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Volunteering has to be voluntary

Former Labour MP Tom Levitt disagrees with Ed Miliband’s plans for linking housing allocation to volunteering

A few years ago the idea was mooted that every teenager should be required to do a couple of hours volunteering each week as part of the school curriculum. Introducing the idea of personal social responsibility and widening young people’s experience sounds attractive but it isn’t volunteering. Volunteering must be voluntary.

Those who were keen to expand the school curriculum in this way were eventually persuaded that while there could be a place on Wednesday afternoons for “community service”, volunteering itself could not and should not be timetabled. The voluntary sector agreed.

Now the spectre of voluntary activity as a requirement is raising its head again and all the same problems arise. Ed Miliband has suggested that those who wish to be rehoused in social rented housing (and thereby fulfil some sort of aspiration) should have to demonstrate that they are good and responsible citizens, perhaps through voluntary activity in the community.

Let’s start with a few practical questions: which community? Do you show your worth by volunteering in the community you want to leave or the one you aspire to live in? Given the vagaries of social housing allocation, how will you know which community that will be?

Will the requirement to volunteer continue after you have been rehoused? That would appear logical. Does the requirement apply to the head of the household or to all members? How do you compare the volunteering record of different applicants? How do you defend the system against inflated or downright fraudulent claims of hours committed to good causes – there is no incentive to falsify such claims now.

Of course people with a record of responsible tenancy should be rewarded – but how do you compare them with an unemployed young family who have never had a tenancy? How do those traditionally excluded from volunteering, such as people with disabilities, demonstrate their worth?

The Labour government introduced a pilot Access to Volunteering programme following the Commission on the Future of Volunteering’s conclusion that measures to assist people with disabilities to volunteer were needed. It was funded in three English regions and the pilot ended earlier this year. An independent assessment, commissioned by the Cabinet Office, concluded that it had been successful but the report has mysteriously never appeared on its website. The present government apparently has no plans to provide disabled volunteers with equivalent support to that which disabled workers are entitled.

If you make volunteering or even “community spirit” a requirement amongst applicants for social housing then someone has to administer it, make a judgment, inform a decision. The process is highly subjective and, I would argue, fundamentally unfair. It does not address housing need. Much social housing is in deprived areas.

Here, the level of social capital or voluntary volunteering is low and it is right to want to see it higher. But the challenge goes way beyond those aspiring to tenancy and it is not fair to single them out. Persuasion and incentives for all the community to pull together must be fair and inclusive.

It is hard enough dealing with antisocial tenants when it comes to rehousing. Please don’t let us have special rules for pro-social ones too.

Tom Levitt is a freelance consultant on cross-sector partnerships. He established Sector 4 Focus in 2010 to specialise in bringing together businesses and charities to focus on the “triple bottom line” of social responsibility in mutually beneficial ways. He was Labour MP for High Peak from 1997 to 2010

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