About lionheartroyal

Richard is a political commentator, activist and consultant who regularly contributes to the debates on British domestic politics and international affairs. He is the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Hartlepool.

The Government should be doing more to encourage people into Voluntary Work

Featured on ConservativeHome, first published 17th February 2013

Last week (17/2/13) we saw an apparently landmark ruling, as a scarf-clad student stood outside the courts declared that young people would no longer be forced into slave labour by the evil right-wing Government.

Unusual in the circumstances, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of pride when I heard the decision, having been following the full story for a while. Not because the young student, Cait Reilly, had won a victory over a particular scheme, nor because I hate pound shops – but because Miss Reilly had been forced to give up a voluntary role that she enjoyed and found useful in pursuit of a blunt instrument policy that led her down a meaningless dead end. It reminded me of an experience I had a few years ago.

In 2009, I was one of several to be hit by a second wave of redundancies at a PR firm which had experienced the highs and was now experiencing the lows of specialising in lobbying on planning applications.

Like many people who lose their job, I experienced an inner wave of self reflection, beating myself up over things I might have done differently to save my own skin, and questioning my own abilities. The decision hadn’t come out of the blue, and I’d been relatively active in the job market for a good period beforehand. But, of course, filling out endless applications after work grinds you down, and upon the receipt of several rejection letters (if they can be bothered to acknowledge you!) it is easy to wonder why you bothered.

I’d been thinking for some time that I’d like to do something more worthwhile and fulfilling in my life, having had enough of being shouted at by people who didn’t want a giant supermarket built in their back garden, but I never seemed to have the time. Then, suddenly, redundancy granted it to me.

I went online and found a volunteering website where I submitted my details and some preposterous, out-of-date and extensively duplicated search results popped up. And so I opted for a more face-to-face approach and headed down to the local voluntary centre. I had free time on my hands for as long as it took to find myself another job, and I wanted to offer my services voluntarily to whoever could benefit from them, I said. The old ladies in the centre were perplexed. Clearly this sort of thing didn’t happen often. They gave me a lop-sided form which looked like it had been photocopied using soot, asked me to fill out my details and skills and said they’d try to match me to an opportunity. But I needed to hurry because they were closing for the day shortly (it was lunch time).

Saying what skills I had wasn’t easy. I’d been what anyone outside the Westminster bubble would term a ‘career politician’, jumping from university to parliamentary researcher to election organiser to lobbyist. What could I offer a local charity that they couldn’t get from anyone else? As much as I’m a big supporter of Guide Dogs, the thought of taking one out for a walk filled me with horror… since I was a kid, dogs have tended to be way too keen to test how tasty my legs are. Yes, I could stand behind a counter in a charity shop and had done so as a teenager, but was writing prices with a blunt pencil on the inside cover of an old Mills & Boon novel a waste of whatever talent I had? Thankfully there was a box for ‘Media and Publicity’ which I ticked before returning the form.

It is fair to say that, on the whole, charities are awful at encouraging people to volunteer for them. National giants that are run more like corporate bodies aside, most don’t even know where to start to attract anybody that isn’t already connected by personal circumstance. Websites are usually out of date and littered with broken links, emails bounce back, phones go straight to clunky answer machines. But who can blame them? For decades they’ve been getting by as best they can, often pushing their volunteers to the limit and relying on an occasional grant from a local mayor. And when people do offer their services, they don’t know what to do with them.

Websites and centres designed to link volunteers with opportunities tend to be problematic too. If I’ve seen the advert offering me the opportunity to do the accounts for the local nursing home once, I’ve seen it twenty times repeated in the same search. All posted three years ago.

Surely if the Government can run other more complex initiatives (please debate this another day), they can arrange for someone to set up some decent straight forward scheme to support such organisations and assist people like me?

Having submitted my forms, I heard nothing for weeks. In the meantime I’d written to all the charities I was a member of offering my time. One large mental health charity which I’d supported for a long time didn’t even reply – an extremely sad omen given the number of unemployed people who either suffer with or develop mental health issues. Eventually I received a few pages listing four charities in the area that might need my skill set. I contacted all of them, but only one responded – a regional Autistic Society.

So I found myself sat in the ‘office’ of this charity trying to explain to three confused ladies about how I might help them and why. It seemed they were deeply suspicious of me, probably wondering if I was just going to steal their donation tin and run.  But, thankfully, they gave me a chance, and I gave them whatever time I had spare between the usual job hunting.

Over the next month or so, I helped to give them a new lease of life. I wrote and designed new eye-catching leaflets and posters; rejuvenated their dingy website; organised events at a nearby autistic school; got the local newspapers along to cover their work; publicised a sell-out barn dance fundraiser (no, I didn’t have to dress up as a cowboy); and won them a £1,000 grant.

