§ Order for Second Reading read.9.33 am
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am grateful for this opportunity to introduce my Bill to promote and defend volunteering and, especially, those forms of volunteering that bring sport and adventure training to our communities. I must thank all the organisations that have helped to prepare the Bill. In particular, I thank the Central Council of Physical Recreation, which represents most of the country's national sporting organisations; Skills Active, the sector skills council for active leisure and learning; and the Campaign for Adventure, which under the patronage of the Duke of Edinburgh brings together all the major outward bound organisations, such as the Youth Hostels Association, the YMCA, the girl guides and so on. I must also thank two lawyers—Michael Harbottle and Roy Amlot QC—as well as Mr. Harrison of the Clerks Department for their help in preparing the Bill.
I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who I am pleased to see in her place, and to the Secretaries of State for Education and Skills and for Culture, Media and Sport for giving up their time to see delegations. I am particularly grateful to the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), who I am delighted to see in her place, and to a number of colleagues on both sides of the House who have come to support the Bill.
Ten million people volunteer each week, and a staggering 22 million each year. By far the largest single category of volunteers—more than a quarter of the total according to a survey quoted by the Library—are in the sport and adventure training areas. Sport England has estimated that the value of volunteering to sport is an unbelievable £14 billion a year in equivalent wages. Some volunteer through sporting clubs or other voluntary bodies, some through schools and some through the voluntary arms of businesses. But of the 26 countries in the developed world, Britain is the third worst for obesity. A quarter of our population are now seriously overweight. Worst of all, a third of British 1150 youngsters between the ages of two and 15 are overweight and one in six is clinically obese. What has gone wrong?
The media have recently carried many stories of schools abandoning school trips because of the fear of litigation. I saw a couple of days ago that one school has even abandoned its pancake race.
§ Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon) (LD)
I am a strong supporter of the Bill and I shall make that clear if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that that particular case occurred in my constituency. Steps were taken to remedy the problem, and although it took an enormous amount of trouble, it was eventually overcome.
§ Mr. Brazier
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am glad to hear that the problems were overcome, and I am also pleased that he is one of the co-sponsors of the Bill.
One of the teaching unions, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, recently advised its members not to take children on school trips at all. It said:In an increasingly litigious society which no longer appears to accept the concept of a genuine accident, our first responsibility must be to protect our members' interests.I do not think that that should be its first responsibility. The fact that a teaching union should argue that teachers should not take their children on trips should seriously worry us.
In December, Sport England issued a joint press release with the Central Council of Physical Recreation pointing to the threats to volunteering in sport. It said:Sport will die without volunteers and the clubs in which they work…the research revealed that sports volunteers are coming under increasing pressure. Threats to people taking up volunteering … include"—these are the first two items—Risk, fear and blame and the threat of litigation … Increasing bureaucracy
§ Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)
Although I strongly support the principle of increasing volunteering that is behind the Bill, I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the concerns about bureaucracy and risk that he has given as the primary concerns of the volunteering movement do not appear to be borne out by the studies that have been carried out. Is he missing the point with this Bill?
§ Mr. Brazier
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I am quoting Sport England, which is a Government quango, and the Central Council of Physical Recreation, which is the body that brings together all the major sporting organisations from the Football Association to the Rugby Football Union—270 in all, I believe. I have referred to the joint survey that they have carried out of those involved in the largest single category of volunteering—sport and adventure training. I fully accept that many other worthwhile forms of volunteering—I am wearing a Marie Curie Foundation emblem in my buttonhole-may have different concerns. However, I have mentioned the two main concerns in this crucial sector.
§ Mr. Love
I hope to go into this issue in slightly more detail later this morning, but I refer the hon. Gentleman 1151 to the study carried out by the national survey of volunteering in 1997 and to a second survey on volunteering management. They are the two most comprehensive studies that have been undertaken and neither of them highlights the issues that he has outlined as of primary concern to the volunteering movement.
§ Mr. Brazier
I understand that point and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but all the legal cases to which I shall refer occurred after 1997. The study to which I am referring took place only three months ago.
§ Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con)
I am fascinated by my hon. Friend's speech, but surely everything in our constituencies goes against the conclusions of the report that he cites.
§ Mr. Brazier
I entirely sympathise with my hon. Friend, and I am grateful to him for co-sponsoring the Bill, but I think I will develop my case. Priorities have changed a lot since 1997, and although the Bill is a specific attempt to address the concerns of those in the sport and adventure training volunteering sector, several other groups that I shall talk about also support it.
I am a strong supporter of safety. Having been responsible for a fatal accident on the roads, albeit in a totally different context, I know only too well what the horrible consequences of that for an individual and his family can be. None the less, we do not make the world a safer place with the kind of civil litigation that is undermining sport and adventure training for young people and increasingly targeting volunteers. We have some of the safest sport and adventure training in the world. I know parachuting quite well, and I am constantly struck by how much safer our parachuting is than that in north America and continental Europe.
Perversely, by allowing the persecution of volunteers through litigation, we are making life far more dangerous. For every sporting tragedy, there are now dozens—perhaps hundreds—of health tragedies as young people face illnesses and disfigurements that used to be mostly of only old age. They range from obesity to heart disease, and sometimes lead to people losing their lives.
The problem goes well beyond immediate physical health. Sport and adventure training are vital for producing leadership, developing the understanding of risk taking and training people in the ability to cope with the dangerous and unexpected, which can occur in many contexts in life. A failure by society to provide young people with healthy, structured and safe outlets for their energies and enthusiasms will only lead, in many cases, to their finding their own outlets. At best, those will be a lot less safe, and at worst they will end in criminal activity.
I have seen the work of organisations such as the Army Cadet Force in the east end of London, and I took youngsters from deprived areas in the north of England on Operation Raleigh—Colonel John Blashford-Snell's scheme. With both, I was impressed beyond belief by the character building opportunities. Sport and adventure 1152 training develops the best in kids on the margins of society—especially, but not exclusively, those children—and saves some from terrible fates. I am extremely impressed by the work of youth clubs in my constituency. Indeed, Whitstable yacht and rugby clubs have done a great deal for my sons.
At a conference three years ago, Prince Philip commented:Modern society is being over-protective. We should not be excluded from adventure and risk-taking by a nanny state. There is more danger in not exposing people to risks than exposing them. The downside for society is far greater if it's totally safe than if it has risk.The growing population of unhealthy overweight British children and the army of disillusioned antisocial youngsters on our streets are testimony to his words.
In the recent excellent report produced by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) —I am delighted to see him in the Chamber—he comments:Play cannot be made risk free. Learning to judge risk is one of the benefits children get from play…The blame culture, increasing litigation and consequence rises in the cost of insuring playgrounds is making life more expensive and difficult for councils and voluntary organisations alike…Parliament may need to give special statutory protection to play organisations"—that is what we are trying to achieve today.
My youngest son fractured his wrist while climbing off a climbing frame in his school playground last year. Although I had to reprove him for being caught on the same frame, plaster cast and all, only hours after leaving hospital—little sod—I admired his spirit and certainly do not want to sue anyone. [Interruption.] I am sorry if I used an unparliamentary expression, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I agree entirely with the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. We have to accept that volunteers who give up long hours of their time and take on the burden of responsibility must enjoy a degree of protection from persecution through civil litigation in the courts when things go wrong.
Let me give some examples. Six years ago, a 17-year-old boy on a school trip had to be twice reproved for dangerously skiing off-piste by the teachers from Woodbridge school who were giving up their time to escort him. He finally had a serious accident and broke his back. His parents sued the school and won the case in the lower courts, on the grounds that the young man should have been thrown off the slopes for behaving foolishly, even through the accident occurred while he was skiing on-piste. It took five years before the Court of Appeal finally overturned the judgment last year. One can only imagine what the teachers who gave their time to organise the trip must have gone through: they saw the horrible accident, had to cope with it and, finally, went through five years of litigious hell.
