With the UK boasting 15 million volunteers, Martyn Lewis discusses how citizens are taking society’s problems into their own hands
How can democracy be made to work when increasingly its weaknesses are being exposed – from the failure to reform Britain’s constituency boundaries and sclerosis in the American legislature to the battle to claw back powers from Brussels? Almost everywhere you look, you find growing frustration with the inability to provide representative government that effectively and speedily serves the wishes and needs of the people.
And yet the best form of democracy, I would submit, is in front of our very noses in the shape of a formidable constituency of over 15 million people – that’s 50 times more than the combined membership of our main political parties. They are the people who volunteer at least once a month to help others in society – who have identified a problem, a need or an issue in their local community and have got together with friends, colleagues and neighbours to do something about it. Most of these groups have been beavering away for years – but, perhaps triggered by the recession, we are witnessing a surge of new ones. Requests to form a new charity are currently flowing into the offices of the Charity Commission at an average rate of 30 every single day. There are indications that more informal volunteering is growing at a similar rate.
The work of these groups may be under-reported, but it is not unrecognised. The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service makes sure of that. Introduced during Her Majesty’s Golden Jubilee as a new part of the Honours system, it is the country’s top award specifically for groups of volunteers. The 111 winners announced on Monday demonstrate – as did more than a thousand that have gone before – the diversity and depth that volunteers can reach.
“There is scarcely an area of need in Britain that is not touched by groups of volunteers”
The Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team is equipped, trained and on duty night and day at the well-known suicide spot, ready to assist those in distress; 1,500 students at Croydon College now volunteer to help their local community in all kinds of ways; DEAFvibe in Staffordshire offers accessible services to make sure all deaf people are treated with respect and can participate fully in the local community; 64th Birmingham Scout Group has gone above and beyond its normal remit by transforming a dilapidated building into a thriving community centre for people of all backgrounds and ages.
The range of needs addressed by the Queen’s Award winners is formidable: they tackle homelessness, mentor disadvantaged young people from tough backgrounds, regenerate ancient woodland for use by the local community, drive patients to hospital appointments, provide support to relatives of people killed in car crashes, take the elderly and isolated on canal trips, help people on the streets late at night, offer support so those who are HIV positive can deal with their diagnosis and get back on their feet, find ways for visually impaired people to lead full and active lives, run community radio stations, provide additional support and comfort to local children living in poverty, help young people overcome reading difficulties, deliver companionship, healthy meals and stimulating activities to older people, provide expert medical support in an emergency until an ambulance arrives, crew a rescue hovercraft to save lives, intervene to stop violence by diffusing aggressive situations, help women to break free from street sex work and addiction, and provide free respite breaks for disadvantaged children from across the UK.
The award winners are just the tip of a formidable iceberg. There is scarcely an area of need in Britain that is not touched by groups of volunteers. They are the ultimate self-starters – on a par with the best entrepreneurs.
Last month the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, called for “a sense of society”. He was talking to and about the financial community. But volunteers have been answering that call for years. In many ways, as the Queen’s Awards for Voluntary Service demonstrate, they are society – to an extent that few, if any, others can claim.
This article was first published by The Telegraph