HC Deb 25 October 1995 vol 264 cc953-75 11.29 am
Mr. Gyles Brandreth (City of Chester)

I begin this morning by saying how delighted I am to find that the Minister due to respond to today's debate is my hon. and most excellent Friend, the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope). He and I spent a happy and, I hope, useful year in harness at the Department of National Heritage, and I am delighted that we are yoked together again today. I congratulate him on his latest promotion. His previous post was Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household, but I have no doubt that the Sovereign's real loss will be the nation's real gain.

I also take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend's predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker), for all the care and attention that he gave to every issue that came his way, and to salute him, my noble Friend the Minister of State, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for their wholehearted and active commitment to the cause of community service, and their ready recognition of the importance of volunteering to the well-being of every community in the land.

The scale of volunteering in Britain is impressive. Four years ago, the Volunteer Centre UK, the national development agency for volunteering, commissioned a survey aimed at providing an up-to-date picture of the extent and nature of volunteering within the United Kingdom, and a comparison with the 1981 national survey of volunteering.

The latest survey showed that some 51 per cent. of respondents had taken part in at least one organised voluntary activity during the previous 12 months, showing that up to 23 million adults may be involved in formal volunteering each year. It also showed that 31 per cent. had volunteered at least once a month and 22 per cent. had volunteered in the previous week, suggesting that in any one week as many as 10 million adults may be involved in organised voluntary activity of one sort or another; an exciting thought—more people volunteering than watching "Pride and Prejudice" on television.

Encouragingly, the survey showed that the proportion of the population involved had risen from 44 per cent. at the beginning of the 1980s to 51 per cent. at the beginning of the 1990s. Fund raising was the most common type of activity, and sports and exercise, children's education and health and social welfare were the most common areas for volunteering.

Most volunteers became involved because they were asked to help or because the organisation concerned was connected with their needs or interests. That said, a significant number of people simply volunteered for altruistic reasons. Three quarters of the respondents felt that volunteers offered something to society that could never be provided by the state. In addition to organised activities, more than three quarters were involved in informal voluntary activities. We need to salute every one of those people and recognise their impact on the quality of life of their fellow citizens.

Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon)

I very much welcome my hon. Friend's initiative in bringing the issue of volunteering before the House and I regret that a constituency engagement means that I will not be able to stay for the whole debate. My hon. Friend may know that, as long ago as 1989, I proposed a motion in the House to promote the concept of active citizenship, linked to what I described as community self-help. Does my hon. Friend agree that momentum on the issue has been slightly lost in the meantime and that it is a concept wholly in tune with Conservative philosophy and the needs of today?

Mr. Brandreth

I agree totally with my hon. Friend. It is a philosophy consistent with a Conservative approach which suggests the responsibility of the individual, working from the bottom up, harnessing a community for the better good of all. I hope that today's debate will add extra impetus and momentum to the movement that my hon. Friend was attempting to initiate back in the late 1980s, and in which I believe Members on both sides of the House took a serious interest this summer when we had the all-party parliamentary hearings on citizens service back in June. I hope that today's debate will also galvanise the Government into a renewed commitment to exploring every aspect of ensuring that we become a nation full of active citizens. I salute my hon. Friend for his contribution.

The contribution of volunteers in general is literally priceless. The qualities that they bring to their work cannot be paid for with any sum of money and any attempt to replace it with paid work would change its nature, replacing a relationship based on responsibility and mutual aid with one based on financial gain.

But the fact that voluntary work is priceless should not blind us to the significant contribution that it makes to the British economy. The Volunteer Centre recently had a go at assessing the economic worth of volunteering in the United Kingdom. It reckons, taking the hours worked and the rate for the job, that formal volunteering is worth in the region of £25 billion a year, and informal volunteering an additional £16 billion—£41 billion all told.

Highlighting the significant contribution that volunteering makes to the economic life of the country can help raise the profile of volunteering. That approach can also open the door to the recognition of community groups that may be viewed as less significant because they have a low cash turnover. If the amount of voluntary effort involved is recognised in terms of a monetary equivalent, the significance to the local economy becomes more apparent. The practical application of such a shift in awareness could be a widening use of volunteer time as a form of matching funds for Government, the European Union and private grants.

I think that I am right in saying that, at present, grant schemes such as Rural Action and the European Union's Leader 2 programme, which include such a provision, are the exception rather than the rule, possibly penalising groups which are volunteer rich but cash poor.

Assessing the economic value of volunteering is also part of wider moves to encourage Governments to include in national statistics indicators of factors which affect a nation's quality of life, but which are not usually recorded. Agenda 21, the action plan agreed by the 1992 Earth summit in Rio, called for unpaid productive work to be included in national accounts and economic statistics, alongside measures of environmental value.

The scale of volunteering in the United Kingdom is impressive, the scope is quite mind-blowing, and I sometimes think that the epicentre of all this activity must be the City of Chester. Anyone who witnessed the range and quality of community activities that are part and parcel of everyday life in my constituency would not think it hyperbolic of me to describe Chester as the volunteering capital of the kingdom.

Whether it is the Rotarians organising car runs to take visually impaired people to hospital; the great Round Table toddle that took place on our racecourse this weekend when young men, with their wives and children, took part in a sponsored toddle to raise literally thousands of pounds for children in need; the Blacon project, taking youngsters on challenging, character-building adventure expeditions, or one of our several magnificent operatic societies, providing first-class entertainment at an old people's home, the quantity and quality of community commitment in Chester is incredible.

I attended the United Charities fair at the town hall on Saturday and they were all there—from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to the Chester Childbirth Trust. And there on the stage was Mrs. Banks, sorting it and all of us out, as ever—certainly as she has been doing for the past 27 years. As a nation, we need to cherish Mrs. Banks and her kind and to let them know how much we value them and how greatly we are in their debt. We also need to ensure that there is a well-stocked bank of Bankses on which to draw in the years ahead.

The changing nature of our society means that that will not be easy. A generation or two ago, a successful person such as a solicitor, like my father or grandfather, could get to work at 9 am, leave at 5 pm, run a tight ship and run it well. Today, to be a success in business, commerce or the professions, one will regularly be at work at 8 am and not leave until 7 pm. Then, quite rightly, one will be expected and will want to give a commitment of quality time to one's family in the evening. That means that it is not easy to find time to be a school governor or a special constable, a voluntary sports leader or to organise an outing for a housebound neighbour.