One case has been highlighted by Roy Amlot QC, an adviser to Campaign for Adventure, as especially threatening to adventure training, although it is the only case that I shall mention today that did not involve a volunteer. A judge found negligence against a mountaineering instructor, despite accepting the facts of the case, on the grounds that he, the judge, disagreed with the mountaineering instructor's judgment of the best way to handle a landslip.
1153 Let me now turn to the world of rugby. Two recent cases that were both brought against individual volunteer referees have gone all way to the Court of Appeal and both have been upheld. The first case, Smoldon v. Whitworth, caused a terrific shudder to go through the rugby world as it was the first time that a negligence claim had been upheld after a tragic accident. Lack of time prevents me from going into the detail of the case, but aggravating circumstances were involved beyond a simple breach of the rules by the referee, including the fact that the captain of the team on which the young man who was seriously and permanently crippled had played complained to the referee about his failure to uphold the new rule on scrums before the accident took place. The Court of Appeal carefully phrased its judgment in such a confined fashion as to make it clear that it was deliberately heading off opening the floodgates for further actions that would undermine the game.
The second case, Vowles v. Evans and another, was heard by the Court of Appeal last year. Far from being an extreme case, it simply turned on whether the referee was right to allow someone inexperienced to act as a substitute. The case lowered the bar. As the QC for the defence argued persuasively, frankly it opens the door to any number of cases against referees who make honest mistakes that lead to serious consequences. There will be serious injuries in a rough game from time to time.
§ Mr. Burnett
I had a look at the synopsis of the Vowles v. Evans and another case and I was absolutely amazed by the Court of Appeal's judgment. Having said that, I have not heard the evidence or read the case in enormous detail. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether the case is due to go to the House of Lords or whether it is out of time for a further appeal?
§ Mr. Brazier
I am embarrassed to say that I do not know the answer. I understand that that will not happen, but the Minister might have further information.
Serious injuries that might change people's lives will occasionally occur in rough games and adventure training. We accept that in other areas, and accept that such cases will arise occasionally even with a safety practice that is among the best in the world. However, if people who get cold, wet and tired—such as the participants in sport and adventure training—are to be punished for reasonable mistakes because they are followed by tragic results, volunteering will dry up. It is no wonder that the survey that I cited earlier found that that is the primary concern among those who volunteer in sport.
§ Mr. Brazier
I have given way twice. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but want to make a little progress, if I may.
One of the effects of the rugby judgments is that a growing number of schools have stopped playing rugby. A recent conversation with a headmaster who had just taken that decision and whose school no longer offers rugby was one of the things that led me to introduce the Bill.
1154 I asked Slade Perkins, the insurance brokers and advisers to the Central Council of Physical Recreation, the head of the voluntary sports movement, for a few examples of ongoing cases. Both client confidentiality and the Data Protection Act 1998 prevent me from giving chapter and verse on them, but I can summarise some of the cases on its list. A football referee in Hertfordshire is being sued because last year he tripped on a small hole in the local park's pitch. A member of a walking group took part in a trip to Wales with about 15 friends. One of them was injured and is suing the person on the grounds that he was the de facto group leader simply because he was the most qualified person there. A martial arts instructor in Bedfordshire is being sued by the parents of 10-year-old boy who injured himself performing a simple move that he had successfully completed many times before. A student—this is a commercial case, but it is still relevant—was banned from his gym as a result of a disciplinary issue. A year later, it refused to re-admit him because he had caused enough trouble. Two years after that, the instructor received a solicitor's letter, claiming that the student had been seriously injured in a training incident many years before and that he was holding the instructor responsible.
Most of those cases will never get to the courts and, as such, we will never know about them because insurance companies, especially since that last rugby case, are desperate to settle out of court. Slade Perkins tells me that out-of-court settlements are happening up and down the country all the time. The best measure of the growth of litigation is the insurance premiums for activities from rugby to rowing and sailing. The British Gliding Association's premiums have risen by 150 per cent. in five years. The National Caving Association told me in an e-mail that it had to abandon all activity for months because it could not get any insurance. Finally, after hundreds of hours, as the association put it, it found someone who would insure it for a 70 per cent. increase in its premium. The problem affects small clubs as well as large high-profile ones. A roller-skating club in Kent has seen its premiums for insuring the volunteers who look after its children rise from £400 to more than £1,200. It is in a deprived area and the parents will, of course, have to pay.
Worst of all, voluntary organisations are losing volunteers. The Girl Guides has a waiting list of 50,000 girls who would like to join but cannot because of the shortage of instructors. Its association has been a strong supporter of the Bill since its inception. That is why it aims to reduce the risks of litigation and the burden of legislation on those who we need more than ever, who give their time to volunteer.
Volunteering is a crucial part of our national way of life. If people choose to give their time to help their communities, we owe it to them to minimise the risks of litigation and red tape associated with their work. Yet whenever I talk to volunteers, from those working for sports clubs through to teachers organising extracurricular activities, to farmers who are still willing to allow farm visits—many no longer will—or youngsters to camp on their land, they tell me of their fear of litigation and their frustration with mounting red tape.
The Bill's central feature is clause 2, which establishes a statement of inherent risk to help to protect volunteers and organisations from unreasonable litigation if 1155 sensible safety standards have been adhered to. Those organising adventure training or sport would be able to give participants or their parents a certificate to sign which sets out the principal risks involved. If an accident occurs, the court would be bound to take account both of the general premise that accidents can occur without contributory negligence—in other words, that honest mistakes do not amount to negligence—and of the specific fact that the participant or parent had signed the form. It is not a waiver; that would not be allowed under European law and, anyway, would not be acceptable to the House. The certificate would raise the bar to a higher threshold of proof in a negligence claim than the current balance of probabilities as understood by an increasingly litigation-driven legal system. It would not apply in cases of criminal liability, which already requires proof beyond reasonable doubt, so it would not affect the work of the Health and Safety Executive, which also recently came under the microscope.
The clause also establishes the idea of short courses for the judiciary to be trained in the Bill's implications so that they better comprehend the inherent dangers associated with adventure training and sport. Those should not cost the public purse much, as the sector would be delighted to arrange them, but the Bill does ask that the Chancellor reports on the number of judges who attend such courses.
With regard to bureaucracy, the Bill would protect national organisations such as the Rugby Football Union, which provides compulsory insurance for its members, from the plans of the Financial Services Authority shortly to impose a raft of expensive and burdensome regulation on it. It would also lighten the application of the Data Protection Act 1998. As a result of a mistake on a website, a string of sporting organisations recently submitted to the Inland Revenue incorrect applications for charitable status. When the CCPR asked for a list of the organisations that had sent in the wrong applications and had been rejected so that it could send them the correct forms that would be accepted next time round, the Inland Revenue refused on the grounds of the Data Protection Act. I am sure that that was not a commercial judgment by the Inland Revenue, but it is that sort of nonsense that we want to stop.
The last clause would introduce an American-style "Good Samaritan" clause to protect members of the public who assist those who are injured or suffering from later being sued for accidental injury or damage to property. I am grateful for the support of St. John Ambulance for the Bill. It specifically wrote to me saying that it supports it because of the inclusion of that clause, although it has some concerns about the way in which it is worded.
I want to deal with two criticisms of the Bill that I have received among a torrent of otherwise supportive messages, before giving way once more to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love). The first criticism is that there is no mention of criminal record checks, which are high on most voluntary organisations' lists of problems. In fact, they are the largest element of the second item on the bureaucracy mentioned in the Sport 1156 England survey. Frankly, the checks are too complicated and contentious for private Members' legislation.
