Representatives of both the Green Party and the UK Independence Party have said they are concerned that the use of volunteers in public services such as hospital accident and emergency departments allows government to "get off scot free".
Nathan Gill, leader of Ukip Wales and an MEP for Wales, and Bill Rigby, chair of the Harrogate & District Green Party, were both speaking last night at the Social Leaders Debate organised by the charity leaders group Acevo and the Charities Aid Foundation in London, alongside Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat speakers.
The speakers were asked what role volunteers could play in public services, with reference to the move by the Cabinet Office in February to pay a total of £1.5m to three major charities to bring volunteers into 29 of the country’s most overburdened A&E departments. The move came after discussions between Acevo and the government.
Ukip’s Gill said in response: "I really don’t think that the NHS should be farmed out to volunteers." He said that responsibility for the NHS should lie with government. "If charities take over the role of government, government gets off scot free," he said.
"I would endorse that," said Rigby of the Greens. "We are squeezing the NHS dry of resource," he said, adding that it was "really, really irresponsible" of government to get into a position where these volunteers were necessary.
"I’m a bit disappointed that we have such a council of doom on volunteering from the Greens and Ukip," said Rob Wilson, the Conservative Minister for Civil Society. "Nobody is suggesting that volunteers will run services. What they are suggesting is that volunteers can play a very important and helpful role."
Lisa Nandy, his Labour shadow, agreed with Wilson, saying she supported the Acevo-led A&E volunteering initiative. However, she said it would be wrong for volunteers to replace paid specialists.
The speakers were also asked what they would do to protect the campaigning voice of charities.
"I have no problems with charities campaigning," said Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, who was one of the MPs who introduced the lobbying act.
"I hear what people say about the so-called ‘chilling effect’," he said, but added that the amount of contact he had from charities suggested their campaigning role was alive and well. Nandy said a Labour government would withdraw a law that was "so unclear as to have a self-censoring effect".
Wilson said: "I’ve made it clear in speech after speech after speech that charities should be able to speak truth to power." He also criticised Nandy and the Labour Party’s plan to "sweep it aside and not know what you’re going to replace it with".
Gill said it was "important that charities are able to be the voice of the voiceless", and particularly important that less well-resourced charities had a mechanism for having their voice heard by government. Rigby said the Greens would repeal the act, calling it "a train wreck".
Nandy repeated various Labour pledges for the voluntary sector that she had previously made, including the repeal of the lobbying actand of recent changes to judicial review, paying the living wage to charities that deliver public services contracts and a review of charity sector pensions.
Wilson said the watchwords for the next Conservative government for charities would be sustainability, diversity and growth. He said the Conservatives would listen to charities. "No matter the concern, we will always listen to the sector and consult," he said.
Gill said it was wrong that public money was given to charities by government in order to solve government-created problems. He said individuals should be free to choose to give. "If your cause is just, the people will support you," he said. "I don’t believe it’s the role of government to find volunteers for your charities. Stop asking government to solve all your problems for you."
Gill suggested that the system of tax breaks on charitable donations should be changed to reward the donor, calling for a US-style system "that properly rewards the donations people and businesses make to charities".