Thursday 2nd May 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]
14:00
Jo Gideon Portrait Jo Gideon (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the contribution of volunteers.

I am delighted to speak on the theme of volunteering. The absence of a large number of Back Benchers gives me the chance to opine at length on a subject close to my heart. I thank the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), who kindly co-sponsored this debate with me; she sends her apologies for health reasons, but would like me to state her recognition of the enormous contribution of the volunteers, in County Durham and beyond, who do so much for our communities. I would like to use this debate to do exactly the same.

This may be my last opportunity to highlight the wonderful work of individuals and organisations in my constituency without the pressure of a tight time limit, Ms Nokes, so I hope that you and the Minister will indulge me if I incorporate into the debate a love letter to the wonderful people it has been my privilege to work with in the great city of Stoke-on-Trent, including the more than 70 charities and community groups who share their wisdom and provide mutual support at my charity roundtable. In a city where many people struggle with both their finances and their health, I am humbled by the work of the many volunteers who step up to help those who are less fortunate, and by how those with little look after those with less.

The resilience of my local community stems from a strong sense of place and identity, and decades of disappointment about a lack of investment after the decline of the traditional industries that were a feature of the city: the steelworks, the mines and the potteries. As the city sees a renaissance, with the growth of new creative and digital sectors, transport and logistics and new civil service jobs, there are still too many who struggle with the cost of living or with accessing services. The help that volunteers provide is essential.

Next month, charities across the UK will be celebrating 40 years of Volunteers Week, an annual campaign that starts on the first Monday of June. It is an opportunity for charities and the wider public to recognise, celebrate and thank the UK’s incredible volunteers for all that they contribute to our local communities, the voluntary sector and society as a whole. I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate in advance of Volunteers Week: it allows me not only to highlight the incredible achievements of our country as a result of volunteering, but to make a call to action to those who have got out of the habit of volunteering or may never have had the opportunity. I encourage them to look at their local community and consider how they might help out and give their time.

Volunteering is critical to a vibrant, flourishing and resilient civil society. It benefits volunteers and the organisations with which they are involved; it has transformational impacts on beneficiaries and their communities, delivering public services and building social cohesion. That support can be seen particularly clearly during crises such as the covid-19 pandemic, but community support is not simply about helping people affected by the pandemic or its economic and social aftershocks. The contribution of volunteers extends much further and deeper than unforeseen emergencies. Many people volunteer with sports clubs, youth groups—including the Scouts, the Guides and other uniformed groups—and faith communities or neighbourhoods. Others provide more specialised support, such as youth mentoring; working with prisoners or the homeless; or volunteering in a hospital or other health settings, such as through Helpforce, a charity providing volunteers in support of the NHS. In my own patch, the work of volunteers for the local hospice is remarkable.

There is a lack of robust data on the economic and wider social impact of volunteering, but it is worth noting that Andy Haldane, a former chief economist at the Bank of England, has valued the contribution of volunteering to the UK economy as being in excess of £50 billion a year, or 2.5% of GDP. Even that is likely to be an underestimate: if occasional and informal volunteering were included, the figure would probably be much higher. The latest data from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations shows that approximately 14.2 million people in the UK volunteer through a group, club or organisation, with many more volunteering informally.

Interestingly, people over 50 are most likely to volunteer and provide unpaid care. According to the latest community life survey results, respondents aged 65 to 74 were most likely to participate in formal volunteering at least once a month compared with other age groups, alongside the contributions they make to the economy through work. It is important that we recognise and value the impactful contributions that the many volunteers over state pension age make by bringing their wealth of skills and experience developed in the workplace.

The benefits work both ways. Volunteering can have a transformational impact on the lives of older people themselves. Research has shown that older people who take part in volunteering report improved wellbeing, improved life satisfaction and lower rates of depression. Older people are incredibly positive towards charities and do a great deal to support them, both financially and through volunteering. There is a real appetite among many older people to do more. Many have a skill that they would like to use to help a charity, but do not know how to get involved.

I feel strongly that more needs to be done to link older people up with volunteering opportunities, giving them the chance to access all the health and wellbeing benefits that are linked directly to community action. That is why I am hosting an over-55s fair at Staffordshire University on 31 May, to offer advice and connect people. It is a core part of my Nothing but a Number summit, which aims to make Stoke-on-Trent an age-friendly city. The importance of volunteering will definitely be on the agenda.

At the other end of the spectrum, social action has a dual benefit for young people: the positive impact for the chosen cause and the personal skill gained from the experience. It helps to improve students’ motivation at school, and is particularly powerful in developing soft skills such as leadership and teamwork, which are more difficult to teach in the classroom. Research has discovered that young people are extremely socially minded and believe that individuals have a duty to make a positive social contribution. They are committed to causes and want to use their time to make an impact.

Although many young people want to make a difference, they too need information on how to get involved. People want to volunteer. Time and again, I hear about people not knowing how to make the first step. That is the biggest barrier to volunteer recruitment. Despite the overall decline in volunteering, 62% of people who have not volunteered in the past three years say that they could be encouraged to volunteer. There is huge untapped potential, which provides a key opportunity for the Government to support the sector in unlocking this good will. The Scouts shared with me that people volunteer either because they have an existing connection to the Scouts or simply because they were asked to. We should not underestimate the power of simply asking people to volunteer.

I run a local charity roundtable every month. A lovely story was shared with me by the National Literacy Trust. One of its literacy champions, Caroline, began her journey with the trust during the summer of 2022, when she supported some of its very busy Tales in the Park events. Since then, the whole family have got involved. They are always on hand to support the trust’s work. They have run activities that benefit our community, including running literacy activities on Port Vale match days, running a Hallowe’en Booktacular event outside their house, where they gave out books as well as sweets, running a community bookcase outside their house, and supporting many of our local literacy events.

At school, Caroline’s son Jayden ran Look for a Book trails for his class during Kindness Week and supported his school with book donations. He even runs a community bookcase, wheeling out his trolley of books every Friday afternoon for parents to choose and swap books. Having started as a reluctant reader, Jayden is so proud to be a literacy champion and is keen to support his peers in any way he can. He just loves helping people. That is just one example of how inspiring young people to volunteer can encourage them to invite friends and family to join in their voluntary activities.

Jayden volunteers because he loves helping people. NCVO research shows that people overwhelmingly volunteer because they want to make improvements to the communities they live in and help the people around them. When people are asked why they volunteer, the most common motivation is simply the desire to make a difference. People also gain a sense of achievement by volunteering; they make new friends, gain new skills and improve their career prospects.

