HL Deb 25 June 1975 vol 361 cc1389-96

2.49 p.m.

Lord WINDLESHAM rose to call attention to the continuing need for voluntary service in the community and to the valuable contribution made by voluntary agencies in supplementing the statutory services; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Motion which we are to debate today has been on the Order Paper for over two months. Since I put it down, we have had the referendum on the European Community and we have seen the storm clouds of the economic crisis closing in at a frightening rate. I must confess that there have been moments in the past two months when I wondered whether, at a time like this, a debate on voluntary service in the community can be justified in terms of topicality and relevance. But I believe that it would be a mistake to pass up the opportunity which these debates in your Lordships' House offer every Wednesday to call attention to a wide range of matters which are of continuing and underlying importance.

After all, we might remind ourselves that politics is not made up just of the high points, of the excitements, of the great events and of the reaction of Government and Parliament to them. Beneath the surface life goes on all the time; often hum-drum and relatively unspectacular, yet influenced in so many ways by a multiplicity of different public policies and actions. Moreover, some of these policies and actions are far more susceptible to our own control and our own decisions than are the dominant issues of the day which command an almost obsessive interest and attention.

Debates of this kind also enable Peers who have a special knowledge and expertise to contribute to the public discussion, not so much from the standpoint of their political opinions or their Party allegiance, but on the basis of their own firsthand knowledge and commitment. Today the whole House particularly values the fact that the Prince of Wales is to take part, and we look forward to his speech with the keenest anticipation.

My Lords, we are also fortunate that two other Members of your Lordships' House, who are particularly well qualified to speak on this subject, have chosen today for the occasion of their maiden speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, who has served with distinction in so many public capacities, is currently chairman of a committee reviewing the role and function of voluntary organisations, while my noble friend Lady Pike, for many years well known as an active and successful Member of another place, now presides over all the activities of the Women's Royal Voluntary Service. In this office she is the heir to the late Lady Reading, who was regarded with much affection and much esteem in this House, and we shall listen with close attention to what my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Wolfenden, have to say.

It is over three years since we last debated voluntary social service and the conditions necessary for its success. At that time, in February 1972, I was the member of the Government given the responsibility by the then Prime Minister, Mr. Heath, of co-ordinating the interests of various Departments of Government and the voluntary movement. In that task I received great help and support from my noble friend Lord Jellicoe. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, who is to speak for the present Administration in our debate today, has inherited the responsibility that I had in the previous Administration, and I shall therefore want to put some questions to him as the spokesman for the Government. The Motion for debate refers to the … need for voluntary service in the community. The wording is deliberately general, as I hope that we can cover both the contribution that can be made by the individual volunteer—very often working within the framework of the statutory social services—as well as the work of voluntary organisations. There is a very large number of voluntary organisations—some registered charities, others not. They vary enormously in size and in structure, as well as in their aims and in the ways in which they seek to realise their aims. But, my Lords, virtually every voluntary organisation shares at present one thing in common—the threat of actual or pending financial crisis.

From inquiries I have made in preparing for today's debate—and I wish to acknowledge the assistance I have had in this connection from the National Council of Social Service—the general picture that has emerged is of overheads increasing at an alarming rate. The costs of heat, light, postage, telephone, as well as general administrative expenses, which are all unavoidable necessities in running any organisation, large or small, have escalated. In addition, staffs, who are very often paid at rates well below what their skills would command in the market, have had to receive some increases in salary in order to help them counter the sharp increase in the cost of living.

Simultaneously, income has been standing still or has been decreasing. In many cases income from donations, from covenants, and from commerce and industry, has declined, while grants from central and local government have not been able to compensate for this decline. Foundations and the major grant-making trusts have seen the value of their investments fall, sometimes dramatically. Consequently they have had to cut back on the very valuable grants they make to voluntary organisations. What, my Lords, are the consequences of this economic adversity, if we accept it as such, and I think there will not be many noble Lords who are to speak in the debate today who do not share this feeling of financial crisis?

First, the extent of certain services is being reduced. At a time when there is mounting public concern about battered babies, for example, it is little short of tragic that the NSPCC should have had to reduce its number of inspectors by 20 in the current year, while a further 20 will have gone by the middle of next year. The Spastics Society, known to many of your Lordships as one of the largest voluntary organisations in Britain, has, it is reported, been running into losses, possibly amounting to £500,000 this year, with the result that fewer children will be able to go to spastic day centres and residential homes. The Helping Hand organisation, which provides hostels for drug addicts and alcoholics has, I understand, had to lay off approximately 50 per cent. of its staff, while over the voluntary movement as a whole many staff vacancies are being left unfilled, and new developments—the life blood of dynamic organisations—are being curtailed.

Voluntary organisations which are concerned with the unpopular cases, such as the welfare of ex-offenders, and those doing novel and sometimes unconventional forms of work, are especially vulnerable. I shall not continue with this catalogue. I wanted to give some specific examples, not merely to generalise, and I have chosen a few from those which are familiar to me personally. But no doubt other noble Lords who are to speak in the debate will be able to comment on the basis of their own knowledge of the various organisations with which they may have a particular connection.

