Cameron cuts 'destroying volunteer army'

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Indy Politics

David Cameron's Big Society is being undermined by government spending cuts which are in danger of "destroying" the country's volunteer army, an outgoing charity leader warned today.

Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, who is stepping down after leading Britain's largest volunteering charity Community Service Volunteers (CSV) for more than 40 years, also said the Prime Minister had overestimated the amount of responsibility volunteers were prepared to take on.

She told the Times the Government had failed to provide opportunities for people to do more in their communities and in some cases spending cuts imposed on councils had actually taken them away.

Dame Elisabeth said: "Does one hand know what the other hand is doing? We know we need to save money, but there are other ways of saving money without destroying the volunteer army.

"Once you close a library there is nowhere for a volunteer to help.

"Few people want to be responsible for the library. Most people want to feel there's an expert on the premises. They are quite happy to issue and re-shelve the books, but taking the final responsibility is a bit more than more people want to do."

She said volunteering should be introduced as part of national curriculum projects in schools and backed a US idea tying funding handed to public bodies with the number of volunteers they involved in their activities.

And she said the Government should be using its power to insist it had volunteers for classrooms, hospital wards and police forces.

Dame Elisabeth, 69, dubbed "the Mother of Volunteers", was due to outline her proposals during her retirement speech in Westminster today.

The Prime Minister has faced much criticism over his Big Society initiative.

Last week the leader of Liverpool City Council, Joe Anderson, wrote to Mr Cameron to say the authority was pulling out of the Big Society plans.

The city was one of four pilot areas for the scheme, aimed at giving community groups and volunteers more control over their local services.

But Mr Anderson said the Government's cuts had seriously undermined the ability of community organisations to improve the quality of life of residents.

Dame Elisabeth's comments came as the Government unveiled plans to offer training and volunteering opportunities to unemployed people in a bid to boost their chances of finding work.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith announced that advisers from youth charity The Prince's Trust and other local government voluntary organisations would be located in Jobcentre Plus offices to help jobseekers of all ages find a volunteering or training place.

Dame Elisabeth told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "The cuts that are being imposed on local government and the health service are taking place now, so a lot of very worthwhile programmes are now under threat of closure because the local authorities have to make immediate cuts.

"I think there are a lot of people putting a lot of energy into the Big Society, but it's not strategically planned.

"I think it's the job of national Government to co-ordinate services across the nation and make sure they happen."

Minister for civil society Nick Hurd told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We are investing. My own department's got £470 million to spend over the next four years.

"For those charities that are heavily dependant on the state, where cuts in public expenditure do cause vulnerability, we set aside £100 million of taxpayers' money to help those charities that feel particularly vulnerable."