Not only does volunteering have significant value to society, but a recent report by the British Heart Foundation has found that it has clear benefits to the individual, and it can play a key role in contributing to the Government’s ambitions for increasing healthy life expectancy, levelling up and tackling loneliness. In particular, 94% of volunteers agreed that volunteering had helped them feel less isolated or lonely, 92% agreed that volunteering had helped their mental health and 80% agreed that it had helped their physical health.

Volunteering can take many different forms across all settings in society. One in five recent volunteers have volunteered for local community or neighbourhood groups, the most popular cause: that might include volunteering at food banks or hostels or helping the homeless. There are also many services delivered by volunteers that are deemed essential by the public: the Samaritans, St John Ambulance and Citizens Advice, to name but a few.

I read in the news recently that the boss of the supermarket chain Iceland had said that medics saved his life after he collapsed at last Sunday’s London marathon. He was racing to raise money for Alzheimer’s Research UK when he became unconscious just a mile from the finish line. He came around to St John Ambulance volunteers piling ice on his chest in an attempt to bring his temperature down from a dangerously high 42°C. Volunteers like these make an extraordinary contribution to our society. They played a huge part in the successful roll-out of vaccines during the covid-19 pandemic, and they continue to support communities through cost of living challenges.

Volunteering also keeps our high streets alive and preserves the heritage of our towns. Let us consider charity shops; we know that high streets around the country could be completely abandoned without them. Without people running things on high streets, we would lose the soul of our towns and cities. Dougie Mac is a well-loved Stoke charity, and I am sure that we can all picture the shop fronts for other charities such as Cancer Research, the Salvation Army and Oxfam. Charities up and down the country are so grateful for the volunteers who run their retail, without which they would cease to exist: the vast majority of their income has to be generated through commercial activities, and without volunteers, that would be impossible. We need to maintain the community input into keeping our high streets alive, and recognise the role that volunteers play.

To come back to local heritage, I love visiting Etruria Industrial Museum in Stoke. It has the only operational steam-powered potter’s mill in the world. It is managed by Bernard Lovatt and run entirely by volunteers. If not for Bernard, this significant heritage site would most likely have ceased to operate, despite being of huge historical impact not only to Stoke-on-Trent but to the history of ceramics manufacturing in the UK. Many of the places that we value, such as National Trust properties, would not survive without an army of volunteers. Passing on our knowledge of history to future generations would be impossible. Volunteering is vital for society, and the Government need to keep recognising that.

Who knows where volunteering can lead? My good friend Danny Flynn, the head of North Staffs YMCA, began his career in the charity sector by moving to London to work as a community service volunteer at a day centre for homeless people. He now runs one of the most successful YMCAs in the country. Under his leadership, many young people are given a helping hand. The monthly community meal encourages volunteer teams from across the city to cook a meal for 100 people in the community. A few months ago, I enjoyed taking the challenge up myself.

Every volunteering journey is different. Danika started volunteering as a community champion with Thrive at Five, a national charity that attends my roundtable. Supported and given the chance to learn new skills, she set up a club to support parents over the summer holidays. She now has a paid position walking alongside parents in their journey through the early years—all because she volunteered.

We know the profound benefit that volunteering has on the individual, on communities and on society, but there are still many barriers to overcome. When I spoke to volunteers at my local branch of St John Ambulance, I was surprised to learn that they have to purchase their own uniforms. That, plus the cost of travel, can be a barrier. I am grateful that the Government have already invested a lot of money in removing some of those barriers and getting people involved. In March 2023, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport launched the Know Your Neighbourhood fund with up to £30 million to widen participation in volunteering and tackle loneliness in 27 disadvantaged areas across England. However, we can still do more.

Volunteers are not valued enough by society as a whole, and the UK does not even measure the work of volunteers and voluntary organisations, so we cannot fully credit their contribution to society. That said, the scale of the voluntary response to the pandemic was undoubtedly amazing: millions of people looking after their neighbours reconnected the social fabric, but the effect did not persist because people had to go back to their jobs and had less time on their hands. Mid-covid, I wrote an article discussing the importance of supporting the voluntary sector in which I predicted that many of the vast army of individuals who came forward to help neighbours and neighbourhoods would disappear once everyone went back to their pre-covid life. Unfortunately, that is precisely the situation we now face. Levels of formal volunteering have declined and remain well below pre-pandemic levels. In 2017 17% of people had volunteered in the past 12 months; by 2023 just 13% had. That is an estimated 1.55 million fewer people volunteering over the period.

The long-term trend toward greater reliance on a smaller civic core is troubling. It is a real concern for charities: 40% report that the lack of volunteers has prevented them from meeting their main objectives. Small charities in particular, which make up 80% of the 165,000 registered charities in England, are facing huge problems with volunteer recruitment and retention, but this issue has been raised with me even by national charities, such as the Scouts, which make invaluable contributions to the voluntary workforce across the UK but are currently facing challenges in volunteer recruitment. That has led to unprecedented waiting lists and a worrying decline in their workforce.

The increase in need is not being matched by an increase in volunteering capacity. In fact, many charities are victims of their own success. They often deliver vital services that the public value but are not currently or fully delivered through public sector bodies. The voluntary sector is often asked to do more, but not given the funding to match.

Volunteers also need training and support. During the pandemic, an incredible volunteer army helped on every street by delivering shopping for neighbours who were shielding and aiding with the vaccine roll-out. Volunteers who go into people’s homes and work with the most vulnerable need training and support. I became aware of the professional requirements often required of volunteers when I visited one of my local organisations, Birches Head Get Growing, which is a wonderful group that collects and distributes food, clothing, household items, books and toys to tackle issues relating to poverty and waste. Co-ordinating a group of 30 to 40 volunteers and leading workshops and courses is a full-time job.

The belief of local charities and, most significantly, faith groups that we hold the solutions to the problems we face locally and that we can work together with the resources we already have to make an impact that will be an endless legacy for our communities, is truly inspirational, but it is becoming ever more challenging. Interestingly, we are seeing changing trends in the kinds of volunteering people seek: there is a preference for shorter term, more flexible or one-off opportunities. That is a shift from the traditional pattern whereby people provide large amounts of time to one organisation over many years. Although that poses challenges for organisations delivering services, it provides opportunities to attract new and more diverse volunteers.

