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Baroness Williams of Crosby: On 19th October 1993, the Prime Minister said:


I say amen to that. His Government and his party have consistently told us how important they regard voluntary work as being. Here we have the opportunity to turn the Prime Minister's words into reality. We have the opportunity to remove some of the unnecessary obstacles that stand in the way of voluntary work.

The noble Lord, Lord Wise, eloquently pointed out that one of the results of unemployment is that people rot away. Their morale begins to dissolve. Voluntary work can retain them in the world within which they wish to contribute to society. Like the noble Lord, a very close member of my family was unemployed for a year. Despite sending out literally hundreds of applications day after day, the factor that kept him going in the end was being able to help out by raising money for charity. I hope that the Government will consider the amendment carefully. Voluntary work should be regarded as a "positive outcome" in the statistics of the Employment Service. It is vital that the so-called description or definition of "positive outcome" is widened from the very narrow base that at present obtains. I can think of no better way to widen it than to include serious voluntary work within its ambit on the understanding that anyone who volunteers should be available for work if a real and serious job emerges.

It is almost beyond my understanding that the amendment can be rejected. It must be in the interests of a civil society, of the young people involved, and of

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seeking a constructive answer to the problem of unemployment. I hope that the Government will consider the matter with a view to coming forward at Report stage with the necessary amendments.

Lord Norrie: I support Amendment No. 58. First, it ensures that employment offices are given clear guidance. Secondly, it gives jobseekers a clear message that volunteering for charity work is an option as are education courses and skills training.

The amendment relates to Amendment No. 84 which stands in my name to which I will now speak. Now that the Bill introduces the jobseeker's allowance, it replaces both unemployment benefit and income support paid to people who are unemployed. The Bill also provides for the jobseeker's agreement to be entered into by a claimant and an employment officer, all of which is covered in Clause 7.

The purpose of my amendment is to specify in the jobseeker's agreement that volunteering would not jeopardise entitlement to the jobseeker's allowance provided that the claimant is available for work and actively seeking work. As the noble Lord, Lord Wise, said, under the current arrangements a claimant must be available for work at 48 hours' notice. That can cause difficulties for charities in reorganising volunteers, particularly where those volunteers have been supervising others. My amendment would allow an employment officer to offer more than 48 hours' notice in order to avoid such difficulties.

The United Kingdom has a proud record of voluntary service, performed willingly and without financial reward, for the benefit of fellow citizens. Members of this House have in the past played an active role in achieving that and still do so. I believe that the amendment would therefore particularly attract the Committee's attention.

I have a special interest in voluntary organisations working to conserve and improve the natural environment. From my personal experience I can say that volunteering is not only beneficial for society but is also of immense personal benefit to the volunteer. People who are unemployed can gain in experience, self-confidence and discipline, as well as acquiring the skills which would improve their prospects of employment.

It would be shameful if we were to deny those individuals a chance to benefit from such volunteering experience because of unnecessary obstacles or lack of clear understanding. That is a point ably made by the Prime Minister in his speech and one to which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, alluded.

I am genuinely concerned that on the one hand charities are likely to lose their volunteers who fear losing the jobseeker's allowance. On the other hand, jobseekers will lose an opportunity to receive job training and new skills. My concern is shared by a number of voluntary organisations, all of whom have approached me on the matter. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, who is chairman of the National Trust, was unable to be here this evening but he has specifically asked me to table an amendment of this nature. Other organisations include the RSPB, the

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National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, the Volunteer Centre and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV). That organisation, of which I am president, will help to illustrate the situation.

Each year the BTCV supports in excess of 84,000 volunteers who are engaged in practical nature conservation work. Of those, 500 are longer term volunteers and it is estimated that about two-thirds of them could be affected by the legislation. BTCV's long-term volunteers, as well as helping with administration, public relations, community and schools work, also lead and co-ordinate the work of several thousands of short-term volunteers. The BTCV is concerned that if it loses the services of long-term volunteers because of the new arrangements, it will lose many thousands of people who would otherwise give their time freely. Have the Government visualised what the knock-on effect might be? They recognise, as do we all, the tremendous contribution volunteers make to our society, yet the new arrangements may deter large numbers of people from volunteering.

The Committee will appreciate that young people finishing education, with qualifications but no work experience, are in a "Catch 22" situation. In today's employment market, few organisations have the ability to train youngsters on the job. Employers will always look at prospective staff who have some training or experience. Long-term voluntary work enables people with qualifications but no employment to be trained on the job and acquire work experience and skills which could help them gain paid employment.

Will the Minister agree that it is more important to let youngsters escape from the "Catch 22" situation? Let us be realistic, there is no incentive for jobseekers to take up voluntary work if they are to lose their jobseeker's allowance. I hope that the Minister will consider my arguments valid and will be able to accept my amendment.

Baroness Nicol: I wish to support these important amendments. The United Kingdom is a nation of volunteers. It is estimated that each year 8 million people participate in regular volunteer work and a further 15 million adults are involved in some form of volunteering. The proportion of the population involved in some voluntary activity over a 12-month period rose from 44 per cent. in 1981 to 51 per cent. in 1991. That is an impressive figure in terms of human effort for merely the reward of doing the job.

We have heard from others that people in paid work are more likely than those outside employment to volunteer. It is suggested and is probably true that that reflects the difficulties that unemployed people may have in demonstrating their eligibility for benefit while volunteering. Volunteering is good for society and can be good too for the volunteer, especially one who is unemployed. As we have heard from others, it keeps them involved in the workplace and gives them a reason for keeping up their standards.

Let me illustrate the point by reference to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, of which until recently I was a council member. Over 7,000 people volunteer each year for the RSPB, including about 3,500

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volunteers who work on the RSPB nature reserves. Many of them work for one or two weeks and experience no problems with their benefit. They carry out a wide range of management tasks, they work with visitors and assist with biological survey work. The RSPB provides training and supervision for volunteers. But a proportion of them come for longer periods. They are taking positive steps to improve their employment prospects and, at the same time, they contribute to the RSPB's work. Yet those longer term volunteers experience problems when claiming benefit. That is why the two amendments are necessary, to ensure that the problems do not become even greater with the new arrangement.

One RSPB volunteer, a Mr. Daniel Davies, was refused benefit while volunteering because of the short notice he was advised he would have to give. He was moved to say:


    "The really galling thing is that it would be easier to stay at home than to volunteer".

We have heard about the other organisations that support the amendments. We have also heard about the Prime Minister's support for the concept of volunteers and I have heard many other representatives of the Government saying the same thing.

I know that the Government have given an assurance that the current position will continue whereby volunteers are given 48 hours' notice. However, in the case of some longer term volunteers, notice longer than 48 hours could be justified where a considerable investment has been made in their training and where others are reliant on the contribution which the volunteer is expected to make. Such cases are not the rule but, like residential volunteering positions, they may warrant special provisions. The two amendments would cover the difficulties and I hope that the Government will feel kindly towards them.


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