Labour has chosen to use its time to debate volunteering and the voluntary sector both in recognition of their importance and because it is concerned about the lack of opportunities for consideration and scrutiny of the Scottish Government's approach that the Government has afforded.
The Scottish Government has promoted a wide range of non-debates in the chamber, but I cannot remember when these particular issues were last debated.
We want to give voice to concerns that are being reported to us by people throughout Scotland who are too afraid to speak up or speak out on their own behalf.
Indeed, I have been struck by the significant number of briefings that we have received as a result of this debate.
I thank everyone who provided a briefing; it is a measure of the subject's importance that they have been submitted.
It is right to recognise and celebrate the voluntary sector's role and we salute the volunteers who make a real difference to people who are very often the most isolated and vulnerable in our communities.
We know that volunteers can identify need, help to shape services and reach out into the parts of our communities where the state cannot go.
Volunteers such as those who work for Home-Start in my constituency can support and be trusted by vulnerable families who might fear more formal interventions by social work or health staff.
We know that volunteers make a massive social and economic contribution and that their influence on community life and cohesion is beyond measure.
We know, too, that volunteering enriches the lives of volunteers, both young and old; indeed, we have seen how significant the support for volunteering among older people has been.
Warm words, however, will sustain neither volunteers nor the voluntary sector and, like many others, I remain concerned that in its approach the SNP has been typically high on rhetoric but weak on delivery, with a separation between what it says it cares about and what it provides resources for.
I am also struck by the gap between ministers' approach, which borders on the complacent, and the issues that have been raised at a local level, including funding cuts, fears for the future and increased concern about the conditions of those who work with the voluntary sector.
In the time available, I will try to highlight some of those concerns.
First—and I do not say this lightly—I have been struck by the extent to which those involved have suggested that there is an atmosphere in which it is difficult for them to air concerns.
I hope that we all believe in and celebrate the independence of the voluntary sector, but the threat of the withdrawal of funding if critical voices are raised seems all too real.
That cannot be acceptable, but it has been reflected in the debate on the future of the councils for voluntary service network and the development of local interfaces.
Instead of following the principle of voluntary collaboration, we seem to be driving towards a forced measure, with funding being used to create compliance.
As I said, that is entirely unacceptable.
Secondly, there is concern that the Scottish Government seems to be of the view that the development of volunteering opportunities does not require resources.
The national volunteering strategy seems to have come to an end, and the single outcome agreements say nothing about the need for such strategies to be developed at a local level.
Thirdly, not that long ago, Unite, Unison and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations came together to highlight to the Parliament the crisis in the voluntary sector.
Who can forget the image of the hearse, which captured the fear of the sector's destruction?
Well, SNP back benchers will have forgotten it, because they did not have the courage to turn up and speak to the people who were raising these concerns.
There is also grave concern at the Scottish Government's lack of understanding of the powerful role that volunteering can play in tackling disadvantage, and we need to be proactive in encouraging such activity in our most disadvantaged communities.
After all, volunteering can improve skills, build confidence and form an important bulwark against the consequences of economic recession.
We need the Scottish Government to act, especially when we are faced with two contrasting sets of figures.
First, 18 per cent of adults in deprived communities volunteer, while the figure for Scotland is 33 per cent; secondly—and in stark contrast to that—the figure for young people not in education, employment or training is 11 per cent for the whole of Scotland, but 25 per cent in our 15 per cent most deprived communities.
The Scottish Government must find a way of intervening to ensure that our poorest communities, which would benefit most from the skills that volunteering can bring, are afforded such opportunities.
Tricia Marwick (Central Fife) (SNP): Does the member not agree that one of the difficulties that the voluntary sector is facing is the move to compel people who do not want to go into employment or training to accept a place in the sector? Surely the whole ethos of volunteering is that it should be voluntary. Does the member agree that compulsion in this matter is very wrong and will she condemn the United Kingdom Government for trying to force through such a measure?
