minister for loneliness, and I have had interest from Governments, businesses and charities around the globe—from places such as Canada, the USA, Australia, Sweden to Japan—that want to learn from us. To help tackle loneliness across England, we have secured £20 million of new grant funding for brilliant projects that are directly connecting communities, such as the Rural Coffee Caravan in Bury St Edmunds. The Care Leavers Association is also included; it is helping to develop a digital platform to connect care leavers of all ages so they can share, learn and support one another.
Can the Minister comment on any discussions she has had with the devolved Administrations specifically about loneliness?
I have had conversations with the devolved Administrations on sport and connecting communities, but I have not directly had any on that issue. I am however very happy to take that up and co-operate with colleagues across the House to work with the devolved Administrations. As a Wales Minister, I was very aware that there are particular communities that we need to make sure Westminster and Whitehall are reaching.
We are breaking down barriers to volunteering for everyone, and we are focusing on those at risk of loneliness and looking to the long term to help those people who might want to get involved and who might need a new direction and feel isolated. I am backing that again today with cash: £250,000 for new funding to do exactly that.
When communities are facing their moment of greatest need, a connected community is what matters most. We saw that in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Local charities at the heart of the community stepped up, working in partnership with national organisations and emergency services to provide support for those in need. The public responded, too, by raising over £29 million. That was unprecedented, and it highlighted that we are at our very best when we come together and help each other. This community support was invaluable in helping the Government reach the Grenfell victims and their families quickly, and we will continue to support them. We are working with our experienced charity partners to further strengthen the response and be ready for any future emergencies.
How can business help our communities? Society’s needs are at the heart of good decision making. The private sector is a great force for good, and this is a chance to address society’s most pressing issues by encouraging innovative public services to work alongside private investors, socially responsible businesses and social enterprise. From tackling homelessness to helping young people reach their full potential, business and finance can and must play a crucial role.
Through social impact bonds, we are bringing together investors who want to make a difference with charities who have the expertise to make real change. This successful model is already having a positive impact on people and communities across the country. Charities such as St Mungo’s and Thames Reach are working with the most vulnerable rough sleepers in London to help them rebuild their lives. This social impact bond gives charities the financial safety net to do this important work, and I was struck by the passion and commitment of the staff I met last week and the results they have achieved. Since the project was launched in 2017, it has helped more than 150 people to find homes. We know that this funding model works, and that is why we are investing £80 million through the life chances fund to give more support to social impact bonds that create people-focused results. People matter, and we are delivering for them.
I worked on social impact bonds prior to entering this place. One of the big barriers that social enterprises face in drawing down social impact bonds is the lack of expertise in unlocking these complex instruments. What support will there be within the fund to ensure that that money can be drawn down by social enterprises?
In my new role in this Department, I have found nothing but complete expertise to absolutely make this work. If the hon. Gentleman would like to raise a particular issue relating to his experience, I would be happy to hear from him directly.
There is more that we can do to help vulnerable people across the country. We are working with the banks and the building societies to unlock millions of pounds from dormant accounts. Instead of gathering dust, that money is being invested in helping our young people into employment and in tackling problem debt. In 2018 alone, £330 million of dormant assets funding was announced, and by 2020, the total distribution from dormant accounts will reach more than half a billion pounds. We will expand that scheme further to help more vulnerable people to benefit. This funding is changing lives for the better, with £90 million helping the most disadvantaged young people into employment and £55 million tackling problem debt. These initiatives are led by two independent organisations.
The Government want an economy that works for everyone in every part of their life. We are building a strong foundation for social impact investing, which is bringing more capital funding to social enterprises and charities in the UK, alongside traditional forms of funding for these organisations. I am mindful that lots of people want to speak, so I shall try to commute my remarks, but I want to get these key messages out. This works in practice. Since its launch in 2012, Big Society Capital has committed more than £520 million and leveraged more than £1.2 billion of additional co-investment into this space.
The Government are building on these successes and will be using a further £135 million from dormant accounts to help further charities and social enterprises. In addition, the Government have commissioned an advisory group, and the Prime Minister has personally asked for an industry-led implementation taskforce to deliver its recommendations. We also have an inclusive economy partnership, where we work with businesses such as O2, Landsec and Accenture and with social innovators to find practical solutions and to unlock the issues on the ground. We also have the This is Me programme, an inclusive workplace programme that focuses on mental health issues, and it is working with Landsec. This is an area in which we are working with business and the community to ensure that we can deliver on the ground.
My hon. Friend is keen to speed on, but I should just like to say that she has already made a great impression on the House and on the sectors for which she is responsible in the time that she has been a Minister. In that spirit, will she take account of the rural areas such as the one I represent with regard to the things that she has said? They sometimes miss out, and it would be great if we found some means by which we could get her to come to places such as Lincolnshire to evangelise the case that she has made so powerfully today.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we should not forget our rural communities. We should work on this through the loneliness fund and the building connections fund, and I have more to say on that. I absolutely must speed on, but we need to make sure that we can cater for everyone across the land.
Moving on to youth opportunities, we need to harness the energy of young people and ensure that they have the opportunity to contribute to their local area. Volunteering provides young people with many of the skills that they will need later in life, and we are reaching out to the next generation to give them more opportunities to get involved.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way quickly, but I need to speed on.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister. Will she join me in paying tribute to the guide and scout movement, which does an enormous amount of work to try to ensure that young people understand the value of volunteering? It was refreshing to have scouts and guides approaching me as their local Member of Parliament to engage in National Democracy Week last year, so that they could begin to understand the wider process of democracy, which is linked to volunteering.
The £5 million that the Government invested in creating new places for disadvantaged young people through uniformed youth groups, including Girlguiding and St John Ambulance, shows that we are committed. We also have half a million participants in the National Citizen Service. Working with the National Lottery Community Fund, we are investing another £80 million to help young people be active in their communities. We want our young people to have a voice in decision making, and we are creating two new groups to involve them.
May I share one slight concern with the Minister? The public sector, including the health service, sometimes leans on effective charities a little too heavily. I was at Whitby and District Community Transport on Friday, and its worry is that the criteria for patient transport is changing, which is increasing pressure when it already has trouble getting enough volunteer drivers.
It is right to work with local authorities and community groups so that we do not stop people volunteering. We should be actively encouraging people and giving them a chance to shine.
Finally, on youth services, the civil society strategy included a commitment to examine the guidance given to local authorities to provide appropriate local youth services. Through such efforts, we will help people to be more active in their communities, and we have promised a review.
Will the Minister give way?
I am going to conclude, because I will be in trouble otherwise.
Despite the challenges in our growing and changing communities, as Members will know from their constituencies, civil society represents an opportunity to come together. The British people are the most generous, enterprising, imaginative and downright determined people in the world. As a Member of Parliament and a charity trustee and fundraiser, I know what it takes to be part of that, and I salute people across all constituencies, including Eastleigh, for what they do. I look forward to hearing from people about what is going on in their communities. Civil society is the best tool we have to connect our communities, to boost economy and to make us happier, and we can work together to connect our communities further.
I listened with interest to the Minister’s warm words, but I suspect that we will hear much this afternoon about the gap between the rhetoric and the reality in the Government’s approach to civil society. Ever since they were elected, this Government’s method has been to underfund, undermine and sideline the sector at every opportunity. That is a tragedy, because civil society, including the charities, volunteers and community groups that are part of it, play a critical role in reconnecting the communities that this Government have divided.
There is a real mistrust of politics and politicians in our country, which is not surprising. A decade of austerity has ripped the heart out of communities and seen the destruction of shared community spaces. Good jobs have been lost to automation. Once thriving industrial towns have been left to decline. Inequality has grown wider while the economy has grown bigger, because a few at the top have grown richer at the expense of everyone else.
The politics that did all that needs to change. People want back control over their own lives. It is no longer enough for any group of politicians to stand up and tell people to trust them to have all the answers. Trust cannot be a one-way street. People will not trust politicians until politicians show that they trust people enough to open power up to them directly. We need a new politics that is big enough to meet the challenges of our age and responsive enough to meet the specific needs of every community.
At the heart of that are questions about power. Who has it? Who does not? How do we open it up to everyone? In this digital age, with a world that is changing so fast, it is clear that we cannot solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s thinking. That is where civil society comes in, because it offers a way for people to participate on their own terms. It connects communities so that they can exercise the power that lies latent within them. Community-led organisations are a key part of how we can make our system more responsive and more democratic by rebuilding politics around people and putting real power in people’s hands. It once felt like the Conservative party was on to that with its big society agenda, but it withered before our eyes into a crude attempt to replace paid professionals with unpaid volunteers. Now, the Conservatives do not talk about it at all.
Let us look at how much has vanished under this Government: 428 day centres, 1,000 children’s centres, 600 youth centres, 478 public libraries and countless lunch clubs, befriending services, community centres and voluntary groups. Those places where communities came together to act have all gone.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the cuts in youth services have been particularly devastating? Although the interventions to support the National Citizen Service have been welcomed in many areas, the reality is that the £1 billion or so that has been spent in that arena has not been matched by support in other areas to help young people get on to successor programmes, to meet their needs and to ensure that they have genuine opportunities to take part in positive activities, rather than get caught up in crime and other risks.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said, 600 youth centres have closed, and all the activities that could have gone on in them have been taken away. That is a crying shame.
Sadly, the Government have not finished with that agenda; there is worse to come. Their new so-called fair funding formula will remove deprivation levels from how funding is calculated. It will take even more away from the very poorest and will weaken the very communities in which the need to tackle poverty, youth crime and homelessness is greatest. Communities cannot organise, act or assert their voice if the Government keep ripping away the resources they need to do those very things.
The Government passed a lobbying Act that gags charities and prevents them from campaigning. Ministers individually have put gagging clauses in contracts to silence charities and prevent them from criticising their personal failures as Ministers. The Government have discouraged volunteers in the UK by not recognising their work for national insurance credits. They announced a plan for paid time off work for volunteering, but it fizzled out into absolutely nothing.
We are a month and a half away from Brexit, but the Government have still not told us how they will replace lost EU funding for charities or how the shared prosperity fund will work, despite the fact that the Opposition have been asking about it for months. The Minister trumpets the new funding—she did so this afternoon—but she fails to acknowledge that it is a tiny drop in the ocean, compared with the billions that the Government have cut. They can work out the huge financial value of what they have taken away, but the social value that they have destroyed is incalculable.
Despite the cuts and the Government’s failure to open up power, people are doing amazing things in their communities, and are stepping in to help the victims of Government funding cuts. I pay tribute to the food banks and homeless shelters which, in such a wealthy country, we should never have needed. There is a wonderful, rich, emerging practice of sharing, co-operating, collaborating and participating in this country. People’s ingenuity and the creativity in our communities cannot and will not be beaten back, but it is fragile. It needs support and protection. It is clear that the Conservatives will never offer that, but Labour will.
My local council for voluntary service, Voluntary Action Leeds, wrote to me. It said clearly that volunteering is not part of the benefits system, and that people are being sanctioned if they refuse to volunteer. That is not volunteering; it is forced labour. Universal credit is affecting the amount of time that people have to volunteer, so the Government’s own welfare policies are decimating the voluntary sector in this country.
I agree. It is outrageous that the Government are actively penalising people for volunteering when we need to be encouraging volunteering. In particular, it helps people who are looking for work to develop the skills that they need to gain employment. I hope the Minister will take that away and look at it.