Interestingly, 53% of new British Heart Foundation volunteer recruits between January and March 2023 were 16 to 24-year-olds, compared with 42% before the pandemic. Perhaps this is an opportunity to think about how we can retain engagement with a younger generation of volunteers, but in doing that, we also need to make sure that we address the fact that younger volunteers in particular are worried about being left out of pocket. Only half of volunteers surveyed by the NCVO said that their organisation would reimburse them for their expenses if they asked. The increasing financial barriers to volunteering are very likely to mean that even fewer people from deprived areas volunteer. The NCVO, which does an incredible job of supporting the voluntary sector, has done a lot of work with MPs through the all-party parliamentary group on charities and volunteering, and we will be publishing a report at the end of May that takes a deeper look at the “Time Well Spent” data on deprivation and volunteering.

When looking for other opportunities to open doors to volunteering initiatives, we should consider the workplace and businesses’ commitment to corporate social responsibility. Many businesses already excel at supporting volunteer efforts and collaborating with charities to leverage employee volunteering to address social and environmental issues. I recently heard from Amazon, which encourages employees to participate in a global month of volunteering to support causes that they are passionate about. Tens of thousands of Amazon employees in the UK will volunteer alongside their peers, adding to the company’s efforts to support its local communities throughout the year. In 2023 more than 43,000 hours were spent volunteering by Amazon employees in the UK.

I am always delighted to hear about everybody who volunteers, even in this place, and my own staff get involved with local initiatives too. Matthew Bridger has pioneered volunteer projects since he was 16, including setting up the Little House Project homeless shoebox appeal, and Izzy Kennedy from my office often volunteers in her local primary school to mentor children who struggle to engage in the classroom. Even in this place, we can encourage our small teams to use their talents and play their part.

People, particularly the younger generation, are increasingly conscious of companies’ reputations and corporate responsibility records. They want to shop with businesses that they see as ethical and are determined to work for organisations whose values they share. We should make it easier for businesses to do this, and work with employers to make volunteering easier. Voluntary organisations need a regular commitment, not the usual three volunteering leave days offered by employers. Will the Minister consider—or has he already considered— introducing a right to request paid leave for volunteering, or amending section 50 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 to enable reasonable time off for trustee duties? School governors, for example, are entitled to time off work under section. Trustees play a vital role overseeing charities, but there are currently an estimated 100,000 trustee vacancies.

We could make volunteering affordable by reviewing and uplifting the approved mileage allowance payment. The approved rate has not changed since 2012, despite the costs associated with motoring having increased substantially. While it is primarily aimed at employees, AMA is also used to reimburse volunteers who use their own car as part of their activities. To enable more people to give their time, might the Minister consider a fair, transparent review of the approved rate?

We should do more research into the potential impact of the cost of living on the ability of university students to participate in volunteering. I spoke to Birches Head Get Growing in my constituency, which provides extensive placements for university students as part of the work placement and site supervisor schemes. More attempts to get students to volunteer like that are needed, but the changed situation following the increase in student fees and the cost of living crisis means that students have become less able or less motivated to volunteer.

I have spoken in the past about social prescribing, which is another popular concept, but does not seem to have had the necessary funding attached at the delivery end. The idea is great, moving us away from medicalising every person’s needs and toward helping in a different community-based way. Examples include helping people to tackle obesity by signing them up to healthy activities, or loneliness by promoting participation in group craft activities; but the organisations that run those activities have costs to meet, and those need to come out of the budgets of prescribers. NHS England should work with the charity sector to increase social prescribing of volunteering, to improve people’s health and reduce pressure on GPs and other healthcare services. Departments should better capture and share information about Government-placed volunteers and the onward journey of those referrals. Again on the topic of data, we need to maximise the impact of the third sector “satellite account” within Office for National Statistics data to better understand and demonstrate the value of the charity sector and volunteering.

We should explore specific policy measures, such as the ones I have briefly mentioned, that support and promote volunteering. Alongside that, we should consider how broader policy choices and broader socioeconomic factors affect volunteering. There is currently no effective strategy for volunteering in England. How much does the Minister consult other Departments about the impact on volunteering of policymaking across a wide range of issues? Will he partner with organisations such as the NCVO and draw on the learning, experience and evidence of the sector to set a strategic direction for volunteering?

I am a great believer in trusting the people, so I am keen for those in our local voluntary sector, who work so closely with our local communities, to articulate a strong vision of a collective approach in order to develop a volunteering strategy that works for Stoke-on-Trent. I look to the Minister to develop a strategy that will work for the country.

14:26
Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) on bringing this important issue to the Floor of the Chamber.

Volunteering is the beating heart of my Bath constituency. Without our volunteers, our charities would simply not survive and sustain the essential activities and services offered to communities. To understand that, we need only look back to the monumental volunteering effort during covid, with people helping with the vaccine roll-out, providing essential goods and medicines to those who were shielding, and ensuring that vulnerable individuals received essential support.

Our communities are so much stronger for volunteering, and I am so grateful to the culture of good will and being kind to one another that exists across my Bath community. It makes for a much better and stronger society, and today is a wonderful opportunity to say thanks to all our volunteers who make that enormous effort. Whenever I meet a volunteer, I see that they do not do it for glory or public recognition; they do it because they are passionately committed to the causes that they support, but today is an opportunity to publicly recognise what they do for us.

I do not want to be risk missing out any of the many voluntary organisations in my constituency, so I will just pay tribute to BANES 3SG, which is a membership network of over 200 charities, social enterprises and community groups in Bath and north-east Somerset. It really came together during covid-19. I hear that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central is organising a volunteers fair, which the network has also organised.

Looking at the model of what BANES 3SG has done in the last four years, it has really transformed the whole of the third sector in my Bath community. It does fantastic work to support charities, social enterprises, and faith and voluntary organisations operating in Bath and north-east Somerset. It aims to strengthen the volunteering offer, and last year it held a volunteers fair that brought together local charities, residents and businesses. Having organisations such as 3SG, which facilitates co-operation between community organisations and statutory bodies in Bath and north-east Somerset, has a huge impact on the lives of so many people. As I said, it has really transformed how volunteering is delivered across the area.

Today’s debate is about not just saying thanks, but pointing out the challenges faced by volunteering and the third sector. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central has already touched on many of them, but I will say a bit more about some. Volunteers come from all walks of life and it is important that we make volunteering accessible for all and identify the barriers in any given area. It is also important to recognise that volunteers are on their own personal journey and may come to giving their time for various reasons. Yet, as I said, most of the time it is because they passionately believe in making a difference. Volunteering also provides connections and support networks that people may not otherwise access.

The sector as a whole faces lots of challenges, not least huge cuts and financial pressures at a time when we are seeing a rise in need and when organisations often support people who are falling through the gaps. There is huge potential for better link-ups to support preventive work through initiatives such as social prescribing, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central has already talked about extensively, and volunteering can play a part in that. Many charities report that one of the biggest issues they face is coping with increasing demand on services while having to find long-term sustainable funding. Charities are almost four times more likely to identify funding issues as the most pressing issue facing their organisation, year on year since 2015. Volunteering is essential to help address that additional demand.