Johann Lamont: I regret the fact that Tricia Marwick wishes to attack the United Kingdom Government, rather than join us in contemplating challenges in our local communities.
Young people in poor communities could be afforded the opportunity to volunteer, which would address the fact that disproportionate numbers of them have been hit by the recession.
The Scottish Government's answer to that situation is to end funding for ProjectScotland, a body that has a focus on reaching out to young people for whom it is more difficult to access volunteering opportunities and who would benefit disproportionately from them.
There are examples of that in my community and, I am sure, throughout Scotland.
Despite that, the Scottish Government is ending ProjectScotland's funding.
The Government says that it is a matter of cost, but the reality is that 87 per cent of the money from the public purse that is used to support volunteering opportunities through ProjectScotland goes directly into the pockets of the young volunteers and, from those young people, out into the hard-pressed communities in which they live.
We know that 40 per cent of ProjectScotland's volunteers come from the 20 per cent most deprived communities.
At a time of economic recession, it is bizarre for the Scottish Government to make that decision, which shows a lack of understanding of the recession's disproportionate impact on poor communities and individuals.
It is time for the Scottish Government to confront the consequences of its decisions.
Its budget has increased in real terms by £600 million, but it is devolving responsibility to local level, with a reduced budget.
As a consequence, there are cuts in local government budgets.
Local government's capacity to find resources is restricted because of the impact of the council tax freeze.
The Scottish Government must accept that the funding problems that voluntary sector organisations and local volunteers are experiencing are its responsibility.
The Scottish Government should take a lesson from volunteers and the volunteering spirit.
It should take responsibility and recognise that warm words mean nothing without action to make the commitment real.
Having created huge problems for voluntary organisations and volunteering, the minister adds insult to injury by walking by on the other side.
I urge him to reconsider his position on ProjectScotland and to listen to and engage honestly with all those in the voluntary sector who wish to volunteer but who tell us that there are significant problems at local level.
That will give us confidence that volunteers and the voluntary sector can survive and thrive again.
That the Parliament recognises and celebrates the role of the voluntary sector and volunteers across Scotland in supporting individuals, families and communities and in shaping and delivering services locally; notes the excellent work of volunteering organisations in encouraging volunteering through offering training and volunteering placements and particularly in reaching out to those who might not otherwise have the chance to volunteer; agrees, given the opportunity that volunteering provides to develop skills and build confidence, that, in this economic recession, volunteering organisations should be given adequate resources to allow them to do that important work, and further agrees that innovative organisations that create structured volunteering placements for young people, such as ProjectScotland, should be recognised and supported by the Scottish Government.
Johann Lamont: The debate has been interesting, because it has captured three elements of the SNP's approach since it came into government.
First, there has been further evidence of its willingness to ignore the will of Parliament.
Parliament has spoken before on the issue of ProjectScotland, but the SNP has chosen to ignore its voice.
Secondly, we have heard warm words that are a million miles away from delivery or any sense of responsibility for what is happening.
Thirdly, there has been absolute silence from Government back benchers, who are unwilling to suggest that anything that ministers are doing may not be absolutely correct.
I was chided by an SNP back bencher when I mentioned their craven compliance.
She told me that I did not like the fact that SNP members are united.
My problem is that I do not like unity that is at the expense of voluntary organisations and others that need members to speak up for them.
The great test of the maturity of the SNP Government is whether its back benchers are allowed and have the confidence to raise even a squeak about the problems that our local communities face.
Tricia Marwick: Given my record over the past few weeks, when I spoke here opposing the Government on an issue in my constituency, I object strongly to the member's suggestion that I would not criticise ministers. However, I will not criticise them on this occasion, because on this occasion they are right.
Johann Lamont: The member is to be congratulated on having the confidence to oppose the Government once; whether that is followed through in voting is a different matter.
The point has been made, and the member may want to reflect on it.
I have referred to the Government's warm words.
Is the minister seriously saying that there are no concerns in voluntary organisations and among volunteers, and that they do not think that there is a problem?
He said that all the pessimism is here in the chamber, rather than in the outside world.