The problem is not unique to Britain. Recently, several hundred Round Tablers and others from around the world came to Chester for the World Council of Men's Service Clubs—Chester was obviously the natural location for such a gathering. The message was the same. An increasingly competitive commercial world places real strains on the amount of time available for community commitment.

We have to remember that a higher standard of living does not always, or necessarily, go hand in hand with a better quality of life. Hon. Members will have read with concern the recent news from the Girl Guides Association. Guide and Brownie groups are being forced to close because changing social patterns have led to a shortage of Guide leaders and Brown Owls. Women who juggle careers with bringing up a family cannot spare several hours a week to prepare for meetings and organise pack outings and activities, which is one of the reasons why national membership has fallen by about 64,000 in the past 12 years. I do not want to be alarmist. We still have 750,000 Guides and Brownies in Britain and to me they represent all that is best in our society.

In a more challenging world, we need more volunteers, which is just one of the reasons why we need to broaden the appeal of volunteering. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and others shows that the typical volunteer is a middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income, middle Briton—looking in the mirror, I can hardly envisage anything more attractive—but we are missing out on the potential of bringing more unemployed, disabled and older people and more people from a range of ethnic groups into the world of volunteering.

Because the Government are rightly apprised of the challenges and the potential of life in the world of volunteering, they have established their "Make a Difference" initiative. When I asked the Minister's predecessor about that on 9 March, he promised the House some exciting things. Indeed, on 6 June, the Home Secretary gave some ambitious undertakings, which coincided with the publication of "Make a Difference: an outline for volunteering strategy for the UK". He promised us "Youth Challenge", so that by the end of 1997 a voluntary opportunity would be in place for all 15 to 25-year-olds who wished to volunteer—an ambitious target and there are only 25 months to run. He promised the creation of new, local volunteering development agencies to cover those parts of the country where no such agencies exist and to ensure the match between those ready to volunteer and those organisations that are looking for voluntary help.

As I am sure the Minister recognises, because he has a keen sense of history as well as being incredibly up to date—he is one of those people who could be described as being as modern as tomorrow, with a lot of time for yesterday—that this is the anniversary of the battle of Agincourt. I know that he is a man for the Churchillian flourish and so I am hoping that "Action this day" can be his motto. I trust that he will be able to give us a positive progress report on the Government's initiative. Making a noise is easy, but making a difference is what counts.

Obstacles still stand in the way of people who want to volunteer. Those include simple ignorance—people do not know what is going on—through to bad practice by volunteer-involving organisations and poorly framed or applied regulations. I am glad that we were able to make progress to ensure that the job seekers allowance is not a barrier to volunteering. A number of the "Make a Difference" team's recommendations deal with that area and I must draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister recommendation 32, which urges on Government Departments the need to consider the impact of legislation and regulations on volunteering, and recommendations 53 and 56, which deal with the need for support for the infrastructure that promotes volunteering and good practice.

There is much that Government can do—perhaps the best thing is to get out of the way. The best in volunteering happens from the bottom up, not the top down. Obviously, the Government cannot do everything and nor should they. They must not obstruct; they can encourage, enable and facilitate. But the real work and the best work is done by real people—the best people, on the ground, quite literally in some cases.

The Community Service Volunteers tell the story of Winton primary school in London's Kings Cross area where, before the gates open to admit the first child in the morning, the playground must be scoured for condoms and syringes discarded from the night before. CSV has a model volunteers scheme, which has brought 50 office workers and local residents into the school on a regular basis to listen to children read, help with art projects and, in a sense, truly to live out the old African proverb that "it takes a whole village to raise a child".

I hope that other hon. Members this morning will talk of what we learnt during the all-party parliamentary hearings on citizen's service, as well as marvelling at the amount of work that is being undertaken and relishing the potential. What became clear to me from the hearings upstairs in June was that there can be no single model for a national or local citizen's service scheme. Diversity, choice and flexibility will all be essential, as will leadership.

On both sides of the House, hon. Members recognise that volunteering is invaluable. It may also be the key to reawakening that sense of community that so many people feel that we have lost. It is easy to bemoan the collapse of community values, mourn the demise of the extended family and anatomise the frailty of the nuclear family, but what does that do except to make us feel sad? If the extended family has all but disappeared and the nuclear family is not what it used to be, perhaps the time has come to attempt to reinvent community.

I want to suggest one simple way of going about it, starting at street level. I want a new initiative to encourage residents, on their streets, in their estates and in their blocks of flats, to get together and exchange details of how they can volunteer for their neighbours and of what help they need—from baby sitting to help with gardening and from shopping to household repairs. There are neighbours on every street who could offer to help and neighbours who need their assistance. In many communities, however, there is no opportunity for neighbours to get together to talk and match their needs with volunteer residents. It is a scheme for mutual aid on one's doorstep.

The "meet your street" initiative will aim to stimulate and support the informal neighbourhood volunteering that is the cornerstone of any thriving community. With the Volunteer Centre UK, my plan is to develop a series of pilot meet your street projects with the aim of taking the scheme nationwide during volunteer's week at the beginning of next June.

Given that Britain's newest television soap opera, "Hollyoaks" on Channel 4 on Monday evenings, is set in Chester—they just cannot keep away—I am not surprised to see that it has already been described in one newspaper as "Neighbours meets the Street". I hope that it will not be trivialised because my own informal pilot study in Chester suggests that it could work.

I took a terraced street in my constituency and found living in it an interesting mix: several elderly people living alone, a single parent, some young couples and several students. They were all on nodding acquaintance but none had met. Through the good offices of the local vicar, who lived at the end of the street, we got together and the people on the street found out what they could do for one another.

One of the young men admitted that all he could do was change light bulbs and washers—something that the elderly lady who lived right next door to him and to whom he had never spoken before could not do. She said that she could make a good apple pie and now she does just that for the young man in return for his skills as an amateur electrician and plumber. That may seem modest but the vicar rightly reminded me of the wonderful line of William Blake He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars". Those neighbours, in their own way, are doing something for their mutual advantage and for the betterment of the street as a whole. On a larger scale, the statutory services are never going to be able to provide more than one or two visits from a midwife or health visitor when a newborn baby arrives in the community but halfway down that street there was a grandmother whose own grandchildren live abroad. She and the lone parent and her child have met and invented a new sort of extended family for themselves. I am literally making a speech about motherhood and apple pie but I am also making a practical suggestion designed to deal with a real problem, a solution to which there is a genuine longing.