The second criticism relates to sensible complaints, including some from the Government, about the detailed drafting. Inevitably, a private Member's Bill is put together with the help that is available. The lawyers who helped me on it and the Clerks have worked extremely hard. The most cogent criticism relates to clause 2(2), which I am sure the Minister will mention, and it will certainly be necessary to clarify what is meant by sharing responsibility for safety. That idea is very important to the supporting consortium organisations. It covers issues such as the obligation of the participant's parents to tell the child that he or she must do as instructors tell them. In an activity such as hill walking, it also places a duty on every member of the team to look out for signs of exposure and not just leave it to the leader. That is an important principle for life, not just for sport and adventure training. However, I fully accept that if the House chooses to give the Bill a Second Reading, the detail will have to be sharpened up and clarified.
Let me make it absolutely clear that the wording is not carved in stone. If the House gives the Bill a Second Reading, I will be delighted to negotiate with the Government, parliamentary colleagues and any concerned outside bodies, to improve any aspect of it. The only point that is not negotiable is the underlying principle behind the certificate of inherent risk, which is the heart of the Bill.
Before I conclude my remarks, I give way again to the hon. Member for Edmonton.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
The hon. Gentleman should not tout for business in that way. He was doing fine.
§ Mr. Brazier
I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman tried to intervene earlier.
I thank all the organisations that sent messages of support besides the many that I have already listed. They include Business in the Community, the National Council for School Sport, the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services, the Youth Hostels Association, the Royal Yachting Association, the Air Cadet movement and some farming organisations. The words of Stephen Paddock of Youth sport struck home. He said:As a sports training project officer for volunteers across London, Middlesex and Surrey we have been acutely aware of the growing trend towards litigation resulting from the risk inherent in sporting activities against volunteers and the potentially negative impact this trend will cause for long-term sustainability of people volunteering across all areas of sport and physical recreation in the UK… we have trained 2,000 plus volunteers in numerous sports to achieve national governing body awards, which have then been used to offer safe and informed sport provision in youth clubs to approximately 90,000 young people. Thus if we consider even a decrease in volunteering of one per cent related to the threat of litigation this could mean 900 young people not being offered the opportunity to participate in sport in London alone.That is just one regional sporting consortium. The testimony that I have from all quarters is that the impact is already far more than 1 per cent.
1157 There is an element of risk in all things, but it is that risk that makes things worth doing. It provides a vital sense of achievement, self-belief and self-worth to the participant. If we wish to roll back the tide of obesity and the wider problems of isolation and loneliness in our communities, we need more activities and adventure for people, and not only for young people. For this we need volunteers. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 10.1 am
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab)
I welcome the Bill, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). I thank him for his favourable reference to the work I was doing for the Government.
It is not only what might be described as adventurous activities that are being inhibited by the growth of the blame culture. There are problems for those who run playgrounds that have the traditional slide, roundabout or swings. Indeed, roundabouts have just about disappeared already.
I was asked to conduct a review of the country's play facilities with a view to advising the New Opportunities Fund on its priorities for investing the £200 million that the Government promised to improve play facilities. Consultation took place in every part of the country, and the devolved Administrations conducted reviews in Wales and Scotland. The Northern Ireland Office carried out its own review. During every visit, we listened to people who, day in and day out, try to provide play facilities for children. It became clear that the growth of the blame culture was making life extremely difficult for them.
The blame culture is an American import—one of many that are not very welcome. Many American imports are good ideas, but the blame culture is not one of them. We seem to have inherited a tribe of ambulance-chasing lawyers, mimicking people who have made fortunes in the United States. As a result, those who work for local authorities or voluntary organisations are increasingly concerned about the threat of litigation and the consequent rise in the cost of insuring their playground.
There is increasing focus on trying to eliminate the possibility of even the most minor accidents and to make things safer and safer. Play facilities and play equipment that offer no physical or mental challenge to children contribute little to their physical and mental development, but that is what is happening. The worst crime in the eyes of children is to be confronted with something that is boring, but play equipment is becoming increasingly boring. If children become bored with it, they will not put up with being bored. Instead, they will seek excitement elsewhere.
Few children are injured in a playground, hardly any have been attacked by a child molester in a playground and none has been run over by a car in a playground. However, if they leave the playground because it is boring, and they seek their excitement on the roads, on dodgy bits of land or, if they are in an area where two or three factories have closed down, they go into abandoned premises, which are exciting, they will put themselves in danger, and it will be the litigation culture that puts them in danger.
1158 That will certainly happen when things become boring—and even more certainly will it happen if a playground is closed or if the remaining pieces of equipment are chained through fear of litigation. As the hon. Member for Canterbury said, play cannot be made risk free. Learning to judge risks and balance risks, and try it on a bit, are parts of the learning process and of the value of play.
I grew up in the country, where one of the risky things was climbing trees. As I am a coward, I used to climb up only two or three branches, whereas some of my mates used to climb another 10 or 12 branches. When one of them fell and dislocated his shoulder it was a good laugh really, except for him. That is part of growing up and we must accept it. Since the beginning of humanity children have survived bumps and scrapes. Children have not changed; society has changed, and in this respect it is changing for the worse. It is hindering children's play and making life more difficult and more expensive for public and voluntary organisations that are trying to provide for them.
It is my strongly held view that Parliament needs to give special protection to play organisations and to help them with their insurance problems. I speak from some direct experience, because when one of my sons, who is now in his 30s, was about four years old he climbed up a slide rather than up the steps. He fell off the top, hit the asphalt at the bottom and fractured his skull. It did not seem to do him much harm, even at the time. I remember going to see him in the children's part of the hospital, where there was a huge rocking horse. Within about 12 hours of the incident he, with bandages round his head, was rocking backwards and forwards on this giant rocking horse.
We did not think of suing the people who provided the slide. We thought that it was rather stupid of our son, even at the age of four, to do what he did. Parents must recognise that they have some responsibility for the way in which they bring up their children. One of my greatest prides and joys is that for about the past 20 years I have chaired the independent charity that runs the Coram's Fields children's playground in my constituency. On a hot summer holiday day, more than 1,500 children use the playground. There has been a massive increase in our insurance premiums recently, although to the best of my knowledge we have not made any claims. Over a long period some of the more traditional equipment has gradually been abandoned, withdrawn and replaced because outside people told us that it was inherently dangerous, and the insurers were becoming increasingly bothered about it. Some of the equipment looks spectacularly dangerous to the outsider, but according to our records few children have been injured on it; nevertheless, it has gradually been removed.
The Bill attempts to address at least part of the problem that I have described. It may have certain shortcomings, but, as the hon. Member for Canterbury says, that is in the nature of private Members' Bills. I hope that the Government support it and do not just offer every assistance short of actual help. If they cannot accept it, the problem will not go away and will continue to build up. Everyone expresses concern about children's health and the growth of obesity—looking at my shape, I always feel slightly inhibited when I discuss obesity in others—but the growth of the blame culture, 1159 litigation and insurance costs is plain contrary to the public interest, public health and the health of our children.
On safety, there have been many surveys of what children want. Children always say that they want a safe place to play. However, when they are asked to identify the things that they want to be safe from, they mention traffic, bullying and drug pushers. None of them says, "I am frightened of having an accident on a bit of play equipment." Children are not frightened of play equipment; the fear starts in adult society. Whatever the Government's attitude may be to the technical advantages or shortcomings of the Bill, the problem inhibits many decent people in both the public and voluntary sectors from making the best provision for children's play. We have a duty in this place to do something about it, because only we can change the law, and the law clearly needs to be changed.
§ Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon) (LD)
At this stage, I must declare that I am a lawyer—an admission that is not guaranteed to win friends and influence people. In mitigation, I point out that I specialise in tax and commercial matters and do not practise at the moment.
I am delighted to welcome the Bill and to be one of its sponsors: anything that reduces the threat of frivolous and vexatious litigation is welcome. I want to pay tribute to the millions of people up and down the country who give of that most valuable commodity, their time, by volunteering. It is crucial that we encourage volunteering in our constituencies, and as Members of Parliament we are hugely indebted to the thousands of constituents who volunteer each week to support their communities and local organisations.