What does he think the hearse that was brought to the Parliament was about?
Why does he think that Unite, Unison and the SCVO came together to express their concerns?
Why, does he imagine, are people talking about the cuts at local level?
Are they just making it up, as Tricia Marwick seemed to suggest?
I found her comments that the voluntary sector has to be about more than just jobs for those who work in it absolutely insulting to those who have raised issues of concern; she may wish to reflect on that.
In relation to Mr Mather's warm words and the issue of ProjectScotland, I do not think that the whole debate is actually about ProjectScotland. ProjectScotland captures an approach.
I would like somebody in the SNP to explain to me why its members have such a problem with ProjectScotland. They are supporting a motion that welcomes
"organisations that create structured volunteering placements for young people, such as ProjectScotland",
and they agree that such organisations
"should be recognised and supported by the Scottish Government."
Are SNP members seriously saying that support does not involve funding, and that it involves only warm words? If so, they need to reflect on that, too.
We are told that there is a value-for-money test for ProjectScotland.
As we have said, 87 per cent of the moneys will go into the pockets of young people in the poorest of our communities.
Perhaps the minister would have more credibility on the argument around the value-for-money test if he was not promoting a Scottish Futures Trust that is spending £23 million to deliver absolutely nothing.
The minister has spoken about passion. We all have passion about the voluntary sector.
However, passion does not deliver services, and it does not in itself make a difference in our communities.
The interesting thing about people who volunteer—and about the voluntary sector—is that they have passion in partnership with a hard-headed approach.
If volunteers say that they are in dire straits, we should listen to them, rather than dismiss them in the way that has been suggested in the debate.
The Government makes great play of the resilience fund.
Apparently, it is wonderful and it will help the voluntary sector when it is under the cosh.
Actually, that captures a lack of responsibility.
The Scottish Government creates the crisis, cutting funding to local government despite its increased budget; it imposes a council tax freeze; and it uses a single outcome agreement model and the concordat without properly funding it, which is the major problem, rather than the model itself, as is suggested in Robert Brown's amendment. Then, when people say that there is a problem, the Government creates a resilience fund of £1.7 million for one year only—from old, previously announced money—which is a sticking plaster, and then trumpets that as a great success and evidence of its willingness to address the problem.
The minister talks about how the SCVO, COSLA and the Scottish Government have produced a joint statement.
That joint statement, on glossy paper, leaves unspoken some of the key issues that voluntary organisations, voluntary sector representatives and volunteers themselves have been addressing, including the difficult issue of full cost recovery.
The minister started by saying that he wanted to accentuate the positive.
The problem with that approach, which captures the language of a cheesy song from a cheesy musical, is that the minister is entirely distancing himself from the consequence of his Government's actions.
He is creating the impression that being nice about things will make a difference.
As I have said, however, the voluntary sector is a tough place, doing tough things, and it deserves a better approach than that.
The minister talked about ProjectScotland as a niche product.
As that one phrase shows, could there be a bigger gap between our vision, across the Parliament, of what ProjectScotland is and the minister's view of it?
It is a project that has changed lives.
The minister says that the Government wants to focus on people who are really difficult to reach, rather than on people who do not deserve it.
The figures about the reduction in placements across Scotland show that those reductions are coming about in the poorest of our communities, not in better-off communities.
Where ProjectScotland was reaching out to youngsters in deprived communities, it is now less able to do so.
I urge the minister, SNP back benchers and the Scottish Government to treat volunteering and voluntary organisations with respect.
There is a surfeit of warm words wherever we talk about volunteering, but the test must be whether the SNP is willing to recognise that this is not a trumped-up debate by the Opposition but a reflection of serious concerns across Scotland about the way in which Government decisions and actions are hampering organisations' capacity to do what they do best.
When meeting representatives of voluntary sector organisations, I urge the minister to deal with the issue of intimidation and to meet them as genuine partners.
We will judge the capacity and effectiveness of such meetings by whether there is a shift in his and his Government's policy.