People are connecting in neighbourhoods and on social media to collaborate and bring about the change that we desperately need in this country. The digital revolution has opened up data, information and connectivity in the most extraordinary ways. It offers the potential to renew our democracy, making it more open, responsive and participative. This is the new civil society. It is a force for change of the most incredible potential, if only we had a Government with the vision and ambition to support it, like the very best Labour councils already are.
Barking and Dagenham’s Every One Every Day initiative has launched spaces and projects across the borough that bring people together in their neighbourhoods to solve the problems they face. It has dramatically increased participation, with projects as diverse as shared cooking, community composting, play streets and even a listening barber. It is a great example of asset-based community development—a model that is proving its power in communities across the country.
In my borough of Croydon, the Parchmore medical centre in Thornton Heath has spawned a network of more than 100 community-led projects that keep people healthier, and it has dramatically reduced the number of people who need to see a GP. There are sessions on healthy cooking for young families, mobility classes for older people and coffee mornings in the local pub, before it opens for customers, for people isolated in their homes. All of it is free, and all of it is run in and by the community. It has had an extraordinary impact on people’s wellbeing simply by getting neighbours to know each other better and to speak to each other.
Plymouth has set up the country’s biggest network of community energy co-ops to generate energy sustainably and plough the profits back into the local community. Stevenage is pioneering community budgeting, involving local community groups. Preston is leading on community wealth building by focusing council procurement on community organisations. In Lambeth, the council has set up, with the community, Black Thrive, a new social enterprise that gives the black community greater oversight of the mental health services that the community uses. In all these cases, existing or new community groups, charities and social enterprises have shown they have the power to transform lives. They open up decision making to the creativity and innovation that lies untapped in too many of our communities.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would consider the dichotomy at the heart of his argument—I used the word “argument” in the most generous spirit. The dichotomy is that he is arguing that this increase in digital communication is beneficial to community, but he must know that online shopping is destroying local shops, online media is destroying local newspapers and the virtual relationships he has described are not comparable with real relationships. Clearly, he is doubtful about his own relationships in Croydon, because he has already told us that people do not like politicians. Perhaps he should get out into the real world and leave the virtual world for a few minutes.
What is destroying our high streets are the right hon. Gentleman’s Government’s business rate hikes.
The community and voluntary groups that are part of all of this innovation are pointing the way forward, not only to a better society, but to a new politics—not the centralised state or the marketised state, but the collaborative state, enabling, an open, participative and hopeful approach. This new people-powered politics will help us find a way to tackle the great social ills of our time, one of which the Minister referred to; loneliness in this country has now reached epidemic proportions. Loneliness is the product of the breakdown of the family, the fragmentation of communities and the cuts that have taken away support services. The Local Government Association now points to an £8 billion funding shortfall in social care services, but we also see long working hours, low pay, investment and jobs deserts and the hollowing out of communities. All of that has contributed to this situation, but, sadly, no single piece of legislation can put a problem that complex right. The answers lie in our communities, in strengthening the bonds between people instead of atomising them, and in building up community assets instead of closing them down as the Government have done. Communities are already doing much, but if we had the courage to open up power and resources to them, they could do so much more.
Our country is at a crossroads. The Brexit debate has crystallised the deep divisions that separate us from each other and the anger that has driven it. We need to come back together, but that will not happen from the top down. We need a new, more open politics, one that is more participative, embracing the collaboration and kindness that all of us, as MPs, see in our constituencies. For that we need a Government who recognise and celebrate the central role of civil society and communities, and are ready to invest in them, not cut them to the bone. That is how we can genuinely let people take back control, so they can build the compassionate country we have the potential to become.
Order. We will be starting with a six-minute limit. Hopefully, I will not have to lower it. Let us aim for that for everybody.
It is a great joy to speak on this subject, to be an MP who has the privilege of visiting charity and voluntary groups whenever I can, and to represent a part of the country where community and voluntary groups are such a rich part of the local fabric of society. Following the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed), I shall enjoy talking up the great work these groups do. The last thing they need is for us politicians to get more involved. We should allow them to get on and do the work that they do, while recognising that the state has the responsibility to create the environment that they need.
As I said, one of the joys of being an MP is to meet and support voluntary groups, which I do as much as I can but particularly at the beginning of the year. Since I was elected, I have been putting on Big Thank You events over a few weekends in January and February. They were inspired by the work of the loneliness commission and the sad loss of our colleague Jo Cox. Getting groups together to share their experiences and what they do is so valuable. I wish briefly to name-check a few groups that I met just a couple of weeks ago, to celebrate what they do and their great offer to my constituency. The events took place in the three main towns in my constituency—Penzance, Helston and St Ives—and are examples of how charities are connecting communities and addressing loneliness and isolation.
First, I hosted an event this year at Helston bowling club. When I met members of the club last year, they were so inspired by the opportunity to work with other charities that they started Saturday morning community bowling. They opened bowling up to the community, and now people can do indoor or short-mat bowling and outdoor bowling. Lots of people turn up—they do not always bowl; they drink tea and coffee and eat cake—and they have seen a large growth in members and numbers, just because they are able to offer some sense of community to people who are otherwise on their own.
I had the great joy of going to an event to meet the group that runs Tea Love and Cake, or TCL, which brings together large numbers of mainly older people. A lovely bunch of lady volunteers go around picking people up, bringing them into a community room in Marazion and entertaining them for the afternoon through various—dare I say—lightweight exercises, along with tea and cake. They came to an event and shared a bit about the incredible work they have done to encourage lonely people.
The St Ives community bus was funded by the Department for Transport, as has been the case for several other community organisations in my constituency. The volunteer drivers from the bus service talked about how they pick people up every day of the week, running them to and fro between different organisations and groups so that they can be part of the community in which they live.
I met some young mums who run a breastfeeding support group for mums who struggle in that area. It is a voluntary group that gets together to help other mums.
The Saturday Gang is a group of volunteers who bring together people with learning disabilities on a Saturday. Again, they have tea, cake and coffee. They help people with learning disabilities with some of the challenges they face.
The National Coastwatch Institution started in my constituency, and I was glad to meet its volunteers. There are huge numbers of well-organised volunteers who spend all the daylight hours, all year round, watching our coastline, keeping people safe and reporting it if people are at risk of getting in trouble. It is an amazing organisation that gives people the opportunity not only to have friendship and community but to do the vital job of keeping the people in the waters along our coastline safe.
Around the time of Parliament Week last year, I had the privilege of going to so many different groups over two or three weeks. The guiding and scouting group came along to the events and talked about their fantastic work to support young minds suffering from a bit of anxiety. That is a fantastic piece of work.
We are doing a really interesting piece of work by bringing together some of the groups I have mentioned to take from supermarkets food that is not out of date—it is perfectly okay—but surplus to requirements. They are processing that food into good, healthy, nutritious meals. The plan is to teach parents how to cook using raw materials, which is a skill that many of us have lost—including, I am afraid, myself. They provide vacuum-packed meals—fantastic, healthy food—that can be warmed through quickly. I do not know of anywhere else in the country that is doing this. They slice and freeze-dry bananas. If Members know anything about bananas, they will know that they do not freeze, but when they thaw these ones, they are exactly as they were when they cut them up. It is pretty impressive and I think they should patent the process.
Age Concern, a fantastic organisation across Cornwall, does a great job of connecting communities and providing some sensible ideas about how we can support older people at home and how we can help them avoid going into hospital. It highlights the fact that the state does not have all the answers—it should never have all the answers. The voluntary community does something that we cannot do, and we should encourage it, support it and give it the freedom to do a great job. I am so proud to be an MP of west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly where many, many people find fulfilment in volunteering, supporting each other and helping some of our most vulnerable people.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), who detailed some of the work that is going on in his community. Let me make a non-pecuniary declaration of interest: I was the national policy adviser for Volunteer Scotland, the national body for volunteering, before I came to this House. I have also worked for West Dunbartonshire Community and Volunteering Services—Members will know it as a CVS and volunteer centre—for over a decade.
I thank the Government for bringing forward this general debate today. I am sure that there are those in the Chamber who have been seeking such a debate for quite a long time. I commend the work of the all-party parliamentary group on charities and volunteering of which I am a member. I see the redoubtable chair, the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), in their place. I do hope that, when they sum up, both Front-Bench speakers will pay tribute to the work both of that all-party group and of the chair who has been a doughty campaigner since coming to this House.
Although much of the policy framework for charities and volunteering is fully devolved to the Parliament of Scotland, there is a range of overlaps that needs to be highlighted so that Members can be aware of the distinct nature of charities in Scotland, the number of which, according to the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, now stands at 24,466 in total.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that these issues are devolved and rightly so, but where there are opportunities for co-operation across the United Kingdom, we should surely grasp them. Why, for example, is it not possible for young people in my constituency, because of a decision by the Scottish Government, to participate in the National Citizen Service? There is a demand for that in Scotland.
I will come on to answer that question at the end of my contribution. There is a big discussion to be had about the legislative process of the UK Government and a distinct understanding of what volunteering actually means, but I will come back to the hon. Gentleman’s point further on in the debate because he raises a very important point about the difference between volunteering and being told to do something. Volunteering is a free-will activity.
It is essential to understand that, as in England, Wales and Northern Ireland—although I do not see any Members from Northern Ireland in the Chamber—the vast majority of voluntary organisations are small, with no employees; they are founded, organised and able to connect communities solely through volunteers. As a sector, both charities and the many unincorporated voluntary organisations play a central role in the delivery of people-centred services and in ensuring that communities, through a whole host of avenues, are able to inform and shape our nations. We have already heard about how the sector informs participation and democracy.
My hon. Friend is making a good point about the role of voluntary organisations. In the past year, two new food banks have opened in Inverness to cope with the demand caused by the failures of universal credit. Those volunteers are working not just there, but in initiatives such as the hungry lunches project at Inverness Cathedral and MFR Cash for Kids, which provides help and advice. Does my hon. Friend agree that they are not just providing help for people, but actually saving them?
I could not disagree, and that is replicated not just in Scotland, but across the whole UK.
Like the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), in Coventry we have volunteers who not only collect, but distribute, the food; and a lot of people are very thankful to them. Another issue is loneliness. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that every amount of pressure should be put on the BBC to revoke any plans it has to charge the licence fee to over-75s. Finally, there is another voluntary organisation in Coventry that is totally run by volunteers who help the blind using modern techniques. Has the hon. Gentleman come across anything like that in his constituency?
I could not disagree with the hon. Member on a range of matters, but I do so specifically on the over-75s licence fee issue. It is incomprehensible to me why the BBC would even consider such a thing, given that social isolation is a profound issue across not only older age, but a whole gamut of ages. I may come to that point in a moment.
The right to form voluntary organisations—charities or unincorporated organisations—is a fundamental pillar of a modern, liberal democracy. Such organisations are founded on the lived experiences of communities, on geography, on choice and on need. Nevertheless, charity is no replacement for good government. Maybe that is what many have found with issues around food banks and services having to be replicated by volunteers.
The unincorporated organisations and charities challenge policy makers and Governments in general, campaigning on issues on conscience and locality. I think of the Women’s Aid organisations in my constituency, which—with the new local authority administration—are addressing specific targeted issues such as domestic abuse and violence, and access to services. They are also raising the matter of three-year funding strategies, rather than constantly having to come back to the local authority or Government Department year in, year out for the same type of funding scheme.
