News and Comment

More of the same? Volunteering and the Giving White Paper

Tuesday 24 May 2011

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The Giving White Paper published yesterday sets out the Government’s plans to encourage and facilitative giving – a key part of achieving the Prime Minister’s goal of a Big Society. Whilst there is much to commend, there’s a significant gap around CRB checks which urgently needs to be addressed: it’s not whether you have a conviction that matters, but what kind of conviction it is. By taking a blanket approach to convictions, the Government risks cutting off many potential volunteers with directly relevant experience.

‘Giving’ is defined as either giving time (volunteering) or giving money (traditionally described as philanthropy). The White Paper outlines volunteering projects such as the Community Organiser scheme run by Locality, and the National Citizen Service (being evaluated by OPM as part of a consortium), and details government investment in various other philanthropic projects.

‘Giving’ contains many positive ideas and the aim to increase civic action and responsibility is of course desirable. The emphasis on financial investment will be welcomed by relevant organisations in civil society, and the case studies of volunteering projects are inspiring examples of innovative practice. However, the paper lacks detail in its solutions to overcoming the individual barriers to voluntary participation. Further work will be urgently needed to flesh these ideas out as the legislation progresses.

The paper reveals the government’s intention to reduce red tape to ‘common sense levels’, particularly in relation to the CRB check. They propose two ways to speed up the process for existing volunteers: i) by allowing the CRB to be transferable between organisations and ii) reducing the vetting and barring scheme to individuals that work in close contact with vulnerable people. These are both sensible suggestions for existing volunteers.

The paper does not, however, address the barrier posed by the CRB to many of those who do not currently volunteer, particularly those with a criminal conviction or who have had periods of homelessness (and therefore cannot provide addresses for their last five years). This is a particular issue not just because these are the people who could most benefit from volunteering opportunities but also because these individuals – precisely because of their backgrounds – could offer invaluable life experience to voluntary positions (such as ex-youth offenders becoming excellent peer-mentors).

For these individuals, the CRB check needs further rationalisation, to recognise that it is not the fact of a conviction but the nature of it which is relevant when applying to volunteer with ‘at risk’ groups. As it stands, the check stops some people applying because the implication is that a criminal record will undermine an application to volunteer. And it often does, as organisations can be reluctant to take on the risk themselves.

What is needed is a personalised process to examine the conviction or issue in reference to the applied position. This process should not just rely on common sense – which is not good enough when deciding who should work with children or vulnerable people – but neither should it rely on bureaucracy.

‘Giving’ does suggest examples of voluntary schemes that work to ‘empower’ communities but it does not explore barriers to individual volunteering in any detail or breadth. This White Paper is in danger of leading to policy that supports the same people to do more volunteering, rather than encouraging new people to get started.

You can read about the issues touched above in more detail in an earlier post.