Opinion: It's volunteering, Jim - but not as we know it

Julia Neuberger

In one of Polly Toynbee's two columns for Third Sector, before she was forced to lay down her pen by The Guardian, she wrote about how politicians all want a part of the debate about the voluntary sector. She was right, but just why that might be is worth a few minutes' thought. I am chairing the new Commission on the Future of Volunteering, set up by the England Volunteering Development Council. It is looking at the whole question: what do we mean by volunteering? Is it always done out of the goodness of people's hearts? Do young people use volunteering as a way of getting work experience - in other words, is it simply unpaid work? Do others who have been out of the workforce - such as former prisoners or women who have taken career breaks - do the same?

Is this truly volunteering as we know it? Do the politicians, who are busily encouraging it, think it is? What politicians are interested in - rightly but dangerously, in my view - is the way the voluntary sector has become such an integral part of British society, how most people feel they are (or ought to be) volunteering, how some services are undoubtedly better delivered by the voluntary sector, though not always by volunteers, and how one of the quickest ways of earning respect within a community is by virtue of the voluntary work one carries out, even if ulterior motives are driving it.

So some think the Conservatives under David Cameron will want to appeal to the 'softer side' and recognise everything they possibly can as 'voluntary'.

The Labour Government will surely want to see what the sector does better than central or local government providers and use it to outsource away from traditional public provision. The Liberal Democrats will be particularly interested in the nature of local provision, driven by local people. And everyone ought to be interested in the new ideas the sector can bring into practice.

But there is a bigger question. To what extent do any of the political parties look to the sector because they believe that people volunteering holds the fabric of society together in some important but hard-to-define way? And to what extent do they look to the sector simply as a provider of services, often more cheaply, or at a greater distance from government, than local authorities?

People have been warning for years about the latter. But has anyone really been thinking about the former in a structured way? Schoolchildren are encouraged to volunteer - it looks good on the CV. But what about the idea of volunteering because it is a good thing to do for one's community?

Where is the sector, other than the specialist youth volunteering agencies, when it comes to promoting that thinking about citizens' responsibilities, and where is it in keeping its distance from government, so that it cannot be seen as providing services on the cheap, but instead as doing things differently and independently, with society's help? A bit invisible, I'd say.

AND WHILE WE'RE ON THE SUBJECT ...

- The Government says 20 million people in England "volunteer at least once a month in their communities". The figure comes from its regular citizenship surveys and has increased by 9 per cent since 2001.

- The main organisations promoting volunteering include Volunteering England, Volunteer Development Scotland and Student Volunteering England.

Do-It.org.uk is a web directory of volunteering opportunities, and Timebank allows would-be volunteers to register their interests and availability.

- Earlier this year, CSV and the Home Office held seminars about encouraging people to volunteer in the public services, including hospitals and the police. Proposals include using volunteers to drive sick people to surgeries so doctors can reduce the number of home visits they make.

- The Government has started a new youth volunteering charity called v, and Tory leader David Cameron has proposed a Youth Community Action Programme, which would require every school-leaver to do three to four months of volunteering.

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