These organisations deliver public services in ways that are too numerous to mention, including by supporting people through drug addiction. This includes the Dumbarton Area Council on Alcohol in my constituency. Organisations such as Tullochan and Y Sort-It in West Dunbartonshire enhance the lives of young people through group activity and individual support. Importantly, the unincorporated organisations across all our constituencies run groups of all shapes and sizes, such as Clydebank’s Morison Memorial lunch club, which offers friendship and wholesome food every Thursday; I can testify—I am sure that Scottish Members will recognise this—that it has the best and finest tablet in Scotland.
Charities and voluntary organisations connect and enhance our communities socially and economically. In Scotland, the investment from the Scottish Government has again increased to £24.9 million, with additional resources and support from a range of other funding bodies and groups, such as local authorities and NHS boards. Indeed, voluntary organisations are seen as an essential part of shaping public service through community planning in each of the 32 councils of Scotland.
From a Scotland-wide perspective, the voluntary sector covers every facet of Scottish society, and I am grateful to the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations for the following figures. There are over 45,000 voluntary organisations—on top of the charitable sector—in Scotland, employing more than 106,000 paid staff. That is 3.5% of Scotland’s workforce. The workforce is dominated by women, who make up 71% of it; this is significantly higher than in the public and private sectors. The sector also employs more people with disabilities than the public and private sectors. Over 1.3 million people in Scotland volunteer, and over 30% of women, people from rural communities and those aged 16 to 24 volunteer. There are over 250,000 charity trustees, many of whom will never actually see themselves as volunteers; and that is a clear point about many trustees and those involved in the governance process.
I see that the chair of the all-party parliamentary group and the Minister agree. It is a fundamental point that we need to reinforce.
The sector in Scotland has a combined turnover of £5.8 billion. For the record, that is higher than the whisky industry. Some 78% of charities in Scotland are locally based, and four out of five Scots used a third sector organisation last year.
In my Falkirk constituency, I have the great privilege to support Strathcarron Hospice, which this month holds its Snowdrop appeal. Princess Anne is also a great supporter of the hospice. The volunteers who support this superb charity and many other organisations are appreciated, but I have looked at some of the salaries paid to the chief executives of national charities. Does my hon. Friend agree that that the salary of those at national charities should be capped?
I think that might be above my pay grade. However, I do believe that pay must be commensurate with the working activity undertaken. It is up to the board members of charities to make sure that they hold their staff, especially their senior staff, accountable in terms of the wages that they are paid.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the hospice movement. I have two hospices in my own constituency: St Margaret of Scotland, which is well known across the west of Scotland; and CHAS, or Children’s Hospices Across Scotland, which assists children who are terminally ill from all over the UK. They are to be commended for the sterling work that they do.
Although not perhaps enjoying the same attention and understanding as other sectors with regard to Brexit, the sector is no more or less immune to the uncertainties generated as a consequence of leaving the European Union. Alongside concerns about protecting human rights, participation in European networks and pan-European programmes, and the future workforce, the issue of funding is paramount. Over the 2014-2020 funding period, Scotland has secured €941 million in European structural investment fund money, a significant proportion of which was to be channelled to third sector organisations in a diverse range of communities. This funding enables third sector organisations to access funds under the following interventions: employability pipelines, social inclusion and poverty reduction, and growing the social economy. I believe that the UK Government are developing the UK shared prosperity fund as a successor fund to replace the ESIF when the UK leaves the European Union. Yet despite repeated promises of a consultation, the launch has been delayed several times. Therefore, charities are yet to have their say on how this fund will evolve and operate, and they have had no clarity on what it will fund, how it will be designed, who can access it, how much it will be worth, or who will manage it. I hope that the Minister will clarify issues around the consultation and inform the House of what progress will be made in this area.
The Minister referred to the Dormant Assets Commission, which was set up in March 2016, building on the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act 2008. It had the expanded objective of looking at a much wider range of financial assets such as life insurance, pension products and so on. The commission published its final report and a series of recommendations in 2017. It identified some £2 billion-worth of dormant assets that could be freed up and distributed to good causes, for want of a better term. This is considered to be a conservative estimate, much as the value of dormant accounts was undervalued. More assets will also fall dormant in the years ahead, meaning that the fund can deliver in perpetuity.
In 2011, the dormant accounts money was made subject to the Barnett formula and devolved nations were able to set their own spending priorities, with the Big Lottery Fund taking responsibility for distributing money through the Young Start programme, which aims to create opportunities for children and young people. I am sure that Members would hope and expect that the new fund will follow a similar model. However, there has been little detail available about how funding will be allocated and distributed. Future consultation will give the sector an opportunity to ensure that this money can be secured for good causes and successfully targeted to produce the best outcomes. Again, I hope that the Minister can clarify the situation.
The essential elements of voluntary organisations in connecting communities are those who, either individually or collectively, volunteer to run charities and voluntary organisations. In Scotland, this is even an essential element of the nation itself. For instance, as I am sure that Members on both sides of the House from Scottish constituencies will know, the national Church, while it has ministers, is a charitable organisation facilitated by volunteers. Like many other faith-based organisations, it is a cornerstone of national life. Its role in the distinct nature of the Scottish nation is volunteer-led. Yet for volunteering to flourish, we must recognise that it requires investment.
In its report “Volunteering, Health and Wellbeing”, Volunteer Scotland—the national body for volunteering—highlighted the substantial evidence to support the contribution of volunteering to policies where health and wellbeing has an important role to play. That includes key policy areas such as health, education, employment, young people, older people, criminal justice and community engagement. The Minister mentioned isolation and loneliness. Last year, the Scottish Government brought forward their first ever draft strategy, “A Connected Scotland: Our strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness and building stronger social connections”, with an additional £1 million of investment, and that is only for the first two years.
Through those policy areas, we understand that volunteering is essential to healthy behaviours and improved daily life—critically, for those who are isolated due to a range of factors, from income to age—and it has the real benefit of allowing people to cope with illness. It is well evidenced that volunteering has a profound positive impact on all our mental health, and the work of so many local groups across these islands, including Stepping Stones in my constituency, is a testament to the positive impact of volunteering on our mental health.
Yet we face challenging volunteer geography across western society, with a decreasing number of people volunteering. Even in rural communities, where the number has been traditionally high, we are seeing a marked decrease. There is no simple answer to growing volunteering. Our societies are evolving, and as I said, there may be people who do not even recognise that they volunteer.
The Minister mentioned the London Olympics. There were also the Glasgow Commonwealth games, and in a few years the games will be in Birmingham. While large sporting events see spikes in volunteering, there is yet to be substantial evidence that that investment brings a long-term increase in volunteering.
The hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) mentioned the National Citizen Service, an issue on which he and I disagree. For me, my party and the Government of Scotland, the call to have a National Citizen Service only detracts from investment in existing infrastructure in Scotland. There are many national youth organisations; the exact same type of organisation exists and is already funded. Rather than asking for a London-based system, we should look to the systems that already exist in Scotland, as a lot of work is being done by YouthLink Scotland and other organisations.
For me, big society is like Big Brother. It is a threat to individual and collective community action, undermining volunteering in its most basic and fundamental form. It is a society where we have, in the words of Robert Dahl,
“an effectively enforced right to form and join autonomous associations”,
rather than ones brought about by Government.
My parents were dedicated to voluntary work. Whereas other children played cricket, as you did, Mr Deputy Speaker, or played mummies and daddies or shops, my sisters and I used to play “holding a meeting”, and it was invariably a charity meeting. So it is not a great surprise that, all my adult life, I have tried to work at least one day a week for charity. That has enabled me to move from charity to charity locally, helping to buy a bus for Leonard Cheshire and selling cushions for Fine Cell Work—good golly, that was difficult; nobody likes giving money to prisoners, apart from those involved in the criminal justice system. I also raised money for the urology department—try that, guys; a urology ball, anyone?
There are two things that I am most proud of. First, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), I set up NorPIP, as a founding trustee. Our by-line was “Two is too late”, which is not quite true, but it focused strongly on the attachment issues between parents who are struggling and their very young babies. Secondly, I set up the benefactors’ board for my local hospital trust. We described that as the icing on the cake. What we were adding to the NHS, which we all really supported, were the bits that the NHS could not fund, such as new bits of equipment that it could not take the extra leap to fund, nice duvet covers for the children and equipment for the hospital school. I am proud to have set up that fund and chaired it for many years. I am also proud that my predecessor’s wife took it over when I was elected to this place. She is a great lady, and he is a great man. He has had a knock-back in his charitable experiences today as Age Friendly Banbury has not received the funding it went for, but I know that will not set him back.
I am trying to say that charity work is a great background for someone to be a local MP. It means they know people locally—leant-in people locally—and they know what is going on in their local area. It is of course a great background for everybody. As the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) said, it is really good for everybody’s mental health to volunteer. When our son died, my work for Save the Baby helped me to get back to playing a part in society. We can get positive things, as you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, out of tragedy.
To put it politely, volunteers are so much more powerful and good, at fundraising in particular, than paid charity workers. People give money to people. We know that, and we have proved it time and again.
May I commend two organisations—the Lions and Rotary—to my hon. Friend? I am lucky in my constituency to have Burton Rotary and Uttoxeter Lions. Both organisations raise tens of thousands for good causes in my constituency and, I am sure, across the country. Does she agree that those organisations play a huge role in our communities?
I do. Those are fabulous local groups, and we are lucky enough to have them in my area too. My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to them.
We are not just talking about formal charities today. I would like to tell the Chamber about Tony, my next-door neighbour. He not only takes my children to the bus, reduces the local rat population, uploads new photos on the village website, takes other families’ dogs for walks, and opens and checks the church daily, but he does all this by 8.30 every morning. We all know people like this and, quite frankly, we want to grow into such people. It is great that, as the Minister told us earlier, 30% of adults are doing some volunteering. I would like her to measure not just the money that is given, but the time that is spent by stalwarts of our communities, such as Tony, who do so much for us.
I could not let such an opportunity pass without mentioning Singing for Syrians, which I set up soon after my election in 2015. I heard on the radio that Syrian doctors were working unpaid, and I thought we would have a bit of a whip round. Everybody I asked said yes and tried to help. It is my dream charity. We encourage people to do the work for us and to do their own thing—inspired slightly, I must say, by the Macmillan annual coffee morning. Everybody can get involved in the singing, or in eating at the fabulous Syrian supper clubs. This year, our flagship will be on 10 December in St Margaret’s, and a marvellous cross-party choir of MPs will be taking part. Others do the work; we just receive and distribute the money, and there are events all over the country.
We need the money more than ever. The Hands Up Foundation, which we fund, is one of the very few charities still donating into northern Syria, as the big players have pulled out. Our prosthetic limb clinic was flooded two weeks ago—all the equipment is kept in the basement to protect it from aerial bombardment—and we are trying to raise £10,000 to re-home the limb clinic, which provides such essential services to those who have lost limbs in the war. We are still about £4,000 short of that target, so if anybody would like to give me a cheque afterwards, it would be gratefully received. I encourage everybody present in the Chamber, perhaps if there is a boring moment later, to google “Singing for Syrians” and watch our very short clip, “Sing like they can hear us!” If they have three minutes and want a good laugh, they can google, “Singing for Syrians Flashmob” in Marylebone station, which is fantastic.
