HC Deb 12 February 1964 vol 689 cc377-82
The Secretary for Technical Cooperation (Mr. Robert Carr)

With permission, I wish to make a statement about the expansion of overseas service by young volunteers.

In the urgent attack on world poverty one of our greatest contributions is men and women prepared to work for the developing countries. Altogether, about 19,000 British men and women, provided with the help of the Government, are serving in this cause, mainly in the Commonwealth. Of these, at present about 550 are young volunteers—newly qualified graduates, school leavers and industrial apprentices.

Under plans already announced, the number will increase to 800 in September of this year. The Government want to see the scale of this effort further substantially expanded.

As an immediate step, two decisions have been taken: first, for the 1965 programme the Government will contribute 75 per cent. of the British costs compared with 50 per cent. at the moment; and, secondly, the 1965 programme will be increased to 1,300 volunteers of whom 1,000 will be graduates.

This means that the Government's contribution to the 1965 programme will be about £650,000, compared with £270,000 for the 1964 programme.

The outstanding success of the service given by volunteers from Britain has been due to their high quality and to the worthwhile nature of the projects to which they have been assigned. The rate of increase will depend more than anything else on our determination to maintain these high standards. Judged on present trends of requests from overseas the increase is likely to be mainly, but not exclusively, among graduate volunteers.

The Government are in no doubt that volunteers should continue to serve under the auspices of the independent voluntary societies active in this field. The societies as hitherto will work in close co-operation with my Department, and will coordinate their activities through the Joint Committee under the chairmanship of Sir John Lockwood.

This system has worked with great success so far. Its independence and non-governmental character are most welcome both to the receiving countries overseas and to the intending volunteers in Britain.

The voluntary societies have welcomed our target for 1965. Both they and the Government are satisfied that they will be able to expand their programme still further in later years as the demand for volunteers increases.

If this movement is to gather force as we desire, it is necessary to arouse a high degree of public interest and support. To this end the voluntary societies have agreed to the setting up of a new body to be called the Council for Volunteers Overseas. It will receive reports from the voluntary societies and the Lockwood Committee and will advise both them and my Department on questions of policy affecting the programme. It will in no sense duplicate the coordinating work of the Lockwood Committee itself.

The membership will include Sir John Lockwood, the chairmen of the participating voluntary societies, distinguished representatives from the educational and industrial worlds, and also some past volunteers. The Council will be set up for three years in the first instance.

I am very glad to inform the House that His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh has consented to be President of the Council for this period.

Mr. Bottomley

Is it not pathetic that in the dying days of the Government they should find a new interest in overseas and Commonwealth affairs? Last week the Prime Minister talked about a Commonwealth Court. Is the Minister aware that we on this side of the House have been urging upon the Government for a long time the need to strengthen this overseas volunteer service?

Can the Minister tell us what more this new Council will do that the Lockwood Committee could not do? The Lockwood Committee was to secure the coordination of voluntary services and to bring about increased recruitment. Who will be the chairman of the new Council? We on this side of the House welcome the decision of the Duke of Edinburgh to be the President, but we should much prefer to see him President of a bold and imaginative service and not one such as the Government have brought forward.

Mr. Carr

I am surprised, as I am sure many people of all parties outside the House will be, by the intemperate and wholly unjustified partisan approach of the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Bottomley). I regret it. If the right hon. Gentleman asks who is electioneering, he should read his own words in HANSARD.

I believe that it is the wish of a great majority of hon. Members on all sides of the House, and of very many people of all parties outside, that this movement shall be developed as rapidly as possible in a totally non-partisan spirit. That is our desire. It has been expanding rapidly in recent years. There were 175 volunteers in 1961, 380 in 1962, and 550 this year; and there will be 800 going out later this year, and 1,300 next year.

This is a rapid rate of expansion which must be looked at in the context of the 19,000 British men and women serving overseas, an effort unparalleled by any other country.

Mr. Bottomley

Why was the announcement made now and not much earlier, when urged upon the Government by hon. Members on this side of the House?

Mr. Carr

Quite simply because last July I announced the total of 800 who will be going this September. It is necessary to plan ahead for these things, and the voluntary societies felt that if we were to get a bigger number, as we shall get next year, then it was urgent to make our announcement about the 1965 programme not later than February of this year. That is the one and only reason. I beg the right hon. Gentleman to talk to some of his hon. Friends—to people of his own party inside and outside the House concerned with this movement—to get this matter in perspective.