Unfortunately, volunteering has been severely affected by covid-19 and has not recovered since. Data from the Charities Aid Foundation’s “UK Giving” report found that only 13% of people said they volunteered in 2023, compared with 17% pre-pandemic. That represents about 1.6 million fewer people volunteering over the past five years, and that is a very big number. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations survey on the volunteer experience found a trend of decline in certain volunteering activities, including raising money or taking part in sponsored events.

Another barrier to people volunteering more often is reported worries about being out of pocket. We have heard that already this afternoon. That is exacerbated by the recent rise in the cost of living. For example, if someone previously commuted to a volunteering position by train, the increased fares may push that activity over the edge of affordability. Work commitments and caring responsibilities are also often cited as significant reasons for not volunteering. In many ways, it is not a surprise that as life gets harder, people’s attention focuses elsewhere and volunteering will decrease.

As we have also heard, volunteering has lots of benefits. Research has shown that people who take part in volunteering report improved wellbeing and life satisfaction and lower rates of depression. As mentioned earlier, it is also so important for our local communities to thrive. One issue, particularly among younger volunteers, is lower reported satisfaction rates. A long-term focus on helping people to find opportunities that suit them would improve fulfilment and increase the retention of volunteers. Trying to maintain volunteer numbers, as well as recruiting new volunteers, is a constant challenge for charities.

The good news is that willingness to volunteer remains very high. If we can address some of the barriers that prevent people from feeling that they can volunteer, there is untapped potential in the people who are willing to do so. According to the national survey on the volunteer experience, the top two most cited reasons for people being encouraged to volunteer is that they could be flexible with the time they committed and flexible with how they get involved, such as volunteering from home. It is therefore encouraging to see that those reasons can be addressed, with the data showing that flexibility in how people volunteer is increasing, and I know many charities in Bath are eager to be a part of that.

Volunteers carry out incredible work to help support non-statutory services. It is therefore wonderful to have a debate that shines a light on the subject and, once again, to say thank you to the thousands and millions of volunteers across the country who are helping to make our society better and richer.

14:33
Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
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It is a privilege to serve under you as Chair, Ms Nokes—forgive me, I meant to say that it is a privilege to serve with you in the Chair. I should say first up that it would be tempting to just list the thousands of volunteers I represent in mid and east Devon. However, I will not do that because if I did, I know that I would miss some. Instead, I want to use a specific example that I know well: the Scout movement.

I am very grateful to Molly Taylor, who has done some research for all of us who wanted to speak in the debate on the Scout movement. I should say that I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) for applying for the debate, and for pointing out how some people have got out of the habit of volunteering. The pandemic had an effect: on the one hand, it was really good for some people because it got them involved in their communities and volunteering to support others; on the other, it meant that those people who had volunteered for decades were given the opportunity to stay away and reflect on the volunteering that they had done.

Looking at the Scout movement in particular, there were 155,000 volunteers—both adults and young people —in 2020, and that dropped to 140,000 in 2021, but it has now been partly restored to 143,000. For me, the real crying shame is that there are 100,000 young people on the waiting list who cannot join a Scout group for want of another 40,000 adult volunteers. I know from my own involvement in the Scout movement, both as a young person and as a volunteer, that it can be really transformative for young people. It is a movement that exists for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and all academic abilities.

For example, from what I have seen with Cullompton Scouts, we might find young individuals who do not perform particularly well in an academic setting, but once we put them into an outdoor environment, they really thrive and show their leadership potential, and that is really brought on by people who volunteer—people like James Buczkowski, who is the group Scout leader of Cullompton Scouts. I would like to give a couple of other examples as well: Helen Turner was the group Scout leader of Honiton Scouts and she has been recognised as an honoured citizen of Honiton for her 32 years in that role. I should say that, if one is approached and asked to volunteer for something like scouting, they might not anticipate that it is going to consume that much of their life. Actually, it is the pleasure of volunteering that keeps people in it and doing it for so long. James Bicknell, from Willand Scouts, is a former officer in the Royal Navy who has taken his public service ethos from his workplace into his time off, and he has really imbued that in the young people with whom he is working. Scouting can be really transformative for young people, and that gives a great deal of satisfaction to the adults who are involved.

Sometimes, the organisation and structure of some of the volunteer organisations that we have heard about today can lead others to suppose that the volunteers are in fact paid. That is certainly true for the Scout movement because it is uniformed and it all looks very formal. There is sometimes an assumption that there must be some remuneration in the background or even the payment of expenses. I was interested to hear about the idea that the mileage allowance rate should be uplifted, which strikes me as very sensible for all manner of workplaces. It probably would not affect everybody in the volunteer environment because a lot of the volunteers I know do not claim expenses, or will never have the opportunity to do so. That would probably detract from why they do it—the love of volunteering and the satisfaction it gives them.

It would very easy in this debate to talk about only the upsides and to shy away from some of the things that go wrong in volunteering. In lots of volunteer organisations, there have been incidents and accidents; there have been tragedies. For that reason, volunteer organisations now have quite strict health and safety safeguarding rules, and it is quite right that they do. Again, however, it is a tribute to the people who get stuck into such activity that they are willing to take on that responsibility, because their shoulders are broad enough to do so even though they do not get anything out of volunteering and are opening themselves up to greater liability in this age of litigation.

Why do they do it? I suggest that it is because of the outcomes. Again, if we talk to the people involved in scouting, they say that the paperwork might sometimes be a chore, but they volunteer because they see young people grow and thrive. That probably explains why when the Royal Voluntary Service polled people on what they get from volunteering, 49% of respondents said that they become happier, 52% said that they feel more connected to their community and 56% said that they feel more fulfilled.

14:40
Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure, Ms Nokes, to serve under your chairship today.

I also take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) on securing an uplifting debate to conclude the week. In her opening remarks, she captured very well indeed the broad sweep and scope of volunteering, and the contribution that it makes, not only to the communities that benefit from it but to the volunteers.

I cannot possibly begin to try and namecheck everybody in my constituency of whom I am aware, and there are many more of whom I am not aware who make that kind of contribution. I am sure that all Members are in exactly the same situation. However, I will just mention three groups, just to give a sense of the scope of volunteering in my constituency.

