Opinion: Immigrants and volunteering - proceed with care

The Swissmakers, a 1978 film directed by Rolf Lyssy, told the satirical story of some foreigners who wanted to become Swiss. As part of the process, their every move is checked up on: their diet, their language, their gestures.

The film's message was that the system required unnecessary signs of willingness to conform. So when the Chancellor argues that "it is right to consider asking men and women seeking citizenship to undertake some community work that introduces them to a wider range of institutions and people", I begin to twitch.

Is community work quintessentially British? Does it have, as the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants argues, "very negative connotations"?

Or is it the case, as Justin Davis-Smith of Volunteering England argues, that "community work can play a part in assisting migrants to better integrate"?

The JCWI is urging charities that use volunteers to boycott Gordon Brown's plans (Third Sector, 7 March), whereas CSV's Dame Elisabeth Hoodless is supportive, saying: "We welcome the recognition that participation in the community helps immigrants integrate into society".

CSV has made it clear "it would be interested in taking on volunteers only on a non-compulsory basis". Davis-Smith said: "We would also like to underline our strongly held belief that there should be no compulsion to volunteer - volunteering must be a choice freely made by each individual." This is vital. The sector needs to agree a position here. First, volunteering is not volunteering if it is compulsory, but some people do believe you can 'force' or 'actively encourage' people to do it. Second, volunteering cannot have a fixed reward - that wholly negates the spirit behind volunteering.

So the JCWI's reaction seems to me to be right. But Gordon Brown's words bear closer examination. It seems that he was asking not for 'compulsory volunteering' as such, but for would-be citizens to get involved in activities in their communities. There is nothing wrong with that, but how should we do it?

Terminology matters. This cannot be done as 'volunteering' - that needs to be freely given. It cannot be done as 'community work', with its penal connotation. The Chancellor might invent another role, such as internship, and pay for would-be citizens to work as part of citizenship training.

The voluntary sector would then have to decide if it was prepared to run such programmes. Or he could make it purely voluntary, but encourage it - in which case most people would support it. Either way, we need to acknowledge just how difficult it has been to involve migrants so far. Volunteering England says: "There are still major barriers to more involvement of migrants in such activities - at personal and societal level." Either way, the sector has to make it clear that government cannot use volunteering for its own ends. Government itself could do better on involving would-be citizens in wider society. Could the voluntary sector help, if the conditions were right?

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



  • In his speech on migrants and community work, Gordon Brown said citizenship and language tests did not go far enough, and that becoming a citizen of the UK was a "kind of contract between the citizen and the country, involving rights but also involving responsibilities that will protect and enhance the British way of life".
  • The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants was formed in the 1960s to "assist families coming to a new country" by providing free advice and assistance. Since then it has become a campaigning organisation, seeking to influence the debates about immigration and asylum in the UK and Europe.
  • Candidates for citizenship must be over 18, of sound mind and good character, have sufficient knowledge of English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic, intend to live in the UK (or work in service of the crown abroad, or be employed by an international organisation of which the UK is a member) and have fulfilled the five-year residency requirement.
  • Die Schweizermacher (The Swissmakers) is generally held to be the most successful Swiss film of all time. It includes a scene in which members of an Italian family pretend they prefer fondue to pasta, but give away their true political views by breaking into the revolutionary song Bandiera Rossa.

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