Orders of the Day — Voluntary Organisations

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th July 1975.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler , Sutton Coldfield 12:00 am, 8th July 1975

In opening this debate on the plight of voluntary organisations, I am conscious that there is in the House a great fund of knowledge of voluntary organisations. Some, like my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen), have taken a leading part in forming new organisations such as the Young Volunteer Force Foundation. Many are heavily involved in the running of voluntary organisations and—dare I say it?—there are even some who not only help to run voluntary organisations but walk 17 miles for charity at weekends. I can think of two Members of the House who took part in that activity during last weekend, and I pay tribute to them.

The immediate cause of this debate is the financial crisis which faces many voluntary organisations, but the debate raises wider issues, including the place of voluntary organisations in this country and the place of the volunteer. There are some who claim that with the growth of Government and local government social services provision the need for voluntary organisations will become less and less. I fundamentally disagree with that argument. We do not need a great deal of skill with a crystal ball to forecast that our statutory social services will be under intense pressure over the next few years. It would be well for the House to appreciate that cash limits will result not in a reduced rate of expansion but no expansion and, indeed, possibly in reductions in local government and central Government staff.

The case for voluntary organisations goes way beyond their rôle in filling gaps. Even if this were a period of economic prosperity, I would still argue the fundamental case for voluntary organisations because in an age of centralised organisa- tions and spawning bureaucracy the effort and inspiration of the volunteer are needed even more.

We in this country are extremely fortunate in the range of voluntary organisations that we have. There are the big voluntary organisations which work in partnership with central Government and local government—organisations like the WRVS, the NSPCC and the Red Cross. There are the voluntary organsations which provide services which Government or local government largely fail to provide. The community law centres are a good example. There are voluntary organisations which have risked money and staff in promoting new objectives—for example, the National Council for One-Parent Families—organisations which have pioneered new and important work. There are voluntary organisations which have responded with a flexibility that is often their characteristic to new needs which appear in society—organisations like CHAR, the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless.

In the social services sector the contribution of voluntary organisations is immense. They provide services to care for the mentally ill and the mentally handicapped and campaign to make the Government and the public more aware of the problems that society faces. They look after children in care, they defend children's interests in court and seek to protect them against cruelty and ill-treatment. They help to campaign for the disabled, the deaf and the old. Taken by itself, the contribution made by voluntary organisations in the social services sector is immense.

Of course, the contribution of voluntary organisations goes way beyond social services. They enter into the difficult areas of race relations—in which I know the Minister of State takes such a close interest—employment and the environment.

The volunteers span the age range. The volunteer spirit is not confined to one age group. The established voluntary organisations work side by side with the new and young organisations such as the Community Service Volunteers and the Young Volunteer Force Foundation. It is an impressive partnership which provides a whole range of services on which the country relies. But voluntary service is now under threat.

Inflation has pushed up the cost of heating, lighting, postage, telephones food and staff, although it is fair to and that many who work for voluntary organisations do so for well below what they could earn in other jobs. As costs have gone up, the real income of many organisations has been reduced. The public, who are also battling against inflation, find it more difficult to give. Donations from commerce and industry have been reduced, and income from the big trusts has been eroded by the slip in the value of shares. The public should clearly understand that many voluntary organisations now face a crisis.

I will give some examples. One common effect is that many voluntary societies are cutting back on staff or not filling vacancies which occur. An area of concern to all of us in the House is cruelty to and ill-treatment of children. Ill-treatment in several tragic cases has led to the death of a child. On each occasion when such a tragedy is revealed, society is appalled, and rightly so, for what price can one put on a child's life? Let us also remember that children who have been grossly ill-treated but have survived will sometimes bear the emotional scars for the rest of their lives. As Dr. Kelmer Pringle pointed out, had Maria Colwell lived the effects of her all-treatment could not simply have been washed away.

I say that to emphasise how tragic it is that, at a time when public concern is running so strong, the NSPCC is being forced to cut back on its staff on the ground. Once it had 260 inspectors, but that number has now been reduced to 220, and I am informed that it could go even lower. That means in practical terms that the number of NSPCC local offices will be reduced. At present the NSPCC fulfils what all hon. Members on both sides of the House agree is a vital rôle. The organisation is a natural centre for reports of child ill-treatment, a centre to which some undoubtedly prefer to go rather than to the police or the local authority. The result of the economic crisis that faces this society, like so many others, is that that coverage will be reduced.

