HL Deb 12 February 1964 vol 255 cc580-6

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, this might be a convenient moment for me to read to the House a statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of the Department for Technical Co-operation.

"In the great and 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 Her Majesty's 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—who give up at least a year to this service at the start of their careers. Under plans already announced, the number will increase to 800 in September of this year. The Government are in no doubt that the scale of this effort should be 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 involved, compared with 50 per cent. at the moment. Second, 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 the worthwhile nature of the projects to which they have been assigned. The rate of increase will be determined more than anything else by 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, as hitherto, under the auspices of the independent voluntary societies active in this field. The societies as hitherto, will work in close co-operation with the Department of Technical Co-operation, 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 advise them and the Department of Technical Co-operation on questions of policy affecting the programme. It will in no sense duplicate the work of the Lockwood Committee. 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."


My Lords, I am sure both sides of the House will be equally grateful to the Government for this, what I must admit appears to be, rather overdue increase in Government support for a Service that offers the most splendid opportunity available at the present time for service and adventure overseas for young men and women from this country. May I ask the noble Duke whether it is not the case that, in spite of the increase in Government financial support foreshadowed in this statement, the British Government will be paying very much less towards the Overseas Volunteer Service than the American Government is paying towards the American Peace Corps? May I also ask him about the financial arrangements for the Council for Volunteers Overseas? We are delighted, of course, that this Council has been set up to do publicity for the Service, and we are also delighted that the Duke of Edinburgh has been willing to become President of the Council; but, clearly, this Council will have to conduct a publicity campaign in the Press, by broadcasting, and so on, and how will the work of the Council be financed? That is my first question.

May I also ask the noble Duke a question about the membership of the Council? He says that representatives will be drawn from the educational and industrial worlds, as well as some other persons. May I ask the noble Duke whether the industrial world includes the T.U.C. as well as the employers' organisations? I am sure he will agree that it is most important that young apprentices should have their attention drawn by the trade unions to this work.


My Lords, in reply to the noble Earl's supplementaries, I would first of all say, Yes, it is quite true that the contribution of Her Majesty's Government to voluntary service overseas is on a lower scale than that of the American Government to the American Peace Corps, but I think the two organisations are not quite parallel. I have no wish to make any criticism of the Peace Corps of the United States—indeed, to my own, firsthand knowledge, it does a magnificent job in many parts of the world—but it is essentially a Government service. We regard the voluntary element of voluntary service overseas as very important, and consider that it should be administered by a voluntary body.

On the second question as to the expenses of the Council, as I understand it the functions of the Council have not yet been fully worked out. Certainly those who serve on it will do so in an entirely voluntary capacity, as would be right for an organisation of this kind. The cost of such publicity campaigns as they may see fit to undertake will have to be explored. I believe the Council's thinking on this matter has not yet been worked out. As to membership of the Council, I am quite sure it will be drawn from as wide a field as possible, and I find myself in full agreement with the noble Earl when he says that on the industrial side the re should be representation from the T.U.C. I am sure the members will be drawn from a very wide selection, including all sides of industry.


My Lords, my noble friend prefaced his statement with the remark that this was part of a "great and urgent attack on world poverty". Seen in that light, can we really regard these proposals as at all adequate? We have a Commonwealth of 750 million people, very largely underprivileged and in great poverty and distress. We are not beginning to emulate the American efforts in their Peace Corps. I understand they will be up to a figure of 10,000 by the end of next year, and on relative strengths, both in personnel and money, we should achieve 3,000 by that time. I cannot help thinking, my Lords, that this is not a conscious, political, Ministerial decision, but is one that has been slowly worked up by the Civil Service and accepted by Ministers without much real concentration of thought and effort. I hope that is not so, but it looks like that.

Finally, may I say that, while we are all most grateful, and must be, to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh for taking on any additional obligations of State in these days, it seems a pity that the societies have invited him to associate himself with proposals so inadequate.


My Lords, I am not quite sure what actual question my noble relative wishes me to reply to; but I would say this. First of all, I hope that I made it quite clear in the statement that this figure of 1,300 for 1965 was not the final figure but, as I said, one that we wish to increase in the years to come. But, as I also said, the limiting factor is that we are determined that there shall be no slackening in the immensely high standards so far attained. It is fair to say that Voluntary Service Overseas is only part of the contribution that we make to the emergent countries. There are 19,000 men and women in different walks of life serving in the emergent countries, and it is not quite a fair picture to regard our help to the emergent countries purely on what we do in this particular field.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the confidence the Government are showing in, and the increasing support they are giving to, the voluntary societies in this field will be enormously appreciated by them? Does my noble friend also agree that the response made by these young people—and their achievements when faced with these challenges—is something about which we all ought to feel proud in this country? May I ask the noble Duke whether I am right in thinking that the proposal is that the actual administration of the schemes, which require very personal touch with the volunteers and the projects they go to work on, will still remain in the hands of the voluntary associations? Lastly, may I ask whether he agrees that in the future, as in the past, the whole success will depend on the selection of volunteers of excellent quality, and in great trouble being taken to marry-up each volunteer to a project suitable to his or her character and attainments.


My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for his very kind and sympathetic remarks. I can reassure him that, although the financial contribution of Her Majesty's Government is going to be increased, the administration of the scheme, particularly through the coordination of the Lockwood Committee, will remain entirely in voluntary hands. As I said, we are determined to keep up the high standards that there are at present, because one failure would undo the great deal of good that many successes bring. The key to the whole scheme is having the right type of young person.


My Lords, in view of the importance of this scheme, not only to the Commonwealth countries but also to the young people themselves, would the noble Duke consider inquiring from the universities whether they could arrange to allow this year to come after the boy or girl has left school and before taking up a university course? I think it is extremely valuable for young people to have this experience before they go to the university. May I also ask the Government whether they are going to remember that there is a country called Wales in the western half of these islands. We would much appreciate having a member on this Council.


My Lords, I am sure we are all conscious of the Principality, and I am quite sure that owing to the skill and merit of those who live there they will be represented on this Council. Regarding the first question, the number of volunteers overseas as school-leavers (that is, between the end of their school career and before taking up their university career) were 300 a year. The increase we are planning is to keep school-leavers at about 300, but we are going to have the main increase from the graduates. This is because the main demand from the receiving countries is for graduates rather than school-leavers. I have no wish to denigrate the work done by the school-leavers. V.S.O. came into being as a school-leavers' scheme. They do a splendid job and we hope that it will continue. But because the demand is primarily for graduates this plan to increase is primarily directed at graduate volunteers.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether the voluntary societies referred to include the British National Council of the World Assembly of Youth, which is the world's non-Communist youth organisation and is supported by the Foreign Office to the tune of £6,000 a year in this country, and which has, of course, national councils in almost all of the undeveloped countries in which it is intended to do this work?


My Lords, I am afraid—and I must apologise to the House—that I cannot give a positive answer to that question. My recollection is that it is not represented; but I cannot be absolutely certain about this. Perhaps I can either write to or have a word with my noble friend and discuss this.