Volunteers are so varied they’re difficult to count as a single group. They’re householders helping to set up a Neighbourhood Watch; pub landlords working together to keep licensed premises safe; victim support groups using first hand experience to help others; Special Constables; campaigners for improved road safety; lawyers working pro bono to provide access to justice that would otherwise be denied and many, many more.
All help make our communities work better and for the benefit of all.
Having been a volunteer and helped run a voluntary organisation, you might expect me to support the so-called ‘Big Society’ ideas promoted by Cameron's coalition.
Well, yes and no – in that order.
Direct experience of the difference that volunteers can make for others, not just to crime reduction, convinces me we’d lead poorer lives without them. I take no persuading of their value. When you work alongside them, it’s soon clear that, however humble the task, what they do is more than just a job.
Local and national, charities, campaign groups, trade unions and reformers have one thing in common; they run on effort and time given freely. They form a vital thread running through civilised society. They deserve our thanks and recognition. The Games Makers at the Olympics are a fantastic example of this.
They’ve brought change and improvement that, fortunately, we can take for granted – everything from free family planning advice to rights at work, from hospital transport to the army reserve, the protection of natural environments to looking after our historic buildings.
Work on issues like these was first started, campaigned for or provided, not by people doing it for money, personal gain or fame. It was usually by those driven by unwavering convictions; that what they were doing was right and much needed by others.
They’re often pioneers, leading the way in innovation, changing minds, offering fresh outlooks, setting new norms and standards - think HIV awareness, Women's Aid, international debt relief - even promoting healthy eating.
That’s why I'm so sad to see the damage this Government’s doing under Cameron’s slogan of “Big Society” and determined to change it.
Volunteers are called on to step in when vital services are deliberately withdrawn. Many charities are being turned into businesses, to deliver what were previously public services; multinational private companies exploit others to ‘sweeten’ their bids for profitable government contracts.
Local voluntary sector groups, grant-aided by councils, face a squeeze on funding. For too many youngsters, doing for free what was previously paid work is becoming the only route into employment. Basic rights, of the poorest among us, to nutrition and shelter are no longer guaranteed and are becoming ever more dependent on charity.
These are not simply questions of cash and resources, they’re matters of political choice and priorities.
Just last year Suffolk Conservatives decided to scrap school crossing patrols to save £170,000, despite having £millions tucked away. If people were concerned about road safety outside schools, volunteers would step in, That was their thinking.
In the face of countywide protests they eventually backtracked. “The pain probably wasn’t worth the gain on this one” said their leader - though crossing patrols have since gone down by a third.
I think their cynicism with children’s crossings forfeited their right to speak credibly to the people of Suffolk about both community safety and the value of volunteers. Regardless of the risks to schoolchildren, had there not been a public outcry, they’d have been happy to get away with it.
Regrettably, that's the reality of the Conservative's 'Big Society', the part I oppose and resist; it isn't a voluntary sector that I recognise, want to be part of and to promote.
Nor is it, I’m pleased to hear from many of our valuable volunteers, one that they want to promote either. Do you?