Chancellor Gordon Brown announced a £300m boost for
community volunteering earlier this month. The state-of-the-art metallic podium
gave way under the considerable political weight of Lord Falconer, minister
responsible for the new initiative and Gordon Brown uncharacteristically joked,
“I think it’s in shock at the sight of me giving away money”.
Launching the initiative the Chancellor spoke less than
eloquently. “A new era of active citizenship and the enabling state is within
our grasp, and at its core is a renewal of civic society,” he said. He
proclaimed an end to “centralising government”, saying the man from Whitehall
no longer knows best, but the woman from the WRVS does.
Unsurprisingly, political commentators seized upon the
apparent contradictions. Many were suspicious of government seeking more
volunteers – was this a cheapskate way of cutting services? Unison’s assistant
general secretary, Keith Sonnet said, “If this is intended to use unpaid
volunteers to do the work of paid public employees it is a daft idea. How are
the authorities going to deal with vast numbers of volunteers walking around hospitals
and going into schools?”
With regard to the end of “centralising government” and
empowerment in the field, Polly Toynbee pointed out in The Guardian that “under
Labour every social programme comes with rigorous targets to be monitored
So much for the sceptics. The facts are that voluntary
groups are struggling to find enough people to help out with existing tasks.
With more women in the paid workforce the female army that voluntary groups
used to rely on for voluntary work has dwindled. The Financial Times says there
is a decline in the hours of voluntary work carried by men between 35-to-50,
largely due to the pressure of their jobs. Gordon Brown believes that up to
100,000 over-50s can be encouraged to supplement the work of nurses, teachers
and the social services.
As usual our political commentators have missed the big
picture. This is a long-awaited move that on its own won’t solve the problem,
but it is a great start. There is
enormous need and enormous scope for effective actions. Already 170,000 people
do voluntary work for the NHS and as chairman of an NHS Hospital Trust, I know
what an enormous contribution they make to the stretched full-time staff.
For me this scheme is not embracing enough. It only looks at
those out of work who are volunteering to help public services. What about
those in work? Despite all talk of pressure of work, the evidence of business
benefit from encouraging employees to contribute in the community is
overwhelming. Come on Chancellor, let’s encourage all sections of society to
build our communities and benefit their businesses, whilst developing
themselves at the same time.
By Professor Clive Morton, Chairman of Whitwell Learning,
author and former vice-president of the CIPD