Tories attack Government-backed volunteering schemes

The Conservatives have criticised the Government's approach to volunteering in a Commons debate, saying it is 'top down'.

The debate on 4 June, attended at one point by only 14 MPs, began with members agreeing on the social benefits of volunteering, prompting Tory MP Francis Maude to warn: "This could be one of those debates in which there is a serious danger of violent agreement breaking out."

Programmes 'underperformed'

But Maude went on to describe Government-backed volunteering projects the Experience Corps and v as failures. He said the Experience Corps, launched in 2000 to encourage volunteering among the over-50s, "greatly underperformed in relation to its targets and was subsequently abandoned".

He also criticised v, describing his visit to a voluntary group in West Sussex. "I came away from it without any sense of what v was adding to an initiative that was already busy and successful," he said. "There were words rather than actions."

However, Labour MP Tom Levitt defended the Experience Corps, pointing out that it was still running five years after government funding for it ended.

Government support

Phil Hope, Minister for the Third Sector, defended the Government's approach to volunteering, citing the removal of the need for multiple Criminal Records Bureau checks as one example of support. He added that the Employment Bill, soon to pass from the Lords to the Commons, could change the law to allow voluntary workers to claim expenses without triggering minimum wage legislation.

Hope also mentioned the ‘grass-roots grants scheme’, which will give grants to small volunteer-led groups, saying the first of them would be handed out this autumn. He cited the opening up of the Train to Gain skills programme and the £4m GoldStar programme as further achievements, and said that v had created more than 210,000 new volunteering opportunities so far.

He said: "Volunteers need freedom, with as little bureaucracy as possible, but they also need active support: small grants, training and leadership from the public sector."

Tory vision

Tory MPs also used the debate to expand on the party's vision for voluntary action, set out earlier this week in its green paper.

Iain Duncan Smith said parliamentary debates on the third sector "often descend into a discussion of who celebrates the role of the voluntary sector the most". He said people he met from the sector would tell him "we don't want to be celebrated; we want to celebrate the work that we do ourselves".

On the issue of public service provision, Maude said voluntary groups should be allowed to make surpluses. Duncan Smith argued that breaks given to small businesses when they fail should be extended to the voluntary sector.

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