Editorial: This bill strikes at the very rationale of volunteering

The Government wants migrants to commit to 'active citizenship opportunities', but that amounts to coopting the sector for a piece of socio-political engineering, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector
Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector

Only three out of the 14 bills announced in the Queen's Speech last week managed to reach three stars in The Guardian's 'controversy rating'.

The rest fell more under Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's description of "legislative Muzak - an irritating hum in the background". Two of the lively ones concern prostitution and political donations. The third is about citizenship, and that is where the voluntary sector comes in.

Under the Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Bill, immigrants will no longer have an automatic right to stay in the UK after five years' residence. Instead, those who are here legally, pay taxes and avoid committing crimes will acquire the right to citizenship after eight years. If their virtues also include 'active citizenship', they will acquire that right after six years.

To establish whether or not this twin-track approach is a good idea, go no further than the Government's response to its consultation on the bill earlier this year. "Most respondents," it said, "highlighted the practicalities involved in making this proposal work." A long list followed concerning assessment, potential abuse and the position of those prevented from being active citizens by work, family commitments, disability or cultural considerations. "But we remain of the view," the Government concluded, "that this is a very positive reward for migrants who integrate into British life."

When the bill came out, Volunteering England put out a statement that avoided the word 'welcome' and asked for more information. "Careful and considered thought must be put into how the active citizenship provisions would work in practice," said chief executive Justin Davis Smith. "Who will facilitate the active citizenship opportunities? Who will monitor the volunteers' commitment? And how it will be funded?"

But there is also a more fundamental objection. Volunteering should, as far as possible, be its own reward, and this proposal makes it a means to an end. Those willing and able to take part will in many cases do so simply for personal advancement, and those unable or unwilling to participate will be unfairly disadvantaged. The voluntary sector would do well to start marshalling its forces to have this measure dropped from the bill. It is an unfortunate example of the Government trying to coopt the sector for a piece of misguided socio-political engineering.

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