There is the Gordon Rural Action group, which in many ways fulfils the functions that many of us would recognise as being the functions of the citizens advice bureaux. It does a power of work through various initiatives and through direct help to reduce social exclusion and tackle poverty, particularly in the more rural and outlying parts of my Aberdeenshire constituency. There is also the Ellon and District Men’s Shed, which I very much look forward to visiting next week. There is also the committee that is the powerhouse behind the Victoria Hall in the town of Ellon.

The Victoria Hall in Ellon was a council-owned asset. It is a very handsome building, but it was a bit unloved; it was not really being used to its full potential. There was a community asset transfer. A really go-getting committee of local people got behind the scheme and now the building is block-booked for dancing, exercise classes and just about anything that anyone could imagine; it has even been transformed into a cinema, with all the digital projectors and everything else. The volunteers have really seized that opportunity and the Victoria Hall is now a beating and thriving hub of the town in many respects, breathing life back not just into the building but into the town.

There are also the many Rotary clubs across the district. Before life got busy with parenthood and politics, I was a very proud member of the Rotary club in Oldmeldrum and every year, through a variety of activities, we raised thousands of pounds to support both local charities and international charities. We supported the efforts of Rotary International to eradicate polio around the world. We also embarked on many other projects locally, which were also able to gain significant financial backing from other partners. We ran mock job interviews at the local school; we organised cookery and music competitions for young people; we sent young people on outward-bound educational courses, so that they could understand their own potential as individuals; and the more green-fingered among our number tended to the community garden and cut the grass at the old folks home. In addition, thanks to the combined efforts of Rotary clubs across the north-east, we put on the Haddo House egg hunt, which I think is still the single largest free public event in the north-east of Scotland and which is beloved by generations across the region.

Individual effort is crucial, but the organisations are important because they match an individual’s willingness and energy with the opportunity to contribute positively. That is good for the organisations and it is most obviously good for the broader community, but—as we have heard —it is also excellent in many respects for the individuals because of what they get out of such activity. To all the volunteers and those who help to enable volunteering, I add my heartfelt and sincere thanks for everything they do and all they contribute to the common good.

There is a long and proud tradition of volunteering. We are all used to the idea of the third sector and charities providing services in our communities with the help of volunteers, and with or without the help of Government money. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea that the Government should help to encourage and enable individuals to step in and help to do things that the state cannot, or that private business will not or perhaps should not.

When we think of volunteering in proximity to the public sector, it is probably of something like the Royal Voluntary Service running the cafés in our local hospitals, as my mother used to do at the Western General in Edinburgh, or perhaps a community transport service helping people to get around the area, rather than filling in for the full-time professional agencies of central or local government. We can also think more broadly of the work of the retained firefighting service or special constables.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution, for example, has always relied on volunteers. The work of first responders in assisting the ambulance service across rural parts of the country has helped to save countless lives in situations where minutes really can be the difference between life and death. Volunteering brings a great deal to the table that central and local government can never be able to do and should never be expected to do. It is about making sure that to get the added benefit, we help people to have the time to give and offer them suitable outlets through which to give it.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central made some extremely good suggestions on how volunteering could be incentivised. I think we would possibly all agree that we live in a society where many people are underworked and many others feel greatly overworked. A lot can be done in that space to assist more people who would welcome the opportunity to volunteer.

For some time, we have had the right to ask for flexible working, even if there is no entitlement to always get it. That right at least exists, but it is much harder for many small businesses or small and medium-sized enterprises to support an employee in that, no matter what other benefits that individual might get and how they might grow in the process. Even something as basic as offering greater support to employees to allow those who wish to volunteer or who need to work unconventional hours to do so—whether that is for volunteering in its purest sense or for caring responsibilities for family, a child or an older relative—could transform not just the economy, but the quality of life for millions and millions of people.

It seems incredible that until comparatively recently, someone claiming unemployment-related benefits could have been penalised through the withdrawal of benefits if they volunteered for more than 16 hours, when a volunteering position could have given them purpose and helped to build skills and confidence, which would help everybody. I am delighted that the rules have changed. Benefit claimants are now able to have their volunteering commitment recognised, and that is allowed without the penalties that existed previously.

However, there is still more to do in this space. I find myself asking why some of the most experienced in our workforce find it so difficult to scale back their hours as they approach retirement without jeopardising their position in the workplace or future pension entitlements, depending on the rules of the schemes that apply to them. Not only does continuing with such inflexibility create a disorientating shock for some people when they eventually leave the workplace on retirement, but it deprives people of the opportunities to find future roles in communities, try things out and transition to what life at the end of a career and after work might look like. It deprives people of the opportunity to transition smoothly into the post-work environment, which would enable them to do something worth while, while also helping others to make the most of what life has to offer.

If we want to look at it this way, we have quite a big society—to use a phrase that was in vogue some years ago—but we do not make that society bigger or better by making the state smaller. We could use the power of the state to help to grow that society and allow people to get more out of their life and their contribution in work and in the community, to the great benefit of all.

In June 2021, I took part in a Westminster Hall debate on the community response to covid, and it is right that a lot of people volunteered and rushed to the fore in that crisis. It is saddening that much of that volunteering effort seems to have tailed off, because part of my hopes for building back better was certainly to build back better by harnessing the good will, commitment and community spirit that came to the fore during that time.

I will conclude today, much as I concluded then, that it is often in the worst of circumstances that we find the best of ourselves. Community and volunteering are intertwined with one another and with the understanding that each of us is part of something much greater and bigger than ourselves, and that our greatest calling in life, whatever we do, is to be called and to serve others. Thank you to our volunteers, thank you to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central for securing this debate, and I thank everybody for their time.

14:50
Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
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Ms Nokes, there could not possibly be a better way of spending this afternoon than taking part in a debate under your Chair. As you pointed out to me earlier, it is not just a privilege, but a massive privilege to be sitting here taking part in this debate with you in the Chair. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) for bringing us to this debate.

However, I am scandalised by every single one of the contributions so far, because the largest number of volunteers who are out today are probably volunteering for political parties, and they have not even got a mention yet. They are the people who go out in sun and rain, in foul weather and fine. They sometimes get spat at—I have been shot at on one occasion. They get abuse, and sometimes they get people giving them a thumbs up, but they do it because they believe in the political system and in democracy. We all know that not one of us would ever be here if it were not for the contributions of volunteers in our political parties up and down the country. They will be far too busy today, but I put on record on behalf of us all, I am sure, our tribute to the volunteers in our political parties who do it for no other reward than the things that they believe in and trying to make a better world and a better country, in their individual ways.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) and for Gordon (Richard Thomson). I think we have all had the same briefing note from the Scouts, so I will not repeat anything; that would seem rather otiose, and you might rule me out of order, Ms Nokes. I disagree, however, with the Members who said that they are not going to list all the volunteers in their constituency, because I will refer to some from mine. I represent one of the poorest constituencies in the land and, one could argue, in Europe, according to some socioeconomic indicators.

