Oliver Letwin – 2003 Speech at the National Volunteering Convention

The speech made by Oliver Letwin to the National Volunteering Convention at the Britannia Hotel, Canary Wharf, London on 16 September 2003.

In a speech given at Toynbee Hall last year, Iain Duncan Smith described Britain’s intractable social problems as “five giants” – an echo of William Beveridge’s famous words. Since Beveridge’s time the giants have changed, but they are still with us. After almost sixty years, our society still faces enormous challenges. The main difference is that public confidence in the ability of state to meet those challenges has evaporated. Which is not to deny an equal degree of scepticism in the universal applicability of market solutions.

Failing schools, substandard healthcare, rising crime, child poverty and insecurity in old age: the persistence of the same old problems demands a new kind of politics. A politics distinct from that of the 1940s and from that of the 1980s. A politics that looks beyond the state and the market for new solutions. A politics that looks to the voluntary and community sector.

Don’t we already have this new kind of politics? Hasn’t the voluntary and community sector been getting more attention than it has done for decades? Yes, but only up to a point. And that brings the voluntary and community sector to a potentially dangerous place.

The threat is that the sector will be seen as a source of replacement parts for the worn-out components of an essentially unchanged public service framework. A framework governed by the same old politics. What is sold to the voluntary and community sector as partnership may turn out to be subservience. After decades of being locked out of the public services, the voluntary organisations may find themselves being locked in, co-opted as unofficial and under-resourced agencies of the state.

And yet the opportunities of true partnership are enormous – both for the public services and for the voluntary and community sector. That much is obvious. What is not so obvious is how you can have the opportunity without the threat.

The voluntary and community sector cannot complain that it is been ignored by Government and Opposition. Politicians on all sides are touting their solutions to the dilemmas facing the sector.

Government initiatives include the Compact on relations between the public and voluntary and community sectors; the Treasury cross-cutting review; and the possibility of a Charity Law Bill in the next Queen’s speech. Incidentally, I will continue to press my opposite number to make room for such a Bill in the legislative timetable.

On the Conservative side, in 2001 we were the first party to issue a civil society election manifesto; in 2002 our annual business breakfast was replaced with a charities breakfast at party conference; and this year we published Sixty Million Citizens a consultation paper containing sixteen proposals aimed at unlocking the full potential of Britain’s voluntary and community sector, whilst safeguarding its independence.

In short, there is some pretty healthy competition for your hearts and minds. Of course, it would be far from healthy if the voluntary and community sector were turned into some kind of political football. Indeed, there is a great deal of cross-party consensus on these issues and we have welcomed a lot of what the present Government has done for the sector. Nevertheless, there are differences in each party’s approach to relationship between civil society and the state. You need to be aware of those differences, because I believe they will have a profound influence on the sector as it stands on the brink of enormous opportunity and real danger.

These differences are rooted in each party’s fundamental values, which determine what each party values most about volunteering and the voluntary sector. Our Conservative values are set out in Sixty Million Citizens, where they are stated as five principles, which together can be remembered by the acronym VALID:

The first principle is volunteerism: The uncompelled gift of time or money by volunteers and donors is virtually unique to the non-statutory, non-commercial third sector. Professionalism and professional staff are also important to the sector, as is income from contractual arrangements with other sectors. But we hope that these will always be used in a way complementary to volunteerism, not as a substitute for volunteering.

The second principle is altruism: Though the unselfish desire to better the lot of others is by no means absent from either the public or private sectors, it is most apparent and important in the voluntary and community sector. Altruism and voluntarism are deeply interdependent. Altruism motivates volunteers and donors, who in turn influence voluntary organisations to serve the common good, rather than the enrichment or aggrandisement of those in control.

The third principle is localism: If the private sector is fuelled by money and the public sector by power, then the life blood of the third sector is compassion. And while money and power can be centralised, compassion cannot be. Whether large or small, the best voluntary organisations retain a strong local character, rooted in the communities from which they draw support and to which they render service.

The fourth principle is independence: A sector which is genuinely voluntary, altruistic and local is almost by definition independent. However these internal drivers of independence could be overwhelmed by external pressures from the much larger public and private sectors. As, for the very best of reasons, voluntary organisations deepen their involvement with the state and the marketplace, independence cannot not be assumed. Independence must become a cardinal value in its own right to be defended at all costs.

The fifth principle is diversity: Proof of the independence of the sector is its ability to represent every need and cause, to encompass organisations of all sizes, and to include every shade of religious and secular motivating ethos. This clearly distinguishes the voluntary and community sector from its public and private counterparts, and also explains why it is able to find solutions to intractable social problems where neither the state nor the market can.

Each of these principles describe what we think is good about volunteering and voluntary organisations – not what they are good for. Of course, the voluntary and community sector is good for all sorts of things. Not least the pivotal role it could play in the reform of the public services. Conservatives believe that we should empower the sector to play a much bigger role in fighting poverty, rebuilding community and improving delivery. But it must be stressed that, as far as we are concerned, this is an invitation not a command. Unlike Don Corleone, we are making you an offer you can refuse.

In fact, it goes further than that. While we want to increase opportunities for partnership with the public sector and, like everyone else, ensure that such partnerships do not disadvantage those volunteers and voluntary organisations that choose to get involved; we also want to ensure that there should be no disadvantage to those volunteers and voluntary organisations that choose not to get involved.