I would like to thank everybody who volunteers for all our local and national charities. I especially want to thank those who volunteer in north Oxfordshire. I am particularly proud that we have national bases locally for the Child Brain Injury Trust and for Adoption UK. I am inspired by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who has a “Volunteering Week”, during which it appears that he does a lot of gardening. I am going to do “Victoria Volunteers” from 23 September for a week, when I am looking forward to cooking for Banbury Young Homelessness Project, eating cake at Restore, making tea at the Royal Voluntary Service and reading to children with the indomitable women of ARCh—Assisted Reading for Children—which is just a fantastic organisation. If I am allowed to, I will also do some volunteer driving for the people who volunteer out of the citizens advice bureau, but they may not want me and I may not pass the check. It is fantastic what is done by people all around our country, and I cannot praise them highly enough. I thank the Minister for all she does.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who spoke so passionately.
There is much that makes me proud of the communities I represent across Barnsley East, especially our local charities and community groups, many of which I have had the privilege to visit in recent weeks.
Everyone who cares for a loved one with dementia knows of the immense emotional strain the condition imposes on those who live with it and those who care for them. I know that I speak for many people across Barnsley when I thank BIADS—Barnsley Independent Alzheimer’s and Dementia Support—and Butterflies, two fantastic community groups that provide outstanding support, help and comfort for those living with dementia in our community.
I cannot deny the sense of shame I feel in telling the House that today, in 21st century Britain, after years of austerity, there are children going hungry and families—many of them in employment—who are unable to put food on the table without resorting to a local food bank. Our community came together 30 years ago to feed the families of men who had no option but to go on strike to defend their industry and their way of life. Again, our community is coming together to feed families who face the most desperate conditions because of universal credit, the low-wage insecure economy and wider austerity. I have nothing but praise for our food banks—for the volunteers who give their time and their heart to run them, and for the generosity of all those who donate.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. Does she agree that the Trussell Trust provides fantastic leadership with its food banks across the country, and that very often it is people from faith groups, particularly churches and chapels, who do so much to support this really important work?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point, and one that I was about to touch on.
In the coming school holidays, food banks will again be busy. I cannot help but ask: surely it must be possible to create a society where children do not go hungry.
Just as our food banks battle want, our churches battle the scandal of homelessness. A man died sleeping on our streets last year, simply because he had nowhere to live. The homelessness he experienced is a situation that far too many people face. I praise the Barnsley Churches Drop-In, which provides support to those who are sadly homeless. But again I say: it does not have to be like this.
Every time I visit charities and community groups, I see the amazing work they do and the real difference they make in our community, but there is another side to the story. Many of our brilliant local charities and community groups in Barnsley have been affected by this Government’s austerity since 2010. Cuts to public services have forced them to take on extra work and have put them under increasing pressure. Cuts amounting to 40% make Barnsley Council the worst affected in the country and have left it struggling to support those local charities and community groups.
What the Government do not seem to understand is that cuts have consequences. Luminar, a Barnsley charity where volunteers helped children and families affected by domestic violence, has been forced to close. The Barnsley Bereavement Support Service, which supports those struggling with the shock of losing someone close to them, is short of funding and faces closure. That is shameful.
Despite the many difficulties, so many fantastic groups—far more than I can mention here today—continue to support local people. They do so thanks to the efforts of the brilliant volunteers who work for them. They are passionate, determined and dedicated to helping others. They give so much of themselves in supporting our community. It is time that the Government supported them and gave them the proper funding that they need and deserve.
On one visit to a local community group, I saw a sign that, more than anything else, sums up the local volunteers in my constituency. It simply said, “Volunteers are not paid, not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.” I could not have put it better myself.
Unfortunately, I have to take the time limit down to five minutes to get everybody in.
Everybody here has interests to declare, so I shall rattle quickly through mine. I may mention some of these organisations: I am a recently retired trustee of the Gloucestershire Community Foundation; the current chair of the Gloucester History Trust; a joint patron of the charity HaVinG a Voice in Gloucester, which helps the homeless on to pathways; and a joint patron of the Discover DeCrypt project at St Mary de Crypt church and school. Every year, I volunteer with Gloucestershire Royal Hospital.
Today is a very good time for this debate and I congratulate the Minister on her introduction to it. She is quite right to focus on what is such a big part of such a big society. She is quite right to say that volunteers and charities are at the heart of every community in all our constituencies, and she is inspired to highlight some of the new awards that have been given to projects about deprivation and community. I would have loved to have seen at least one of those come the way of Gloucester, but there may be opportunities for that shortly. The more she is able to do on this front, with the help of the Chancellor, the more difference it will make to local pride, local people and local potential. Let me share some thoughts from almost 12 years of focus on community and its role in the regeneration of Gloucester.
The first point is that pride matters hugely. England and Britain’s characteristics include an attractive self-deprecation and a not always so attractive approach to not appreciating ourselves, our cities, our towns and villages enough. How do we measure pride and what does it mean? There is no index, but there are various indicators we can use. I often use Centre for Cities’ research as a snapshot of how our city is doing relative to others. The employment rate immediately tells me that Gloucester is working. We have the fourth-best employment rate of any city in the nation. Then there are the less tangible things, such as the amount of volunteering.
Can any of us truly say that we know how many people are volunteering and how many hours they give to our city or our county? It is very hard to tell, but when we look at the different ingredients it is there for us to see. For example, Gloucestershire Royal Hospital has over 400 volunteers, not including the 30-plus in the chaplain’s office. The Gloucester Civic Trust has hundreds of volunteers who play a crucial role on Gloucester Day and on heritage open days, which are one of those wonderful things that have grown and grown.
We then have the community groups themselves. The Redwell Centre in Matson is a fantastic success, with programmes, projects and activities for everybody from the very young to the very old, including the cross-faith and denomination Together in Matson. There are community groups, such as Chit Chat within St James’s church in Quedgeley, which involve the community. There are the festivals, which all our communities have. I would like to talk about the Gloucester History Festival, which I started eight years ago and which now has 24,000 visitors.
We have groups who help the homeless and rough sleepers. The George Whitefield Centre incorporates Gloucestershire care services, the Gloucester City Mission and the food bank, which has lots of volunteers. It is not just Christian charities either. Islamic groups in Gloucester are raising funds for good causes. There are immigrants who are giving back to the society that has looked after them since they left their own country. I want to single out Babu Odedra and Ash Chavda. They own the Olympus Theatre, where there is a great project to regenerate culture and drama in the heart of Barton in Gloucester. There are the Rotary Clubs. We now get all the Rotary Clubs in Gloucester together and we have our community awards every year, with some £10,000 going to about 20 different groups. These little things matter and it is a way for charities to highlight what they are doing to a group of people who are very charitably minded. The Barnwood Trust nearby, a mental health-focused charity, now interprets mental health in a much wider way. There are lots of things that help. The Gloucester Pride festival every year attracts many times the numbers it had when it started, as does the Lantern festival, which ends up at the cathedral.
What works? What transforms communities and cities? I think often, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) mentioned, out of sadness can come determination to change. Charities are formed from disasters in families, such as: the Hollie Gazzard Trust which is about to celebrate its fifth anniversary; Charlie’s Cancer Support group; and the Nelson Trust, which does great things for women in trouble. All of these things boost pride. Success breeds confidence and success. Buildings help. As Churchill said, we shape buildings and then they shape us. Above all, it is about the potential in our societies and things that are good for mental health. The role of volunteering and charities is absolutely critical.
I am really pleased to speak in this debate and to talk about my experience of 23 years both as a volunteer at and manager of a local citizens advice bureau. People volunteer for many different reasons. I volunteered because I was at home with a young baby, and I wanted to get out and do something else other than sing “The Wheels on the Bus” for a while. I was really glad I did, because when I was left alone with that baby, I realised that CAB was in my blood and I wanted to stay there, and I got a paid job there.
Volunteers include young people looking for work or people who are retired. There are many different roles within even one charity, with many different demands—advice, reception, admin, media, specialisms, social policy and trustees—and it is the job of the manager or the volunteer co-ordinator to ensure that everyone is in the right role and that they are trained, supervised and reviewed to check that we meet their aims and that they meet the organisation’s aims. They are perhaps even given targets for improvement and sometimes even brought to recognise that they are perhaps no longer in the right place and could move on. It is obvious that volunteers take considerable management to provide a service within the charity’s aims. Volunteers give their time freely; they are not free.
We had 50 volunteers and 29 paid staff working full time, with a full-time volunteer co-ordinator, as well as the chief executive officer and deputy. Volunteers do a great job. They have a real stake in their organisation, but sometimes, as demands change, they need taking through the change process. This perhaps needs someone to take them through the process differently than they would with paid staff. I would never have wanted to change to having all paid staff. There is a value in the diversity of volunteers—there are people who are rooted in their communities, who really want to give their time. Sometimes I used to find that people wanted me to give far too much time, wanting me to stay till 7 o’clock every night when my daughter needed putting to bed, but that was my problem.
There have been changes in the charity environment. Many charities now have to be business-focused, particularly those providing public services, and they are moving to having contracts, not grants. I think that is a good thing, as long as the key performance indicators are right and are not just focused on outputs, and the charity looks at its charitable objectives and does not just go for anything. That is where the trustee board comes in. There is a need for a mix of specialist and local skills in accounting, business planning, and grievance and disciplinary procedures. As charities grow, they need to regularly reassess their trustee board, just as much as their management. They need to check that it has the skills to manage the chief executive—I have to say that as a chief exec, that was not always an easy job.
Citizens Advice is a shining example of a charity that uses the experience gained on the ground in local communities to try to effect national change through social policy work. We see the unintended effect of legislation and must be able to speak out. That is not party political—heaven knows, I have criticised every Government since 1986.
I want to move on to my local community and the charities there. Not all charities need to be big; many start from local need. I will mention a couple. Embrace is a user-led charity for people with disabilities. To me, that exemplifies the importance of users being involved and empowering people. It is about asking, “What do they want?” rather than just asking them just to take what they are given. There is also the Abram Ward community co-operative, which has projects combating loneliness by bringing young and old together to make items such as go-carts. Wigan Council has a deal whereby it works with charities and community groups and provides small grants and trains volunteers. It has really invigorated the local community so that people feel like a community, not just a collection of individuals who happen to live near one another.
I would not be here today without having volunteered at my local CAB. It led to a career spanning 23 years. That was not my intention when I walked through the door into the manager’s office at Sale CAB. I worked with volunteers and enjoyed and valued their commitment, diversity and humour. I feel that it has really enriched my life, and I hope that it has contributed to improving the lives of those in the local community.
We in this House are all grateful for the dedication of charities and volunteers in our constituencies and impressed by their achievements. As the Government’s civil society strategy states, global Britain is rooted in local Britain, and I am pleased to say that my constituency has many residents groups, community charities and local branches of national charities. I want to place on the record my thanks for the incredible work done by all volunteers in our communities.
Celebrating civil society is a recognition that it is not good enough to expect the state, whether national or local government, to do everything. Far too often in the past, it has fallen to organisations such as city councils to be responsible for everything, when in reality they cannot be, and even if they could, it would disempower communities. Supporting charities and volunteers is a recognition that organisations outside the state are often better able to tackle certain challenges and provide certain social goods. What matters is that these parts, across public, private and civil society, work together to create something greater than their sum.