The truth is that there are politicians who believe that private is always good and everything should be left to the market, and that public is bad and we should try to shrink the state. There are also those who believe that private is always bad because it is based on profit, and they want everything to be done by the state. I have never subscribed to either of those views—it is horses for courses—but I believe that the third sector is absolutely essential in making either of the other two sectors work. In fact, most of what we would consider as the welfare state—schools, hospitals and so on—sprang out of the churches and the voluntary sector originally. The NHS simply would not be able to function in most parts of the country without the support of volunteers. I do not necessarily mean people fundraising for scanners, running events locally or whatever, but all the additional bits that make the recuperative process possible for so many patients. Once they have had what they get from the NHS, they need that extra bit from the voluntary sector. If I look at my patch, organisations such as Valleys Kids have probably made more of a difference than any other organisation to the life opportunities of some of the kids in the most difficult families and parts of the country.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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Will the hon. Member give way?

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant
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Yes, Bath calls!

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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Does the hon. Member agree that the charitable sector is so good at making the most out of every penny and doubling and tripling the amount invested by capturing the volunteering effort? However, they need a bit of seed funding and not to always be under threat of that funding being cut.

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant
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Absolutely. One of the difficulties comes when they end up with a memorandum of understanding, or some kind of contract with the local authority, or the local health board as we have in Wales—it is a different structure from England. They are then effectively part of the state sector, which makes them less flexible and less able to adapt to situations around them. That has been a worrying trend over the past 20 to 25 years. Maintaining that sustainability for them is the real challenge. That is one of the problems facing Valleys Kids at the moment: trying to make sure that they have a strong financial future.

There is also Sporting Marvels. Sometimes we refer to “charities”, which is quite a strict definition. But actually, lots of people volunteer for things that are not charities, but that, none the less, have a charitable end result, such as all the sporting bodies in my patch. That includes people who turn up as coaches on a Saturday and a Sunday morning for the football teams or for Ferndale rugby club. I will not go through all the rugby clubs in the Rhondda, but I am a patron of Ferndale rugby club, which has its presentation dinner in a few weeks.

So many of these organisations do not get any financial support from the state. Many do not even get charitable status and, for them, it is an even more complicated process. As has already been alluded to, the rules about what people can do—quite understandably, if they are working with children and so on—are onerous, complicated and difficult. Having done work on acquired brain injury, I am conscious that we want any coach working in football, rugby or cycling to have a full understanding of how the new rules and protocols work and when they should take a child off if they have had a concussion. All these things make people think twice about whether they should be engaged in volunteering. That is why the state sometimes has a role in trying to make sure that the process is as simple as possible and that the charities and all the different organisations have access to good, easy and readily understandable advice.

I will mention one other organisation, the Rhondda Polar Bears, of which I am also a patron. The charity teaches kids with a variety of different disabilities how to swim. I will probably see them later this evening at Ystrad sports centre, if I get back to the Rhondda in time.

Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord
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Given that the shadow Minister is a trustee of a charity, does he recognise that it can be beneficial for employers, including those in the private sector, to release staff for work in the voluntary sector?

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant
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Yes—the next word of my speech was going to be “trustees”. That is a very important point. Obviously, school governors, magistrates or reservists in the armed forces have specific rules about what they can expect from their employers. Many employers are absolutely delighted to be able to support the work of their staff, although it is obviously much more difficult for those working in small companies. However, the point is made about trustees as well.

I was actually going to make a slightly different point about trustees. For all I know, it may be easy to find lots of trustees who know how to deal with the banking system or charitable law or whatever in Surrey; it is more difficult in some of the areas that most need that support. That is why organisations such as the NCVO and the Prince’s Trust have been really important in providing mentoring and support in areas such as mine in the south Wales valleys, where we would love to have more trustees. We often end up getting the same people to be the trustees of all the different charities and organisations, such as the Rhondda Arts Festival, which is coming up at the end of June. I am a trustee of that as well. Although I do not have any financial interest in that, I should declare it none the less.

There are also the individuals. Stan Power is no longer with us, but he was a veteran—he served. He took it upon himself for many years, as a member of the Royal British Legion, to make sure that anybody with whom he came into contact who had ever been in the armed forces in the Rhondda knew of every single type of support that they were entitled to claim for. He did that entirely off his own bat, but obviously with the support of the Royal British Legion. He was an absolutely wonderful man who made life-changing possibilities for dozens and dozens of people in my constituency. The more we can enable a few more of those people in every constituency in the land, the better.

I want to refer to a charity that works across the whole country, because it exemplifies the kind of problems we have at the moment, as alluded to by others, and that is Headway. The Minister knows about Headway, which is a charity that works with people who have had an acquired brain injury.

One of the great things we have done in recent years, because of the Government’s brave decision in some cases to create major trauma centres, is that we have saved the lives of many more people when they have been in an accident, many of them with brain injuries. However, getting them the quality of life that we would be able to bring them if they had full rehabilitation is very difficult. All the different therapies in hospitals are very stretched, which is often why we rely for rehab on charities such as Headway, up and down the country.

Most constituencies will have a Headway group. Headway has 1,100 volunteers helping with rehabilitation, 500 more working at setting up branches and 400 working in the retail shops. That is an important part of the network that enables people to get back a quality of life, which is important for the whole of our economy. This is not a partisan attack, but unfortunately the Government do not know how many people in the UK are living with an acquired brain injury—it is just not a known fact. We reckon it is somewhere in the region of 1.4 million, and the charitable sector probably has a better idea than others.

Headway, however, is struggling financially. Many of its branches are worrying about whether they will be able to continue, partly because of a lack of volunteers, but mostly because of a lack of finance. Rehabilitation and the kit needed is often expensive. I hope that at some point we have a major review of how charities end up with their funding, and how we can ensure that they are sustainable into the future.

Several Members have referred to the fact that volunteering is good for people. We can certainly see that in Headway. Often, the person who takes someone to their Headway group will have had a brain injury 10 years ago, was looked after and had rehab, was re-socialised, found a family of people, and then volunteered, volunteered a bit more and a bit more, got a few days’ work, and now is the full-time staff employee. That is rehabilitation and volunteering at its absolute best. We could repeat that of every other kind of charity that we have been talking about.