Unfortunately, over recent years volunteers have faced serious problems, particularly the threat of litigation. The right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) both touched on bureaucracy, which is a problem, but the threat of litigation is the real issue. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Canterbury says that although he welcomes the opportunity to negotiate over the Bill, the certificate of inherent risk is not for negotiation, and he is absolutely right to make that point.
Litigation makes it more and more difficult for volunteers to offer training and challenges, especially to young people who themselves volunteer for adventurous and challenging pursuits. Trainers and educators should achieve high standards and qualifications, but, as has been said frequently today, risk cannot be eliminated. If one does not allow the young in particular to take risks and rise to challenges through socially acceptable activities such as adventure training, many will soon turn to socially unacceptable activities.
A number of recent court cases have highlighted the unreasonable extent of the litigation to which volunteers may be exposed, and at the same time voluntary organisations complain about red tape, which raises costs and imposes time burdens on their organisations. 1160 The hon. Member for Canterbury says that most, if not all, of the cases that he has come across occurred post-1997. That point is not political, but it is worth making, and I shall advert to it later in my speech.
§ Mr. Brazier
The point is certainly not political. I mentioned 1997 because the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) quoted a survey from 1997 that stated that litigation was not a problem. All the cases to which I referred arose, or at least became prominent, after the date of that survey, so the situation has changed completely.
§ Mr. Burnett
Absolutely right—that is why I said that it is not a political point: it relates to the survey.
I played a part in the passage through this House of the Access to Justice Act 1999, which greatly extended the ability of lawyers to make conditional fee arrangements with clients—no win, no fee; big win, big fee. The school trip case has been cited in detail. It involved a boy who was reproved by his teachers, who had given their time to escort him. The boy won the case in the first instance, and it took about five years for the Court of Appeal to reverse that judgment.
I have been greatly concerned by the case of Vowles v. Evans and Another—the rugby case —which was cited in the Court of Appeal in 2003. Have the Minister's officials found out whether it is under appeal in the House of Lords, because it is extraordinary? I hasten to add that I have not read the transcript of the case, heard the evidence or seen the affidavits. I have read a synopsis of the case, which is kindly provided by the Library in its excellent publication on the Promotion of Volunteering Bill.
The relevant rule that the referee was supposed to comply with required him to satisfy himself that the replacement player was suitably trained and experienced to play safely in the front row. In leaving the decision to the captain of the team when the game had been stopped and there was time for reflection, the referee apparently abdicated his responsibility to decide whether it was necessary to insist on that rule being complied with by delegating the decision to the captain. I would have thought that there was not much more that the referee could do in those circumstances, and there is also an onus on the player to make sure that he is a suitable and fit person to play rugby football.
I do not know the case, but I sincerely hope that there will be an opportunity for the Bill's sponsors to discuss it, perhaps with counsel for the claimant and counsel for the defendant. On the face of it, the case seems staggeringly perverse, and it is clear why the number of schools prepared to play rugby football and the number of people prepared to be referees has reduced.
The no win, no fee arrangement was greatly extended in the Access to Justice Act. Conditional fees give lawyers a large financial stake in the outcome of a case, which, for most of us, is a glaring conflict of interest. The Act greatly extended the conditional fee agreement. After its enactment there was a considerable upsurge in personal injury litigation, and as time has passed insurance premiums for defendants costs have increased substantially. Insurance companies faced with a statement of inherent risk will be more reluctant to cover a plaintiff seeking insurance cover for defendants' 1161 costs, so the statement will have a benign effect. It will not overcome the danger of litigation, but at least insurance companies will think again.
The Bill has the support of the Central Council of Physical Recreation, which co-ordinates all sporting organisations, from the Football Association to the Rugby Football Union. It also has the support of the Campaign for Adventure—the umbrella group for training organisations—the Youth Hostels Association, the YMCA and, as has been said, the Girl Guides. I hope that the House will support the Bill and give it a Second Reading.
The establishment of a statement of inherent risk will go some way towards protecting volunteers and organisations from unreasonable litigation when proper and sensible safety standards have been adhered to. The Bill seeks to reduce the cost of insurance through a pooling system, transfers certain civil liabilities from Government and local government volunteers to Government and local government bodies themselves, and seeks to remove charges incurred by volunteers when registering with the Criminal Records Bureau. Countless young people yearn for adventure and challenge. They and the volunteers who help them must not be frustrated and thwarted by unnecessary, frivolous and vexatious litigation and red tape.
§ Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to you, the House and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), because I may have to leave before we conclude our discussions on Second Reading as I have an important engagement in my constituency. I also declare an interest, as I enjoy membership of various voluntary groups including active membership of my local golf club, which is rather unusual for Labour Members. My most important membership is of the co-operative movement—indeed, I am a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament. The co-operative movement was the first formal voluntary endeavour in this country in 1844, and at its height it had 8 million to 9 million members, who were actively involved, not just by shopping at the Coop but by taking part in meetings, being active in decision-making structures and running, owning and controlling the organisation itself. I therefore have an interest in the subject of volunteering and, as I said in an intervention, I strongly support the principle behind the Bill and the need to ensure that volunteers have a framework in which they can operate and feel that their work is valued by society. I also hope that more people will take up volunteering.
I shall comment on three issues about which there are concerns. Those concerns were acknowledged by the hon. Member for Canterbury, but I should like to set them out for the benefit of the House. First, are the threats to volunteering mentioned in the hon. Gentleman's speech and in various recent communications genuine threats? A cause célèbre in the Labour party is "Bowling Alone", a book published a couple of years ago by Professor Robert Putnam of Harvard university, who discussed in great detail the decline in social capital in the United States, and demonstrated that many societal pressures are leading to that decline. That could also be interpreted as a decline in voluntarism in society, and there are deep- 1162 seated reasons why volunteering is suffering. I am not sure that the proposals in the Bill truly address the need to create a suitable climate for volunteering.
Secondly, I want to touch on the terms of the Bill and its shortcomings, some of which were acknowledged by the hon. Member for Canterbury. Thirdly, I want to look at exemptions in relation to litigation, the statement of inherent risk, insurance, advice and data protection, all of which are included in the Bill. Are those exemptions balanced and reasonable in the circumstances, or are there other ways in which we can achieve the Bill's aims?
The promotion of volunteering, as I said, is something that I strongly support in principle, and it is critical to the British way of life, if such a thing can he defined. The number of people who take part in volunteering activities has already been mentioned. Latest estimates show that there are more than 150,000 amateur and voluntary sports clubs throughout the country, many of which have been in existence for 30, 50 or 100 years. There are 10 million regular participants in voluntary activity, and it is estimated that 6.5 per of the population is involved. We should therefore not underestimate the importance of voluntary activity to the British way of life.
As I said in my intervention, it has been suggested that the Bill poses a threat to volunteering. I do not wish to suggest that such a threat does not exist, but it may be more useful to consider whether the Bill is slightly wide of the mark in addressing the problems facing volunteering. Concerns have been expressed about rules, regulations and increased bureaucracy for voluntary organisations. We all accept that voluntary organisations depend on people giving their time and effort. The more hurdles there are such as form filling and other bureaucracy, the more difficult it is for people to engage in the activity itself. There is a fear of blame, and a so-called blame culture has developed. I do not deny that such a culture exists, but I should like to consider the implications for the voluntary movement by looking at the two most comprehensive surveys of voluntary activity, including the national survey of volunteering in 1997, which gave various reasons why people stopped volunteering. Fifty per cent. of respondents said that they no longer had time for voluntary activity, 24 per cent. claimed that their efforts were not always appreciated, and 9 per cent. felt that their help was not really wanted. Neither of the two concerns highlighted by the Bill is mentioned in that study.
The Institute for Volunteering Research programme on voluntary management—the people who manage the voluntary bodies concerned—raises three major policy issues. One has already been touched on—the checks on criminal records and vetting procedures, which the institute found it onerous to carry out, but the Bill does not suggest, and I certainly would not suggest, that we do away with any of those procedures. Interestingly, it was suggested that the new deal was having an impact because it was bringing people into employment, which reduced the time that they could devote to voluntary activity. I know that the Opposition parties would like to do away with the new deal, but I do not think they are suggesting that change in an attempt to increase the level of voluntary activity.
