Comment: Let's protect the words we value

"The voluntary spirit is the very lifeblood of democracy," said Lord Pakenham, a Labour peer and aide to William Beveridge.

Nick Seddon
Nick Seddon

He added: "The man who is prepared to serve the community for nothing is he whose personal sense of mission inspires and elevates the whole democratic process." 

Since dictionary definitions also focus on the notion of performing a service willingly and without pay, it's hardly surprising that paying people to volunteer - which can result in unpaid volunteers being marginalised in voluntary agencies - leaves some others uneasy.

When talk shifts to the financial remuneration of trustees, tempers really rise, with those opposed to payment saying we shouldn't conspire with the assumption that good works can only be bought these days. What if political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville's 'moral tie' between giver and receiver, or what social researcher Richard Titmuss dubbed the 'gift relationship', is undermined?

When you pay people to volunteer, they're free to choose not to do so. It follows, however, that the epitome of Orwellian doublespeak would be to force people to pay not to be volunteers; to compel them to volunteer. This is what the Government is proposing. Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, has confirmed that the Education and Skills Bill will make 16 to 18-year-olds take full-time education, apprenticeships or volunteering or face a fine.

Volunteering here is not volunteering. As Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, executive director of Community Service Volunteers, put it, we must distinguish between "volunteer service that is willingly undertaken and can be completed at will, and community service that is the fruitful engagement of those who may face consequences if they fail to show up".

In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty says that when he uses a word it means what he wants it to mean, to which Alice replies: "The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Make them mean too many things and words end up meaning nothing. We should zealously protect the words we value.

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist:

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