Over the summer, I was pleased to host funding workshops at Blurton community hub, in my constituency, with the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and the People’s Postcode Lottery. Both events were well attended by community and charitable organisations, and I hope that from them we will see more successful bids and the investment we need in our local communities.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council recently empowered communities by creating a community investment fund focused on investing in equipment and assets with a longer-term impact. Since it started two years ago, £1.7 million has been invested, with a further £1.3 million to be announced soon. The council also recently set up the Potto Lotto, a Potteries-based lottery, where 60% of the ticket price goes to local charities and players can nominate a good cause to fund. This shows the proactive and innovative approach being taken in partnership locally that is empowering communities and charities to deliver great returns.
Another excellent local example of joint working is the North Staffordshire Community Rail Partnership, which promotes the north Staffordshire line—for example, by helping to create more welcoming station environments for passengers, including at Longton in my constituency. I have no doubt that its efforts over the past decade have helped to double local rail usage, which I fully expect the new franchisee to reflect with improvements on the line. That highly localised work at Longton has had a knock-on effect in the form of a bronze medal at the Britain in Bloom festival in the first year of its taking part, thanks to the hard work of volunteers at Longton Community Partnership.
All this contributes to much-needed footfall, as do the charity shops that occupy what would otherwise be empty premises on our high streets. Some people complain about the number of charity shops, but it is always better that these shops are occupied, and of course the future high streets fund will help further. Local charities, such as Dougie Mac and Bethel church, are putting funding straight back into the local area. Furthermore, following the successes of Longton and Blurton at Britain in Bloom, it is fantastic to see the local community in Fenton coming forward with a Fenton in Flower competition.
Many local sports clubs rely almost entirely on volunteers. I think of clubs such as Hanford, Meakins Fenton, Longton and Hem Heath cricket clubs, Longton and Trentham rugby clubs, and Foley football club, alongside Stoke City football club, of course, which is involved extensively with local charitable work, especially with young people, through its community trust. Longton ruby club, which was visited by the Prime Minister herself, is mainly run by volunteers. Its website stresses that none of what the club does behind the scenes and on the pitch would be possible without the dedicated work and support of volunteers.
In Meir, local partners, including the YMCA, are working to combat some of the challenges we are experiencing with antisocial behaviour and gangs. Critical to this is improving sports facilities for the community to ensure a distraction for those young people. Recent visits to charities in my constituency have shown me the breadth and vitality of the important work being done by these volunteers. The Grocott Centre, for example, which I visited in January, is a local independent charity based in Fenton that promotes the welfare, wellbeing and social inclusion of vulnerable groups. It does incredible work with people with dementia, elderly people and adults with learning or physical disabilities.
I was a delighted that Blurton Farm residents association received the Queen’s award for voluntary service in 2018, owing to the huge commitment and tireless work of volunteers, especially its chair, Christine Pratt. Other charities I have visited recently include Landau Stoke, Father Hudson’s Care, the Gingerbread Centre, Deaflinks and Temple Street Methodist church community café. I am hugely grateful to them all for the excellent work they do in the community. The Donna Louise children’s hospice and the Douglas Macmillan hospice also do phenomenal work to support families at their most harrowing and difficult times, and staff and volunteers—
Order. I am sorry but the hon. Gentleman’s time is up.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton). You have presented us with a challenge, Mr Deputy Speaker—to say everything that we want to say about connecting communities by supporting charities and volunteers, and to do it within five minutes—but I will have a go.
The House has been discussing charities for a very long time. The Charitable Uses Act was presented here in 1601. I venture to say that charities seem to be rather more popular than politicians. A recent survey by the Charities Aid Foundation found that 80% of adults in the United Kingdom think that charities play an essential role. Can we imagine a positive rating of 80% for any politician?
Another Member paid tribute to the work of the all-party parliamentary group on charities and volunteering. Let me now pay tribute to my fellow officers in the group: my noble Friend Baroness Pitkeathley, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) and Lord Shinkwin. I also pay tribute to our secretariat, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and—most important of the lot—the large number of affiliated members of charities and community groups.
We all have amazing community groups in our constituencies. We can always argue here, as we do, about what is the role of the state and what is the role of voluntary groups, but that is not the debate that I want to have today. I want, for instance, to pay tribute to the amazing work of WINGS Wrexham, which works against period poverty in the borough of Wrexham. It deals with the lack of access to female sanitary products by providing collection points and fulfils a vital advocacy role.
I have five main points to make in slightly under three minutes. First, the Minister mentioned sustainable finance. That is important, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield said earlier, volunteering does not come free and should not be done on the cheap. I urge the Minister and, indeed, all decision-makers to look back on some of the good work that resulted from the compact between the Government and voluntary sector. Let us aspire to longer-term funding, strategic planning, and—yes—full cost recovery.
Secondly, we know that volunteers, charities and community groups have a huge advocacy role. It was said in the Government’s civil society strategy that simply being in receipt of taxpayers’ money should not inhibit charities from making their voices heard on matters of policy and practice, and I welcome those words, but I want to see that always happening in practice. Charities have been, small p, political and have undertaken advocacy since the Royal British Legion campaigned on the rights of soldiers returning home after the first world war. I urge the Government to look again at the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 and to take on board some of the recommendations of Lord Hodgson on that.
Thirdly, I believe that we need to rethink philanthropy. The Minister mentioned the development of gift aid, which is indeed very positive, and the gift aid small donations scheme, but we should also take account of the new philanthropy whereby people make donations that are backed up by supermarkets and other stores. There is no Treasury support on top of that, but consideration should be given to providing such support as part of the small donations scheme. That could work in much the same way as the donations of furniture to the British Heart Foundation.
Fourthly, the Minister mentioned the revival of deprived areas by means of dormant cash. I hope that she takes on board many of the ideas that have been advanced by voluntary organisations. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has referred to the need for a revolution in community ownership and participation.
Finally, let me make a point about trustees. The Minister mentioned that she was a trustee. I hope that she will support the ten-minute rule Bill that I will present on 6 March. According to the Charity Commission, at least 100,000 new trustees are appointed every year. I think that it is time to give them a status in law similar to that of school governors, local councillors, magistrates and those in other categories when it comes to time off for their duties—unpaid time off. I should be grateful if the Minister looked into that because it is time that we changed the law.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones).
During my time as a fire officer, Strathclyde fire and rescue was, as it still is, supported by volunteer firefighters. Indeed, in many remote and rural areas and islands, these dedicated individuals provide the first, and sometimes the only, response to emergencies in their own communities. Another public service, the NHS, experiences increasing demand for patient transport, and patients are seeking to minimise their time spent at hospital. Free transport tailored to an individual’s needs is provided by charities such as Ayrshire Cancer Support, and they are to be applauded for their good work. I also want to mention Maxine Allan for the Whiteleys Retreat, which provides rural respite facilities for children living with cancer. Some charities, such as the British Heart Foundation and Ayr’s SeAscape, are fortunate to have volunteers with the specialist skill to upcycle furniture and PAT—portable appliance testing—tested electrical items for use by those given accommodation, particularly those who have been homeless.
A ladies lunch club held in aid of Ayrshire hospice recently helped to fund a new spa room for the patients; that was a remarkable achievement by these ladies, and there are many such groups throughout my constituency. On a visit to Alloway guides, I found them collecting items to pass on to others less fortunate than themselves and the seed of caring and sharing being planted at an early age with the project Citizen Girl. Volunteers also ensure the continuation of many annual events in my constituency, such as the Boswell book festival and the Cumnock tryst. Even Ayr’s famous Gaiety theatre is reliant upon the contributions of a team of volunteers, and the Belleisle conservatory was saved from dereliction to a delight by a group of dedicated volunteers.
However, there does not need to be a material or financial contribution, but simply people giving their time. The Rotary clubs have been mentioned for the good work they do, and I joined the Alloway Rotary just last Saturday for a litter pick in its community; that is most welcome.
By helping others, people might also help themselves get on to the employment ladder. Many life skills acquired while volunteering are transferable and often prove to be impressive on a CV. Many individuals who started out volunteering with the Prince’s Trust and other organisations have succeeded in finding permanent work placements.
Finally, I want to mention the most wonderful volunteer group and charity we have in the British Isles: the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, not just at Girvan but throughout the British Isles, and those who volunteer to serve at sea to save the lives of seafarers or those who are enjoying themselves on our very pleasant beaches, and equally those who are land-based who raise the charitable funds that wholly support the RNLI. As a nation we should be extremely proud of the volunteers who go to sea and those who raise funds on the land.
Although it is important that volunteers are properly vetted on sensitive matters, we must ensure that this valuable resource is neither exploited nor burdened by unnecessary regulation in what is a potentially litigious society. I hope that the Governments will continue to recognise the value of volunteers, and the contribution they make to their fellow citizens and their communities.
It has been said that volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy: we vote in elections once a year perhaps, but when we volunteer we vote every day about the kind of community we want to live in. I am sure I speak on behalf of many Members in saying it is a privilege to see and support the fantastic charitable work taking place in my constituency of Colne Valley, across Kirklees and across the country. Volunteers are people who through their actions make a commitment to the kind of community they want to be a part of: a community that is a friend to those facing isolation, that advocates for those without a voice, and that helps to feed families in need at the most difficult times. The dedication and commitment these volunteers and charitable workers have to this vision of a better society is invaluable.
I want to use my time today to thank just a few of the people doing brilliant work in Colne Valley and throughout Kirklees. I recently visited Clare House, a development aimed at tackling homelessness by providing accommodation and supporting residents with complex needs. In addition to providing a safe environment, Clare House offers the time and resources to help people to rebuild their lives. It is supported by Kirklees Council, but many volunteers also support it by donating their work and time.
A number of groups are also working to ensure that those in need have enough food for their families, and I have seen at first hand the wonderful work being done by the Welcome Centre, the Mission, the Women’s Centre, Holmfirth food bank and the Fit and Fed programme. The warmth of the Colne Valley people is also seen in the local groups aiming to tackle social isolation, including Clem’s Garden and Friend To Friend. In the true spirit of our local community, people are reaching out to one another to share experiences and to form friendships. Destitute Asylum Seekers Huddersfield, where I was once a volunteer myself, has turned around the lives of many who have experienced displacement and trauma. Ruddi’s Retreat and Waves are both charities supporting vulnerable children and their families. There are too many others to mention, but I am grateful to them all for their hard work and community spirit.
All these charities, and the work they do, help to provide a safety net for vulnerable people. I have seen this need grow and grow in the past eight years as austerity has pushed more and more people into poverty and difficult circumstances, but here’s the thing: I actually do not believe in relying on charity. If the Government are doing their job properly, people should not need to rely on voluntary support. These groups should not be stretched beyond capacity, and workers should not feel pressured to provide support when the Government fall short. Food bank usage should not be at its highest rate on record, homeless people should not be dying on our streets, and over 4 million children should not be living in poverty. A Government should provide access to quality education, healthcare, social care and housing for every citizen; that is their right in a civilised society. That is what I believe in, and it is what I will continue to fight for. In the meantime, I will continue to admire and support those who give up their time and resources to help others.
A week past Monday, the Minister, who spoke so well at the start of this debate, was reported in Hansard as saying, “thank goodness for Stirling!” I hope that she will feel compelled to say something similar when she sums up at the end of this debate. Much has been said today about how communities become connected by volunteering, and I cannot let this opportunity pass without saying, with no little pride and a great deal of humility, that Stirling is an epicentre when it comes to volunteering. Stirling was the UK’s sole contender for the European volunteering capital for 2020, and it was shortlisted to the final two.
