Ideas Are Cheap – Volunteers Aren’t…

I’ve previously praised the care minister, Norman Lamb, for saying that we need to look at the care in the home provided by care agencies – but today’s report, that he thinks Neighbourhood Watch should be involved in helping with the care of older people, nearly had me causing a motorway pile-up.

Now I’ll start by saying that Neighbourhood Watch are a great organisation and good at doing what they do. They are strong here in Bexley and are an excellent example of community minded people giving up their time to keep neighbourhoods safe.

So why did others drivers see me shouting at my radio? The simple reason is that this is another example of the thinking that volunteers are a cheap resource and a magic wand for providing services that the government can no longer pay for.

So here are some reasons why this is a poor idea . . .

Mission drift – however this starts out I can guarantee Neighbourhood Watch will start getting calls from hard-pressed social workers and care providers along the lines of, ‘Would you mind popping round to see Mrs Smith?’, and of course Mrs Smith will need a lot more than just a chat. She will need shopping done, meals cooking, forms filling in, bills sorting out, maybe even dressings changed. Which leads on to . . .

Boring but important – insurance, procedures and responsibility. Where does the responsibility lie if a volunteer visits a client and finds them with no electricity, in their night clothes in the middle of the day and clearly disorientated? And if the volunteer leaves them like that and they are discovered dead a few days later or wandering the streets? Anyone dealing with the more vulnerable in society needs to know what they are doing and where the responsibility lies, or else the older person is still in danger and the volunteer is putting themselves and the organisation at risk. Which leads on to . . . .

Looking after your volunteers – piling more responsibility onto volunteers is a sure way to lose them. Managing their expectations, thanking them and giving them the proper support is vital if you want to keep them. And to be effective, this support needs to be done by paid staff.

It’s already happening – this is the main reason why the Big Society has sunk without a trace is because it tried to brand something that has been going on anyway regardless of what governments do (or more likely, in spite of what governments do).

It’s already happening No. 2 – caring and the voluntary sector go hand in hand. There are so many existing organisations who are keeping a look out for vulnerable members of the community already, so does the Minister think we aren’t going the extra mile to alert other organisations when we find someone in need?

It’s already happening No. 3 – voluntary sector organisations are already using volunteers for supporting vulnerable people and we’ve got a lot of experience at it. If the Minister wants to talk about better ways to reach older people and have better impacts on their well-being, then why not talk to the people who are doing it already – local Age UKs and any of the many other excellent local charities who already do this work.

Reading this blog back, it does sound a bit whiny and negative. I don’t have any problem with Neighbourhood Watch exploring this with government and if they want to move into social care and they are using this as a foot in the door then I wish them all the best.

But the tone of this story is still about cutting care budgets – basically using volunteers to replace proper properly funded support for older people. Volunteers are a fantastic way of helping older people but whilst they cost less per person than paid staff, they aren’t free – or even cheap. To get good results from volunteers they need looking after so, Mr Lamb, why don’t you challenge us? Don’t try and get savings by assuming volunteers are free – pay voluntary organisations to support volunteers properly and we’ll reduce care bills by keeping older people away from statutory services for as long as possible.

Paul Goulden

Paul has been our Chief Executive since November 2016.

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