1163 The third issue raised by the report was funding. We all recognise that funding is a problem. I was pleased to hear the Chancellor's recent announcement about amateur clubs, and I hope that the changes in funding arrangements will begin to address the problem.
Research studies show that the issues with which the Bill deals have had an impact. Sport England leisure industry research highlighted risk aversion, not as the main challenge to the voluntary movement, but as one of the challenges facing it. Similarly, the Central Council of Physical Recreation suggested that volunteers were under pressure because of fear of the blame culture and the possibility of litigation. Again, that was mentioned as only one of the pressures on volunteers. Although I accept that the Bill's concerns do represent pressures on the voluntary movement, it would be wrong to think that they have a major impact on volunteering.
§ Mr. Brazier
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving way, and I agree with many of the points that he has just made. Private Members' Bills, of course, cannot address issues such as funding. Perhaps he will acknowledge two points. First, in both the surveys that he mentioned, from Sport England and CCPR, the threat of litigation and the blame culture were listed first among the various factors. Secondly, the context has changed because of events in the past two or three years, particularly the Vowles case, which staggered the whole sporting world, especially rugby.
§ Mr. Love
On the hon. Gentleman's first point, yes, those factors were listed first, but other reasons were outlined in the reports, and it was suggested that they were more important. On the second point, I accept entirely the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman. When I suggest that those are not the main difficulties faced by the voluntary movement, I am not suggesting that the Bill does not have merit. As the hon. Gentleman observed, as a private Member's Bill, it is a relatively modest measure, which I should like to combine with other suggestions to create a whole. Although I argue that those are not the major concerns, I would not wish to give the impression that they are not relevant.
Concern about increasing obesity has become a real political issue in recent years, for obvious reasons. Obesity in society generally has increased, but it has increased alarmingly among children. Over the past 10 years, in the youngest age group—children aged two to four years—the number who are clinically obese has almost doubled from 5 per cent. to 9 per cent. In the older age group—six to 15—the percentage has more than trebled, from 5 per cent. to 16 per cent.
Obesity relates to two sets of factors, the first of which is nutritional issues, such as whether McDonald's and other fast food outlets are responsible for some difficulties; we have discussed the content of the soft drinks to which children are so partial.
The second issue is physical activity. That is already relatively well developed for children, and changes that will increase physical activity are taking place in our school environment and in the general environment for children. The question is not whether volunteering will have an impact on the level of children's physical 1164 activity—of course it will, if they take up football, rugby or any other voluntary sports activities. The question is whether such sports are an essential part of children's physical activity.
The Bill strikes home and raises a problem of genuine concern in relation to the numerous tragedies that have occurred on children's trips in various parts of Britain and abroad. I cite just two instances: the canoeing trip in 1993 on which four children died in the west country, and the 11-year-old who drowned in France in 2001. Those cases aroused widespread public concern about whether the voluntary activity was responsible, and how such tragedies can be prevented in future. The Bill suggests that providing greater protection from litigation in certain circumstances would make a considerable difference. However, the Government have already taken action in that regard.
Government guidance relating specifically to school trips, which is where the major problem lies, was revised following a number of fatal accidents on such trips, and was issued in 1998 as advice on health and safety of pupils on educational visits. Further guidance on health and safety responsibility and powers was sent to all schools and local education authorities in December 2001. There are three supplementary good practice guides and a leaflet entitled "Group Safety at Water Margins", which is also available on the website. The Department for Education and Skills, local education authorities and others have been involved in ensuring that proper safeguards are in place on school trips.
However, that does not negate the anxieties. Many teachers have withdrawn from such activity because of those concerns, and many parents have withdrawn their children from voluntary activity. As has been mentioned, one of the teachers' trade unions recommends that its members do not involve themselves in such activity. If nothing else, I hope the Bill will highlight the need for further action.
That union mentioned the compensation culture, and others have spoken about that today. Although I accept that concerns exist, I should like to examine more closely whether such a culture exists in the terms described in the debate. We all know that class actions are undertaken, that solicitors and legal practices are allowed to advertise, and that no-win, no-fee work has been introduced. The real change that has taken place, however, is in attitudes. People now believe that they have a right to claim. As a result, costs have increased. The Institute of Actuaries has indicated that the costs of litigation will increase by about 15 per cent. this year, and they will continue to rise significantly in future years. However, the question is whether the fact that people now have a right to claim is necessarily not a good thing.
§ Mr. Burnett
I hope that the hon. Gentleman has not forgotten that a number of either completely unregulated or little-regulated personal injury claims companies are constantly touting for business and trying to win the sponsorship of as many claimants as possible.
§ Mr. Love
I shall come to that point. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says and I would be sympathetic to seeing the House bring such activity under proper scrutiny and regulation.
1165 The Law Society has already suggested that there has been no change in the law relating to frivolous claims. The question whether there has been a change in the law in terms of the decisions taken by courts is a different matter, but there has certainly been no easing of the law in terms of the ability of a frivolous claim to succeed in court. The Law Society also says that the number of claims has gone down. As has already been indicated, after the bubble that was created when the no-win, no-fee approach was established, the number of solicitors practising in personal injury has fallen. Indeed, the Law Society confidently states that the number of claims being made has not increased.
In line with the comments of the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), the Law Society also says that there is concern about unregulated claims advisers who cold call customers and put them under considerable pressure to take up their offers. I think that that issue needs to be carefully considered.
§ Mr. Burnett
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not lose sight of the fact that this is not only a matter of the claims that are pursued. As the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said, some claims are settled without proceedings, which cost an enormous amount.
§ Mr. Love
I accept that that occurs, and I think that it creates a climate among the public. I accept the criticisms, but the only point that I was trying to make is that, in the balance of things, there are positive aspects in terms of giving people the right to make a claim. I do not think that that is an entirely negative phenomenon in today's society. We must all admit that, in the past, people who were justified in going to law did not do so simply because they thought that the right was not available to them. It must be a good thing if people believe that that right should exist, and it should be enshrined in the law to give them recompense where something has happened that should not have happened.
I should like now to look at the terms of the Bill and one or two of its possible shortcomings. A number of hon. Members have referred to the statements of inherent risks, which I think are an important consideration. Such statements will be in written form and will set out the risks involved in whatever form of activity they relate to, and they will talk about injury, harm and risks to property. I am glad that the hon. Member for Canterbury has cleared up the fact that the statement must be a written one. As I understand it—I am taking this at second hand—the Bill currently contains no provision to ensure that it is a written statement, but I think that we all accept that such a provision will be introduced in Committee.
I am a little less clear about the intention of the statement. I am told that it is an effort to share responsibility and to assume that team working will take place on safety issues in respect of any Volunteering activity. That will include, where necessary, parents ensuring that their children understand the framework in which the volunteering will take place, and they will obey all the rules set out in the framework and the statement of inherent risks. None the less, I think that there is still some concern that we need greater clarity to avoid the sort of litigation that nobody wants to see arising as people try to tighten up exactly where the 1166 limitations on the activity are in the statement and whether they are set out absolutely clearly, along with the risks of injury or to property that are inherent in that activity.
There is also some ambiguity about whether the statement has to be signed on every occasion when an activity takes place. Would it have to be signed whenever somebody goes canoeing or plays in a football match? Should it be signed once on joining a football club, or on every single occasion when the activity occurs? That needs to be cleared up in Committee.
As I understand it, the statement would also ask the court to regard as "accidents" incidents that occur without negligence. There is some concern about the definition of accidents and of "without negligence". I know that it is extremely difficult to include in the statement all the risks that are likely to arise. Indeed, I understand that the statement will be illustrative rather than exhaustive. I accept that that must be the case, as there would otherwise be pages and pages of bureaucracy about all the other concerns that might come into play, which would create problems. However, that leaves some ambiguity. When a court has to make a judgment, it will find it difficult to do so if the statement is not comprehensive.
