Friday, December 14, 2012

Ros in the Lords: Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012 - Motion to Take Note

Ros is particularly keen to promote the role of volunteering. Genuine volunteering, that is, rather than the 'forced volunteering' which some Conservatives seem so keen on. In a debate on the legacy of the Olympics and Paralympics which took place on 8 November, Ros took the opportunity to bang the drum...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Doocey on securing today's debate and reflect on what a marvellous opportunity it has been to hear a cross-section of perspectives.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a reception at the Czech embassy at which the ambassador referred in his speech to the success of the London Games. Like many others, he made particular reference to the volunteers. He said:

"Never, in the field of human endeavour has so much been owed by so many to so few".

He was right to use that phrase because those few, the volunteers, really kept the Games going and it is about the volunteers that I want to speak today. In doing so, I declare a non-pecuniary interest as the chair of the England Volunteering Development Council.

Much of what I want to say refers to specific volunteering programmes-the Games makers, London ambassadors and so on - but we should recognise that every athlete who participated in the London Games was at the apex of a vast pyramid of support, from the grass-roots clubs on to the highly specialised training, much of which, of course, is volunteer driven. It seems to me to be really important that we look at the success of the largest mobilisation of volunteers since World War II, look beyond the well deserved congratulations, and think about what lessons we can learn from it.

First, will my noble friend outline how the Games maker programme was evaluated, by whom, and when the results will be published? In particular, have the Government any specific plans to capitalise both on that body of volunteers and also those who have been inspired to volunteer in the future? On a specific point, has agreement been reached on what will happen to the LOCOG database of volunteers and those who applied, who were willing to help but for some reason were not used? At the moment, it all looks rather ad hoc.

About a month ago I attended a special event in my home county of Suffolk to recognise the Games makers. The organisers had no database of Games makers to work from, but just relied on personal contacts. It was a lovely event and a great way of saying thank you, but it was also a piece of legacy work. Literally, as it is turns out, because the Suffolk Records Office is creating a special Olympic archive, but it is more specifically a legacy because former Games makers are being contacted about other volunteering opportunities in the county, especially for large events such as festivals - Latitude, for example. Suffolk has had the foresight to create a bespoke 2012 legacy project for volunteering which aims to increase volunteering opportunities within sport and culture across the county. It makes absolute sense that, having invested in training the volunteers for the Olympics, those new skills can be put to further use if that is what the volunteers want. I know that the Westminster volunteer centre is doing similar work developing a group of volunteers to help with large events in London, but I am not aware of any more systematic way of doing this. We run the risk of not making the best of the summer's success.

It seems to me that, on volunteering, there are a number of lessons that we can learn. First, there is the value of good, inspirational leadership, which we had in buckets, from my new noble friend Lord Deighton, from the noble Lord, Lord Coe, from the Mayor of London and from many others who are Members of this House. We saw the value of cross-party working and the value of working between public and private, but the really important thing was that volunteers were not added on at the end; they were an integral part of delivering the Olympics and Paralympics right from the beginning. That, I believe, is what really made the difference.

It is worth reflecting, however, on the amount of resource that went into this. In my view, one of the main things that made the volunteer programme successful was that enough investment was put in to make it work. It was not just cash. The private sector came in to offer HR support, recruitment, IT, training and even meals for volunteers. Local authorities stepped up and Transport for London ran a marvellous programme of volunteers at major stations. Many volunteers, of course, spent a lot of their own money on transport and accommodation and did so because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I do not believe that we have any idea of the true value of the investment that went into making the volunteer contribution work. I mention that, and I believe it matters, because I think there is a general feeling in Government and beyond that volunteering is a free good. Well, it is not - the Olympic volunteering worked because money was put in to make sure that it did.

The good news is that volunteer centres report more people coming forward to volunteer than ever before, but across the piece I hear that what holds back capacity is that organisations do not have enough paid staff to manage the volunteers. The noble Lord, Lord Haskell, made that point very well in relation to sports clubs. We need to invest in the capacity of the voluntary sector and particularly volunteer centres. They have an important role in brokering volunteering opportunities for people who want to come forward. But the figures from Volunteering England show that half of all volunteer centres have had funding cuts that have led to closures or a cutting back of their hours. Yet their brokerage role is absolutely key, especially if they are trying to work with hard-to-reach groups such as people with mental health problems or from certain minority ethnic backgrounds.

Volunteer centres tell me that there has been a huge increase in unemployed people looking for volunteering opportunities, which I suppose is to be expected. For many others, volunteering is an important way of maintaining self-esteem, getting out and about and meeting people. Investing in volunteering generally is just as important now as it was during the Olympic programmes, but in many ways is needed more because there is not a big one-off event that is capturing the imagination. If the Government want volunteering to flourish, to make community work an inherent part of the education system or a condition of benefits, they will have to grasp the nettle. Flashy websites and national publicity campaigns will not on their own do it unless the support is there at grassroots level.

There is something really special about volunteering that cannot readily be reduced to a financial transaction, but we must recognise that, it in the end, it does not come free. My noble friend Lady Doocey said that we needed to create a legacy worthy of the Games and I believe that this is just as important in volunteering as in every other part.

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