The latest Scottish household survey shows that 39% of people in Stirling volunteer, compared with the national average for Scotland of 28%. This means that 30,000 people are enlisted as volunteers, working to improve the quality of life in so many aspects of the Stirling constituency. They are young and old, male and female, and people of faith and no faith. They are the people who keep our community centres open, who provide vital care for vulnerable people and who are working to enhance and protect our environment. It is the volunteers who are the backbone of Stirling district citizens advice bureau, and of Start Up Stirling, which runs Stirling’s food bank and mobile food bank. They do so much to support and help people who are in difficulties and distress for any number of reasons, and they do so in a way that is entirely focused on helping people to get back on their feet, whether that involves a short-term or a longer-term commitment. Those organisations have my deep and abiding appreciation and admiration, and I am glad that my office works closely with both of them.
Let us take the Trossachs search and rescue team as another example. They won several prestigious Scottish and UK-wide awards last year and, more importantly, they have won the gratitude of the many communities from Strathblane to Strathyre who were cut off and isolated as a result of the “beast from the east”. The Braeport memory cafe in Dunblane and Town Break in Stirling do a magnificent job in helping and supporting those with dementia and their families. With new initiatives being planned in other parts of my constituency, the work of those volunteers is inspirational. Many of their families have been affected by dementia, as indeed has mine.
The Doune Community Woodland Group has recently completed another successful path project at Doune ponds. It was officially opened just last Saturday, and it is physically connecting communities as well as encouraging health and wellbeing in this historic rural community. Then there is PLUS Forth Valley, which is based in Stirling and works with children with additional support requirements and their families. Its motto is “disabilities are no barrier to fun” and the hard work of its extraordinary volunteers makes that statement come to life. They have my full admiration.
I was recently privileged to attend the annual Killin Drama Club panto. Not only was it a superb production, but it was very funny and brought the whole community together, enhancing everybody’s wellbeing. I want specifically to mention Gordon Hibbert, who has written and directed the pantomime for the past 24 years. I look forward to his 25th production this year.
Volunteering is the fastener that brings our communities together and then keeps them together. As parliamentarians, when we see a societal need or a social injustice, it is always tempting to reach into taxpayers’ pockets to fund an imposed remedy. However, when we do that, often inadvertently creating governmental agencies and complex bureaucracies, we must be very careful. Communities that work together can not only bring about sustainable change, but be strengthened and uplifted in the process. They provide the service, but they also give love and receive love in return. That is the enduring thing which binds us all together, come what may.
I start by declaring an interest, because I will refer to organisations in which I am involved. I am a patron of a charity called Futureversity, co-founder and chair of the Uprising leadership charity, and co-founder of the One Million Mentors initiative.
We need a lively, independent, vibrant and innovative civil society sector, as many Members have said. Volunteering and charitable activity is a critical foundation of our society and the hallmark of a healthy society and economy. The sector must be underpinned by both Government and philanthropic funding and donations encouraged by incentives such as Gift Aid, which was introduced by the Labour Government. I hope that this Government will consider other imaginative ways of encouraging donations.
No society is truly healthy if the high fiscal rewards for entrepreneurship or investment are not matched by a strong sense of social responsibility and bonds of reciprocity. Charities and volunteers work tirelessly, especially in the current climate, to create a fairer society, to address environmental challenges in our communities, to tackle poverty and inequality and to address social justice challenges. The Charities Aid Foundation found that 80% of UK adults think that charities play an essential role in their local community. Britain is a better place thanks to philanthropy, charity and voluntary activity.
My constituency is famous for volunteers, community organisations and old institutions, such as Toynbee Hall, which employed Clement Attlee before his entry into politics. He became mayor of Stepney in my constituency, then a Member of Parliament in the area, and later one of the most successful Prime Ministers of the past century. The east end of London has a great heritage of charitable activity, entrepreneurship and that has continued. London’s Air Ambulance, which serves people across our capital, is based in my constituency, and many people do not realise that it is a charity. Weusb have the Osmani Trust, the Attlee Foundation, the Young Foundation, City Gateway, Muslim Aid and many others. The ones that I am not mentioning will be offended, but there are hundreds of them, so I am unable to name them all. The fact is that charities should not replace the functions of the state; what they do must be complementary. They should enrich our society, not put plasters on the wounds inflicted by the Government.
This week, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions finally admitted that the Government’s universal credit policy has led to an increase in food bank use. We know that food banks do amazing work, but in a civilised society they should not have to do it. Their funding could be invested elsewhere if the Government addressed those issues. The Government should support charities, but not expect them to substitute for what public services should be doing.
I want to draw on my experience of starting up charities. I had the good fortune of working for the author of the 1945 Labour manifesto, Michael Young, in his later life. It was the best kind of apprenticeship in politics and social entrepreneurship. I saw that we can be imaginative in addressing the big social challenges in our country by using insight, observation and research, but that means that the Government must fund innovation. I appeal to the Minister to do that.
I also appeal to the Minister to address some of the issues relating to unspent or ineffective funding, such as the £10 million provided to the National Citizen Service for unfilled places. We need more effective spending in the charitable sector, which desperately needs support. It was promised that £425 million that was invested in the Olympic village would be returned to the charitable sector. That money could be used immediately by charities that desperately need help to address issues such as youth crime.
I was able to set up charities to help young people. I hope that this Government will continue to support them. If they do, there will be direct benefits to our economy. I am grateful that we are having this debate, and I hope the Government continue to invest in that very important sector.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali). I join her in praising the valuable contribution that charities and volunteers make to our local communities.
Modern lifestyles mean that we often do not interact with our closest neighbours as much as we used to. Some people may not even know the name of their elderly neighbours, who are perhaps alone and vulnerable to doorstep crime, such as rogue traders and scams. Although there is no substitute for personal contact with our neighbours, our busy lives sometimes make that difficult so we should look at other ways to keep people connected. Technology in the charitable sector can empower volunteers and enable people to address crime in their community.
In my constituency, people want to see more officers on the beat, and I welcome the Government funding to address that. However, the residents I speak to also highlight the lack of community awareness and cohesion. If we are truly to tackle that and address vulnerability and crime, people need to know how to get to know their neighbours and work with the police and their local authorities.
As part of the coalition Government’s localism agenda, Baroness Helen Newlove was appointed Government champion for active, safer communities. In 2011, she published a report that argued that there is a public appetite for greater involvement with neighbourhood watch and other activities. It said:
“Being actively involved in your community and helping to keep it safe needs to become the norm rather than the exception.”
The Neighbourhood and Home Watch Network has been successful in connecting people. There are 170,000 neighbourhood watch schemes across England and Wales, supported by 173,000 dedicated volunteer co-ordinators, covering 3.8 million member households. It is the UK’s largest voluntary crime prevention movement. Every week, tens of thousands of residents and volunteers share information to keep themselves and their communities safe from crime.
In my borough of Stockport, the neighbourhood watch association is helping the Greater Manchester police’s economic crime unit to tackle scams by providing free training sessions to make residents scam-aware. The borough of Stockport has the highest percentage of residents aged over 65 in Greater Manchester and the highest number of recorded scams in the region. I hosted a similar scam smart event last autumn, which brought together Greater Manchester police and charities such as Age UK and Citizens Advice. Although it was distressing to share stories of criminal fraud, there was a real appetite among the attendees to learn how best to protect themselves. By harnessing technology we can encourage active community engagement, which will have the knock-on effect of helping to address urban crime and strengthen local bonds.
People really are starting to get connected; social media and mobile phone apps have been adopted by some neighbourhoods to distribute and discuss information in an informal way. Sharing information in this way can make people feel that they are part of a wider network, working together to keep their community safe. Mobile phone apps also generate a sense of community, through feelings of collective safety and information sharing. Indeed, some Cheadle residents having been organising and engaging in neighbourhood groups for some time. The challenge is in connecting such groups with local police forums in order that there can be an exchange of information, but it can be overcome. A national roll-out of a neighbourhood watch app could be an invaluable tool in joining up volunteers spread across different force areas. If successful, it would enable charities and volunteers, working together with residents, police and local authorities, to make a real difference to the wellbeing of the community.
That is why I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State’s commitment to establish the charity digital skills partnership, to help charities build their digital skills. That fund is investing up to £1 million in upskilling civil society leaders so they are able to embed digital into their organisations. I hope that money will also filter down into organisations such as Neighbourhood Watch. It is essential that those working in the charity sector are equipped with the skills they need to fully embrace the potential of new technologies and empower communities. This debate has enable us to show our appreciation for the tireless work of volunteers and the third sector, and I look forward to the advancement of new technologies in the charitable sector, too.
I am delighted to speak in this debate, because volunteering is the life-blood that flows through our communities. It is what keeps the heart of our communities beating throughout my constituency, the whole of Scotland and the whole of the UK. My constituency is particularly blessed with many charitable and voluntary groups and organisations, such as the Beith Community Development Trust; Promoting Kilwinning; Largs Community Garden; Café Solace, in Kilbirnie and in Ardrossan, run by Recovery at Work; the Scottish Centre for Personal Safety, in Ardrossan; the Ayrshire Community Trust; North Ayrshire Cancer Care; the Arran Community and Voluntary Service; CLASP—the Community Led Action and Support Project—in Stevenston; the Opportunities in Retirement groups across North Ayrshire; the Ayrshire Hospice volunteers; the North Ayrshire food banks; the RNLI—Royal National Lifeboat Institution—Largs; and of course the committee that keeps the heart of Whitlees beating by running the Whitlees community centre in Ardrossen. I should also mention all of those who work in each of our towns to provide gala days such as the Saltcoats Sea Queen festival and so many other events. There are far, far too many people and groups to mention, but they all provide a range of services throughout the community, for our young people and not so young people.
We can be proud that 27% of adults in Scotland, more than 1.2 million people, have volunteered formally through an organisation or group in the past year, and this figure has remained relatively stable for the past nine years. Some 30% of adults living in North Ayrshire, an estimated 34,000 people, volunteer formally, which is above the national Scottish figure of 27%. In recent years, it is estimated that volunteers living in North Ayrshire contributed 4.5 million hours of help and £62 million to the local economy—the figure for the whole of Scotland is believed to be £2 billion contributed to our economy by volunteers. The future looks bright, as research on participation and attitudes among young people aged between 11 and 18 found that youth volunteering participation had grown to 52%, which is nearly double the adult figure of 27%. As we have heard, volunteering can lead to enhanced job prospects as well, as new skills are learned and confidence grows for the volunteer.
The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations tells us that the third sector is made up of a variety of organisations, such as registered charities, housing organisations, sports and art clubs, and so on—the list is very long. These organisations do fantastic and important work, such as delivering employability services, supporting people with health challenges, bringing people together through social activities, forming self-help and support groups, and, of course, improving our environment through conservation, heritage groups and regenerating our communities.
If Members speak to volunteers, they will always tell us about the satisfaction and fulfilment that they find in the work they do. Of course, not only does each volunteer often make more of a difference to their community than they may ever even know, but the whole army of volunteers that populates our communities has such a profound effect, and they are so woven into the fabric of our streets and towns that they are part of our daily lives.
Interestingly, the London School of Economics found a clear relationship between volunteering and happiness: the more people volunteered, the happier they were—and they were much happier than those who did not volunteer at all. Throughout my constituency I have met some wonderful people who selflessly give up their time to help others and to add value to their community in ways that cannot be measured in pounds and pence because their value is much more profound than that. Studies also show that volunteering is an effective tool against depression and anxiety and is an excellent confidence booster, on top of the fact that such volunteers enjoy a wider social circle.