I also understand that the court will have to uphold the claim only where it is "manifestly unreasonable"—I think that those are the words in the Bill—not to do so. I understand that we are trying to raise the hurdle for a successful claim above its current level in civil procedure to something closer to what it would be under criminal procedure. I accept the principle of what the hon. Member for Canterbury is trying to do, but speaking with the voice of one of my legal friends—I know that other lawyers are present in the Chamber—let me say that there are concerns about what the word "manifestly" will mean and about whether some form of guidance will be given about the burden of proof needed to show that something is manifestly unreasonable.
That brings me to the essential non-legal point: what is reasonable to one person may be unreasonable to another; it depends on where people are coming from in relation to the case. A decision to ask a child to undertake an activity that could seem reasonable to a volunteer might appear unreasonable either to the child or to their parents—indeed, there have been many such cases. That gets to the nub of the concerns about reasonable behaviour. The Bill is not specific about the circumstances that are needed to relieve somebody of liability. We need greater clarify in the wording of the statement and the Bill itself, and I suspect that we probably need some form of guidance in order to achieve that. That is a major task but, unless it is addressed, lawyers in particular will worry that they have been left without an adequate framework within which to make such difficult decisions.
The essential point is that the Bill will shift the balance in favour of what the court might consider to be the negligent party and leave the victim with fewer rights. I am not a lawyer, but I question that. I accept that some cases are decided in a way that does not accord with what an ordinary person would believe to be common sense. However, where something that is manifestly unreasonable has happened, the victim should have 1167 recourse to the courts. If we erect a barrier to prevent volunteering, the victim's ability to obtain justice will be affected. There will have to be much more discussion in Committee about where to strike the balance, because it is vital to get it right.
§ Mr. Dobson
We should also consider the balance to be struck between the right of an individual to sue if little Johnny breaks his arm and the fact that another 500 children are deprived of play facilities as a result. I may be displaying my vaguely socialist background, but should we not consider society in general, rather than letting the rights of individuals have primacy at all times?
§ Mr. Love
I note that the only hon. Member who did not say, "Hear, hear", was the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon, who is, I believe, a qualified solicitor. I personally have considerable sympathy for the point made by my right hon. Friend, but it might not be taken into account in a court of law.
§ Mr. Burnett
I just did not feel particularly vociferous. All I would say is that if the balance is against volunteers, it should be redressed.
§ Mr. Love
I would not demur from that viewpoint. I was questioning whether it would be better to strike the balance so as to allow volunteering to continue while ensuring safeguards for potential victims of volunteering activities. I raise that as a matter of principle; it would be for members of the Committee to go through the mechanics. The more who are legally qualified, the better—but they should not all be lawyers.
§ Mr. Dobson
I have had some sympathy with everything that my hon. Friend has said so far, but I think that the fewer lawyers, the better would be a reasonable motto for the Committee.
§ Mr. Love
I shall restrict my comments for the sake of my hon. Friends who are legally qualified.
I cannot resist commenting on clause 2, subsections (5) to (7), which provide that the judiciary should receive training about volunteering. At first, I was superficially attracted to that, although I wondered whether, as almost all our judges come from a certain stratum of society, we should start by giving them courses on how ordinary people live, think and go about their business. Judges and others who sit on the bench regularly undertake training—that is part and parcel of their function. However, I am not sure what impact, if any, training on volunteering would have. I understand that the origin of the proposal was a case in which a judge overruled expert advice on volunteering. That decision could be challenged, given that it is almost always recognised in court that expert witnesses are set against each other so that the judge is able, without favouring one or the other, to take a view on which parts of their evidence are admissible. I am not sure that training would make a significant difference to a judge's understanding of the volunteering movement.
1168 I want to discuss insurance, data protection and the good Samaritan clause. The Financial Services Authority is under pressure to regulate in some areas where it has not previously done so. I was therefore not surprised to discover that in January 2005 new regulatory guidance is to be issued on advice that voluntary associations give on insurance. Although I understand the concerns that have been expressed about that, we should look at the situation more closely. A case in point would be an affinity group such as a football, rugby or golf union that decided to offer a credit card to its member associations at a very high rate of interest. The advantage in its doing so would be that it would get a better payment for each credit card that was taken out, but the question is whether it should be held in some way liable for the very high rate of interest that its members have to pay. In my view, it has a responsibility to ensure that any recommendation that it gives as an umbrella group meets the needs of the ordinary club members and volunteers who take it up. Regulation is required for that purpose. It should be light-touch regulation, but having none at all does not adequately protect ordinary volunteers in such circumstances.
Considerable concern has been expressed in the volunteering movement about rising premiums and insurance being withdrawn. A working group has been investigating that and will make recommendations, but, as always, it is a slow process. Can the Minister reassure me that the Government will take the issue on board?
The Bill provides for a variety of exemptions from the Data Protection Act 1998 that would allow disclosure of contact details and the names of the officers of voluntary groups. It would also allow disclosure of information if that were considered to be in the public interest. In those circumstances, the data controller would not need to abide by the conditions of the Act. That appears to offer carte blanche for all disclosure, provided that the person who discloses the information can say, "I did it in good faith." That goes too far; it is a blanket exemption, which is inconsistent with the Act and the existing derogations from it. They have been carefully worked out and the Committee needs to consider whether clause 4 is a sensible way forward. Would political parties, which are also voluntary associations, be covered by clause 4? Perhaps the hon. Member for Canterbury or the Under-Secretary could answer that. We would have to consider carefully how to separate political parties from the rest of the voluntary movement.
I want to express one anxiety about the good Samaritan clause. It states that actions should be taken "in good faith". Such actions will notbe liable at common law for any harmunless there is an intention "to cause harm." What would happen if the actions of a volunteer or good Samaritan were reckless, appeared unreasonable to everybody else who was present or were out of all proportion? Under the Bill, good faith would be a defence against unreasonable and reckless behaviour. The test of good faith would replace reasonableness. That would be difficult for courts; good faith is not a sufficient test. We all know from our societies and voluntary associations that there are members who genuinely want to do the right thing but often, because of a lack of judgment, do not. Do we want to ensure that, if such people claimed that they had made a 1169 decision in good faith, even though it was wrong, the victim would have no recourse? We need to reconsider the matter in Committee.
I support the principle behind the Bill. I want volunteering to increase and I accept that a private Member's Bill may have only limited purchase. However, I have several anxieties, and the promoter, the Government and members of the Committee that considers the Bill need to think carefully about some of the problems. Several clauses need to be clarified. The Bill does not tackle the main issues for volunteering, but if it is honed, it can make a tangible difference to our volunteering activities.
The Government have already taken up some of the anxieties that the hon. Member for Canterbury expressed. I hope that the Government and the hon. Gentleman will interact to determine when it is more appropriate for the Government to take action and when such action is more appropriate through the Bill, and to ensure that that happens.
My biggest reservations are about the exemptions that relate to insurance and advice and especially to data protection, and the shift in the balance. I am worried that the shift may go too far. If we are to have a measure of which the House can be proud when it returns for Third Reading, changes must be made.
§ 11.4 am
§ Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con)
We have been treated to an extended but careful analysis of the Bill by the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) and I am sure that it will give plenty of cause for reflection in Committee.
I am happy to sponsor the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has done an enormous amount of work and I am delighted that he has taken the opportunity to promote the Bill. Like all private Members' Bills, there may be occasional imperfections in the measure's drafting, but Ministers—especially someone as shrewd as the Under-Secretary—know that support for the Bill encompasses the ability to help to redraft aspects of it constructively in Committee to ensure that its principles survive and that it gets Government endorsement.
