Opinion: Volunteers are the vanguard of an ethical society

Julia Neuberger, a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering

Over this past week, we have had two working group meetings for the Commission on Volunteering.

Both have been sparky and enthusiastic - and I have been moved by the commissioners' willingness to devote so much time when they are so busy. But what was most startling in both cases, as well as at the previous week's working group, was that everyone was talking about how important, philosophically, they thought the commission was. It was not only because of the work involved, nor was it because of their own commitment to the sector. It was more about the huge significance the commission might have in a discussion about the very nature of our society - "if we could get it right", as several commissioners said, "if we can listen closely enough to people who might want to give us evidence", and if we can find out what people outside the voluntary sector think.

Several commissioners have said they joined the commission because they believed passionately in its importance for the kind of society we wish to live in. This was music to my ears. I have spent the past few years writing about 'the moral state we're in', obsessing not about sex, financial scandals or the ethical debates surrounding fertility and euthanasia, but about the way we interact with each other, particularly when one party to the relationship has some disadvantage. They might have an enduring mental illness, perhaps, or be children who have been in care. They might be frail older people, or they could be asylum seekers or refugees. They might be former prisoners, for instance, or people with severe learning disabilities. The list goes on and on. But what has concerned me over many years is that within our welfare state, in which we provide support of a kind for most of these people, the services can sometimes be downright atrocious.

Within the interactions we have, we have become risk-averse - worrying more that something terrible will happen and we will be penalised than about ordinary human misery. So we don't encourage staff to take risks, and professionals - and sometimes volunteers - are criticised if they take too many. And yet the engagement between people is critical for the texture of a decent society. A reluctance to get involved, because one might be thought to be taking an undue risk, is likely to increase human misery. One thing we know about volunteering is that it tends to make life better for people who have a variety of disadvantages - whether they are doing the volunteering, and so being included in wider society, or whether they are being helped by volunteers to do things they want to do. So this is a discussion about the kind of society we crave.

How, then, do we make our society one in which volunteering is appreciated by everyone? We have to look at what government can do to create the right climate and support it. But we also need to look at what organisations can do to encourage, support and appreciate their volunteers. We should celebrate our volunteers simply for what they do; but we should also celebrate the fact that what they do makes life better for all of us.

And while we're on the subject ...

- According to research commissioned by the CSV, 51 per cent of over-65s say volunteering has improved their health and fitness, 62 per cent say it helps reduce stress and up to 17 per cent even report that volunteering has boosted their sex lives.

- Help the Hospices has calculated that the contribution of its volunteers is worth more than £112m. Researchers estimated the financial contribution of volunteers throughout the UK by calculating the hours they worked and multiplying this by a basic hourly rate. An overhead rate of 30 per cent was also added.

- On the Safe Side, a report produced by Volunteering England and the Institute for Volunteering Research, found that 86 per cent of the 1,124 respondents thought risk management was a problem. More than 25 per cent of voluntary organisations felt people were being deterred from volunteering by fear of legal action.

- Justin Davis Smith, deputy chief executive of Volunteering England, has said: "The compensation culture is in danger of taking a real hold in this country, with potentially disastrous effects on the provision of services by both public and voluntary bodies."

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