In short, we do not regard civil society as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. A healthy voluntary and community sector is one which flourishes both in partnership with the public sector and by itself.

So far I have spoken of the voluntary and community sector generally. Now I’d like to turn to the specific issue of volunteering – which, of course, includes Britain’s longstanding and much valued tradition of volunteering within our public services, as well as volunteering within voluntary organisations.

Conservatives strongly believe in the inherent value of all volunteering as a leading dimension of full citizenship. It should, therefore, be encouraged for its intrinsic value – as well as for its instrumental usefulness to both the public and voluntary sectors. We do not want to devalue the importance of an increasingly professional voluntary sector; nor the need for its employees to be properly paid and to enjoy full pension provision. Nevertheless, increased rates of volunteering are essential if we are to build a culture of active citizenship and if we are to expand the sector’s capacity to reach vulnerable people. Many people struggling with addiction, loneliness or low self-esteem desperately need the reliable care of another human being and that cannot be provided by overloaded caseworkers. Conservatives want to encourage the voluntary and public sectors to greater consideration of what volunteers might bring to their work.

That’s our vision for volunteering, but is it achievable? In particular, can we really hope to see an expansion in the number of volunteers at a time when many voluntary organisations, especially those involved in partnerships with the public sector, are taking on more paid staff?

The experience of other nations is instructive. According to research carried out by the Comparative Non-Profit Sector Project, the world’s volunteering superstars are the Swedes. And yet in terms of paid employment, Sweden has one of the least developed voluntary sectors in the western world. It is also the case that Swedish state dominates public service provision, with next to no role for the voluntary sector. From the Swedish experience we might conclude that a professional voluntary sector and partnership with the public sector is incompatible with a flourishing culture of volunteering. However, if one then looks at Holland, which comes second only to Sweden in volunteering levels, one would have to come to exactly the opposite conclusions. Not only does Holland have the highest level of paid non-statutory, non-commercial employment in the world, it also has public services in which voluntary organisations play an extensive role.

Britain is more like Holland in that it has high levels of both paid and unpaid third sector employment, though not quite as high. And it is more like Sweden, in that the voluntary sector has a limited role in the public sector, though not quite as limited. If Britain were to move to Dutch levels of voluntary sector participation in the public services, paid voluntary sector employment would be sure to be boosted accordingly – but what would happen to volunteering?

As I said earlier, the work of volunteers is one of the good reasons why the voluntary sector should play a bigger role in the provision of public services. However, it also provides a very bad reason. Volunteers are unpaid and therefore the danger is that partnership with the voluntary sector could be seen as a way of providing public services on the cheap. I don’t have to tell you how damaging this would be to all concerned. Indeed, nothing could be more guaranteed to kill the culture of volunteering in this country than its exploitation by an unscrupulous government.

However, there is an equal danger that partnership between the two sectors will proceed without significant involvement from volunteers. This is just what has happened in the former East Germany following reunification with the west, where public service reforms boosted levels of paid voluntary sector employment, but left volunteering not much stronger than it was in the Communist era.

Not only would this deprive our public services of the contribution that volunteering can make. It would also compromise the whole approach to the third sector. Volunteers keep voluntary organisations focused on their grassroots, an invaluable anchor in all circumstances, but especially in situations of partnership with the state – where the temptation can be to fix on centres of political and bureaucratic power. This temptation is understandable when projects depend on the continuing good will of the powers that be, but a voluntary sector that loses touch with its grassroots is well on the way to losing its independence too.

I would like to offer two solutions. One general and one specific.

Our general solution is the decentralisation of the public services. By returning power to the frontline providers and users of our public services, we will radically reduce the power of politicians and bureaucrats to pull the strings – whether from the town hall or from Whitehall. This isn’t so much a single policy, but an entire platform on which we will base our appeal to the nation at the next election. Indeed, it is more than a platform, it is our purpose as a Party.

Obviously, our decentralisation platform is not aimed at the voluntary sector alone, but it would be of enormous benefit to the voluntary organisations. By giving users a greater choice of service providers, and making sure that funding followed those choices, we would multiply the opportunities for voluntary sector involvement. And by making service providers primarily accountable to local users, rather than to political and bureaucratic hierarchies, we would enable voluntary organisations to maintain their independence.

Our specific solution is to make sure that some of these bottom-up funding streams are devoted to the expansion and development of volunteering. Our green paper, Sixty Million Citizens, includes an outline proposal for the creation of what we call a “volunteer bounty”. That is, a simple and straightforward per capita payment for each volunteer signed up to an accredited training programme. We would very much welcome your continued feedback on this proposal, but we believe that it would be a much better way of distributing public funds than the current top-down bureaucracy – whose flaws have been amply demonstrated by the Experience Corps debacle.

In the words of Iain Duncan Smith: “The alternative to a bigger state is not… a lonely individualism. The centralised state and Darwinian individualism are, in fact, natural accomplices in the undermining of society. Both cut people loose from the institutions that provide identity and personal security. The real alternative to a bigger state is a stronger society. Chris Patten once talked of a smaller state and bigger citizens. Government should be focused on strengthening the natural institutions of society – and not replacing or undermining them.”

Likewise, Government should be focused on strengthening volunteering – and not replacing or undermining volunteers.