Today's newspapers are full of concern about communities in crisis. They are also full of material taken from a draft of the Audit Commission's report into policing. As part of the report, the Audit Commission asked the public in a survey what changes they believed would make their neighbourhoods safer. The four main changes sought by the public were more responsible parents, better-lit streets, more closed circuit television and more contact with neighbours. That is what people want; let us trust the people.

A decade or so ago the home watch scheme was launched in my part of Cheshire and from one small pilot project, that scheme has swept the country. There are now thousands of home watch schemes making neighbourhoods safer all across the land. Perhaps the "meet your street" initiative will take off in the same way; I hope so. Here at Westminster, we are the people who make a noise. I am glad that today we have the opportunity to salute the millions of our fellow citizens who are volunteers committed to community service. They are the ones who make a difference.

11.53 am
Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

I am delighted to be called to speak so early as it gives me the first opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth) on his entertaining and thoughtful speech. His talents could be well used in the new soap opera set in Chester if he is not careful.

I want to stress the importance of community service set against the background of the changes that we are experiencing in our working patterns. I suspect that there is a widely held belief that if we could only modernise our industry and commerce and bridge the skills gap, we could somehow return, as if by magic, to a world of full employment. However, one of the products of the global marketplace has been the emergence of new technologies that generate new wealth but do not necessarily give rise to new employment.

The productivity revolution that is happening in the United Kingdom means that more and more processes are being undertaken by fewer and fewer people. While fast-growing sectors of industry and commerce are predicted to create nearly 2 million more jobs for highly skilled people, they will not be able to absorb all those available for work. Naturally, those with the least skills will have the least chance of employment. The Dahrendorf report on wealth creation states: comparative growth is no longer a sufficient condition for a satisfactory level of employment. One of the threats to social cohesion in our society is the way in which the unemployed are becoming excluded from that society. In the new climate of job insecurity, there is greater risk that the exclusion of sectors of society will rise. With jobs for life disappearing and part-time, temporary or varying jobs becoming the rule for many, uncertainty is spreading.

Improvements in education and training are vital to sustain the high degree of flexibility that we now require. Individuals will increasingly be self-employed and will have to cope with periods of unemployment. Many will lose their hold, first on the labour market, and then on participation in our societies and communities.

A growing underclass is emerging, consisting of people who live lives of destitution and dependence on welfare payments and who become detached from society, fragmenting the social cohesion so essential to a democratically governed community such as ours. It is against that backdrop that we should measure the importance of citizen involvement in public service. The threat to social cohesion is real, but can citizens service turn it into an opportunity?

The hon. Member for City of Chester mentioned the parliamentary hearings on citizens service last June. I was glad to have had the opportunity to chair one of those hearings. We tried to investigate the concepts behind citizens service, a scheme to enable young people in particular to give a period of their lives to community service.

I and my colleagues heard evidence from a wide variety of agencies and I would like to mention in particular the Community Service Volunteers, who told us that nearly two thirds of young people surveyed nationally supported the voluntary national scheme. That is an interesting counterpoint to the comment of the hon. Member for City of Chester that 51 per cent. of young people are already involved. Clearly, more can be done if two thirds are willing to be involved.

Let us not underestimate the importance of the scheme. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the economic worth of a volunteer service but a scheme such as was promoted by the Community Service Volunteers could provide respite for some 8.6 million single-handed carers. It could provide a scheme which could help the 2 million or so primary school pupils who suffer from poor reading skills.

Over the decades in my constituency we have established the Eastleigh Council for Community Service, which has set the standard throughout our region for what can be done to help the elderly and the infirm, give respite support for carers and provide a wide range of voluntary services across the community. It not only provides services, but co-ordinates and organises the volunteer reservoir of talent just waiting to be tapped in the community. The example in my constituency is a fine one which can and is being followed in the rest of Hampshire and throughout the country.

We also heard from a number of organisations during the parliamentary hearings. We heard from the Prince's Trust about how it organised local projects which developed core life skills and confidence in their participants. Most importantly, since many of the volunteers on the Prince's Trust scheme were unemployed—about 75 per cent. of them—the programmes that they organised led to the development not only of life and social skills but of job skills.

We also heard from the St. John's Ambulance Brigade, which is engaged in a very different kind of volunteering. Although it provides some 4 million hours of first aid work per year, it selects its volunteers very carefully because of the responsibility that they must undertake. Such volunteers are given well-planned training that contributes to national vocational qualifications. That integration of training with volunteering is important.

As I listened to evidence from a wide variety of volunteers, it became clear to me—and, I am sure, to other hon. Members—that we should explore a range of options. We need leadership—not a large bureaucracy; we do not want a countrywide super-quango—to set national standards and guidelines, and to draw on the work of existing schemes. Existing best practice should be used and promulgated.

Volunteering should involve challenging and responsible activities, and volunteers should play their role in identifying the tasks on offer. As I have said, national standards should be set, especially in regard to time commitment and project objectives. There should be a two-way debate between volunteers and those using their services. We need to set ground rules to deal with the problems of job substitution and exploitation; and we need to overcome fears that volunteers are taking work from paid people. That need not be so. We must set such ground rules if the scheme is to succeed, gather pace and tackle the hundreds of thousands of opportunities for volunteers described so eloquently by the hon. Member for City of Chester.

Much of the evidence presented at the parliamentary hearings supported my views and those of my party. We Liberal Democrats proposed the establishment of a community volunteer scheme in 1993, in a paper entitled "Facing Up to the Future". Our aim is to break down social barriers, to encourage more citizen involvement in public service, to promote the development of social skills and a sense of responsibility and—most important—to help unemployed people to learn skills and boost their self-esteem. Our scheme is targeted particularly at young people, so many of whom find themselves in a low-skill unemployment cycle.

Our proposed service would offer any individual, but especially young people, the opportunity to give one or two years of community service in environmental projects such as housing renovation, or in crime prevention and social services—supplementing, but not replacing, existing jobs. It would be promoted and funded by central Government, in partnership with the private sector. Local authorities and voluntary organisations would organise the scheme.

Training is an essential complement, promoting employability and flexibility. In due course, we would expect the scheme to be widely adopted, and the experience gained from it to be valued by employers and employees alike. We want recognition of the value of community service to stretch beyond its immediate beneficiaries.

A recent CSV report estimated the net costs of such a national scheme—taking into account the savings from increased employment, a resulting reduction in crime and other social factors—at some £300 million a year. That, however, is a small sum—as the hon. Member for City of Chester pointed out—in comparison with the billions of pounds of economic worth that we can gain from volunteer service.