I am delighted that we are considering the issues that the Bill covers. The House of Commons gets much criticism, but there is a great deal of frustration among volunteering organisations about some of the pressures that we have discussed today, and we are here on a Friday morning, volunteering to talk about them. That is a signal step forward.
The right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) made a good speech and told a sad story, which did not have an unhappy ending, about his son. I should therefore share with hon. Members a story of my own. When one of my two sons was two years old, he woke up feeling very excited on Christmas day, got out of bed, fell over his Christmas presents and broke a leg. My wife was minded to sue Father Christmas until some 1170 of the implications of that were realised in the Taylor household. In case there are children listening, I shall not explain them precisely.
§ Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con)
Does my hon. Friend believe that Father Christmas is a volunteer or a professional?
§ Mr. Taylor
According to my family tradition, he is a volunteer and a man of great and infinite wisdom. I do not know whether that view is widely shared. Obviously, there are times of the year when he has to act professionally.
Were it not for volunteers, the quality of life in my constituency would be dramatically worse. I am sure that that applies to all hon. Members. I recently wrote a pamphlet, copies of which are available from my office, on corporate social responsibility. It tries to get corporate Britain increasingly to understand the importance of its involvement in encouraging people in the workplace to be volunteers in society. When conducting the research for the pamphlet, I was particularly struck by the calculation that volunteering in its widest sense contributes approximately £62 billion to the economy. That is equivalent to Government spending on health and social services in England and Wales. It is an extraordinary amount. If volunteers suddenly decided to stop volunteering, the taxpayer would be asked to contribute to enable at least some of those functions to continue.
§ Mr. Brazier
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. I was grateful for a meeting with Peter Lambert of Business in the Community and for that organisations support for the Bill.
§ Mr. Taylor
I referred to that organisation in my pamphlet.
Volunteering goes much wider than the subjects on which we have principally focused this morning. The care co-ordinating agency in my constituency is worried about the burden of the Criminal Records Bureau processes. The Bill does not cover that, but I hope that the Government take it on board. We do not say that the checks should not be made—they are important—but duplication of effort appears almost wilfully to be required of the caring organisations.
Leisure and sporting activities have been considered. There is no doubt that we are beginning to see in this country implications that ambulance-chasing lawyers in the United States have appreciated for some time. Some of the claims there have stopped all school sports. Although there has been some banter about the role of lawyers and current legislation that enables lawyers to take fees for success, I am afraid there is no doubt that the compensation culture is beginning to bedevil British society. It is interesting that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras was a former Secretary of State for Health, given the problems in the national health service in this country at the moment. It is being brought almost to its knees by the cost of self-insured claims for negligence, many of which are opportunistic in the extreme.
If that compensation culture enters the voluntary arena, we really will have trouble, and there are signs that it is beginning to do so. I do not have the same depth 1171 of knowledge as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, whose research is very impressive. I listened to his speech, and I hope that the House noted carefully the worrying indicators that volunteering is beginning to be affected by that compensation culture. I did a little research in my constituency to see whether that was borne out by my experience. It was interesting that of the groups that responded to our telephone trawl this week, many said that they had a problem and none said that they did not.
Some of those groups were more forthcoming than others. For example, the Hersham youth trust in my constituency is a completely independent charity that has built a new youth club in Hersham through volunteer labour—including, incidentally, my own. Mine was a very modest brick in a rather large wall—that has nothing to do with Pink Floyd, I might add. The important point is that that club exists because of volunteers, and it was difficult to ensure that there were proper safety measures and that all the necessary checks were made and legal obligations met. That was almost the easy bit. The difficulty for that club will be once it opens, because there will then be all the problems of public liability insurance and the headaches that come with that. Some of the costs involved have a big implication on how many people will be prepared to volunteer, and how many can be allowed to volunteer, to help in the club, which will have an impact on how extensive the help to the local people of Hersham can be. That is one good volunteering arena that is beginning to have the troubles that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury outlined in his speech.
My local guides, who are enthusiastic supporters of the Bill, are another group with a problem: shortage of volunteers. The number of girls on the waiting list to join the guide groups in my constituency on which I have done a survey is 416. The current number of adult volunteers is 114, so we need more volunteers. However, there is a hesitancy to come forward for a variety of reasons, including the worries about liability so clearly expressed today. Although the scouts nationally have not been totally supportive of the Bill, one pack in my constituency has said that it is now seeing in volunteers a fear of taking responsibility for activities, particularly, in one case, land yachting, which people think might represent a risk.
Esher cricket club has mentioned that it does not only have problems with the Criminal Records Bureau in relation to its youth matches: in addition, thefear of litigation will begin to impinge on their ability to bring sport to children".About 250 children are involved in cricket in that club. We take such groups for granted. Esher cricket club is one of hundreds of thousands of cricket clubs across the country, and we assume that they want to help young children to take an interest in cricket, but that assumption is based on an important factor: that someone will volunteer. At the margin, if that ambition or aptitude for volunteering is curtailed, we will see a real backlash. There is considerable concern about what those children will end up doing if they are not playing cricket, in Esher or wherever else they might like to play.
Hinchley Wood school in my constituency has said: 1172Parents have told the school that they are concerned that they might be subject to litigationin relation tocoaching and attending team competitionsand volunteering to run the teams in those competitions. I am not surprised, given some of the big legal cases. That is a very good secondary school, whose provision of sports endeavours in its locality is based on people helping. It has very good sporting facilities, which have recently been extended. What are the implications if we do not do something to stop the worries that are being created by the current legal situation, the ambulance-chasing lawyers and the compensation culture to which my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury and Labour Members have referred?
§ Mr. Luff
I am sure my hon. Friend understands that his concerns are widely shared geographically, and are not found only in London and the south-east, although that region has dominated the debate so far. I received an e-mail this week from Flight Lieutenant Steve Booth, commanding officer of 2516 (Droitwich) Squadron Air Training Corps. It reflects exactly the points that have been made about liability and the impact on activity for young people, the country's obesity problem, and the contribution of volunteers. That corps really hopes that the Bill passes, because it is having real difficulty in finding volunteers. The Bill would make an important contribution to solving its problems.
§ Mr. Taylor
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, which reinforces those that I have made.
We are not yet in crisis—it would not be fair to say that—but I anticipate that we soon will be if something is not done. We have seen what has happened in the United States, and we are now beginning to see that in this country. The right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras clearly has a much better understanding than I of playgroups, and he has produced a report on that sector. That provides a classic example of the problem of where children will go if they do not go to organised groups and playgrounds. It is equally true that if people do not become cadets, or are not allowed to become guides, or do not play games after school, they will do something else with their time. That will be a social problem that, frankly, I do not wish to begin to contemplate.
The Bill has another important dimension. Some organisations in my constituency have many volunteers and do not yet feel that they have a problem, Molesey boat club, of which I am a president, among them. It is on the Thames, and is one of the oldest boat clubs in the country. It has done an enormous amount of work voluntarily to help schools that have not previously had a rowing tradition to participate in rowing. I have visited it, and launched boats and so on. At the moment, that boat club feels that it is covered because it gets overall insurance through the Amateur Rowing Association. However, as one or two Members have said, we need to be careful that such overall coverage is not affected by some of the problems faced at individual level. If that were to happen, and insurance were not available to umbrella organisations, there would be a dramatic reaction in many of the clubs that at the moment do not feel threatened. In a sense, the Bill 1173 anticipates that. As long as those clubs can get liability cover through the umbrella organisations, they feel that they are all right; but I am concerned about whether that will continue unabated, if current legal trends are not stopped.
The establishment of a certificate of recognition of inherent risk to help to protect volunteers and organisations from unreasonable litigation is an important part of the Bill. We are not, of course, talking about criminal liability. That is not part of the Bill, and I do not wish to mitigate criminal liability. However, where someone has done something with proper intent that is designed to help someone else, they should not be accused of some legal infringement and be subject to unreasonable litigation. Particularly in relation to games of rugger, it is quite clear that the courts are moving in the direction of deciding that any risk is legally unacceptable. That is sheer nonsense, and very dangerous. We all take risks in our lives, and we have to have the ability to assess them. If we try to create a risk-free society, we shall create social chaos. Today's Bill is a warning signal, and I hope that the Government will give it a reasonably fair wind.
