Volunteering special: Miliband goes on an East End mission

Indira Das-Gupta kicked off Volunteering Week with Ed Miliband, new minister for the third sector.

Every successful politician knows how to spot a good photo opportunity, and Ed Miliband, minister for the third sector, is no exception. It might not be up there with David Cameron's sleigh ride with the huskies, but his sterling efforts feeding the homeless at the Whitechapel Mission in east London last week will no doubt earn him a few brownie points in charity circles.

The mission was Miliband's first port of call on a packed day of volunteering to mark the start of Volunteering Week. Later in the day he visited the youth magazine LIVE! and helped clear woodland with a BTCV team in Croydon.

Miliband arrived shortly after 7am - a civilised hour to those among the staff who start at 4am. Perhaps keen to prove the day wasn't just a cynical marketing ploy, he quickly donned a pinny and got stuck in, continuing to dish up long after the photographers had left.

"Would you like anything else with that?" he asked one of the clients, sounding like a cross between a butler and a burger flipper at McDonald's.

The kitchens serve breakfast between 8am and 10am every morning of the year, including Christmas Day, feeding about 150 people every weekday and about 300 each day at weekends.

Breakfast isn't free, partly because of a lack of funding and partly to encourage the clients to be more responsible for themselves.

But at 50p for a full English, the mission is still well within the price range of those who turn up.

The fact that a minister was serving breakfast completely failed to impress any of the beneficiaries. "They don't know who he is," said the director, Tony Miller. "He's not important to them."

This was confirmed by 25-year-old Shainul Khan, who, on hearing a government minister had just served him his eggs and toast, simply shrugged. Like a third of those who attend, Khan is not homeless, but comes for breakfast most mornings.

"It means a lot to me," he explained. "I have made good friends here and the staff are polite and kind."

The charity prides itself on being open to all and has never permanently excluded anyone for bad behaviour. Apart from one rowdy client - who was asked to leave for drinking on the premises - the morning of the minister's visit ran without a hitch.

The mission was selected by Volunteering England, which co-ordinates the week, as a beacon of successful volunteering practices.

Impressed with the set-up at the mission, Miliband said: "It's well-organised here." Quick as a flash, Miller replied: "That's because the Government isn't involved."

Miliband left for his next appointment half an hour later than planned, having stayed for an unscheduled chat with Miller about some of his concerns.

"You learn much more on a day like this than you do in a day of being in Parliament," he said. "You also hear about the kind of things government should be doing."

If Miliband holds on to that sentiment, it can only bode well for the voluntary sector and, should his current job not work out, he could always consider a career in catering.


'I don't know quite what categorises volunteering - it's horses for courses, but you know it when you see it'

'Volunteering isn't just for the middle class. What's middle class about wanting to give something back to the community?'

'It's important for the Government to encourage a culture of volunteering, but not to lecture people'.

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