Echoing the hon. Gentleman, I too call on the Minister to take action this day: to make not just a gesture, but a real commitment. If we are to translate what is, after all, a sound policy that is generally supported in the House and the country into firm, positive action, surely such an investment is both worth while and necessary.

12.4 pm

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I declare an interest: I am a trustee of Community Service Volunteers, which has been mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House in this welcome debate.

I do not propose to describe, yet again, the campaign for a national community service with which I have been associated for some 25 years—partly because the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) has already made a powerful case for it, and partly because when I served on the Speaker's commission on citizenship under Lord Weatherill, we made a firm case for the value of involving young people in the community in which they live, giving them an opportunity to accept and exercise responsibility at an early age and thus to become part of a mature and responsible citizenry. I wish merely to bolster the excellent speech of my hon. Friend—my good friend—the Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth). I shall have no difficulty in remembering his constituency in future—not that we are given much of a chance to forget it at any time.

Volunteering is about a very unfashionable word: it is about love. Love is the one commodity that professional statutory services have great difficulty in delivering; indeed, they must be extremely wary about delivering it. For numerous perfectly sound reasons, professional social workers—and, increasingly, teachers and other professionals—are being taught to distance themselves from the individual, subjective commitment to another person that is best defined as love. Families are being so damaged by all kinds of stress and instability—divorce, separation and every variety of exploitation of one individual by another—that a huge gap is developing between those who have been fortunate enough to experience love and those who have not.

Hon. Members must ask themselves what it profits a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul. Some 750,000 children in the United Kingdom have no contact with their fathers. That bare statistic, which could be multiplied in many other contexts, demonstrates just how bereft many people are growing up to be. Single mothers are being categorised as an anti-social group, but we should remember that the majority acquire that status as what middle-class families would call children: they are 16, 17 or 18. Most middle-class parents who look forward to their children entering the labour market, fully qualified, at the age of 25 still regard them as children, whatever they may say to them privately.

As my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester pointed out, many of those "children" who are struggling to bring up their own children alone need, more than anything else, an individual who will take an interest in them, care for them with experience and love and sustain them through all the vicissitudes. Volunteers can do that; no statutory service can conceivably do it.

Before I am accused of being sentimental, let me say that the organisation of such a net—the tapping of a generation who have more time, often more disposable income, more knowledge, greater experience and more education than any previous generation and a great reservoir of capacity—is not cost free. The Government, in their splendid "Make a Difference" initiative, must remember that matching volunteers with those who could make use of them is expensive.

Vetting volunteers to ensure that they do not abuse their position is expensive. Information exchanges to bring the two sides together are expensive. If we are to move away from the disproportionately middle-class volunteer, we must consider more generously funding travel costs.

If we are to make sense of the changing pattern of employment over a lifetime, we must reconsider the social security rules that limit the amount of voluntary work that people can do—people who are killing themselves in their spare time trying to find jobs, sending out applications and so on, but who continue to be limited in the number of hours of voluntary work that they are allowed to do and the amount of notice that they must give—by what is increasingly in some parts of the country a myth: that looking for work means trudging the streets. It is actually a matter of computerised job applications and so on, which can be done at any time and should not be allowed to diminish the opportunity for voluntary work.

The Government—no other organisation in the country has the same capacity—have an enormous responsibility for ensuring that the biggest users of volunteers, the statutory services, make opportunities available. The tremendous variation in the use of volunteers between one health trust and another, one social services department and another and one Prison Service area and another, is inexplicable and inexcusable. How ridiculous.

If one director of social services, such as in Kent, finds that he can use every volunteer who offers, and enthusiastically endorses their use, why on earth do other directors of social services drag their feet? The Government can and should do more about that. I am delighted to gather—I hope that we shall hear more about it from the Minister—that Ministers have started to ask the services for which they are responsible to include in their annual reports the use that they make of volunteers. Paid volunteer organisers will make a difference out of all proportion to the cost of their salary.

The Meadowdale disaster, which commanded today's headlines, would have been less likely if volunteers had visited the home regularly. The director of social services for Kent says that when he sets up a Kent county council home somewhere and puts the notice outside saying "KCC home", it is as though he had thrown a moat round the home. Local residents say, "That is Kent county council; it is nothing to do with us" and they go nowhere near it. What a mistake.

We should ensure that residential homes set up by the Government to look after the most damaged people in our society welcome regular visits from volunteers to befriend not only residents but staff, who become isolated and prone to bad practice as a result.

Let me once again link commercial advantage with that outpouring of "voluntary love". During the recess, I accompanied a Department of Trade and Industry and Department for Education and Employment mission to South America, selling British education and training overseas. We got the message there that we get from Malaysia and other places: foreign students—who are enormously important to the commercial advantage of this country now and in the future, when they rise to important positions—are discouraged from coming to the United Kingdom because the British are so tremendously unwelcoming to them.

One of the things that we could and should do, and which the Government should seriously encourage higher education to do, is to set up a network of befrienders of foreign students. That would mean that, instead of sitting in some desolate bed-sitter in Earls Court, prey to every fundamentalist Muslim missionary who comes along, our Malaysian student friends would be able to get inside and see a home in Britain, not just once in their time here but regularly. The mutual advantage, which is the glory of volunteering, would spin off in straight commercial value to this country. That is yet another area in which opportunities for volunteering could and should be developed.

12.16 pm
Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

The quality of the debate is a good example to the House. It is interesting to hear arguments made on both sides of the House about serious issues that affect our communities and families and individuals throughout the country.

I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth) on initiating the debate. In his introduction, he described with impressive clarity the impressive extent of volunteering. He referred to the altruism of volunteers and saluted their work; I join him in that. I am sorry that he did not mention the way in which anger, frustration and a determination to attack the ills of society lead many people into voluntary service. However, he acknowledged the need to galvanise the Government into action, and I shall say a little more about that in a moment.

The hon. Member for City of Chester was right to value the voluntary work of people who help with youth clubs or environmental improvements or help to raise money in other ways and, indeed, the work of magistrates and foster parents—many different groups in society which may not be thought of when we use the word "volunteer". However, that reality and the potential that lie beyond it should be recognised by the Government—for instance, through the benefit system. As the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) said, it is crazy and illogical to place obstacles in the way of unemployed people giving their time as volunteers. The objectives set out by the hon. Member for City of Chester will be achieved only if the Government help on that score.