Not only were they delighted but I had new faith in myself. It reminded me that I did have skills and experiences that were very valuable to others. Writing a press release was second nature to me, but clearly wasn’t to the retired gentleman who happened to have some vague publicity role on their committee. Marketing techniques I’d learnt elsewhere and the ability to actualise them on a computer screen was lost on the ladies who were still doing everything by Pritt Stick and fax.

Then came the stunning bit. On my fortnightly visit to the job centre, as the advisor tapped away on his keyboard, ignoring my list of job applications he was meant to be checking, I mentioned to him that I’d also be doing volunteer work. He stopped tapping and glanced up. “You can’t do that”. Oh? Why not? I was told that if I continued to do this amount of volunteering, my Jobseeker’s Allowance would be removed. “I could just lie to you,” I said. I received a glare and for once I shut my mouth and left with my form signed.

Ay, there’s the rub! Surely we have everything entirely upside down? What nonsensical society can we be living in where not only are some people not incentivised to work, but they’re even punished for working for a good cause for free?

Surely, if the ‘Big Society’ is worthy of its name, we should be encouraging and indeed rewarding people not only for showing initiative but for giving their time to benefit others. In a period when funding is being withdrawn from lots of charities and long-term volunteers are increasingly pushed for their own time, surely this is when we want bright talented individuals to step forward and pick up the slack. It is in their interests as much as everyone else’s.

And this is what was wrong with the situation Cait Reilly found herself in. She had been intelligent and resourceful, finding voluntary work in something relevant to her skills, experience and ambitions. Yet the Government treated it with contempt. Giving your time to the local dog pound is considered less worthy than giving it to the local pound shop. Charity books aren’t as important as tins of beans when it comes to replenishing shelves, apparently. But as the judges in the case made clear, there was nothing inherently wrong with forcing people to work for free, per se. Then why aren’t we sending them in the direction of voluntary organisations instead of national companies?

So here’s a bold idea, Mr Duncan Smith: why not help charities to find these people and make use of them? Why not get Job Centre advisors to tell them what their volunteering options are? Why not … heaven forbid I’m accused of espousing people ‘earning’ their benefits … make a percentage (say 20%?) of the Job Seekers Allowance dependant on doing one day’s charity work a week? Let’s see how the country changes when 2.4 million people offer a combined 57 million hours a week to the perplexed old ladies at the voluntary centre!

And to conclude, when I was finally successful and received a job offer, the fact that I’d “got on my bike”(as someone once said) to find myself opportunities and kept myself busy was a major factor in me being chosen ahead of other candidates. The benefits of such an approach are wide-ranging.

Dialogue not Demonisation

An analysis of WRF Event with Charles Tannock MEP, Conservative Spokesman for Foreign Affairs & Human Rights in Europecharles_tannock

Featured in Russian Mind Magazine

Foreign Affairs and Human Rights are topics never far from the news where Russia is concerned. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if there is some cosmic conspiracy that leads our events, organised months in advance, to accidentally land within days of some Russian-related controversy.

Thus I introduced our guest speaker, Dr Charles Tannock MEP, Conservative Spokesman in the European Parliament for Human Rights and Foreign Affairs, in the same week as the trial into the death of Sergei Magnitsky was dropped by Russian Authorities and just days after the Cypriot Finance Minister flew to Moscow seeking a bailout for his crisis-hit, sun-kissed island. Two days later, Boris Berezovsky was found dead in his Berkshire mansion. The event was also set against the backdrop of the ongoing problems in Syria, another conflict where Russia potentially has unique leverage, but finds itself on the opposite side of the fence to the American juggernaut.

In such circumstances I was looking forward to a fiery discussion, difficult questions and contentious answers. I wasn’t disappointed, although I was surprised at how many questions focussed on foreign affairs rather than human rights, judging by the column inches usually devoted to the latter topic.

I was also impressed by Tannock’s views on Russia. He was uncompromising in his criticism where it was deserved, but recognised the value and importance of Russia’s role and clearly longed for a day when relations would be better. It was a view at odds with many commentators on Russia, who would rather put their heads in the sand hoping that when they come up for air the country will have ceased to exist, whilst praying that nobody from the FSB taps their leg with an umbrella during their exposure to the elements.

