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International Development Strategy: Volunteering

Volume 823: debated on Tuesday 12 July 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to the role of volunteering within the United Kingdom’s international development strategy.

My Lords, the UK’s international development strategy has British expertise at its core. Our rich culture of volunteering means we have the experience and expertise to effectively support voluntary action abroad, ensuring that development is increasingly locally led. Last month, we launched Active Citizenship Through Inclusive Volunteering & Empowerment, a £27 million partnership between the UK Government and VSO which will reach 2.5 million people in 18 countries by empowering local volunteers to take control of their futures.

My Lords, I was delighted when the Government supported volunteering being part of the sustainable development goals as a key lever for good development, but I am bewildered that they now seem to have abandoned much of that. An agreement was signed between the VSO and the Commonwealth at CHOGM. It recognised the value to young people of learning skills, sharing with others, learning about the world and developing leadership skills, but the British Government have abandoned the scheme. When will they get back to funding the International Citizen Service to give our young people that sort of opportunity?

My Lords, the Government agree with the premise of the question from the noble Baroness but take issue with the last bit on abandonment by the Government. The reality is that the ACTIVE programme will reach 2.5 million people—a really significant number—and mobilise marginalised groups, including women, young people and those with disabilities, across 18 countries. The key is that it builds on the success of the programme she just mentioned—the VSO’s FCDO-funded £70 million Volunteering for Development programme, which ended in March 2022. The noble Baroness is right to identify it as a success.

My Lords, we all acknowledge the benefits of international volunteering to our country in terms of soft power, to the countries we work with and to our volunteers. The International Citizen Service was suspended in 2020 because of the pandemic. Does the Minister agree that the time has come to resume wielding that soft power through the ICS, which enhances our influence and reputation in the world?

My Lords, the importance of volunteering is embedded and well understood in the FCDO. That has not changed; it is reflected in everything coming out of it. Specific decisions on funding are yet to be made but, adding to what I said on the previous question, we are committed to and are already establishing new centres of expertise, building on existing platforms for shared learning and with volunteering at their heart. We are doing this across the board.

My Lords, when I visited Nepal a few years ago as DfID Minister, I met participants in the VSO-supported Sisters for Sisters programme, which mentors older girls and supported nearly 10,000 girls to stay in school. As with many voluntary programmes, women and girls really see the benefits, as both volunteers and the beneficiaries. Will voluntary work be included in the upcoming women and girls strategy? Acknowledging the current circumstances, can my noble friend tell me when this will be published, as many of us eagerly await it?

I thank my noble friend for her persistence on this issue generally. There is a clear commitment in the IDS to providing women and girls around the world with the freedom and opportunity they need to succeed. It is there in black and white and highlighted within the strategy. We intend to restore the funding that was reduced previously to help unlock their potential, educate girls, support their empowerment and protect them against violence. A major part of that focus will be volunteering, which has always played an incredibly powerful role in this area. I am afraid I cannot give her more details at this point; I wish that I could.

My Lords, to bring the Minister back to the ICS programme, it was one of the most successful things that the VSO did, in partnership with and funded by the British Government. The point is that it took 20,000 Brit volunteers along with 20,000 international volunteers to work together in a wonderful programme. It was paused during the pandemic and there is no indication that it will be revived again. That is the point. Can the Minister say something about that specific programme?

I will have to refer the noble Baroness to a previous answer. I cannot comment on funding commitments for specific programmes. However, the value of the scheme she has described, which has been mentioned by other noble Lords, is unquestioned. The success story there is plain for all to see. I very much hope that we can continue providing support for it, but I cannot give her any black and white answers; that is just not within my remit.

My Lords, I think we all recognise the benefits to young people of going abroad in a volunteering capacity, the knowledge they gain of other countries and the richness they bring back. The same is true of young people from other countries coming here. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider reinstating the au pair scheme, set up before we joined the EU by the Council of Europe? It has been brought down by Brexit and many will not be able to have the benefits of going abroad for a year to learn about other countries.

My Lords, I have to be honest that I do not know a huge amount about this scheme; it has been raised in previous debates on this issue, but only at a very high level, so I cannot give my noble friend an authoritative answer. I will take away her suggestion and ensure that whichever of my ministerial colleagues will be deciding on that programme is made aware of my noble friend’s very strong views on the issue.

My Lords, can we get back to the original question, which was about a successful, five-year programme, Volunteering for Development? Let us not forget that this is about volunteering in countries where we deliver expertise and train trainers; it is about sustainable development, with £70 million over five years. The Minister announces a programme called ACTIVE, which is for £27 million. Are we going to see the programme shrink to that level? Are we going to see a real commitment from this Government instead of just words and spin? Let us hear from the Minister that he will return this programme to a much more sustainable programme for the future.

My Lords, I am not going to disagree with the noble Lord on the value of volunteering and the promotion of volunteering in recent years—I do not think anyone would argue with that. I would not dismiss £27 million as pure spin, but nor is that the end of the story. As I said before, I cannot comment on future spending, but spending answers will be published very soon. The allocations will be available for the House to scrutinise, and either praise or criticise depending on the answers. I cannot go into the specifics now, but I can reassure the noble Lord and everyone else in this place that the value of volunteering is recognised through every strand of activity in the FCDO, and that will be reflected in our funding decisions.

My Lords, over the next few days more than a 1,000 overseas Anglican bishops will be arriving here for the Lambeth Conference. There are hundreds of links of volunteers going to many of the areas of the world which we are deeply concerned about, including parts of the Horn of Africa where there is famine and locusts have had a devastating impact. People are coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Ebola is such a problem; these are people who are working on the ground. We already have many volunteer programmes of medics and others going in and out. Does the FCDO intend to meet some of those people who are coming here to see how we can strengthen other forms of volunteering, as well as some of the government schemes we have had in the past?

The right reverend Prelate makes an extremely good point. It is hard to know which Ministers will be responding to the invitation when it comes to the Foreign Office, but I assure him that, in the unlikely circumstance that I am the Minister opening the envelope, I will certainly take him up on his invitation. I look forward to being given good counsel by people who, as he rightly says, do extraordinary work in some of the most difficult parts of the world.

Is my noble friend aware that there are 330,000 young people in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme and rising? Is he also aware that there are well over 130,000 boys and girls in the Sea Cadets and Combined Cadet Force? Does he not understand that among young people there are thousands who want to go out on VSO work? The noble Lord from the Labour Front Bench is right: we need to move forward; we have been waiting too long.

My noble friend makes a very good point and I am not going to argue with him. The value of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and the Sea Cadets and Combined Cadet Force is absolutely unquestioned—they are magnificent organisations. As I said before, I do not agree with the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite. This is an area that we absolutely need to continue to provide support for, and I understand the call from this House for greater clarity. I hope we will be able to provide that clarity soon.