Hon. Members may be aware of the recent report of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which said that action needs to be taken to remove the barriers which prevent people on low incomes from getting involved in their local communities. This might include more payment of expenses and ensuring that regulations do not prevent people on unemployment or other state benefits from volunteering". That argument was made with some strength to the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People by the National Association of Volunteer Bureaux. I hope that the Minister will show some understanding of the problem when he replies to the debate and that Ministers will take notice of the evidence that the NAVB has produced, especially in a letter from the vice-chairman, Mrs. Eileen Wimbury, to the Minister, which describes, with the help of several case studies, some of the difficulties encountered by unemployed people. In her comments she makes a telling point when she says: However many such people are so afraid of losing their benefit that when they hear what they must do before volunteering they understandably decide not to take any further action. This is very much at odds with the Government's intention according to the Make a Difference strategy. Indeed a section of the Make a Difference Team's Report deals with the difficulties experienced by benefit recipients generally. She goes on to point out that those problems have increased since incapacity benefit was introduced in April this year. Her letter continues: One of the difficulties apparent to us is that many Benefit Office staff have no conception of the difference between paid work and voluntary activity. However what concerns us even more is their lack of knowledge of the current regulations covering Incapacity Benefit. That is an example of where the Government can make a difference by enabling people to volunteer. By a reorientation of the Government machine and the attitudes within it, they can demonstrate that volunteering is valued by the Government. I hope that we will hear something to the point and positive from the Minister.

The Rowntree report states that there is "no room for complacency", although it is recognised that many people wish to volunteer and could be encouraged to do so. Some changes, the report suggests might work against volunteering, such as the ageing population and the changing structures of the labour market and the family. I hope that the Minister will respond to the challenge we are offered in the report, which states: The challenge for public policy makers and volunteer involving organisations is to anticipate the trends and take action to harness the positive effects on volunteering and reverse (or at least limit) the negative effects. The Government's response to the "Make a Difference" initiative, which made 81 recommendations, has been, I regret, half-hearted. The response of the Home Secretary in a letter to hon. Members on 7 June was half-baked and feeble, and did not measure up to the quality of the report that stimulated the launch of the initiative a year before. We need more from the Government if we are to believe that—as the Home Secretary put it at the time—they are serious about releasing the huge untapped reservoir of Britons willing to volunteer their time to help in their communities. The hon. Member for Mid-Kent was right to puncture the myth that a few words can solve the problems facing those who are willing to volunteer in their communities. He was right to ask the Minister to respond to the real challenges, and he was also right to pinpoint the responsibility of the Government, in view of the inexplicable and inexcusable problems caused by the practical obstacles within the health service and Government institutions to using the strengths of volunteers. We require not paragraphs in the annual reports of the organisations concerned, but a change in attitude through the Government machine and among Ministers, civil servants and those who now run a myriad of organisations at an arm's length—or further away—from Government responsibility. I refer not only to activities within the Prison Service, but to other agencies as well.

The youth challenge referred to by the Prime Minister has the date on it of 1997—a commitment carefully dated well beyond the next general election. In calling for action and not words, the hon. Member for City of Chester issued an embarrassing challenge to the Minister—a challenge that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have failed to meet.

I welcome the Minister to his first debate at the Dispatch Box, and I congratulate him on gaining his new responsibilities. I hope that he will show himself to be as able to respond to the debate as his hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester believed he would be. It would be a pleasure for us all if he were able to give us what senior Ministers have, so far, been unable to give us.

The hon. Member for City of Chester reflected Labour's thinking when he referred to the African proverb that it takes a whole village to bring up a child. But it does not help if the Government fail to provide enough huts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) was quick to point out. Incidentally, I congratulate my hon. Friend on her appointment to the Whips Office, and on her sterling work on the review of the relationship between the Government and the voluntary sector which was initiated by the Leader of the Opposition last year. I am sure that the strengths that she has shown in that work will be well to the fore in her work as a more silent member of the Opposition team.

Voluntary action can take a wide variety of forms and is nothing less than the expression of being a citizen and playing a part in one's community. That has been at the heart of the Leader of the Opposition's vision, and was so clearly a part of John Smith's vision before him. But I warn Ministers against the simplistic view common among Conservative Members—although I was glad not to have heard it voiced by Conservative Members today—that volunteering offers a cheap shortcut to saving money or evading the responsibilities of Government.

That approach was illustrated recently when a Minister said: Government values the voluntary sector—we want you to help us to achieve our objectives". Another Minister turned the traditional relationship on its head, when he told a voluntary sector conference: We value your work—that is why we put seed money into the voluntary sector to help start up projects which the voluntary sector can then run on a permanent basis. The traditional view was that through concerned citizens exposing need and taking positive action, the voluntary sector would pioneer work which would then be made universal by the state. That route gave us schools, hospitals, social care, youth clubs and so much more.

In a mature society, we need new approaches and the responsibility for the Government now is to explore the ways in which a genuine partnership can be created between the Government and the voluntary sector. In exploring the nature of that relationship, we have been conducting a series of meetings with the voluntary sector up and down the country. The meetings have exhibited a range of issues that concern the voluntary sector and in which the Government have a hand. The issues include the question of funding. The voluntary sector is concerned not just with the amounts of money, but with the bureaucracy that ties the time of those who need to apply for money. The bureaucracy means that those involved are unable to get on with their jobs or to harness the work of volunteers.

There is also the question of independence and accountability—a subject on which there have been some uncomfortable debates of late. It has been suggested that organisations that receive public money should not be free to criticise the Government. The voluntary sector needs to have the right to voice the concerns that it encounters in its work, even if that voice is sometimes uncomfortable for the Government. There is a need for consultation by central and local government to be more real and more participative. We need the subject of volunteering and volunteers to be better understood by the Government.

There is a need for the whole contract culture to be re-examined, because there is evidence that it is constraining the capacity of the voluntary sector and creating the wrong relationships, rather than the right ones. There is the question of the capacity for innovation by the voluntary sector, and of how the Government help self-help groups and structures, including the relationship of social companies with overview bodies. The burdens of trusteeship are, in many cases, discouraging people from taking part in the work of major voluntary organisations.

All those matters are important and each could demand a debate. But it is against that background that we need to create a new partnership between the Government and the voluntary sector. That partnership must recognise not only the essential independence of charities and voluntary organisations and their capacity to innovate but the long-term continuity that many offer in the areas of service to which they bring a passionate commitment.

