THE BLOG

Why Service to Society Serves Us All

05/06/2014 12:38 BST | Updated 05/08/2014 10:59 BST

More than half a century since National Service ended, service is an idea ripe for reinvention. It can give people opportunities and help to strengthen our society. But rather than going back to the 1950s, we need to find new ways to harness the ideals of service in a way that works for Britain today.

There is a critical link between service and society: it is by helping others that we best show our solidarity and sense of shared humanity. Anyone who pays taxes does this to some extent, but it is a far less direct way of cementing the bonds between us. Volunteers' Week should remind us of the huge appetite across our country to work actively together for the good of others.

The vast majority of people care deeply about their community - whether they are rich or poor, young or old. Almost three quarters of people in England already volunteer in some form at least once a year, and more than a quarter take part in formal volunteering at least once a month.

This activity brings immense benefits. Volunteers contribute an estimated £24bn to the economy and there are over 162,000 voluntary organisations doing fantastic work in every sector.

We all remember the Games Makers from the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as a standout example of the power of volunteers. King's College Hospital in London is another: they have 1,400 volunteers who do everything from helping patients transition back into their homes to running a gift shop. They've had a transformational impact by doing the small jobs that can make a big difference.

Volunteering helps participants as well as recipients. It helps young people develop their skills and CVs. It helps educational attainment and it is a pathway to employability as well as being a transition from school to work. It helps older people combat loneliness and inactivity. It helps businesses find better employees. It is associated with longer life, improved health, higher self-esteem, greater engagement with politics, and personal satisfaction.

It also makes perfect sense that service to society can help reintegrate offenders into society, as well as keeping young people away from crime in the first place. One volunteering centre working with former inmates in Leeds found their volunteers from the local prison were far less likely to reoffend compared to the national average.

It underlines the huge potential of service. It needs to be better harnessed - work that Lisa Nandy, our Shadow Minister for Civil Society, is leading for Labour.

David Cameron's own vision for a 'Big Society' was half-baked. Of course, it was welcome that the Government continued to develop Labour's vision of a National Citizen Service, bringing together young people from different backgrounds through social action projects. But beyond this, the Government's agenda has essentially fizzled out. Many voluntary organisations have had to shoulder burdens without the requisite resources due to the pressures on public services and local government.

In practice, Ministers see the volunteer as taking up the burden of the state and replacing it, abdicating their own responsibility for social provision. The hundreds of food banks springing up all over the country are the most vivid example.

We see the citizen taking an active, independent role, but served and supported by the government where it is needed. It is a partnership that is as removed from the statism of the 1950s as it is from the 19th-century-esque vision of welfare as charity that sometimes seems to be the Tory ideal.

We need to be more ambitious and imaginative. Not by creating top-down programmes, but by give volunteers better support and finding better ways of harnessing their contribution.

We should be doing more to open fields of public life up to partnerships with volunteers, and to use their experience to co-produce public services. We should be doing more to help the unemployed volunteer as part of their route back to work. And we should be doing more to support volunteering across lines of class and community.

Volunteering can help address some of the biggest social challenges we face - supporting an aging population in a fragmented society, mentoring young people at risk or helping the long-term unemployed as the work market changes.

The possibilities for partnerships with business are also exciting. There are already schemes in the US where government pays a stipend to young people who then have an opportunity to volunteer. The public, private and voluntary sectors work together, to mutual benefit.

Care is needed, of course. Volunteering must support and strengthen rather than replace the state's ultimate responsibility to provide the services we need as a society. And low-paid jobs and work programmes must not be allowed to drift into volunteering: the two must be kept distinct.

Volunteering has the potential to transform our society. The case for supporting it is all the stronger in a time of tight fiscal constraints. But the value of service is worth supporting in its own right. We need to harness volunteering on its own terms, not as a crude cloak for cuts. But if we can get it right, serving others will serve us all.

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and Shadow Minister for Justice

Baroness Jan Royall has been Labour's leader in the House of Lords and a member of Ed Miliband's Shadow Cabinet since May 2010. Jan joined the Lords as a life Peer in 2004, she became a member of the Privy Council in 2008.