It is the basic, human, fundamental desire to help others that drives our army of volunteers in towns across the UK, Scotland and North Ayrshire and Arran, and throughout our communities. They are the too-often unsung heroes who perform such valuable work in our communities, day in, day out, and upon whom our communities rely and could not well do without. It is right and fitting that today we celebrate and recognise these unsung heroes, which is why I am delighted to have spoken in this debate and why, in common with everybody in the Chamber, I am sure, I want to take this opportunity to say, to each and every one of them, thank you.
It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who gave a fantastic speech.
I have been volunteering all my life—it is truly in my DNA. I started when I was around seven, taking children from inner-city Birmingham to camps in the countryside. I continued at university, doing a stint as a counsellor answering the Nightline service, and then with a long-standing role with the National Childbirth Trust. Finally, I spent 15 years with the scout movement. I have also taken an active role at my local church throughout my life.
In my business life, I have seen the massive value and benefit of volunteering and community activity for my businesses and other businesses that I know about. I was proud to be a founding trustee for the LoveBrum charity, which helps to empower small charities that do not have Government funding—true grassroots charities working across Birmingham, where my business was based—to make a real difference and receive funding. It is fantastic to see those charities now going from strength to strength. I have seen how leaders throughout the business community have embraced volunteering for their employees, because they know that it helps to build stronger employees and a stronger work culture. Ultimately, it makes businesses attractive places to work, so it is truly a win-win.
I have been privileged and fortunate all my life to have taken part in such activities. I have made friends for life, developed new skills and learned more about myself than I could ever have imagined. Such opportunities have truly changed my life. In particular, if someone can stand up in a room full of eight-year-old cub scouts and get them to be quiet and say their prayers, it is just a small step to standing up in this place.
In common with other Members, I wish to pay tribute to some of the fantastic charities in my constituency. I have been blown away by the compassion and commitment of local people in Redditch. I cannot mention them all, but I wish to highlight the Repair Café; Carers Careline; Men in Sheds, the recent recipient of a £10,000 Big Lottery grant; Redditch Nightstop; Boys2Men, a charity that recently won the inspirational mentor award from the Kids Count charity here in Parliament; Your Ideas; the YMCA; Home-Start; Where Next; the Sandycroft Centre; and, of course, the League of Friends of the Alex hospital in my constituency.
In the time I have left, I wish to focus on the impact of the National Citizen Service in my constituency, which I have visited and supported. Volunteering is a fantastic opportunity for young people to develop confidence as they go on to tackle the challenges in their lives. In particular, the NCS scheme enables them to get out from behind the technology and screens that so often dominate the lives of young people today. It puts them in situations outside their comfort zone, and they have to work together in groups with young people they would not normally meet in their neighbourhoods or school classrooms. They are learning vital life skills at a really early age. NCS builds their confidence and helps them to develop resilience to tackle some of the problems that they face in this day and age. I really want to congratulate the Minister on the work that the Government are doing in that regard.
I want to highlight the role that social prescribing can play in this really important arena. I have heard Members say that, often, those who volunteer get more out of the process than the people who are the recipients. Surely, this is a fantastic opportunity to harness this power for good to contribute to the health of our nation as a whole. We need to connect our communities—there are people who need help and who need volunteering—in a systematic and widespread way. That would be a massive and encouraging step forward. The Health Secretary has recently outlined such a plan, which, I am pleased to say, will be backed up by Government funding in the future.
I must just mention the Commonwealth games. Redditch is obviously very close to Birmingham where we will holding our Commonwealth games in 2022. I am the vice-chair of the all-party group for the Commonwealth games. I have been leading a campaign in my local area to ensure that there is legacy and an active contribution from Redditch to this fantastic event. We want to play a part and we are looking forward to the games.
We are a nation of volunteers. I will finish with one quote. The recipe for happiness is very simple. What we need is, “Someone to care for, something to do, and something to look forward to.” Volunteering addresses all three of those things.
It is really great to get the opportunity to speak in this debate. There are so many charities and organisations that I could mention, but, with just five minutes in which to speak, I clearly do not have the time to do so. I could easily speak for a number of hours about the different organisations that I have seen in my constituency, as I am sure could Members across this House. I echo those who have said thank you to our volunteers, particularly to those who are genuinely involved in charitable organisations and charitable activities across Scotland and across the wider UK. Our communities would be incredibly different without them.
I shall start on a slightly negative note, but I promise that the rest of my speech will be positive. When talking about the number of people volunteering, I have to say that I have a real concern about millennials and their ability to volunteer given that they are working in jobs that are lower paid than in previous generations, given that their housing costs are increased, and that, in some cases, they are having to work more hours than those from previous generations. Finding time to volunteer in that stramash of everything that has been going on since the financial crisis is really hard for them. Anything that the Government can do to help, such as increasing the minimum wage, would be great as it would give people that breathing space so that they can have time to go out and volunteer.
I have one more general point in relation to corporate social responsibility. When I sit down and speak to organisations that want to put forward corporate social responsibility, I say to them, “Most people can paint a shed or do something like that, but if you are an IT organisation and you can bring your expertise to help people improve their IT systems or to help people fill in funding applications, that would be absolutely vital for some of our frontline charities.” I encourage companies thinking about corporate social responsibility to go down those routes if they possibly can, especially if they have that expertise within their organisations.
Let me talk about some of the charities in my constituency. There is an organisation called Lighthouse in Tillydrone, which was co-founded by John Merson. This man has had an amazing life. As a prison pastor, he found that there was almost a revolving door for people coming out of prison, and he wanted to help them. His church was in an affluent area of Aberdeen, but he started to work in one of Aberdeen’s more deprived communities. The difference that his project has made to people coming out of prison in that community is absolutely unbelievable. The work was totally taken on by him to begin with, but he now has an army of volunteers and paid workers. He planted the seed of that project, and it could not have been better for that community.
Newhills Parish Church has a Living Well Café and a dementia outreach service. It has a befriending project, which provides support for people who are lonely. The café is linked in with dementia services, and it is a brilliant place to go along to. Music For You is another organisation in my constituency. It is a stage school that does shows. People with physical and learning disabilities attend the school. Everyone is supported in that organisation to reach their potential. It is just how I think life should be, with everyone supported to reach their potential and overcome barriers. I could not be more supportive of Music 4 U and Debbie Kirkness, who runs that organisation.
Aberdeen Muslims does excellent work in supporting the local community. For example, the beach in Aberdeen was an absolute mess after flooding a few years ago; there was stuff everywhere, and the Aberdeen Muslim community rallied round and organised much-needed beach cleans.
There are so many more groups in my area. I will briefly mention the uniformed organisations such as the Guides, the Scouts, the Boys’ Brigade and the Girls’ Brigade. I started my journey in the Guides at Rainbows, and my daughter has now started her journey in Rainbows. I was a Rainbow, then a Brownie, then a Guide and then a Young Leader. [Interruption.] How things have changed—not necessarily for the better. I have also helped to run a Rainbows group. The volunteering hours are a brilliant experience. These organisations are so good for bringing people together from all the different corners of communities, and giving them the opportunity to socialise with people who they might not normally socialise with.
I have said before that I am not religious, but I could not have more respect for the amount of volunteering that our religious and faith communities do. My city would be very different if it were not for people who attend churches of all different types, and who volunteer and try to improve their communities. I thank them all.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding my position as a councillor for Thorniewood on North Lanarkshire Council.
In all our communities, charities carry out work on a voluntary basis, from supporting the elderly to assisting families who have fallen on hard times. In many cases, they are only able to do so because of the dedication of volunteers and the generosity of the public. I often ask myself where we would be without volunteers. I look at the work that charities do in my constituency for the good people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, and it reaffirms my belief that they are a key part of the very foundations of our society.
I look at the fantastic work and dedication of the volunteers at Coatbridge food bank, which I helped to grow. It exists because of the Tory austerity and welfare reforms like universal credit. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions herself now accepts that there is a link between the increasing use of food banks and the botched roll-out of universal credit. Isn’t it a shame that some volunteers are getting sanctioned for helping?
Considering the work of local charities, I am not surprised that the Charities Aid Foundation found that 80% of the public believe that charities play a vital role in the UK. It saddens me that our charities are now facing difficult circumstances because of the actions of this Government; just look at the way they are handling Brexit. The charity sector currently relies on £250 million of funding from the EU—funding that the Government said they would match through the UK shared prosperity fund after Brexit. Just like so many other promises made by this Government, it has been broken, leaving the charity sector in a state of deep uncertainty about its future funding.
Charities find themselves gagged because of the Government’s lobbying Act—the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. Charities do important work in highlighting issues within our society and across the world. They campaign, build public support for a cause and take their arguments to MPs to seek change. The lobbying Act prevents charities from speaking out and doing this important work. Indeed, the Government have used gagging clauses to prevent charities from speaking out—otherwise they risk losing contracts from Government Departments. The Charities Aid Foundation found that 67% of people felt that charities were best placed to speak for the disadvantaged, yet they are being denied the chance to do so because of the lobbying Act. It should be abolished, and the next Labour Government will ensure that it is consigned to the dustbin of history.
It is worth reflecting on the increasing need for charities in our society. Charities are assuming greater responsibilities in providing support for our elderly, the disadvantaged and others who would once have used services offered by the Government. But the Government’s continued pursuit of austerity has led to a loss of local services and charities having to plug the gaps with decreasing funds at their disposal. In England, we are seeing council cuts of 60%, and Scotland is no different. We have austerity in Scotland. We are losing community centres, volunteer groups, libraries, and other much-needed services. This year, my own council has been asked to find £30 million. It saddens me that the Government have cut vital local services without pausing to think of the consequences or of whether the charity sector would be able to step in to cover the gaps in public service provision.
As I said, I am the councillor for Thorniewood on North Lanarkshire Council. I receive a salary that I donate to local charities, groups, associations, and anyone I can help in their hour of need. In a time of austerity and increasing pressure on charities, I want to do my bit to ensure that their vital work can continue across my constituency for the good people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. I have been pleased to help many charities—in particular, Bumblebee Babies, which does so much work to support parents of stillborn children. That group nearly closed and finished because of a lack of funding.
I will continue to support charities whenever I can. I call on this Government to provide the support that our charities need nationally as well. It is time to stop the cuts to their funding. It is time to stop gagging them in their campaign efforts. It is time to stop leaving them in uncertainty about their future after Brexit. It is about time that our charities were properly supported so that they can continue the vital work that they do in all our communities. As I said earlier, where would we be without the volunteers?
There is widespread consensus that charities and volunteering organisations are an integral part of our society. Research from the Charities Aid Foundation has shown that 80% of UK adults think that charities play an essential role in their local communities.
My constituency is an excellent example of why this is the case. The community has an amazing network of voluntary organisations who carry out wonderful work to ensure that support is there for those who desperately need it. Locally, we have a whole range of different groups and organisations that provide information and support, helping people to find what they need to get back on track. Acts of generosity and compassion from local volunteers and charities in my constituency provide lifelines for people in need. These volunteers are critical to the functioning of our communities. They represent the very best of us.
In Britain, we have a proud tradition of generosity and helping those in need. The voluntary sector is a cornerstone of that tradition. But the Government must build on this by supporting initiatives to help people of all ages and backgrounds to volunteer. There is little evidence to suggest that they are committed to doing so. In 2015, the Conservative party announced plans to introduce volunteering leave for workers. Little effort has been made to follow through on this pledge, and it appears to have been quietly put to one side.
