This morning, there was a bit of a light-hearted diversion from the heavy bombardment that is the election campaign, when Eric Pickles announced a proposal, which first surfaced in 2009, to give employees 3 days “statutory” volunteering leave a year. But for once, he was given a bit of a grilling on Radio 4’s Today programme, by Justin Webb. You can listen to the whole piece here from 1:13:45. It’s worth listening just to hear Pickles lose his cool and get rather snippy with Justin Webb’s persistent calm questioning over the details of the proposal. Webb asked who is going to pay for the extra time off, especially in the public sector. Pickles just repeated that people had annual leave, and it was the same. He also suggested that volunteering per se “enhances productivity” and leads to a “more engaged workforce.” Webb asked Pickles how, for example in the NHS, would hospitals cover for nurses who were off doing voluntary work. Pickles really lost it then, explaining that “it will be worked out according to patterns of work.” Those were his words
Under continued pressure from Webb’s questioning, Pickles then said that there was flexibility and that companies would not have to offer this a statutory right after all.
During this farcical interview, Pickles tried lamely to inject the “key messages” that he had been given by Conservative Central Office about how volunteering has gone up under the Coalition Government. First off he tried with “the amount of volunteering over past 5 years has absolutely escalated”, then he tried again, clearly reading from a script as he asked us to celebrate the fact that there are an “extra 3 Million people volunteering now compared with 2009”. Whether this is true or not is moot, but volunteers do a great deal of work for society.
Pickles has been somewhat eviscerated in the media (social and otherwise) for his performance, and rightly so. He announced an old policy, which is unpopular with private and public sector bodies (who will have to find the money to fund it) – and didnt even both to garner any support from the voluntary sector who are supposed to benefit from it (if you discount a random act of support from Bear Grylls); and then he immediately backtracked to a position where the policy can have get-out clauses, rendering it totally meaningless.
I’ve worked in the voluntary sector for most of my career, and I’ve also been a volunteer. I’m just about to retire as chair of a school governing body, of which I’ve been a member for over six years. I know and understand how important volunteers are in society. Volunteers actually make up much of the glue that binds communities and society together, whether it’s governors, or volunteers making tea at a local church, or people who spend their time visiting and caring for the elderly, lonely or unwell. Or indeed volunteers who like nothing better than cutting down some scrub and having a bonfire. It’s something that should be encouraged at all levels of society and yes Government can help. But this Government is utterly conflicted over the voluntary sector. On the one hand it symbolises a conservative ethic which is to get on and do stuff and not wait for the State to step in and do it. On the other hand, it is a source of criticism for politicians of all persuasions, and especially those that act against the public interest, as the Coalition has done time and again.
The thing that really sticks in my craw with today’s farce is that Pickles, who clearly dislikes much that the voluntary sector does, is exploiting the good work that volunteers do day in day out, for political expedience. This is the man who calls charities “sock puppets” because they dared to criticise Government when in receipt of Government funding. The Sock Puppet remark led to normally restrained charity sector leader Stephen Bubb calling Pickles “squalid”. Pickles is also the man who oversaw the gagging of Charities during election campaigns, via the Transparency of Lobbying Act.
Nothing was done about corporate lobbying of course, because this is the Government of lobbyists, by lobbyists, for lobbyists.
The “big society” was talked up early on in this Parliament, alongside the “greenest government ever”. Today Pickles has tried to revive the lifeless corpse of the Big Society, but only made a fool of himself in the process. Will we see Liz Truss do something similar over the “greenest government ever” in the next week or two?
photo by Department for Communities and Local Government (Eric Pickles and Russell Grant) [OGL (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons