Editorial: Taking volunteering away from politicians

Stephen Cook, editor

Whenever you raise your head these days, another voluntary sector initiative seems to whistle past your ear. Liam Byrne, the care services minister, told Third Sector last week that there were 22 of them on the go in Whitehall. He was using this as evidence that the Government really is trying to alter the landscape, but he also said "we've almost got initiative overload now". That theme is taken up overleaf by Nick Cater, in relation to Gordon Brown's announcement in the Budget of another cross-cutting review of the voluntary sector.

Today sees the launch of yet another initiative, but this time it's not from the Government and contains less of the managerialist jargon that weighs down most such announcements. It's an independent commission on the future of volunteering, set up by the England Volunteering Development Council and chaired by Baroness Julia Neuberger. The advance indications from the commission are that this could be a cut above your average initiative.

One of the recent problems for volunteering has been the extensive involvement of ministers. A lot of public money is being pumped in, which is of course welcome, but everyone knows that he who pays the piper usually calls the tune, directly or indirectly. And it hasn't helped that the chair of the new youth volunteering charity, to be launched next month to implement the recommendations of the Russell Commission, is Rod Aldridge, who resigned as chairman of Capita last week after it emerged that he was one of Labour's million-pound lenders.

Neuberger is clearly attuned to the politics of it and has nailed a statement to the mast saying she does not believe volunteering should be a way of offering public services on the cheap. Not a bad start. One of the developments she should perhaps consider is the CSV-backed project to introduce more volunteering into statutory services, currently being examined in a series of seminars funded by the Home Office (Third Sector, 22 March).

But there are other complex questions that need sorting out, such as access to volunteering in an age focused on risk, the treatment by organisations of their volunteers, the legal status of volunteers and the attribution of financial value to volunteering. Neuberger's commission plans to report next year, describing the current situation and what it hopes things will be like in ten years. She has a strong team, and the only politician in it is from local government.

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