Some big ideas on volunteering are on their way

Phew. The Commission on the Future of Volunteering in England, which I chair, has embarked on a round of regional consultations, and has also put up its first working paper on the website, as well as a vision statement crafted by the commissioners about how volunteering can help shape society.

It has been exhausting - getting agreement around a committee is never easy. The commissioners are so passionate about all this that everyone has something to say - as they should. Of course, things could change substantially before October's final report.

The ideas are big ones. The working paper makes it clear that real resources are needed to train people who volunteer in a variety of ways, as well as training, education and support for the professionals who work with volunteers. We know, too, that volunteers need recognition, but we have barely explored whether that should be a qualification after completing some form of training, an honour within or outside the present honours system or simply much more thanks. At the commission's table, a continuing theme has been how to recognise people who volunteer for years in the most selfless of ways. We will be looking at that later in the process, but for now our attention is on how to get new people involved in volunteering, as well as realising that lots of people volunteer without it being seen as traditional volunteering.

There is a remarkable tradition of volunteering in the UK; the areas in which people do it are so broad and so different that it is hard to capture. Our task is to make it easier, more recognised, better supported and, perhaps, an even more fundamental part of the DNA of our society.

And that requires action by voluntary organisations themselves, raising their game in terms of how they recruit, retain and train volunteers, and support from the Government for some of the infrastructure that makes it more likely people will volunteer and will gain real skills and expertise from what they do.

• Just as we were putting the final touches to these first commission papers, Jeremy Paxman made his well-reported lament about the amounts of rubbish people throw away. Daniel Finkelstein argued in The Times on 7 March that Paxman's lament makes it even more likely that people will chuck their rubbish on a country lane, on the basis that "if everyone else is doing it ...". But I have been struck in recent months, walking in Warwickshire and the Cotswolds, how many people there are out on the roads on chilly mornings, spiking rubbish from the verges and roads.

Paxman is right about the rubbish. Finkelstein might be right that the very fact that littering the roads is commonplace makes more people likely to do it. But the number of volunteers trying to tidy up is huge, and they are admirable, unsung heroes who really make a difference. I wonder if we cannot do more to celebrate them and to focus on them so that more people can be persuaded to stop throwing their wrappers away. Would persuasion work better than laments to change behaviour?

• Julia Neuberger is a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering 

And while we're on the subject...

• The England Volunteering Development Council set up the independent Commission on the Future of Volunteering in the wake of the Year of the Volunteer, in 2005, to develop a vision for volunteering. It wants to find out what people think is happening in volunteering now, and what should be happening in 10 years' time.

• The commission has 19 members, with Neuberger as chair, including Stephen Dunmore, chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund, Andrew Hind, chief executive of the Charity Commission, Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the National Trust, Joe Gordon of V20 and Barbara Monroe, chief executive of St Christopher's Hospice.

• Litter levels hit a five-year low in 2005/06, according to the Local Environmental Quality Survey of England, reported by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. There was also a 45 per cent increase in the number of local authorities issuing fines for littering and an improved collection rate for such fines.

• The same report showed the level of smoking-related litter, consistently found at 79 per cent of sites, was static. The level of fast food-related litter increased - items were found on 24 per cent of sites, up by 2 per cent on 2004/05, although the rate of increase slowed. Drinks-related litter levels are also rising each year.

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