Let us take the example of the Spastics Society. In the current year it will suffer a loss of £200,000. Next year it has budgeted for a loss of £500,000. In part this budgeted loss is due to inflation, pure and simple, driving up costs, but in part it is a realisation that inflation is driving up building costs at such a rate that if the society does not build now it is never likely to build at all. Therefore, the society is budgeting next year for development. But in the year after that it is very unlikely that much development will take place. This will mean that there will be no building of day centres for severely handicapped children and hostels for children who might otherwise have to be housed in the big subnormality hospitals. That is another effect of the crisis.

In yet other cases the financial crisis has led to doubts about the future of the voluntary organisations themselves. I think that the Minister of State, Home Office, will confirm that this is affecting, in particular, voluntary societies working in unpopular and unfashionable areas such as drug abuse or rehabilitation of ex-prisoners. They are working in areas where progress in raising money has never been easy, where often there are enormous gaps in local authority provision and where often there is—let us face it—little public pressure to improve the position. If these voluntary organisations go under, it is difficult to see where the substitute effort will come from.

Only this morning I received from the National Council for Social Service a list of 25 societies which are in financial difficulties. Of course, this is by no means a complete or definitive list of the total number of societies which are currently affected by inflation. The list includes the NSPCC. The Helping Hand Organisation is also referred to. That organisation runs 12 hostels for drug addicts and alcoholics. Its chairman has reported a lay-off of 50 per cent. of the staff. The list includes the Joint Council for Welfare of Immigrants. That organisation has had no paid secretary for the last six months because of lack of money. The London Council of Social Service is also mentioned. That organisation has not filled four vacant posts. The list also includes the National Council of Social Service, which has taken the decision not to fill vacancies for three months and then to consider whether to fill them in the next six months after that.

Other organisations are facing difficulties as well. The list that I have been supplied with includes Shelter, the National Council of Civil Liberties, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse and the Council for Children's Welfare. I quote these examples so that we shall not just generalise about the problems that face voluntary organisations. The problems are very real and very urgent. However, the list gives some idea of the range of organisations which are at present in serious trouble.

Clearly, the only long-term solution will come with a reduction in the rate of inflation. As my hon. Friends and I have pointed out month after month in social service debates, the overwhelming problem that the country faces is inflation. Bearing in mind that view, I do not think it would be consistent for the Opposition to press for a massive increase in public expenditure, and I should like to underline that fact. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) is laughing. It is because I believe that the inflation that this country is suffering is indeed the major problem that I have said that I am not pressing the Government to spend more and more in terms of public expenditure. Surely the nation expects that kind of consistency from the Opposition, and, indeed from the Government. We have yet to see the Government's hand on this matter.

I should certainly hope that Government expenditure and, indeed, local authority expenditure, will be maintained. I say quite frankly that I think it unrealistic to believe that Government expenditure or local authority expenditure will be increased in real terms. However, I am bound to say that I do not think the Government can get off the hook as easily as that. The major part of the crisis faced by voluntary organisations results from the inflation which, until the last few days, the Government have shown no signs of combating. We shall obviously wait to hear their plans. But, irrespective of the Government's economic strategy, there is certainly one area where they can already act. They can at least avoid, by their actions, damaging the interests of voluntary organisations, which it should be their duty to protect.

It was one of the rôles of the Voluntary Services Unit set up by the last Conservative Government—I am sure that the Government Front Bench will agree with this; Lord Windlesham is particularly associated with it—to maintain coordination between Government Departments. It is certainly true that the unit had money to spend, but then, as now, the main part of funds for voluntary organisations came directly from Government Departments, like the Department of Health and Social Security and the Department of Employment. Its main task was to co-ordinate volunteers with the opportunities available for voluntary effort and to co-ordinate Government effort itself. In the words of Lord Harris in another place, the aim was to ensure that: departmental policies do not disregard the voluntary sector".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25th June 1975; Vol. 361, c. 1415.] Unhappily, it is the complaint of voluntary organisations that all too often Government policy, apparently by oversight, hits at the voluntary organisations that it should be supporting. One example is value added tax. As the Minister knows, it has long been a claim of the voluntary organisations that they should be completely zero rated. This is not the time to raise that subject again, hut I hope that the Government will be able to tell us what the cost of that is, because I have always found it difficult to extract that figure from Government Ministers.

While I am dealing with this point, I wonder whether, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer raised VAT to the new luxury rate of 25 per cent. on television sets and radios, he considered the interests of charities. Did he realise that there is a long-established charity called the Wireless for the Bed-ridden, which provides television sets and radio sets for old people? Did he realise that, in addition to this national organisation, there are many local organisations which do a similar job, providing televisions and radios for the elderly and disabled? There is no doubt about the value of their work, although I notice that Government Ministers seem to be slightly sceptical on the subject. Maybe the Home Office knows better. However, the Chancellor's policy means that such work will have to be curtailed. The charities are paying a luxury rate of VAT for seeking to help those who are in need.