I see no evidence that the Government have yet realised the damage that they have done or the need for Ministers to change their attitudes. I pay tribute to those in the voluntary sector who responded to the Prime Minister's call and joined the working party for the "Make a Difference" initiative. It is a pity that there has not been a real response from the Government. The working party was able to make some 81 proposals, but a detailed strategy for the development of the relationship between the Government and the voluntary sector has not been produced. Perhaps the Minister will give some specific and positive commitments today on those 81 recommendations, and those would not come a moment too soon.

Rather than a fresh initiative, what is needed is a root-and-branch change in the attitude of the Government. We need not just a gesture from the Prime Minister, but an understanding of the voluntary sector that runs through every Department and organ of Government, local agencies and local government. Extra money from the lottery charities board is welcome, but there must be real recognition that voluntary organisations are partners in society—partners whose views are sometimes different, whose independence must be respected, and whose roots in citizenship and in campaigning for improvements in society give them an authority that is the source of their strength. Volunteering as an activity is more than offering time to help with the work of voluntary organisations: it is based on individual commitment. That must be recognised by society and by Government, not just through the occasional OBE but through proper training, support and respect.

I can testify from personal experience to the way in which voluntary service has improved the quality of life of those who receive help. But it has also transformed the lives of those who give voluntary service by encouraging personal development, widening their horizons and often enabling them to play a more positive part in some of the most difficult and deprived communities in the land. The effect of such activity, and the personal development that follows it, is immense in terms of community development too. That is true for the young people at the bottom of the heap, including those who have been involved in criminal activity, and for adults.

That fact is illustrated best not in statistics but in the impact of the ex-convict who, as an influential youth leader, became a positive influence on a generation on his estate. It is illustrated by the case of the offender who completed his community service with disabled people and who went on to give a voluntary commitment in a way that changed his life and the lives of those with whom he worked. It is illustrated by the young mother who, in what seemed to be a hopeless setting, started helping in a playgroup. After a period of serial volunteering, she so extended her abilities that she graduated from university a few years later. It is illustrated by the single parents' group in the St. Mellons area of my constituency that set up an advice service to help its members and others. It demonstrated such positive qualities as to lead to a break-through in work and independence for single parents.

Those individuals, in their volunteering, do not illustrate a cheap path to training. They did not set out to benefit themselves; they illustrate the truth in the adage that in giving, one receives. Their experience illustrates the truth for Government that enabling people to volunteer and providing the support, training and opportunity that supports voluntary activity is a first-rate investment in community at a local level, and at a national level in that society whose fabric the Government have damaged in recent years and whose very existence was denied by Lady Thatcher when she was Prime Minister.

At present, the experience of organisations, such as the Prince's Trust Youth Volunteers, and a variety of smaller groups, such as Action for Youth and the Weston Spirit, illustrates the potential of our young people. It illustrates daily that those who appear to be beyond hope can be redeemed—or they can redeem themselves—given the encouragement of tough but caring adults in an environment in which they can develop the confidence to respond to real personal challenges.

That evidence is real, palpable and contemporary, but the tragedy is that it merely confirms the beliefs upon which so many youth organisations were based in the late 19th century and the findings of reports ranging from those of the first world war to the Wolfenden report, the Albermarle report and the report entitled "Youth and Community Work in the Seventies". It took last year's report by a firm of accountants to tell us what our grandmothers always knew: prevention is better than cure and the devil makes work for idle hands.

I refer to the report prepared last year by Coopers and Lybrand for the Prince's Trust, which told us that the youth service is cost-effective in terms of crime prevention. The main purpose of the youth service is to provide benefits for young people growing up. However, the report demonstrated that even in the narrow financial terms of cost-effectiveness—which is supposed to drive the Conservative party—the Government have been foolish and neglectful in ignoring and undermining both the statutory and voluntary youth services in this country.

Anger about that neglect was one of the driving forces that prompted me to stand for Parliament, and the situation has worsened since I came to this place in 1987. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), whose proposed legislation introduced earlier this year would have given the youth service a proper statutory basis.

Against that background, many hon. Members want to see the development of a scheme of community service, or citizens' service as it has been called and as the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) referred to it in his excellent contribution. The name is not important; what is important is that the experience of youth organisations in motivating young people and the new experience of organisations such as the Prince's Trust must drive any move towards citizens' service. Above all, we must recognise that it must nurture growth rather than demand instant results. The mistakes of the 1980s must be learnt.

Such a scheme must not imitate the bureaucratic nightmare that the Manpower Services Commission became under the dead hand of dogmatic ministerial control. We must not repeat the mistakes of America, whose experience rarely travels comfortably in any event. We must have a development that is carefully thought through, that is voluntary rather than compulsory and that builds on experience, rather than statistical imperatives, in motivating young people.

The textbook for our times—indeed, the parable for Tory Britain—is William Golding's book, "Lord of the Flies". Of course, our young people are not wrecked on a desert island, bereft of positive adult influence; but they are too often deserted on the streets of our housing estates and inner cities, bereft of positive adult influence in an environment that encourages the worst of their potential.

A scheme of citizens service, which nurtures self-worth and positive values through giving service to others, will make a positive contribution to turning that situation around. But it can succeed only if it is part of a much bigger change. We must recognise that we will achieve more together than we can alone; that the Government have a responsibility to encourage a sense of community and of belonging at a local level; and that the values for which the Leader of the Opposition has argued, and which are now set out in the constitution of the Labour party, must become the values of new Britain.

In other words, volunteering and community service are an essential part of the whole. They do not constitute a piece of sticking plaster that the Prime Minister can suddenly discover and stick over the broken bones of communities up and down the country in order to pluck an election victory from scenes of ruin and neglect.

12.35 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Timothy Kirkhope)

As I rise to reply to this most interesting and important debate, I feel the burden of historical personalities and events on my shoulders. In opening the debate, at least my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth) did not refer to Lord Palmerston. I am not sure what Lord Palmerston's views on the subject would have been—nor am I briefed to answer them.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to reply to the debate introduced by my hon. Friend. He is too modest, because his involvement in the community, both in Chester and nationally, is well known. He has been involved with the National Playing Fields Association, the Voluntary Arts Network and the local sea cadets and scouts, and he has worked within his constituency, particularly in the area of Newton. As he said, I have had the pleasure and privilege of working with him on various schemes and ideas about volunteering that have been suggested to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and others. I commend my hon. Friend for his efforts and I am very grateful to him for his kind opening remarks.