What can be done, my Lords? If we know and value the voluntary movement, if we regard it, as I do, not merely as a desirable adjunct to the statutory social services, but as an integral part of the way in which social needs in this country are most effectively perceived and met, what can be done to help voluntary organisations to keep afloat in the face of the apparently irreversible tide of inflation? I say at once—and no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, and his colleagues in the Government will be relieved to hear this—that I do not believe that the answer lies in a substantial increase in Government grants. I do not want to see any reduction in Government support for the voluntary movement which, in general, is still on a modest scale; still less in the activities of the Voluntary Services Unit, in which I have a certain paternal interest. But to suggest additional public expenditure at a time like this would be plainly unrealistic. I would, however, urge the Government to avoid taking any steps which would have the effect, even unintentionally, of weakening the voluntary movement still further.

This is not the occasion to debate the pros and cons of the Community Land Bill. It is a measure now before another place which is controversial between the Parties, and the occasion to debate it will arise in this House in due course. But a consequence of that Bill, as it is drafted at present, would be to penalise those charities which own land or buildings. It is often only by selling land which is adjacent to buildings, thus realising the development value, that organisations can afford to modernise their premises; or perhaps by selling an old and unsuitable headquarters building in London and using the proceeds to pay for a new purpose-built headquarters outside London. I have a long list of actual examples which I shall not inflict on the House now, but I ask the Minister to get together with his colleagues in the Department of the Environment, and to do so as a matter of urgency, in order to review the representations for exemption that have already been made by the Churches and by the voluntary organisations at official level.

Before I continue with this line of argument—and I wish to develop it for a few moments longer—I should stress that arguing for special treatment of charities in no way sets a precedent. Indeed, the exact opposite is the case. For more than a century it has been a well-established principle that charities, acting as they do for the public benefit, should be relieved of taxation on their capital and on their income. Thus charities are exempt today, as they have been for many years, from paying income tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax and capital transfer tax.

But as taxation becomes more and more complicated, the traditional position of the charities becomes harder and harder to protect. The second way in which the Government could help the voluntary organisations would be by making a positive and determined effort to try to resolve the argument which has been going on for two years or more now about the position of charities in relation to value added tax. I accept that both Parties have a responsibility here. The representations were initially made when my right honourable friends in another place and my noble friends in this House were in Government before February 1974; but let it now be for the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and his colleagues to come forward and take the credit for breaking this deadlock in a way that would benefit at any rate the majority of those voluntary organisations which are registered charities.

I know that there are difficulties in the field of definition and difficulties of classification and administration, but I do not believe, having looked into this argument over the last few weeks, that there are any real difficulties of principle. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, who has a particular responsibility for co-ordinating the Government's interests across the board will, I hope, in the light of this debate look again at this issue and meet with the Customs and Excise and officials of the Treasury and see whether a measure of much needed relief can be granted from VAT.

My Lords, I sense that it is the wish of the House that the opening speakers in this debate should be brief. The subject is a wide one—deliberately wide, as I have indicated—but I think that we shall complement each other's contributions instead of repeating them if we limit ourselves to picking out a few particular aspects rather than trying to cover the whole field. But I do not want to end what I have to say without referring to the opportunities for service by individual volunteers. What I have said so far has referred more to the voluntary organisations. There are many practical difficulties about integrating individual voluntary workers into existing services which are staffed mainly by professionals.

Volunteers are often regarded as unreliable, as inadequately skilled, as a cheap form of labour and sometimes, I am afraid, even as an unwanted nuisance by hard-pressed professionals. Yet with tenacity, backed by a reliable organisation, the reservoir of potential voluntary helpers that still exists in spite of everything can be tapped. The employment of volunteers in the hospital service—a development greatly encouraged by the King's Fund in its early stages—is a shining example of what can be done. The noble Lord, Lord Hayter, who is chairman of the King's Fund and who has been associated with it for many years, is to speak later and this is a theme that he will be able to develop further.

The Volunteer Centre, which was set up with Government support in 1973, is now developing into a useful agency to encourage wider opportunities for individual volunteers and also for voluntary agencies and community groups. Only this week, on Monday, the Centre has published an interesting report, and a timely one, entitled Bargain or Barricade? which is a review of the employment of voluntary workers or voluntary agencies by the social services departments of local authorities. This report will be a valuable guide for people working in the field and it contains practical examples of the good and bad use of volunteers. But the conclusion is that, overall, the social services departments, still partly recovering from the consequences of local government reorganisation, are not doing enough to involve the community in their activities.

My Lords, here once again at local level is one other area in which there is room for action, and action now. There is no possible reason other than lethargy for not acting in these fields, and acting now, in a way to encourage wider voluntary service in the community. This is nothing to do with inflation. In the local authority field it is much more a matter of altering the attitudes of paid workers and of those who have a responsibility to provide a service to the public. The name of the late Richard Crossman has been much in the news recently; and I was reading what I think must have been his last public lecture delivered at Oxford in March 1973. He said that towards the end of his life he had come to realise the vast significance of the voluntary movement; and he concluded by saying: … our community will only recover from its present social sickness by giving the suppressed altruism of millions the means of continuous expression in community service. My Lords, I find that a profound statement and a true one. It is not profitable to spend too much time analysing the motives or the backgrounds of volunteers. Why some people come forward while others do not is seldom easy to comprehend, and never wise to judge. Since all human beings are creatures of mixed motives, that is hardly surprising. But at a time when idealism has fallen out of fashion, when as a nation we seem to have become more proficient at knocking down than setting up, it is worth reminding ourselves that fundamentally it is still idealism, each man's answer to his own highest conceptions, that moves people, as it always has, to give service to their fellow men. That I believe is the theme that should be behind our debate today. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.