I’ve long thought that the Western media’s prevailing view of Russia and its people is one that is extraordinarily prejudicial and discriminatory, bordering on xenophobic and even racist (in the widest sense of the word). There is no way that some things I have read and heard would be deemed acceptable if the word ‘Russian’ were replaced by any other nationality or group of people. The individual incidents raised in articles may well be true, but the picture their authors seek to paint is one of Reds under the Bed and shadowy men in long coats and wide brimmed hats at the end of your street. This inevitably bubbled back to the surface in the hours following the discovery of Mr Berezovsky’s body. Yet clearly not all of the 35,000 Russians in the UK are spies or vodka-swilling billionaires, nor do they adhere to all the decisions made in the Kremlin. But they are still proud to be Russian, and so they should be.

The reality is that Russia is still the largest country on the planet with sixteen land borders, and holds the World’s biggest reserves of mineral and energy resources. It is the UK’s fastest growing export market, with clear opportunities for British businesses particularly around the forthcoming Sochi Games and World Cup. Its’ history, not just in the last decade or two, but over centuries, has led to it becoming one of the major players in international politics and one whose influence extends way beyond its own realm.

Yet despite everything it has going for it, Russia can often get it wrong. Dealing with Russia is I imagine not unlike dealing with a teenage son … you’ll always love them, but their foolish and reckless behaviour often disappoints you.

We of course gaze upon Russia through our Western-tinted spectacles and cast judgements upon it without considering that our values are not universal. Yet Tannock points out that if Russia wants to become a respected Western power it needs to behave like one. That includes being more responsible on the international stage and improving its internal judicial system. In many ways Russia’s straddling of two continents and all the associated mixture of peoples, religions and customs which make it such a unique melting pot also causes it huge problems on the international stage, and has done for centuries. But whilst Peter the Great uncompromisingly eradicated Eastern practices to ingratiate Russia with the West, President Putin seems adamant on keeping a foot in both camps. Not unlike Britain, its desire to maintain its Great Power status also makes it many enemies.

Tannock believes Russia has shot itself in the foot over Syria – supporting a government that looks set to fall, seems to be a classic case of backing the wrong horse. He adds, nor is it in Moscow’s interest to have a nuclear Iran, so why does it seem so reluctant to condemn this possibility? Its stance in the United Nations makes it appear to be constantly obstructive and, as Mitt Romney said “always standing up for the world’s worst actors”. Although I’d add that the UN represents 193 states and is not merely a vehicle for pursuing American foreign policy by other means. Indeed many of these states are appalled by the stance of Western nations on a variety of issues, and why shouldn’t their views be represented on the Security Council? Let us not forget that they were right on Iraq. But again, Russia can’t be all things to all men.

Unlike many, Tannock doesn’t deny that Russia has a right to pursue its own interests, but he does believe that its short and long term goals are confused, and that it should pay more attention to the latter. One of the major problems, he argues, is Russia’s zero-sum mindset which assumes that any victory for the West is automatically a defeat for Russia, and vice versa. This is a hangover from the Cold War which needs to be put aside before progress can be made.

The fact that Russia has always been a Eurasian country rather than a Western democracy, coupled with its experience of the 1990s makes it deeply suspicious of democratic systems. Tannock puts forward the rarely considered view that Putin is genuinely widely popular in Russia, and that he would likely win a free democratic election if it were allowed to happen. The fact that Putin mistrusts this and feels the need to go down another route is a shame and undermines his power and position.

The same is true for the continued rumblings of particular cases such as Litvinenko, Khordorkovsky, Pussy Riot and Magnitsky. Tannock refers to the ‘selective justice’ of such cases which land some people in prison – or worse – whilst others maintain their position. I’ve often wondered why Russia doesn’t simply extradite Andrei Lugovoi and get it over with, and I didn’t buy Alexei Pushkov’s response when I asked him, that they didn’t trust the British legal system. After all, there is a reason why so many oligarchs are in London.

Tannock was also critical of the ongoing posthumous trial of Sergei Magnitsky and is a fan of the ‘Magnitsky Bill’, which he argues targets the bad guys without placing all Russians in the same boat – a refreshing consideration given our habit of generalising and labelling. For what it’s worth of course neither I nor any other commentators have the first clue about what happened in most of these situations, but it is braver to confess lack of knowledge than to concoct conspiracy theories to sell newspapers. That approach has led us to a situation where the death of any Russian is automatically front page news as well as an excuse to remind everyone of past misdemeanours and the books for sale about them. And in the face of such a barrage of negativity, Russia retreats back into its shell.

Like Dr Charles Tannock, I am a big fan of Russia and am not afraid to say so. But that doesn’t mean being uncritical or not offering friendly advice. We both want to see a situation in the not too distant future when Russia does not make the slip ups that make supporting it troublesome. But I believe that is best achieved by open dialogue rather than demonisation. And judging by Sergei Lavrov’s recent visit to London, our Government feels the same.