I think that this has been a debate of the highest quality. I shall comment on one or two points. I was delighted by the helpful contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) and for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes). I found the contribution from the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) most interesting and I shall refer to it again in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester said that Chester regards itself as the volunteering capital of the nation. That may or may not be the case; my Department does not have information to prove or disprove that claim. However, I hope that the debate will arouse sufficient interest in the country to prompt other locations to try to meet that challenge. Perhaps they will also wish to claim proudly to be the volunteering capital of the nation. My hon. Friend has undoubtedly set the cat among the pigeons in that sense.

This morning's debate is a particularly timely one: it is taking place as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is hosting an event to recognise the 70 winners of new grants worth more than £3 million as part of the Government's "Make a Difference" initiative, to which a number of hon. Members referred and to which I shall return later.

I fully understand some of concerns of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), and hope to discuss them in a moment; but, given such an excellent opportunity to extol the virtues of volunteering, I am a little sorry that the Opposition seem once more to be producing a list of nothing but problems and had lots of cold water to pour on the subject. The debate is an excellent occasion for all of us to unite in being positive and encouraging people to take part. As I have said, some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised are worth not only noting but considering and reacting to. I am sorry that he spent so much of his speech criticising, rather than giving examples or extolling the virtues of volunteering.

Mr. Michael

The hon. Gentleman may have misheard some of my comments, but I am glad that he intends to respond to some of my points. Any cold water was poured not on volunteering but on the responsibility of Ministers who failed to respond to matters such as the "Make a Difference" report. I assure the Minister that the water was carefully directed.

Mr. Kirkhope

Perhaps we could agree for the moment to regard it as tepid.

Millions of people voluntarily give of their time to help others, and that has been confirmed by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester and other hon. Members—for example, there is the young person who helps an old lady with her shopping. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent referred to the word "love". Of course there is not just the love of the young person carrying out the act of generosity for an old person but the reaction of that old person to the act and the relationship that grows between those two people. That can quite legitimately be regarded as a loving relationship and it is important and should be encouraged.

There is also the governor who helps his local school and the retired architect who helps to formulate ideas for a local charity in his spare time, giving of his professional skills without any call for recompense or return but because of the pleasure and happiness of being able to help. Every hour of the time of such people makes a real difference to the lives of others. Research clearly shows that the number of people who volunteer has increased. As my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester said, it is estimated that as many as 23 million people regularly volunteer in one way or another and that is an enormous proportion of the population.

To say that we have a failure on our hands that we need to remedy is quite untrue. In rolling back the frontiers of the state we have massively increased the scope for voluntary action at local level. Initiatives such as self-governing schools, which I note that Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen do not particularly like, and enhanced powers for governors have made it easier for those who want to give up their time to help others to do so. We have also expanded the role of housing associations and, where possible, we have given council tenants the right to set up co-operatives so that they can look after their own affairs in their own locations.

The whole issue of volunteering does not necessarily relate only to helping old people and the like; it also has to do with helping oneself and one's community. We think that that is also good. The Government have been keen to ensure that we do all that we can to promote and support volunteering. That is why last year the Home Secretary launched the "Make a Difference" volunteering initiative, which we discussed earlier. If we want steady growth of voluntary action in communities all over the country, we need to make sure that people have the information and encouragement that they need.

Young people in particular can find volunteering fulfilling and rewarding, and it is also a practical way of improving their skills and enhancing their career prospects. I have employed young people in the past; seeing on a young person's CV the fact that he has been helpful in his community and has been a good volunteer or hearing about that in the course of the interview is an enormous plus when considering that person for the job. Young volunteers gain in confidence and competence and are exposed to new groups of people and new experiences. Participation at an early age in such work is habit forming and that is to the long-term benefit of young people and the community.

I emphasise that we must be wary about viewing all young people as a problem. It is easy to generalise and all too easy to patronise them. Too often, the media depict the young in a categorised way as either cynical or idle or up to no good. Small numbers of young people and, indeed, small numbers of people in all sectors of society fit such descriptions, but for the vast majority that is manifestly not the case. Many young people are very positive and altruistic and contribute energetically to their communities. In the haste to focus on the problems that are posed by individuals, there is always a terrible danger of neglecting to praise and support the vast majority of our young people. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester praised a number of organisations and young people in particular.

We also have evidence to support the positive impact of young people on volunteering generally. The Volunteer Centre's 1991 survey suggested that about 55 per cent. of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 had done some voluntary work in the previous 12 months. Other surveys put the figure rather lower, depending perhaps on definition and terminology, but I think that all agree that there is a solid and substantial core of young people who volunteer and contribute to the community in a huge range of ways.

In that context, it is worth pausing to consider the range and diversity of volunteering opportunities that are available to young people. For example, most schools have some community service programmes which bring young people into contact with the elderly or with people with disabilities. Youth action agencies can build on that outside the school less formally. There are also more formal schemes such as the Prince's Trust volunteers, Raleigh International and Community Service Volunteers which take full-time volunteers. I am pleased that hon. Members referred to those bodies. I recently met members of the Prince's Trust in an inner-city part of my constituency and I was deeply impressed by the programmes that they were pursuing and the trust's work generally in all its forms. The hon. Member for Eastleigh spoke about that important matter.

Any strategy for volunteering must recognise the existing range of provision and build on the tremendous expertise and experience that are available. We must not build bureaucratic and top-heavy mechanisms and structures which would prove both costly and ineffective and ultimately could provide less choice and opportunity for all our volunteers. Sometimes I think that our critics are rather too keen on building bureaucracy and top-heavy structures and I hope that we will resist that in whatever we do or assist with.

I have focused on the contribution and impact of younger volunteers and on the youthful energy and enthusiasm that they bring to voluntary activity but, of course, we already have active groups of volunteers who are in their 20s, 30s and 40s—I am afraid that that just rules me out. Despite the demands of families and careers, such volunteers often find considerable time for volunteering. But let us not forget those who are in their middle and later years and those who have retired from full-time work because they also have a full and active contribution to make to communities by sharing the wealth of vast experience with others through volunteering.

As hon. Members have said, there is no question but that the demographic pattern of our country is changing. People are retiring younger, there are more changes in the labour market, people are healthier and are living longer and they have more active lives. Therefore we must not neglect the valuable contribution that those older volunteers can make. Aside from their everyday skills, many older people also have an enormous raft of career expertise and experience which can be successfully deployed for the benefit of the community and the volunteer. Many thousands of older people have already taken up that challenge and are encouraging young people and building a bridge between generations or providing helpful and practical advice.

