Having rubbished David Cameron’s proposal that businesses and public sector organisations should allow staff three days of paid leave a year for volunteering, Labour have now announced that they will need 200,000 volunteers to deliver a mandatory 25 hours of ‘childcare’ at all primary schools to deliver breakfast clubs and after-school music/art/sport activity clubs. How will these be funded? Privately educated, Tristram Hunt, declared that “parents will pay”, but he couldn’t say how much because “charges will vary”.

I never fail to be amazed at Labour’s hypocrisy; they profess to be concerned about the ‘cost of living crisis’ yet, here is more evidence that their wealthy front bench has no idea how normal people live.

Other objectors to the volunteering proposal complained about “the cost” and how would, for example, the NHS, manage. Since NHS staff already volunteer for the Territorial Army, benefiting from learning specialist medical/surgical skills during armed conflicts and have been helping with the Ebola crisis in W Africa, this is a false argument.

People across all walks of life volunteer, they do it quietly, without a great fanfare. Even local authorities encourage volunteering, and not just amongst trainees. Heads of department and directors could learn a lot from meeting “ordinary” people and actually listening to them and hearing how/why they want to help, rather than merely paying lip service through endless ‘consultations’; they’d be surprised how much money could be saved!

Commentators and critics of the proposal failed to recognise that there is more to volunteering than working in a charity shop.

Some of our biggest, and smallest, businesses promote ‘social responsibility’ amongst their staff, encouraging them to volunteer by giving them time off, to raise money for charity, and to support specific community projects.

School governors are volunteers, and this is an increasingly onerous role, without payment, but parents and members of the community volunteer because they recognise that education is vital to our children’s and our country’s future. Sports coaches and referees are volunteers, people who do litter picks in the local park, or spend time refurbishing village halls, go into schools to advise on future careers, drive the elderly and disabled to the shops, hospital or the GP. People volunteer in libraries, allotments, Neighbourhood Watch, and monitoring speeding in residential areas and near schools; they walk neighbours’ dogs and feed neighbours’ cats. Lawyers and accountants sit on the boards of social enterprises, theatre groups, clubs; they all bring essential expertise, which would otherwise be unaffordable.

The UK suffers from a shortage of skilled people, so businesses benefit from having well-rounded employees, who care for other people and not just themselves; through volunteering, they develop much needed social/communication skills and ‘values’ to be brought into the workplace. It should not be underrated.

Our economy can only continue to develop and thrive if we upskill, and improve productivity with a focus on training and raising aspiration.

Local authorities could help by introducing a scholarship scheme for young people wanting to go into those professions where there is the greatest shortage? There is an international shortage of engineers, so that would be a good starting point.

If each local authority agreed to pay the university fees for just one student each year, they could develop partnerships with a particular university and key local businesses which would guarantee employment and work experience throughout the training period and at the end of the course. Candidates to be chosen following a competitive application process, with both the relevant business leaders and university involved in the selection.

At £9,000 a year per student, by the end of the initial three-year period, the cost would be £81,000 a year. Since most university courses are for three years, this would be the maximum annual cost for three students, but the benefits would be huge. The Conservatives believe in good education for everyone, such a programme would prove that everyone has equal opportunities.

And please, council leaders, don’t say it is unaffordable. Tighten up on procurement and project management and you could easily find the money.

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