Newsmaker: Whither volunteering? - Baroness Julia Neuberger Chair of a new inquiry

Indira Das-Gupta

Commission on the Future of Volunteering will be 'cross-party and no-party'.

Last week's announcement that yet another commission is being set up to look at the future of volunteering sparked a ripple of scepticism in the sector. But that soon changed when the chair of the new commission, Baroness Julia Neuberger, declared that volunteers shouldn't be used to "offer public services on the cheap".

The statement sent out a clear signal that Neuberger is definitely not a government lackey - and she's proud of it. "The commission will be totally independent," she says. "Something that is both cross-party and no-party. Other commissions that have looked into volunteering have always been attached to something, but this can't be done from inside government."

Volunteering has undeniably risen up the political agenda in recent years, with the Home Office in particular emerging as a strong advocate. Earlier this month it pledged £3m over two years to overcome barriers to volunteering encountered by disabled people, those without qualifications and ethnic minority communities.

"I can see why the Home Office would want to encourage volunteering among these groups - to improve confidence and job prospects," says Neuberger.

"But I don't know if government should be encouraging specific groups. Just because people are disabled doesn't mean they will be good volunteers - some might be wonderful, others might not.

"Similarly, someone offering to volunteer out of the goodness of their heart doesn't mean they have the right skills to do so - it might be necessary to turn some people down."

Neuberger is no more effusive about the efforts of the Home Office and volunteering charities during 2005's Year of the Volunteer.

"It pushed volunteering up the agenda a bit," she says tactfully. "People are beginning to think about it more. Part of the problem is that the term 'volunteer' means different things to different people. So there will be some people who are engaged in activities they do not even recognise as volunteering, and vice versa."

Although Neuberger's earlier comments about volunteering in relation to public services may appear to put her at odds with the likes of CSV, which is eager to encourage it, she is quick to quash the suggestion.

"There will never be enough staff to do everything in the NHS, and volunteers have an important part to play, as long as what they are doing is truly additional," she says. "I would have a problem if they were doing the jobs of cleaners and nurses, for example."

Neuberger is careful not to pre-empt the findings of the commission, but she is clear on one point - charities could do far better by their volunteers.

"Instead of debating whether volunteers should be paid, charities should show their gratitude," she says. "We are not very good at that in the UK and could learn a lot from the US. Just remembering volunteers' birthdays or giving them small gifts can make all the difference."

In her book The Moral State We're In: A Manifesto for a 21st Century Society, which was published last year to critical acclaim, Neuberger claims individualism has contributed to "an increasing human reluctance to get involved". She sees volunteering as a possible antidote to the problem. "It fosters community spirit and encourages people to participate," she says.

That's not to say she supports proposals by Conservative leader David Cameron that certain groups, such as school-leavers, should be required to volunteer. "The idea of compulsory volunteering is rubbish," she scoffs.

As with any inquiry, there is no guarantee that the exercise will lead to concrete change. But with Neuberger as its chair, any uncomfortable truths are certain to be forced into the open.

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