Comment: Volunteering cannot be compulsory

When is volunteering not volunteering? When it becomes compulsory.

John Knight
John Knight

Definitions of volunteering can vary, but generally they contain three core components - it is done by choice, without monetary reward (bar basic expenses) and for the benefit of the community. Most readers of this column will clearly understand what volunteers are and what they do. They are a defining pillar of our sector. Why is it, then, that the Government is trying to distort - may I even go so far as to say corrupt - the noble action of volunteering?

The Education and Skills Bill appears to be suggesting that 'volunteering' would be one of three required actions of 16 to 18-year-olds. The other two would be attending school or college or undertaking work-based learning such as an apprenticeship. I read a report of the speech by Ed Balls MP outlining these plans to the Fabian Society and I thought it was a spoof. Apparently not.

It's interesting that the issue of terminology has been raised rather late in the day as a defence of the use of the word 'volunteering'. A suggestion by some commentators is that the phrase the Government might have wanted to use was 'community service'. Well, I can perfectly understand why 'volunteering' is preferable to 'community service'. Placing innocent youngsters on community service is a much more difficult proposition to punt - particularly as most people doing community service do so as a result of having been convicted of an offence.

It is also suggested that sector organisations 'hosting' such volunteers would be under a duty to report to the authorities those people who had not turned up. Do we really want to become an outpost of the Probation Service?

As I have said before, the sector needs to be careful it does not become an arm of the state - particularly in performing quasi-judicial functions. That is not our role and could damage the most precious thing we have - our relationship with our beneficiaries and volunteers. Volunteering and enforcement do not mix. Ever.

- John Knight is head of policy and campaigns at Leonard Cheshire Disability: jk.thirdsector@googlemail.com.

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