Opinion: The voluntary sector is not a panacea for all our ills

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

The media has been filled for ages with a debate about whether Muslim women should cover their faces or not.

The debate was started by the Leader of the Commons, Jack Straw, who expressed concerns about communicating in his constituency surgery. John Prescott has weighed in with the view that Muslim women should be able to cover their faces, and Melanie Phillips has said it is hard to communicate with people if you can't see them - although many of the comments have been made on the radio, where you cannot see the people at all.

At the same time, there are signs of a more deep-seated fear about the gradual ghettoisation of Britain, with communities living separately from each other. Some commentators have attacked the concept of multiculturalism, arguing that it is to blame for the celebration of 'diversity' over integration.

Yet people forget there has always been some ghettoisation because people tend to live in communities they are comfortable with, where they can get the food they want and where organisations for social support - often voluntary groups - are designed by and for that group.

So the debate rages on. Islamophobia is a big problem and so too is anti-semitism, often dressed up as opposition to Israel. Racial abuse is commonplace.

Some communities feel threatened. So some politicians and others concerned with the role of civil society have begun to look to the voluntary sector to help. If the Government cannot bring people together, if religious organisations tend to be particularistic, maybe the voluntary sector can succeed. Everyone knows that people of all faiths and all ethnic backgrounds believe it does wonderful work. Surely the voluntary sector is the glue that holds society together, so it should be able to put us back together again.

What they fail to see is that the voluntary sector does not exist to cure the wider ills of society. Most organisations have sprung up for some particular reason. Those concerned with community cohesion will do what they can to help, but politicians and social commentators must be careful to avoid using the voluntary sector to achieve things for the greater good of society. The sector does not want to be given a wider social purpose defined for it by government - it wants to be able to get on with its business.

Communities do not want to be shanghaied into joining the voluntary sector in order to be seen to be integrating. The voluntary sector can achieve miracles, but the miracles have to be in the imagination and ambitions of those involved, not in the bright ideas of commentators and politicians.

Social integration is of huge importance, but it is not the voluntary sector's job to make it happen. Better for politicians to think hard before they comment on veils and tell parents to watch out for children being fanatics, stirring up disquiet. Social cohesion is hard to achieve and the voluntary sector can only do so much. Don't ask us to do the impossible - what we do is hard enough already.

AND WHILE WE'RE ON THE SUBJECT ...

- After Jack Straw's comments on the veil, Massoud Shadjare, chair of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, responded: "To argue that a few thousand women in veil constitute the obstacle to community cohesion is nothing but an Islamophobic ploy to ignore the root causes of alienation of the most discriminated community in Britain."

- Legislators in France banned headscarves and "conspicuous" religious symbols at state schools in 2004, but Russia's Supreme Court has overturned a ruling that prevented women wearing headscarves in passport photos.

- Speaking at the Allen Lane Foundation's annual lecture in 2005, former Charity Commissioner Julia Unwin said: "The glue that binds us has been powerfully diluted as the institutions of civil society have come under increasing fire. If chess clubs and amateur dramatics clubs are to be replaced, it is through the activity of the voluntary sector."

- The Guidestar UK website lists 152 charities that promote community cohesion. Examples range from the Bridges Community Project, which runs community clubs, services and training, to Apsara Arts, which promotes Asian arts in and beyond the Asian community.

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