Volunteering is good for people. It makes them feel useful. It allows them to gain skills, especially because they might have to retrain in areas where they did not have the skills at all in the past. It re-socialises people and makes them feel happier. I note the point made about people in their retirement—I am 62 and some in the room are slightly older than I am, and perhaps thinking about what to do in retirement—and volunteering is an important part of still feeling that we have something to contribute. Often, important skills can be fed back into the community by older people.

There are problems. The significant collapse in the number of volunteers has been referred to, from one in four people of working age to one in six in the past few years, and that is problematic. In 2022, 40% of charities reported that a lack of volunteers meant that they could not progress, could not grow or could not even commit to the projects that they were already engaged in. Some areas, as I said, have found that particularly difficult, because of the financial barriers. If someone is struggling financially and economically to put food on the table for their kids, then the cost of the bus or train fare—even if it is only £2.90, £4.60 or whatever—is prohibitive. Many people will feel reluctant to ask the charity for the money, so they end up not volunteering at all. I would love it if there were some form of bank where all that need could be met. Perhaps that is a project for someone for the future—a particular charitable venture.

Local authorities have been facing enormous financial struggles. In my own patch, Rhondda Cynon Taf has found it difficult to maintain its financial commitments, let alone increase them in line with inflation, as has been needed over the past few years. That has meant that lots of charities have struggled. On top of that, people are not using charity shops so much, which has also had a knock-on effect on their income.

As I think has already been referred to, the Scouts have something in the region of 100,000 young people on waiting lists. Would it not be brilliant if we could get every single one of them into the Scouts? I am a scout from many years ago—I have a few badges, which I will not go into. We would love it if we could have more troops in the Rhondda, because there are kids who would like to do it. The same goes for the Sea Cadets and a whole series of other organisations. Those organisations give kids a sense of purpose and an idea of themselves; they provide a set of extracurricular of activities that offer a different form of learning. They give them confidence. In many ways, they are very similar to some of the creative industries. I would dearly love for the Scouts to be able to recruit far more volunteers.

I have a few final points. The first is about philanthropy. I sometimes look to other countries. On Tuesday night, I had dinner with Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian photographer and an absolutely wonderful artist. He said that in Canada, it is axiomatic that, if someone becomes a billionaire, they will become a massive philanthropist, set up a charity and give to a wide variety of different charities. That has not become the norm in the UK in the same way as it has in America, Canada and some other countries. There is still room for us to explore how we can incentivise that even more, so that it is part of our national psyche.

The second point is about companies. Several hon. Members have referred to the importance of companies being passionate about their local communities. They know that they derive their wealth from those communities, and if they want to incentivise their staff, they will want to play an important part in their local communities. Some companies have been financially strapped, because of energy costs and things like that. The more we can praise those companies that make a radical difference in their local communities, the better. Perhaps we need to think of new ways of badging and thanking them for the extraordinary things they have done.

My final point is about the role of the state in all this. At this particular moment in British politics, I sometimes feel quite depressed, because it feels as if so many parts of what we relied on in our past just do not work as well as they used to. Some people will say, “Let’s try to recreate the social fabric of the 1950s,” but I do not think that that works. The world has moved on: the internet, social media and so on have completely changed things. However, I do want to return to that sense of public engagement—the sense that we achieve far more by our common endeavour than we do by going it alone. I could make the party political point that, if we press the reset button in a general election, perhaps some of that will be achieved. But what is even more important—and politicians and the state play a role in this—is ensuring that the whole country feels engaged in the national project, and that the whole of the local community feels engaged in the local project. We cannot do that without people volunteering for the common good.

15:08
Stuart Andrew Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Stuart Andrew)
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It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) for securing this important debate.

During the debate, I was reflecting on my portfolio in DCMS, and thinking that many of the things for which I have responsibility would not function were it not for volunteers up and down the country giving of their time. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) was absolutely right to mention sport; the biggest cohort of volunteers is in the sports world, and all those groups up and down the country keep our nation active. So much of the youth sector, for which I have responsibility, is run by volunteers, particularly when it comes to supporting disadvantaged young people who need extra support and mentorship. I also thought about the civil society sector. Having worked in the hospice movement, I know that there is no way that we could have raised the money we needed were it not for people giving of their time. Then there are ceremonials. The coronation was a classic example of thousands of volunteers giving their time and ensuring that that spectacular event ran incredibly smoothly.

I, too, have to mention constituency organisations, although I am terrified of leaving any of them out. There are groups such as the Live at Home schemes that look after people of an older generation; Britain in Bloom groups and litter groups that look after our environment; and of course the sporting groups, which I have mentioned. I am also proud to be part of the Guiseley Lights organisation, which puts on huge street parties every year. We are enabling charities to raise the money they need to continue their work. I thank so many of the volunteers: Clare, Jim, Caroline, Steve, Lee and Vicky. Caroline runs our prosecco stall, and I do wonder how much of it she sneaks every now and again.

I also join the hon. Member for Rhondda in thanking the political volunteers out there today. It is a good point well made. It is not easy for them at times, and I am really grateful.

I also want to mention people who support work in the health sector. Ms Nokes, I understand that your dad is a volunteer car driver enabling elderly people to get to their medical appointments, even though he is 81 years of age, which is fantastic. That is precisely why I and the Government are committed to growing volunteering, trying to give people more opportunities to volunteer and celebrating the millions of people who already make a difference by giving up their time.

I want to recognise the power of volunteering. As others have said, it is a cornerstone of our society, and I am grateful for the selflessness we see. However, quality volunteering also requires effort and support, so I also pay tribute to the people who make volunteering happen and work tirelessly with volunteers day in and day out.

As others have mentioned, this year marks the landmark 40th anniversary of Volunteers’ Week. I know all Members will join me in praising the millions of volunteers up and down the country for the difference they make. This year’s Volunteers’ Week will culminate with the second Big Help Out weekend, which gives people the opportunity to take part in volunteering in their local area, many of them for the first time. It is a fantastic way of introducing people to the benefits of volunteering. I am glad that we have been able to provide funding to enable that. I was delighted to be at the launch of the Big Help Out campaign earlier this year, and look forward to seeing even more people take part in it over the course of the weekend. I hope many hon. Members here will do so too.

However, recognising volunteers should not be limited to once a year. That is why my Department works closely with No. 10 to co-ordinate the Points of Light award, through which the Prime Minister recognises outstanding individuals who work in their community inspiring others, too. That is an essential part of telling the story of individual volunteers from around the country and the remarkable efforts they make. I encourage hon. Members to look at DCMS’s social media, where they will see some really inspiring stories.

