Published date : 02 May, 2024
It is a pleasure, Ms Nokes, to serve under your chairship today.

I also take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) on securing an uplifting debate to conclude the week. In her opening remarks, she captured very well indeed the broad sweep and scope of volunteering, and the contribution that it makes, not only to the communities that benefit from it but to the volunteers.

I cannot possibly begin to try and namecheck everybody in my constituency of whom I am aware, and there are many more of whom I am not aware who make that kind of contribution. I am sure that all Members are in exactly the same situation. However, I will just mention three groups, just to give a sense of the scope of volunteering in my constituency.

There is the Gordon Rural Action group, which in many ways fulfils the functions that many of us would recognise as being the functions of the citizens advice bureaux. It does a power of work through various initiatives and through direct help to reduce social exclusion and tackle poverty, particularly in the more rural and outlying parts of my Aberdeenshire constituency. There is also the Ellon and District Men’s Shed, which I very much look forward to visiting next week. There is also the committee that is the powerhouse behind the Victoria Hall in the town of Ellon.

The Victoria Hall in Ellon was a council-owned asset. It is a very handsome building, but it was a bit unloved; it was not really being used to its full potential. There was a community asset transfer. A really go-getting committee of local people got behind the scheme and now the building is block-booked for dancing, exercise classes and just about anything that anyone could imagine; it has even been transformed into a cinema, with all the digital projectors and everything else. The volunteers have really seized that opportunity and the Victoria Hall is now a beating and thriving hub of the town in many respects, breathing life back not just into the building but into the town.

There are also the many Rotary clubs across the district. Before life got busy with parenthood and politics, I was a very proud member of the Rotary club in Oldmeldrum and every year, through a variety of activities, we raised thousands of pounds to support both local charities and international charities. We supported the efforts of Rotary International to eradicate polio around the world. We also embarked on many other projects locally, which were also able to gain significant financial backing from other partners. We ran mock job interviews at the local school; we organised cookery and music competitions for young people; we sent young people on outward-bound educational courses, so that they could understand their own potential as individuals; and the more green-fingered among our number tended to the community garden and cut the grass at the old folks home. In addition, thanks to the combined efforts of Rotary clubs across the north-east, we put on the Haddo House egg hunt, which I think is still the single largest free public event in the north-east of Scotland and which is beloved by generations across the region.

Individual effort is crucial, but the organisations are important because they match an individual’s willingness and energy with the opportunity to contribute positively. That is good for the organisations and it is most obviously good for the broader community, but—as we have heard —it is also excellent in many respects for the individuals because of what they get out of such activity. To all the volunteers and those who help to enable volunteering, I add my heartfelt and sincere thanks for everything they do and all they contribute to the common good.

There is a long and proud tradition of volunteering. We are all used to the idea of the third sector and charities providing services in our communities with the help of volunteers, and with or without the help of Government money. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea that the Government should help to encourage and enable individuals to step in and help to do things that the state cannot, or that private business will not or perhaps should not.

When we think of volunteering in proximity to the public sector, it is probably of something like the Royal Voluntary Service running the cafés in our local hospitals, as my mother used to do at the Western General in Edinburgh, or perhaps a community transport service helping people to get around the area, rather than filling in for the full-time professional agencies of central or local government. We can also think more broadly of the work of the retained firefighting service or special constables.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution, for example, has always relied on volunteers. The work of first responders in assisting the ambulance service across rural parts of the country has helped to save countless lives in situations where minutes really can be the difference between life and death. Volunteering brings a great deal to the table that central and local government can never be able to do and should never be expected to do. It is about making sure that to get the added benefit, we help people to have the time to give and offer them suitable outlets through which to give it.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central made some extremely good suggestions on how volunteering could be incentivised. I think we would possibly all agree that we live in a society where many people are underworked and many others feel greatly overworked. A lot can be done in that space to assist more people who would welcome the opportunity to volunteer.

For some time, we have had the right to ask for flexible working, even if there is no entitlement to always get it. That right at least exists, but it is much harder for many small businesses or small and medium-sized enterprises to support an employee in that, no matter what other benefits that individual might get and how they might grow in the process. Even something as basic as offering greater support to employees to allow those who wish to volunteer or who need to work unconventional hours to do so—whether that is for volunteering in its purest sense or for caring responsibilities for family, a child or an older relative—could transform not just the economy, but the quality of life for millions and millions of people.

It seems incredible that until comparatively recently, someone claiming unemployment-related benefits could have been penalised through the withdrawal of benefits if they volunteered for more than 16 hours, when a volunteering position could have given them purpose and helped to build skills and confidence, which would help everybody. I am delighted that the rules have changed. Benefit claimants are now able to have their volunteering commitment recognised, and that is allowed without the penalties that existed previously.

However, there is still more to do in this space. I find myself asking why some of the most experienced in our workforce find it so difficult to scale back their hours as they approach retirement without jeopardising their position in the workplace or future pension entitlements, depending on the rules of the schemes that apply to them. Not only does continuing with such inflexibility create a disorientating shock for some people when they eventually leave the workplace on retirement, but it deprives people of the opportunities to find future roles in communities, try things out and transition to what life at the end of a career and after work might look like. It deprives people of the opportunity to transition smoothly into the post-work environment, which would enable them to do something worth while, while also helping others to make the most of what life has to offer.

If we want to look at it this way, we have quite a big society—to use a phrase that was in vogue some years ago—but we do not make that society bigger or better by making the state smaller. We could use the power of the state to help to grow that society and allow people to get more out of their life and their contribution in work and in the community, to the great benefit of all.

In June 2021, I took part in a Westminster Hall debate on the community response to covid, and it is right that a lot of people volunteered and rushed to the fore in that crisis. It is saddening that much of that volunteering effort seems to have tailed off, because part of my hopes for building back better was certainly to build back better by harnessing the good will, commitment and community spirit that came to the fore during that time.

I will conclude today, much as I concluded then, that it is often in the worst of circumstances that we find the best of ourselves. Community and volunteering are intertwined with one another and with the understanding that each of us is part of something much greater and bigger than ourselves, and that our greatest calling in life, whatever we do, is to be called and to serve others. Thank you to our volunteers, thank you to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central for securing this debate, and I thank everybody for their time.

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