Let us take as another example the Community Land Bill. Many hon. Members, on both sides of the House, will have received representations about the Bill As drafted, its effect will be to penalise those charities which own land or buildings. Yet it is often only by selling land which is adjacent to buildings, thus realising the development value, that organisations can afford to modernise their premises, or perhaps by selling the old headquarters building in London they can use the proceeds to pay for new premises outside. Those of us who have worked in the social services will know of a number of organisations that have done that. We now hope for a concession from the Government on this, and we wait with interest to find out what it will be.

Even if a concession is finally wrung from the Government, like the concession on capital transfer tax, it is at a price. The price paid by the voluntary organisations is the cost to them not only of employing expensive legal counsel but of the man hours devoted to fighting for that change. It is here that the Government can directly help the voluntary organisations. If the effects of Government policy were better thought through in relation to the voluntary organisations the financial saving to these organisations would be immense. That is a saving which could be effected for the benefit of the voluntary organisations without any public expenditure being involved. It would simply involve better co-ordination within the Government.

There is one further aspect of Government policy with which I would like to deal. I refer to the Common Market Social Fund. This is available for providing help in some areas covered by the social services, although by no means all areas. It includes help for the training and rehabilitation of mentally and physically disabled people. I raised this question when we debated the mobility allowances. I asked what approaches had been made to the fund for finance. At that stage the Minister did not reply.

Perhaps the Minister was still labouring under the Secretary of State's policy as explained to the Select Committee on Violence in Marriage, which was to the effect that, while Britain's future in Europe was still in doubt, the Department did not intend to go out of its way to publicise the fund. We can agree that Britain's future in Europe is in doubt no longer. I hope that the Minister will say exactly what funds his Department receives.

There is a bigger and more fundamental question here, and that is the Government's overall policy in this respect. This has been questioned, notably by the Sunday Times. In essence, it seems to be that the Treasury and the other Government Departments are not treating social fund allocations as extra money to be passed on to the bodies concerned. Instead they are treating the money as reimbursement to the British Treasury. The charities are not getting direct additional help from the European fund. All that is happening is that the Government are reimbursing themselves for any money they have paid to individual organisations. Only today I received confirmation from the National Association of Youth Clubs. It runs a project called Community Industry which provides employment opportunities in areas of high unemployment. Currently it is providing 2,000 jobs. Even now the association would like to expand the number of jobs available. Clearly, at a time of high unemployment with little prospect of its falling but every chance of its increasing, there could hardly be a more relevant aim for a voluntary organisation.

Application was made, as I understand it, by the Department of Employment to the European Social Fund on behalf of the association. A total of £600,000 was made available. The Department of Employment has taken the whole of that for itself. This is clearly a policy which we shall want to explore much more deeply. At this stage I simply ask the Government to confirm that this is a policy being pursued by them. Whatever view we take, we need to be clear about what the Government are seeking to do. Assuming that this is correct and this is the declared policy of the Government, may I ask the Minister to state clearly what criteria are being used?

Many people will see this as a way of depriving voluntary organisations of much-needed resources at a time when they are unable to obtain resources from elsewhere. This is fundamentally a serious question. I hope that the Government will be absolutely frank about the implications of their policy. I give a warning that this is certainly a matter to which we shall want to return.

This debate will have served a valuable purpose if it tells the public of the crisis facing voluntary organisations and of their desperate need for funds. We can argue at length about what is a charity. We can argue about greater efficiency, although I am bound to say that there are few organisations which are more cost-effective than the voluntary organisations. Whatever is the outcome of our longterm debate, the fact is that the problem is now and the crisis is immediate.

That crisis has consequences for us all. For the Government it must mean that at the least they do not make the job of voluntary organisations more difficult. For local authorities it must mean that they should co-operate with local voluntary organisations rather than put bureaucratic obstacles in the way of fundraising. For industry and trade unions it means that there must be generosity. Here let me mention the PEP report on voluntary service in society, published recently, which says that it hoped that trade unions would become more and more involved in the work of voluntary bodies and in the advocacy of voluntary service. That is certainly an aim that I share. There is a clear lesson for us all as members of the public. It is that we should give as generously as we can afford.

The encouragement of spontaneous but relevant personal service should be a major national objective. President Kennedy once said: Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. Thousands of people in Britain are putting into practical effect that high ideal by working unstintingly for the voluntary organisations. They deserve our support.