Home Page If we are all going to be working, who's left to volunteer? 17/09/10

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

So we are all going to have to work until we drop. That’s the latest joyful forecast to come out of the gloom surrounding the last couple of years’ economic disasters.

There’s a certain irony in the way the issue has raised its head only a matter of months after David Cameron put forward his ideas about the so-called ‘Big Society’.

In case you’ve missed it so far, the Big Society refers to some rather indeterminate system whereby we all help each other out and people volunteer to support the many various organisations and activities we want in our lives but can’t quite afford any more, according to the Coalition.

I’d be surprised if anyone who put forward this idea has ever done any serious volunteering, at least in recent years.

But I would certainly suggest that its proponents come and pay a visit to Haverhill at the earliest opportunity, to see the Big Society in action, and also see how they are threatening it by their proposals.

Haverhill has been, for as long as I can remember (and that’s a few years now), a brilliant town for community spirit and charitable work.

I wish I had a pound for every story I have reported on about somebody raising money for something or other, or setting up a support group for victims of something else. It’s just continuous.

Haverhill people are naturally warm-hearted to anyone who has come up against illness or injury, particularly any child – as, I would hope, most towns are – but they are also very good at raising money for equipment and resources to support public services.

Look at the old Haverheart campaigns for defibrillators in the 1990s, the campaigns to save the ambulance service, the campaign to save the arts centre nearly a decade ago, and so on. If we’d ever had a hospital, the campaign to save it here would have massively overshadowed all the others we have seen at Sudbury, Newmarket, etc.

People even clubbed together to raise money for a life-saving operation on a dog a year or two ago. Nobody can tell us in Haverhill anything about the Big Society. We are it.

Large numbers of facilities are maintained in Haverhill through volunteer work. The volunteer centre is a tremendous beacon of achievement.

However, there are two clouds on the horizon. Firstly, a good percentage of those volunteers are retired people. If, in future, people are going to have to go on working much longer - because, apparently, we don’t deserve the increasing periods of retirement which medical science is conferring on us – who is going to do all the volunteering?
Everyone is working harder and harder, and there is just no time or energy left for those voluntary, out-of-work activities we used to enjoy.

Look at schools. There used to be all sorts of clubs and societies for pupils to be involved in, and in the evenings and weekends, teachers were the backbone of many community organisations. You won’t find that now. They’re all far too much under pressure to do anything other than collapse at home at the end of the day and go to bed.

And the same is true across all sorts of employees in both public and private sectors.

The second cloud follows on from this. Those who volunteer while still working may do so in good faith, but it is often not long before the pressure of work or other areas of life become too much, so they just drop out.

Some – mostly of older generations – will struggle on gamely out of a sense of duty and not wanting to let other volunteers down, but most just give up on the spot.

It’s all very well running a vital agency or support service, or even a leisure activity, when people are paid to do the work, so they have to go on whatever the other calls on them. But how can you run such important organisations when people just drop out at any moment?

Whoever is in charge gets immediately lumbered with a huge problem of cover and replacement, and after a while they begin to think: “This is more pressurised than my actual job”, and they pack it in.

The sheer inbuilt unreliability of services based on this system means that a large number, if not all, will eventually fail.

At present, there is at least a core of retired or semi-retired people who can be relied upon to take the strain, at least temporarily.

But in this brave new world where, to listen to them talk, you would think everyone is desperate to go on working for ever, that will slowly dry up.

And do you know many people who really want to go on working after 65? I know a few, and they are the lucky ones who have actually been doing a job they love for their working life. But for the rest - those who work to live, rather than live to work - don’t tell them this is an enjoyable prospect.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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