Does the Government have a Strategy for the Voluntary Sector?

A cash-strapped government, looking to expand community welfare, should prioritise the voluntary (or “third”) sector which provides more benefit at less cost that the public or private sectors.  “The labour value of formal voluntary activity in DCMS sectors in 2000 was approximately £12.7 billion [at a cost of] £301 million.”[1]

Increasing social complexity and an ageing demography means more people looking for help whilst the increasing affluence and size of the post-employment population could supply the helpers with a little motivation and support from government. Britain would be a happier place if government raised its attention from spending our money.

The voluntary sector workforce has grown by about one third, to over 800,000 in the 10 years following 2004 although the rate of growth has slowed since.  Government prefers commercial contractors to encouraging volunteers.

In 2012, the NCVO estimated that “The combined income of all 164,000 voluntary organisations in the UK, is of a similar magnitude to the UK revenue of Tesco (£38.6 billion for 2009/10).” The voluntary sector covers a wide range of community services including day care centres for the elderly, Citizens Advice, sports and arts coaching and supervision, feeding and sheltering the homeless, youth clubs, and the National Citizen Service.

The Blair government recognized the importance of this third sector and declared 2006 to be the “Year of the Volunteer”.  Not a lot happened and few remember it.  Responsibility was given to the “Office of the Third Sector” until, in 2010, the Coalition renamed it the “Office for Civil Society”. The Civil Society became, under the Cameron government the “Big Society” which was supposed to take power away from politicians and give it to people.  No action backed that up and the term has largely disappeared.

In 2016, the May government transferred the Minister, actually Parliamentary Under-Secretary Rob Wilson, from the Cabinet Office to DCMS, further downgrading the government’s interest in the voluntary sector.  He remains responsible for:

  • The Big Society agenda
  • National Citizen Service (NCS) and youth policy
  • Social action
  • Civil society sector support
  • Social enterprise and social investment.

Quite why these are seen as culture, media or sport is unclear but they are words without action.

The NCS was conceived as non-military national service where young people would learn life skills and society would benefit from their good works, a.k.a. “granny bashing”.  The NCS Bill is going through Parliament at present: “the scheme takes place in the spring, summer or autumn coinciding with school holidays. Groups of teenagers undertake a week-long residential visit, usually to an activity centre for an Outward Bound-style course in the countryside involving physical and team building activities.

After this, volunteers undertake a residential week, gaining a taste of independent living and learning a variety of skills for their future. In the third (and sometimes fourth) week, participants plan and deliver a 'social action' project in their local community, often to raise awareness of or fundraise for a particular cause. Those completing the [3 or 4 week] course receive a certificate at a graduation ceremony. The certificate is signed by the Prime Minister in office at the time of graduation.”  In January 2017, the National Audit Office reported unfavourably on the pilot schemes estimating, amongst a long list of problems, that just 60% of target (213,000) would be participating by 2021.

However much time Parliament may give to this NCS Bill, it will have minimal impact on Britain as a whole.  Meanwhile worthwhile voluntary organizations are denied the help they so much need.  

In short, the government has no overall grasp of the voluntary sector, nor of its potential. There is no voluntary sector strategy, no plan and no means to implement a plan even if it had one. It is missing a major solution to its problems.

[1]  Engaging with the Voluntary and Community Sector: The DCMS Strategy for Implementation of HM Treasury's Cross Cutting Review, 'The Role of the Voluntary and Community Sector in Service Delivery' Updated February 2006