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I believe that all the major parties are considering proposals for voluntary citizens' servicethe chance for young people, especially those between 18 and 25 years, to volunteer for, say, three months with voluntary organisations concerned with homelessness, the disabled, the elderly or the environment.
There is no dispute in the Committee. We all recognise that volunteering allows both those who volunteer and those who receive the voluntary work to tackle issues of crime, unemployment, social fragmentation and the growth of inequality. We all recognise that volunteering helps to bond people to each other. As we explored at Committee stage, in the process it helps skilled volunteers in all kinds of positive ways in the world of work.
Yet the most recent survey reported by the Demos think-tank which featured in the national press showed that only 5 per cent. of the volunteers were unemployed. That is half the rate of the population. All the research shows that the more educated, wealthy and successful you
Community Service Volunteers suggests to us that the main obstacle is the stifling effect of the benefit system. Benefit rules prevent those who have the most to give and the most to gain from volunteering from doing so. Helping out in school for a couple of days a week may lose a person benefit.
Today I received a report from the National Trust. A recent survey of 25 volunteers who worked last year with the trust in the Lake District revealed that seven secured permanent or temporary posts with the National Trust, 12 obtained employment with other environmental organisations and six went on to higher education. As a result, there were seven jobs within the National Trust, 12 with other environmental organisations and six in higher education. Out of 25, that record of placement and improvement is almost unrivalled in any government scheme of which I am aware. Yet the National Trust reports that recently it closed down a project involving structured work experience for seven volunteers in Kent because of major difficulties with the employment service. After three months, benefit was refused and the employment office insisted that the volunteers should apply instead for government training schemes or seek work in fields unrelated to their qualifications and interests. How short-sighted can we be, and how short-sighted was that?
I have some questions for the Minister to reinforce those already raised. Will the Government consult not just about these regulations but, after April 1996, on any subsequent changes to regulations? In what way will they consult? Further, following the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Wise, and given all the evidence on how successful a placement with a voluntary organisation is, will the Government allow such work to be treated as a positive outcome? All kinds of conditions may be attached, such as that the voluntary organisation is registered with the Employment Service; that with training, the placements are approved as appropriate by the Employment Service; and that the Employment Service should regard the training as reasonable. All those matters can be sorted out in the consultation which the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, suggested. We want people to work together on it.
Surely the Minister can accept that worthwhile work, with a worthwhile organisation which catches the spirit and commitment of the volunteer and where the organisation has a superb track record in placing people in permanent and secure work thereafter, must be an appropriate, acceptable and positive outcome. Will the Minister accept that?
Finally, I have one small point. Will the Government assure us that people receiving incapacity benefit will qualify in the same way as those receiving the jobseeker's allowance? They should also be allowed to continue to volunteer for 16 hours. Can we hope that the Minister will accept the spirit shared by the whole Committee that the major amendments are an important way not only to bring
Lord Young of Graffham: As someone who has spent many years involved in such matters and who was the author of Restart, I wish to support the amendment, with an important caveat. It appears contradictory, but it is not. It is, first, that the voluntary work should be real and should involve a sufficient number of hours per week to be an adequate substitute for work. It should prevent the claimant from being able to look for work during that period. Secondly, it should be sufficiently short in duration, in terms of months, so as not to become a substitute for work itself. Voluntary activity is voluntary and should not be paid for by the state. With those caveats, I support the amendment.
Lord Swinfen: I wish to support the amendment, particularly as regards young jobseekers. They have often had little in the way of work experience and the opportunity of building up good references. It is always useful for a prospective employer to be able to obtain references as to an individual's capacity for work and his diligence. If that person has not previously been in work, surely the employer can go to a voluntary organisation and obtain a reference on how the voluntary work was undertaken. That would be an indication of how the paid employment would be undertaken.
Lord Inglewood: Having heard Members of the Committee on the subject this evening, I find that there is no doubt that we are all in agreement on the importance of volunteering in the community. As my noble friend Lord Wise and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, not only is it of great assistance to those who are unemployed, since it helps them to stay in touch with the labour market and provides them with an opportunity to maintain and develop their skills while looking for work. But also, clearly, volunteers are a great help to the voluntary sector. That is one of the reasons why we are happy to consider the views of the representatives of the voluntary sector before regulations are drafted in the future.
Certain examples were given of the way in which, it was alleged, the activities of the Employment Service got in the way of people wishing to volunteer. Without having chapter and verse, it is impossible for me to comment on them. However, we believe that volunteering within the context of actively seeking and being available for work benefits people. We wish to see it happen if it is slotted in with the overall scheme of things.
As my noble friend Lord Norrie pointed out, one of the Government's proposals in the Bill is to make a number of significant special provisions for volunteers. It is important that we do not forget that. As I explained before, I am still unconvinced about the proposal to treat voluntary work as a positive outcome from a Restart interview. The position is that all claimants who have been unemployed for six months are required to attend such an interview and to continue to do so every six months as long as they remain unemployed.
The Employment Service, as part of its annual performance agreement with Ministers, has targets for positive outcomes achieved from certain Restart interviews. They are designed to maximise the effectiveness of the Restart process in helping claimants back to work. It is important to emphasise that. Examples of positive outcomes include placings into jobs and referrals to programmes. I do not think that it would be right to treat voluntary work as a positive outcome, since the jobseeker doing voluntary workthat was the point made by my noble friend Lord Youngis still unemployed.
Similarly and in parallel, it would not be appropriate or right to set out specific positive outcomes in legislation. After all, there are no positive outcomes listed in legislation at the moment. Nor for that matter are any other Employment Service targets. As we have stressed before, it would be most odd to do so, since those are primarily management tools which change from year to year.
In view of the commitments that we have given, I hope that my noble friends and the noble Baronesses will agree that it is not necessary to put such undertakings on the face of the Bill. I hope that in view of that they will feel able to withdraw their amendments. However, in saying that, I wish to emphasise that it in no way lessens our commitment to volunteers.
He went on to argue that, nonetheless, volunteering and placement in an appropriate and, I hope, approved volunteer course would not be counted as a positive outcome. He reminded us that the function of the JSA was to support someone while they were actively seeking work. The Minister is of course right. But he failed to remind the Committee that one of the outcomes is not just a job, but a training course. That is fine. But perhaps the Minister can help by telling us why an approved placement with a voluntary scheme would not also count as equivalent to a training course. There could be negotiations with the voluntary organisations to see that that provision was met. Can the Minister tell us what aspects a voluntary placement would have to show for it to count as a training placement?
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