David Cameron has announced staff will have the right to three days paid leave from work to do volunteering. Richard Linsert, who works for a charity, explains why it won’t work.The Tories tell us that they love volunteering. They can’t resist the idea, it seems, of delivering public services like libraries without paying staff – despite the fact that you need skilled professionals to run public services, with the help sometimes of volunteers who can fill in the gaps. The Tories also love volunteering, it seems, because it fits with a fantasy of self-help and community where the state doesn’t get involved. This vision was part of what David Cameron, when first elected, called the “Big Society” – a return to a time when people had no right to services from the welfare state, but had to depend on handouts from philanthropists. But the problem isn’t just that Cameron is attacking public services and the people who use them – his volunteering scheme won’t benefit charities and community organisations either.
I work for an organisation that provides support for community groups in outer London: there are over five hundred groups in our borough alone. The borough is home to one big, national organisation – and some charities are huge. Cancer Research UK, for example, has an annual income of almost £500 million, funds over 4,000 scientists and medical staff and works with 40,000 volunteers.
Most community groups are much smaller than this. In our borough few have any paid staff: they depend on volunteers. Mostly, these are people who have a personal connection with what they do. One group organises for mental health professionals to provide services in schools because the son of one of the founders killed himself while at school and suffering from depression. Others organise luncheon clubs for other people who speak their language or share their faith, where elderly people have a hot meal and sing the songs from their youth back home – which keeps them active, cheerful and out of hospital. Or they organise around an interest in amateur dramatics, stamp collecting, orchids or model railways.
Millions of people in Britain volunteer on this basis. The link between volunteer and organisation can also arise in a more structured way, probably through a Volunteer Centre, of which there are several hundred across the country. People have various reasons for volunteering. They may have an altruistic desire to support their community, or they may want something to put on their CV after a long gap caused by illness – often mental illness – or they may want to get out of the house and improve their confidence. Volunteer Centres help them find a volunteering role that suits them.
Volunteer Centres also work with community groups to help them make the best use of volunteers. They can help groups think through what tasks they can reasonably ask volunteers to do, and what training volunteers will need. If the person will have regular contact with children or vulnerable adults, legal checks need to be carried out. These issues need to be discussed, forms filled in and policies written, and this means that developing volunteering placements takes resources, and so – and people are shocked when they discover this – they can be in short supply. Funders want money to go on services for deprived people, not on what they see as admin, and surveys suggest that the public thinks the same. There is no consistent national funding, either, for Volunteer Centres – they survive on a patchwork of different income streams in every location.
How does Cameron’s plan for three days volunteering for everyone fit into this picture? The fact is that community groups want regular volunteers. They want someone who understands their role and the service they provide, and who can be relied on to come in every week. There are actually very few tasks suitable for one-off volunteers. We occasionally get enquiries from corporates who have a group of people who are going on an away day and want to do some volunteering – as a team-building exercise, perhaps, or to meet some target for corporate social responsibility. We simply don’t have an endless supply of scout huts for dressed-down bankers to paint while they bond with each other. What groups need is someone to staff the Samaritans office every Thursday morning, to answer calls in Punjabi on the domestic violence helpline or to help ten-year-olds improve their chess, every Saturday until further notice. And all those services get harder to deliver as funding declines and the number of people who want support grows.
Instead, the Tories seek to promote their own agenda for charities. This has its comic side, as in the Telegraph’s long-running campaign against the RSPCA, which it claims has become a “sinister” animal rights organisation – mainly because the RSPCA feels that blood sports like hunting aren’t compatible with animal welfare. The appointment of William Shawcross to head the Charity Commission, however, is in deadly earnest. Dame Suzi Leather, the previous chair, had angered the right by suggesting that private schools could only retain charitable status if they delivered some public benefit. Shawcross was determined to oppose such “politicisation” – charities should help the poor, but not ask why people were poor in the first place, or if Con-Dem policies were making things worse. The Lobbying Act has therefore introduced bureaucratic controls which made it harder for charities to do campaigning.
Before his appointment, Shawcross was a high-profile member of the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society, which promotes Western military intervention around world in the name of human rights. The Society (itself a charity) has joined in the attack on the last few months on Cage, the group which campaigns for the civil rights of people, such as Muslims, affected by the “war on terror” and initiatives such as the government’s Prevent strategy. Cage are not a charity, so Shawcross couldn’t attack them directly – instead, he went for two charities that funded them, the Roddick Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. After Charity Commission interventions, both bodies made public statements that they had stopped funding Cage and would never do so again. As the charity press pointed out, these were worrying developments for many more organisations. Cage had not broken the law, and neither had their funders, who had acted entirely within Charity Commission regulations. It seemed clear that the groups were being attacked simply because they disagree with government policy – the complete opposite of Shawcross’s vaunted depoliticisation.
The other way in which the government promotes its agenda is by using charities to help in the privatisation of public services. Like New Labour before it, the Con-Dems have created tendering processes which are open to charities as well as the private sector. Charities and community groups need the money, and they can have something to offer here, when public services can be distant and bureaucratic, and charities can fill in gaps and make contact with excluded groups – such as those Asian pensioners at their luncheon club. However, community groups regularly complain that they get squeezed out since bigger, more corporate, charities are better placed to do deals for big-money contracts. And there are concerns that those contracts affect the values of charities, in the same way that housing associations have been transformed from small community-based groups into well-funded corporate-style bodies. HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust, which has a number of NHS contracts to provide sexual health services, has written about how charities can “provide highly cost effective services” and “can be more flexible” than other providers. Barnardo’s has rightly attracted condemnation for providing children’s services in UK Border Agency detention centres – the statement by its Chief Exec that “it’s sad, but there needs to be enforced departure” only legitimises the whole process.
Oscar Wilde wrote that the best of the poor are never grateful for charity – they are aware that, rather than being given crumbs, they should be sitting at the table. Wilde was right: it’s disgraceful that billions of pounds is available to replace Trident, while buying a minibus for disabled children depends on sponsored walks and cake stalls. It’s true that charities can reflect the limits of the liberal values held by the middle-class people who often run them. Yet charities and community groups have another side – across the country thousands of ordinary people keep organisations going, using their skills and commitment to sustain a part of the social fabric. This kind of grassroots activity isn’t something the Tories are interested in supporting – in terms of concrete detail, if Cameron did really want to encourage volunteering, he could fund Volunteer Centres and community groups, both of which have been cut under the Con-Dems. In more general terms, you can imagine a socialist society where real use was made of the thoughtful creativity which working-class people regularly devote to activities from sports clubs to sponsored walks. In the meantime, Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle” – for millions of people those political struggles happen, perhaps in a small way, in charities.