It is important that all the organisations seeking volunteers do not neglect to involve people of all ages and I hope that they will renew their efforts to ensure that that is achieved. I welcome the work of the Retired Executive Action Clearing House—known as REACH—and the Community Service Volunteers retired senior volunteer programme because that is doing a lot to help bring older people into contact with their communities. It is important that positive thought is given by employers and employees to volunteering as an option following their retirement.

I am aware of the matters concerned with unemployed people and ethnic groups and I accept that it is important that they should also be fully involved in volunteering in the community.

Through the "Make a Difference" initiative, we in Government have launched a raft of measures that will help more people to volunteer and to take an active part in their communities. As I have said, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, who was engaged on the awards this morning, launched that initiative in March 1994. Since that time, we have made significant progress. Our underlying policy is to build on what there is and to provide the support and development to enable more people to become involved.

For example, at the start of my speech, I mentioned the event that is taking place in recognition of winners of more than £3 million of new grants. Significantly, 53 of the grants we are making are for new projects throughout the United Kingdom, which will involve more young or older people in voluntary activity.

Each of those 53 projects will produce real benefits on the ground in local communities. They will also benefit the volunteers and in some cases help to bridge the generations through volunteering. For example, a project that we are funding in the Tynedale region of Northumberland, where I lived for many years, will make available volunteering opportunities in rural areas for both young and older volunteers in providing a playbus and toy library scheme. That is an important service. It is good that the project has been able to provide that, and it has been rewarded as a result. It will also bring practical benefits to families with young children in a rural area that does not currently have access to such facilities.

The other grants that we are awarding today are for 17 new local volunteer development agencies to be established in regions of England where no local infrastructure to support volunteering exists. We shall be spending around £1.8 million over two years on these projects, and I am delighted to be able to take this opportunity to congratulate the winners of both those grant schemes.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary announced his intention to make those grants at the launch of the "Make a Difference" team's report on 6 June this year. The team, which was established last October as part of the "Make a Difference" initiative, took just eight months to produce a wide-ranging strategy on how to take forward volunteering into the next millennium.

That team's report, entitled "An Outline Volunteering Strategy for the UK", has been widely welcomed. It made 81 recommendations and at the launch my right hon. and learned Friend announced a range of practical and positive measures that would build on their work.

We also established the Volunteering Partnership with members from the public, private and voluntary sectors to advise Ministers on the development and promotion of volunteering. That small and highly focused group is already up and running and will be producing advice on how volunteers might be involved to relieve carers, and on ways of taking forward the commitment of my right hon. and learned Friend that, by the end of 1997, there should be a volunteering opportunity for every young person who wants one. In the longer term, that group will also provide advice on how to involve more older people in volunteering.

In June, we announced plans for a new volunteering award scheme, which has been launched by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who, as I said earlier, has always been a strong supporter and advocate of our policies in this sector. The aim of those awards is to recognise and reward organisations throughout the UK that have shown excellence and innovation in involving volunteers.

Aside from making awards in 10 areas of the UK, we shall also be announcing an overall UK winner, as well as making a special award this year in recognition of an organisation that has involved volunteering support of carers. The closing date for nominations for the awards is 31 October and the winners will be announced on 5 December—International Volunteers Day. I am excited by the meet your street initiative, to which my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester referred. Perhaps that will be a contender or applicant for that award.

We plan to run pilot media campaigns in the new year in advance of a nationwide campaign. That will fulfil another element in the plans that my right hon. Friend announced in June.

All elements of the package that we announced in June built on the work that we had already put in place: establishing the "Make a Difference" team, providing £470,000 in grants to support 27 new partnership projects to bring more people into volunteering, and establishing the national volunteering helpline, which, for the cost of a local call, can provide information to anyone seeking to become involved in volunteering.

That is all on top of the direct support that we give to national organisations that develop and support volunteering, such as the Volunteer Centre.

The Government's support for volunteering, however, does not end with my Department. This morning, I am able to announce—as one of my hon. Friends hinted—the publication of the departmental action plans, which will take forward volunteering in the sectors of responsibility in all Departments. Copies have today been placed in the Library of the House. I am sure that colleagues represented on the ministerial group for volunteering and the voluntary sector would agree that those plans represent an important step forward and provide new impetus across Departments for the development and support for volunteering. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester that I shall be making absolutely sure that all Departments fall in line with those plans, otherwise we will both want to know why.

All in all, "Make a Difference" is synonymous with practical, positive and partnership measures that we have taken and will take to ensure that volunteering remains a hallmark of this nation's history. It is our role in Government to act as persuader and enabler.

Enabling should not be regarded as a dirty word. Too often, Opposition Members assume that, because the Government believe in enabling, whether it be in this context, in relation to local authorities or wherever else, we are not fulfilling obligations. Our job is to ensure that we encourage people to volunteer, but, as I said earlier, if we were to overdo the bureaucracy, the object would not be achieved.

Mr. Michael

Before the Minister concludes his remarks, perhaps I can assist him so that he does not have to speak too slowly. Would he like to refer, as he was invited to do by Opposition and Conservative Members, to the aspects of enabling that relate to reducing the problems and constraints that are placed in the path of unemployed people who wish to volunteer, and to the discouragement that exists, as illustrated by the evidence provided to his hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester?

Mr. Kirkhope

It is only fair to say that we are concerned about and interested in ensuring that people who are unemployed or who receive benefit are encouraged as far as possible to take part in volunteering without penalty. We would encourage them as much as we can.

Mr. Michael

Any announcement?

Mr. Kirkhope

No announcement, I am afraid, but we are considering such matters.

If we want voluntary collective action in communities all over the country to grow steadily, we need to ensure that people have the information and encouragement that they need. In that way, Government action can be the catalyst that unleashes volunteer power.

Our "Make a Difference" initiative aims to build on what has been and continues to be achieved. We know that there is more to do and that there is scope for even more people to become involved. The UK has a proud tradition of voluntary service and most, if not all, of the hon. Members who have spoken, including my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester, have referred to that proud tradition.

As I said, I am not sure what Palmerston would make of this, but we intend to sustain our fine reputation and tradition in this way. With the help of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is very keen, and because of the encouragement that we always received from my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Thatcher when she was Prime Minister, we intend to take the matter further and we will ensure that volunteering plays an important part in the future life of our community.

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