Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, for this important debate, and draw your Lordships’ attention to my charitable interests in the register.
The noble Baroness pointed out to us that this country has always had an enviable history of charitable activity. Many of the charities extant today have their roots in the 19th century’s epoch of social reform, and some in that era were the response to specific changes in work or living patterns. I had the privilege of being the volunteer director-general of the country’s St John Ambulance Association in the 1980s—I am delighted to see my colleague from those days the noble Baroness, Lady Emerton, here in the Chamber. That charity had grown from the requirements of communities to respond to the accidents which happened in mines, on the railways, in road construction and later in the electrical and gas industries.
From their beginnings, these charities were run and manned by volunteers, and over the ensuing century this became an important part of their ethos. Then things started to change, perhaps about 30 years ago. Many large charities started to so-called professionalise themselves, paying larger and larger salaries to ever-growing numbers of employees. Volunteers started gradually to find that their role was now to raise money to pay for these employees rather than to do much of the work themselves. Of course, it is true that fewer volunteers were probably available at that time, as charities had relied heavily on women and retired men for their voluntary workforce. As more women, properly, sought employment of their own, careers imposed more onerous obligations and many more leisure activities became available and part of life, voluntary work became less attractive.
Then Governments of all shades began to see that they could outsource the tackling of social problems to charities by paying them large grants to do the work. This has, on the whole, been a successful strategy, although some problems have arisen from it. First, some charities have distorted their founders’ missions—a point the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, made—in order to qualify for government funding and to follow, dare I say it, the latest ministerial obsession, however well intentioned. Others have been obliged to put all their eggs into the Government’s basket, with the danger that, if policies change, they can be left high and dry.
Sometimes there has been an acute failure of financial supervision. We have recently had the debacle of Kids Company; a charismatic figurehead assumed almost total control, and public funds went unaccounted for. Also, government funding for charities is not always smooth. I have come across many instances of grants’ being confirmed for renewal only after the beginning of the financial year, sometimes many months afterwards, with the result that employees have had to be made redundant and have acquired new jobs elsewhere, to the detriment of the continuity of the project.
In recent years, however, there has been a welcome return to voluntary activity, as people realise that they can make a difference by doing it and at the same time gain much personal fulfilment. Labour’s Millennium Volunteers and the coalition’s big society, although neither project was particularly successful, helped raise awareness that our society has an urgent need of voluntary work to supplement the state’s provision in many areas, particularly healthcare.
Every year for the past 16 years I have had the honour of giving awards at the Mansion House to distinguished volunteers, all of whom have given up their time for decades to serve their communities without payment. They work all over the United Kingdom, in hospices, hospitals, health centres, servicemen’s charities, homes for the elderly, and in many other locations, where their efforts are valuable and hugely appreciated. It is iniquitous that a greater part of the twice-yearly honours list is not devoted to recognising voluntary work of this kind. I trust that the various honours committees will bear this in mind. The wonderful work of the Olympic committees has been mentioned, but I very much hope that we will not see too many Olympic athletes adding to their already considerable laurels membership of the Order of the British Empire while hundreds of deserving volunteers have a lifetime’s work left without a sign of the gratitude of the state.
As speakers have pointed out, charities are big business now, but I believe that government departments should insist that charities that receive grants from public funds should have a good mix of paid and voluntary personnel. We are all living longer and longer. We shall need once again to encourage that charitable impulse for voluntary work in our communities to look after each other rather more than we do at the moment.
Charitable work, especially that which is voluntary, is greatly enriching for those who engage in it as well as being immensely beneficial to those served by it. I very much hope that the Government will consider commissioning a review to look at their relationships with charities, especially at those points which previous speakers have made this morning, and how best charities can be helped to continue to serve our society in the coming decades.