Mr. Turton

While congratulating my right hon. Friend on his announcement on a matter quite outside and far above party politics, may I ask whether he has considered giving a higher rate of grant in respect of the travel of these volunteers, bearing in mind that it is the cost of travel which is deterring some of the expeditions which could have been of tremendous value? If a higher grant were given on the actual travel, particularly if it were on British or Commonwealth airlines or British or Commonwealth shipping, it would assist our air and sea services at the same time.

Mr. Carr

We already make arrangements, where possible, for special fare facilities from shipping lines. In addition, the R.A.F., Transport Command, and various other services available to the Government can help occasionally, but the larger the scale of the effort becomes the more difficult this becomes. The cost of travel can be a substantial element in the total cost, to which the Government will be making a 75 per cent. contribution.

Mr. Grimond

I welcome the announcement of increased Government aid. Does the Minister agree that all engaged in industry have been extremely helpful in this matter? Has he had any consultation with industry about keeping jobs open for these volunteers, particularly for graduates, when they return? This is quite a consideration for some of them. Is he aware that there is a feeling that there is a danger of too much administrative top hamper in all this? Is he certain that the Lockwood Committee could not do the work of the new Council? All the voluntary societies have councils and executives of their own. Does he realise that it is extremely important to keep down the administration and to make the scheme as flexible as possible?

Mr. Carr

I fully agree with the right hon. Gentleman's comment on the need to keep down the administrative top hamper. If one studies what is being done one finds that most people who have gone into it—I say this with full respect to the right hon. Gentleman—feel that, if anything, hitherto the scheme has had too little administration rather than too much. The purpose of the new Council is primarily to focus and enlarge public interest in this matter. I do not expect that it will have many meetings—it is an advisory committee on policy.

I will bear in mind the third point which the right hon. Gentleman made. Many employers are already very helpful about this. The problem is less acute for the young volunteer going out before he starts his career than it is for someone who goes abroad for two years in the middle of his career.

Mr. Longbottom

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the enormous pleasure which his statement will give to all the voluntary organisations concerned in this work, particularly as he is ensuring that they will continue actively to participate in this scheme? However, will he consider helping to provide project advisers and technical experts so as to ensure that we continue to maintain the very high standard of projects which are undertaken by these volunteers?

Mr. Carr

I certainly regard it as one of the main responsibilities of my Department, through its Social Development Division and through representatives who look after this work in our embassies and high commissions overseas, to be constantly unearthing more and more projects of the right kind.

Mr. J. Hynd

To what extent will ex-colonial civil servants of district and regional commissioner level be co-operating in this scheme? They have a vast fund of experience in this type of work and could be of enormous assistance in an advisory capacity. There are many who are now enjoying annuities in this country who might be prepared to go abroad and lead some of these projects? Finally, will some of these schemes he working in Latin America? If not, why not?

Mr. Carr

Yes, these schemes will be working in Latin America. Indeed, there are some there already.

As to the first point, it must be realised that no British person goes with any Government assistance to serve in an overseas country unless asked for by the Government of that country. Therefore, it would not be appropriate for us to choose who is to lead these teams. The one point which we must keep in mind about this effort is that it knits in—and we shall ensure that it continues to do so—very closely with the aid from what I may call professional effort, the rest of the 19,000 British men and women. In other words, these people will often be working in conjunction with those older and more experienced people overseas.

Sir K. Thompson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the whole House will applaud his statement and join him in deploring the squalid electioneering of the party opposite? Is it really necessary that there should be this division between graduates and non-graduates in this scheme? Is there to be a ceiling upon those who are non-graduates who may want to take part in this work, or will there be room for all who may come forward?

Mr. Carr

There will certainly be room for non-graduates. The fact is that the demand for graduates is at the moment rising faster than the demand for non-graduates. We must primarily meet the demand from the overseas countries. We believe that in future years, as I hope that I made clear in my statement, there will be room for increases not only among graduates and other more highly qualified people, but also among school-leavers and industrial apprentices of various types.

Mr. G. M. Thomson

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Bottomley): who is to be chairman of the new Council?

Mr. Carr

I hope and believe that it is His Royal Highness's intention to play an active part in this Council. When it meets I presume that he will preside over its meetings.

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

We shall have to have a Question before the House if we are to debate this.