Newsmaker: The invigilator

Indira Das-Gupta

Christopher Spence, chief executive, Volunteering England - Working with government, but keeping an eye on what it does.

Volunteering is having something of a moment. Chancellor Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron have both credited it with the potential to solve myriad social ills, and government initiatives seem to be springing up like weeds.

But with so many different projects dedicated to volunteering now under way, even Christopher Spence, chief executive of Volunteering England, admits it might be possible to have too much of a good thing.

"If the Capacitybuilders review later this month decides there doesn't need to be a Volunteering Hub because we already do much of the work, I will not shed many tears - as long as it continues to fund us," he says.

Given that Volunteering England is the sole accountable body for the Volunteering Hub, some have questioned why it was set up in the first place. But Spence argues that it has served a useful purpose.

"The ChangeUp funding has enabled us to do about 60 new pieces of work, but setting up the hub has also helped us work in a different and more effective way than before," he says. "It's forced us to think more about the strategic development of volunteering."

Spence makes the point that governments appear to favour reinvention over supporting existing projects. "Volunteering has become a crowded field," he says. "Government is always more interested in eye-catching new initiatives than the less glamorous business of investing in the nuts and bolts of infrastructure.

"It would have been nice if the Government had offered us money to strengthen volunteering, but that's not how it works. It says: 'Here's some money, and this is how it should be managed.' It invents hoops for you to jump through, but we're not going to turn down new investment."

Although Volunteering England works closely with the Government, it is clear that Spence isn't afraid to be a thorn in its side when the need arises. It is largely because of pressure from the charity that the Department for Work and Pensions was forced to back down over the issue of lunch expenses for volunteers who claim benefits (Third Sector, 16 August).

"The decision not to allow charities to reimburse volunteers on benefits for their lunches would have prevented about two million people from volunteering," he says. "There is a long history of government failing to predict the impact of policy on volunteering. We are here to keep an eye on what government does."

So why have politicians developed a sudden interest in an issue previously relegated to the sidelines? "They are worried about the democratic deficit," Spence says. "They feel volunteering is an important expression of citizenship that contributes to a healthier democracy."

Cynics might argue that the Government's recent conversion to being a volunteering crusader is really a ploy to get volunteers to prop up failing public services - something Spence is vehemently against.

"We do need government to support volunteering, but we don't want volunteers to run public services on the cheap," he says. "We're not against volunteers being used in public services, but we are against them being used to deliver statutory responsibilities."

Volunteering might not be a subject that traditionally tugs at the heart-strings, but it's one about which Spence is passionate. His belief that volunteering can transform local communities and individuals is clear.

"I was a failure in the education system," he says. "At the age of 13 I started visiting residents at a home for the elderly. It made me realise I could make a difference. I really do believe volunteering is a force for change."

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