It is not enough just to celebrate volunteering, and we certainly cannot take volunteers for granted. My Department works to strengthen our knowledge about volunteering, including what motivates people to volunteer, and, as others have mentioned, the barriers that prevent them doing so. We know that recruitment and retention is an increasing problem, particularly for small local charities. There continue to be barriers to more people becoming involved in volunteering, ranging from a lack of awareness of the volunteering opportunities that exist to simply not having enough time.

As others have said, the community life survey found that 25 million individuals volunteered at least once in the preceding years. That is great, and I am very proud of those figures, but it is true that they have been in gentle decline over the last decade. A lot of research is being carried out on why that may be and what we can do to try to reverse that trend. One such piece of research is the “Time Well Spent” report that others have mentioned, which was produced by the NCVO and funded by my Department. It is well worth looking at the findings of that research in depth. We can see from that and other studies that the nature of volunteering is shifting. Broadly speaking, people are looking for opportunities that are far more flexible, easier to start, and more connected to their communities.

That is why we are also doing things such as the national youth guarantee, which is providing to every young person, by 2025, something to do after school, an opportunity to have an experience away from home and, crucially, an opportunity to volunteer, in the hope that that will then be something that they continue to do throughout their life. A number of people mentioned the Scouts and the Guides, and I am pleased that, as part of that initiative, we have given £16 million to uniformed organisations. I am also pleased to say that new groups are being set up. We have now provided another 4,500 new places, but I recognise that there is a big waiting list. I am glad to see that we have representatives of the Scouts in the Public Gallery, because in my interactions with them, I have been inspired by their dedication and I want to see more of those opportunities for young people.

We also need to recognise and celebrate the huge number of people who support others in their community of their own volition and who might not think of themselves as volunteers. As has been said, we saw that during the pandemic, when people wanted to ensure that their neighbours were safe and got the food they needed. But a lot of that was co-ordinated through local organisations and charities, and I am grateful to them. In my constituency, I think of AVSED—Aireborough Voluntary Services to the Elderly—which did so much during that time.

I have already mentioned the importance of rewarding and recognising volunteers through the Points of Light awards and the honours system. We know that the desire to make a difference is the most important motivation for people getting involved in their communities. Beyond our work to recognise volunteers, we are providing funding and working with an extensive range of partners to ensure that there are clear entry points for volunteering. Two years ago, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central mentioned, the Know Your Neighbourhood Fund was launched, and that provides £30 million, including £10 million from the National Lottery Community Fund to directly support charities and community organisations to widen participation in volunteering and, crucially, tackling loneliness. That is happening in 27 of the most disadvantaged areas. I am thrilled that we are able to support those charities and communities in that way, in the hope that that will help us to build the infrastructure we need and create those opportunities to volunteer.

One example is the Vision for Volunteering. That is a sector-led initiative to develop volunteering in England over the next 10 years. The Government have supported the vision from its outset, sitting on its advisory board and lending our support, and funding, to take this work forward, because it recognises that the nature of volunteering is shifting and we want to help communities to adapt to that. For example, one theme of the vision is to increase equity and inclusion, ensuring that volunteering is accessible and welcoming to everyone, everywhere. I was thrilled to meet just yesterday some of the partner organisations, alongside other agencies that support civil society. We were specifically talking about the crucial role that these support organisations play in providing the infrastructure for volunteering. We are looking forward to working collectively to see what we can do to help them in what are sometimes very challenging times.

The British public’s enthusiasm for volunteering was, as I said at the start of my comments, seen very clearly at the coronation of His Majesty the King, and it was exactly that that brought about the Big Help Out. I am grateful to all those organisations for wanting to carry that programme on so that we can bring about a sustainable volunteer network.

I want to respond to some of the points that were made and particularly the request for paid leave for volunteers and trustees. I do understand where people are coming from, but as I think others have mentioned, there is a danger that that could become a problem, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses. However, we do want to see employers develop their own corporate responsibility programmes and to encourage businesses, the public sector and charities to consider the role that employer-supported volunteering can play as part of their impact on society. We do try to encourage that and show the best examples of how that actually benefits the business, often.

Others asked for reviewing and uplifting of the approved mileage allowance payment. Under that scheme, organisations are able to reimburse volunteers for using their own vehicle while volunteering. They are able to agree what reasonable out-of-pocket expenses look like. However, costs of using their own vehicle are often worked out by using His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ mileage allowance payment rules, which Treasury is responsible for setting, and apply more broadly than just to volunteers. However, I was pleased that the Government announced at the spring Budget that we will keep the 5p fuel duty cut, which I hope will help in this area.

More broadly, looking to the future and thinking about the vision for volunteering, as I mentioned earlier, my Department is working in partnership on this. It is a strategic voluntary sector initiative to lead ongoing support and development of volunteering in England. That partnership is made up of DCMS, NCVO, the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, Volunteering Matters, the Association of Volunteer Managers, and Sport England. I am pleased to say that we have been able to provide £600,000 to fund that work, and I look forward to seeing how that develops.

Others mentioned social prescribing. As part of our national sport and physical activity strategy, we are working closely with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care because we see social prescribing as a way of getting people more active. Volunteering will, by its very nature, be a big part of that, so we will continue to work in that area. Of course, the Department leads cross-Government volunteering policy, and will continue to do so.

The hon. Member for Rhondda mentioned philanthropy, and he is absolutely right; there is a lot that we can learn, and I am pleased to say that, as a Department, this is an area of focus. We see pockets of it where it goes well—in London and the south-east—but I want to see that much more broadly across the country, and we will continue to work in that area.

This debate has demonstrated that we all share the same ambition; we want to celebrate volunteers and what they do. I am grateful to hon. Members for highlighting those things, especially in the run-up to the 40th anniversary of Volunteers Week, so that we can celebrate and recognise the contribution of the millions of people who dedicate their time and support their communities.

15:21
Jo Gideon Portrait Jo Gideon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It has been an absolute pleasure serving under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I think that we have had a very positive debate. We have all had the opportunity to praise some of our local charities, volunteers, and organisations that work with volunteering. As the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) said, volunteers come in all shapes and sizes.

I have to slightly disagree with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) about the mileage allowance. Some people can afford to pay for their own petrol, or diesel or whatever, but if they cannot, that should not be a barrier to them being able to volunteer when they want to.

We have covered a huge range of topics, and I do not want to delay people longer, so I will just say that this has been enormously positive. To misquote Dylan Thomas, I do not plan to go gentle into that good retirement, so this is something that I will continue to fight for into the dusk. I very much thank everybody who has taken part. And thank you, Ms Nokes, for your chairmanship.

Question put and agreed to. 

Resolved,  

That this House has considered the contribution of volunteers.

03:23
Sitting adjourned.