After more than eight years of Tory austerity, there is an over-reliance on the generosity of local people as a substitute for properly funded local services. Volunteers should not be expected to pick up the pieces when swingeing Tory cuts shatter our local communities. Despite their best efforts, voluntary organisations are seriously struggling to step in to replace local services. Cuts to local government have led to the closure of 428 day centres, 1,000 children’s centres, 600 youth centres and 478 public libraries. Make no mistake: cuts to these services are cuts to the very fabric of our society. Without proactive local services and a well-supported voluntary sector, loneliness, isolation and social division will rise. If the Government are serious about connecting communities by supporting charities and volunteers, they will make good on the Prime Minister’s promise last year that “austerity is over”. It is high time the Government put an end to austerity before the damage done is irreparable.
I thank, commend and salute all volunteers and everyone working for charities and community groups. I am proud to be the MP for Warrington South and to represent this country, where we have such people in our society, making a huge difference.
This has been an inspiring debate. The world is a cynical place at the moment, and all the Brexit debates highlight just how divided this House can be, but when we talk about the fabric of our communities and what makes them the places they are, there is a real glow from MPs.
I pay tribute to all Members who have spoken today, and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), who talked about the great work in her constituency to support people with dementia, as well as the human cost of austerity and cuts, with children going hungry. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) is a champion for Citizens Advice, and her expertise in that field really adds value to this place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), as chair of the APPG on charities and volunteering, lives and breathes the charity sector and goes above and beyond; she shows that every day in this place. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker) talked about the real price of austerity, how the cuts feel on the ground and how desperate it is that so many people are turning to food banks as a direct result of austerity and deliberate choices that the Government have made. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) has been a champion of volunteering for a long time, going up and down the country and building a network of volunteers with real commitment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) talked about austerity and the direct impact of cuts on charities. It is not just that charities are picking up the pieces after public sector cuts. Charities themselves have faced cuts, and on top of that, when they are contracted by the Government, they are told that they cannot speak out on the issues that affect them and the reason they exist. He made that case passionately. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) talked about the importance of charities in Warrington and how they are part of the fabric of that community.
The backdrop of this debate cannot be ignored, and it has been mentioned a number of times. The charities that do this fantastic work, that go above and beyond, that we all take inspiration from, that we all visit and that we all thank today are, by and large, picking up the pieces where the Government have decided that they are not responsible, walked away, taken the money and left communities to sink or swim.
Many examples have been given today, including food bank activity; the work that communities are doing to self-organise and respond to crime and antisocial behaviour in their area; people taking on the local library because the council money has been taken away, and to keep it open, they have to self-organise; and community volunteers on estates who are stepping up because they recognise that young people do not have the facilities they used to have to keep them out of trouble and give them a positive focus and hope.
We hear all these stories, and they are inspiring, but this is about transferral of responsibility. I remember a former Prime Minister, who I think is in a shed somewhere writing his memoirs, talking about the big society and this big idea of an emboldened civil society where charities are supported. The truth is that charities have just about kept their head above water. In the way that councils, the police service and the fire service have seen cuts, charities have also seen severe cuts.
In my town, we used to have an area-based grant, which was directed to areas of high deprivation, to support the community infrastructure that was so important. When the coalition Government came into power in 2010, they cancelled that with less than a year’s notice. The staff of community groups and charities that were set up to provide that support were just thrown on the scrapheap, as though the work they did in the community did not matter.
Given that it is customary for MPs to mention charities in their area, I want to pay tribute to the fantastic work of a range of charities in mine. There is a danger, when we do this, that we please a handful and really annoy a long list of people who we do not have time to mention. I want to mention Dr Kershaw’s hospice. Whichever community someone comes from in Oldham, they will be connected to that hospice at a time when they are at their most desperate, feeling pain that they never thought they would have to go through and not being sure how to cope when it hits. The hospice has given people who are nearing the end of their life the support, courage and confidence to get through that very painful time, and it is genuinely part of the community.
Like many places, however, we have community groups that, if we are honest, we would wish did not exist. I wish that Oldham did not need a food bank, and I wish it was not a thriving food bank, but it is. I wish that the Andy’s Man Club did not have to support people who feel suicidal, but it does. There are lots of other examples.
I could not help but notice that quite a big chunk of money was announced earlier, and we had a taste of some of the areas that are likely to receive some of the funding. Given the Members who have contributed here today and the work they have highlighted in their communities, I just hope that the funding, when the list is finally published, is fairly distributed by geography. I hope that it absolutely targets areas of need and deprivation, takes into account that some areas have been hit harder by public service reductions than others and really supports places where there is genuine working together across institutions.
This is not about good Government or bad Government, with charities over here and the community over there. When this works well, in the way we have heard about today, it is because everyone comes together. When a council works well, it is the community; when a charity works well, it is the community; and when a next-door neighbour checks up on an elderly relative—collects the post and does all the things we have talked about—that is the community. The fabric of our community is under great strain at the moment, and it really requires us to make sure that we begin to reinvest in it.
The Prime Minister made a promise that austerity was over, recognising that the pain had been very deep, knowing that it was a big factor in the referendum result and wanting to address that. Unfortunately, she was undermined by her Chancellor who had the opportunity in the autumn statement genuinely to end austerity and decided, “Well, to hell with it. Let’s just carry on.” They must have been quite enjoying the journey that they were taking. I would say that most people in this Chamber, if they are honest, are looking at their own local authorities, regardless of political complexion and geography—whether rural or urban, north or south—and wondering how on earth that council will be able to survive over the next couple of years.
Why is council funding so important? Because the council, which is democratically elected and of the community—people themselves elect who they want to be their voice in their town or city—comes together and brings people together, and it is often the first port of call. We cannot have thriving civil society if we have underfunded and starved local government; we cannot have thriving local government if we have not got thriving civil society; and none of that works if we have not got decent people. Whatever our view today, we should all be very proud of the country we live in. We are a mixed, diverse, vibrant country full of wonderful people who, every day, do amazing things.
With the leave of the House, I want to respond by picking up on a few points. I thank the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon)—and thank goodness for men’s sheds. I thank the 18 speakers from across the House who have contributed to this really positive debate this afternoon. We have heard about some incredible organisations and incredible individuals and about what we are doing in our communities to support and connect people.
I want to pick up on some of the challenges for and concerns of charities. Charities hold assets of about £260 billion, and their total income has gone up from £52 billion in 2009 to £77 billion today. We have heard about charity trustees. There are over 700,000 unpaid charity trustees, and charities employ over 1 million people. I will come on to say a little more about trustees in a moment.
We heard about some of the amazing charities, and I completely agree, particularly about the citizens advice bureaux. There are the RNLI and independent lifeboat charities; our hospices; those who volunteer to support the NHS; yes, the men’s clubs; neighbourhood watch; our air ambulances; and Singing for Syrians. There is diversity and resilience in our charities and social enterprises through our trustees, patrons and organisers. I completely agree that they all need support because of the difference that they make. Our civil society is a force to be reckoned with, as we have heard today. This Government are committed to supporting growth in civil society to make sure it continues to have an impact for many years ahead and truly helps us to build a country that works for everyone. As we heard today, we never meet an unhappy volunteer. Volunteers often give because it helps them have great self-esteem.
I will briefly mention some organisations in my patch: the Countess Mountbatten Hospice Charity in West End, the Hamble lifeboat and One Community, which received the Queen’s award for voluntary service. We heard today what that means for those amazing charities that do so much. I could spend quite some time thanking all the charities in my area. People have done well to lever in so many this afternoon.
The hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) spoke about having to pick up the pieces of austerity. I want us to recognise that the sector has shown itself to be strong. There is a growing number of charities, as I said earlier. They are an important part of our community and they have continued to thrive.
On the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, it is an important role of charities to speak on behalf of their beneficiaries. That is their role. As I said in my first remarks to the NCVO in December—indeed, the Prime Minister has written to Sir Stuart Etherington about this—we want it to be absolutely clear that we are not stopping providers standing up for what is right. It is absolutely right that charities can continue to advocate for the community.
On EU funding, we know that access to future funding is a concern for civil society organisations. My officials are working with colleagues across the Government to inform our plans about future funds, and I will keep the House updated.
I am very keen to mention the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), as was the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes). Her APPG does vital work to support charities and volunteering, along with the NCVO, which of course is in its centenary year. I have offered to come to the APPG for social enterprise as well. It is vital that we talk about the challenges for unpaid trustees, and I am happy to meet the hon. Member for Clwyd South to discuss her Bill. We should empower and help trustees. The hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) spoke about the need to support skills such as accountancy and people management among volunteers.
On dormant assets, we will talk further about that issue. We have a group of industry champions who are working on a blueprint. They submitted their report in December, and we are considering the proposals on extending the scheme. We know how much money is there and how much good it can do. There is great news for people in the charities sector, because there is so much thriving locally and we can all share the best practice.
I just need to say thank goodness for Stirling. We heard today that it is better than average when it comes to volunteering. That gives everybody else an opportunity to match Stirling. Looking around the Chamber this afternoon, we have heard what it means to our communities when people stand up and get involved.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) how sport can help. Sport is the other side of my portfolio. Some 6.3 million people volunteer in sport. When one person volunteers in sport, eight people benefit. I thank all those who step up.
The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) raised concerns about school holidays and food banks and about children being fit and fed. StreetGames has launched a campaign on that idea, which incorporates holiday activity sessions for communities that need them, with a nutritious meal every day, free of charge. The national lottery is funding that fantastic initiative through Sport England.
As the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker) said, we need to recognise our volunteers. We have the Points of Light awards, so please nominate people. We can nominate people for an honour. Of course, there is also the Queen’s award for voluntary service.
We heard about the NCS and the challenge of getting youth volunteers. Actually, I think people get so much out of volunteering. I have been to NCS sessions, and if our young people find time to give back to their communities, they feel much more connected as a result.
The Government are very concerned about knife crime, which was mentioned in the debate. Knife crime is devastating for our communities, and we are determined to tackle it. We set out a comprehensive programme in the serious violence strategy, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced a youth endowment fund of £200 million to support interventions for our children and young people who are at risk of getting involved in violent crime.
We have had a great afternoon highlighting the bold and bright future that lies ahead for charities, civil society and volunteers. We are living through a difficult period of change, but there is huge potential to do more to connect communities through innovative ideas. We heard how new technology is providing one such opportunity. We are investing close to £4 million to support civil society, through the tech sector, and the Government are coming together to solve social challenges in this way. We know that it can help to tackle loneliness in particular.
We have a vision for the future where charities, social enterprises and good business practice work together, so that we continue to have charities that are well-regulated, independent and self-sustaining, reflecting the communities and the causes they wish to serve. That includes addressing the issue of safeguarding, where again we have an opportunity to be a world leader. It is important that we get the safeguarding and protections part of charities right, so that civil society can continue its important role of supporting our public services and local partnerships. I will be giving an update on that next month, six months on from the civil society strategy.
It is clear from this debate that we should all have the opportunity to support and encourage our wonderful local charities and volunteers and that we should continue to work together to provide opportunities for young people. Charities and social enterprise can connect communities, encouraging further social responsibility and social finance so that together we can build a connected community that improves lives and society. Working together, we can realise that collective ambition to make our country the very best it can be: a country that works for everyone and supports everyone.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered connecting communities by supporting charities and volunteers.