§ Roger Casale (Wimbledon) (Lab)
When speaking to a Bill to promote volunteering, it is incumbent on us to preface our detailed remarks with an acknowledgement of the value of the work of volunteers and voluntary organisations across the country. Praise for those people and organisations cannot be given often enough or loudly enough, and I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House are united in our appreciation of their work. They contribute enormously not only to the economic well-being of the country but to the health and strength of our communities. I regard the act of volunteering as an important way of engaging with our local communities; indeed, I see it as an act of citizenship.
The voluntary sector, working in partnership with other statutory bodies such as local councils, health organisations or the police, is increasingly exercising a leadership role in the decisions being made in our communities about how money is spent and how improvements are made. The rather old-fashioned idea of the volunteer should no longer apply; people have many different motives for volunteering, and, within reason, every motive should be encouraged. We should see volunteering as being at the forefront of social change, involving volunteers leading change in our communities in partnership with other organisations. All of that is to be welcomed and encouraged.
We should also remember how well qualified many volunteers are today. Volunteering is by no means restricted to amateurs or people lacking skills. There has been a great professionalisation of the voluntary sector. We must not give the impression that there is a distinction between work done in a professional capacity and volunteering. Many volunteers have considerable expertise and professional skills, and the voluntary organisations place great emphasis on skills and training, and on having volunteers with appropriate qualifications. They will often help the volunteers to get those qualifications if they need them. The organisations are run very professionally.
1174 This debate brings us together to sing a hymn of praise to volunteers and voluntary organisations. I imagine that all hon. Members have had direct experience as a volunteer or worked with voluntary organisations in their constituencies. There is currently a fashion for reality TV programmes showing Members of Parliament having real-life experiences, although I would question just how much of a real-life experience it is to have one's own television show. We should always remember that the national voluntary organisations, through the volunteer bureaux and Community Service Volunteers, have been getting Members of Parliament involved in real-life volunteering experiences for many years.
I always try to take part in national volunteer week each year, as a way of promoting volunteering in my community. One year, I spent a day with the Wimbledon Guild, which suggested that I come to its luncheon club and asked me to be the waiter. After about 15 minutes, I was told, "You'd better go back to being the MP. Sit down and have some lunch, then go round and do the glad-handing afterwards." Another year, I was invited by Merton Mencap to spend an evening with the many young professionals who give up one evening a week to connect with young people with severe disabilities. I had a marvellous evening, and I was particularly struck by the debriefing after the children had gone. The volunteers were working together very professionally as a team, and brought their expertise from their professional lives to bear on their voluntary work.
We all have such experiences through keeping in touch with voluntary organisations in our constituencies, and I shall mention later some comments that have been made by the organisations in my constituency. We all acknowledge the importance and the value of volunteers and voluntary organisations, and we speak of that from direct experience in our own lives and our work as Members of Parliament. We are united in wanting to promote volunteers and volunteering. On the surface, therefore, we should all be in favour of the Bill.
I accept that there is a problem with the growing compensation culture, how we deal with risk, and the increasing cost of insurance. However, when I read the small print of the Bill, I asked myself whether those issues were the key barriers to promoting volunteering. We all know that there is a problem. Every organisation that I have spoken to in my constituency has a problem with recruiting volunteers. That is why it is important that we support measures that will genuinely promote volunteering and help to bring the barriers down, but is the problem that I have just outlined really the No. 1 problem that voluntary organisations face? A number of organisations have been referred to in this debate, and, as the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) said, we all have our own direct experience of organisations in our constituencies to fall back on. We are here this morning because we want to promote volunteering, so we must keep in focus the question of whether that is the No. 1 problem that we should be attacking.
§ Mr. Ian Taylor
It would not be right for anyone to argue that that was the only obstacle. There are, of course, other lifestyle reasons why people do not volunteer, but that reason is cited time after time by the 1175 organisations as one of the key deterrents for volunteers. Given the importance of volunteering, we should have some influence in alleviating the deterrent.
§ Roger Casale
I am aware, having listened to the hon. Gentleman's speech, that he has spoken to organisations in his constituency, and I do not question what he says for a moment. The hon. Member for Canterbury also referred to a number of national reports that have been produced. I can only say that none of the voluntary organisations in my constituency identified that as their No. 1 problem.
Looking at the detail of the Bill, I experienced a second instinctive inhibition. We are all concerned about the growth of the compensation culture and the extraordinary legal claims that are upheld in courts in America and elsewhere, which can be ruinous to those involved and which many of us may consider very unjust. We are right to be concerned about that, and about the way in which it may impinge on the voluntary sector—not least on such worthwhile activities as the creation of safe play areas, mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson).
This was my instinctive inhibition. Members in all parts of the House are also concerned about the nanny state and over-regulation, and about well-intentioned Government interventions to protect certain organisations and individuals from the big bad world—in this case, the big bad world of avaricious lawyers and excessive compensation claims. The Bill seems to be trying to interpose a cushion between volunteers and voluntary organisations and the provisions of the Financial Services Act 1986 and the Data Protection Act 1998—and, indeed, many civil law provisions. For all our well-placed wish to support the voluntary sector, we should think about whether we really want to abandon our equally well-placed reservations about such Government intervention. We do not want to mollycoddle the voluntary sector, or to give the impression that volunteers should be treated differently because they are less professional or less risk-aware.
I am particularly anxious about any attempt to weaken the Data Protection Act. We all know from our casework and our constituencies of instances in which even statutory bodies such as local councils, for reasons known only to themselves, release private information, and claim when challenged by the Information Commissioner, or indeed when he finds against them, that their actions were somehow in the public interest. Such actions are usually in the interests of the organisation itself, or of elements within it. We should be wary about setting any precedent that would suggest that, although privacy and the Data Protection Act are important, the disapplication of provisions in the Act might constitute a form of defence.
I support volunteering and see the need to promote it, and I hope I understand the problems involved: but, as I have said, I have reservations. As often happens, I was helped by a constituent, Andrew Craig, who wrote to me before the Bill was published. His letter, and the speeches that I have heard today, have shown me that the risk of excessive insurance claims is indeed an acute problem for certain parts of the voluntary sector.
1176 Mr. Craig is a member of the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, and is a hang glider himself. He reports that the association, which is the governing body for the sport, recently offered third-party insurance of up to £2 million to all its members, but following a series of claims has cut the amount to £25,000 for professionals—instructors and tandem pilots who carry passengers. Volunteers also work as trainers, although of course they must have the necessary qualifications. In the event of a serious injury or a fatality, they might lose their assets—their homes, perhaps.
§ Mr. Brazier
I am sorry that I missed the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's speech. He is making a powerful point, but may I ask him to put it on record that the insurance problem is not just a problem in itself but an effect of the growth of successful litigation, much of which never reaches the courts? It is a direct result of the application of a litigious culture to volunteers.
§ Roger Casale
That may well be so. I have no particular expertise in the area. That is the argument of my constituent Andrew Craig and the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, but I would not wish to put it on the record on their behalf. I have no first-hand experience of hang gliding either, although I must say that I sometimes feel tempted.
The problem may or may not result from increasing litigation, but the Bill seeks to deal not with the cause of the growth in the compensation culture, but with the consequences. I ask again whether that is what we should be doing, and indeed whether this is the most serious problem faced by volunteers and voluntary organisations. The hon. Gentleman said a lot about rugby clubs and rugby union. I played rugby at school and enjoy watching the six nations, although I remember being terrified of having to go on to the pitch, and I would not shed too many tears over rugby. We should support it on behalf of society and communities, especially in the light of the fantastic result in the World cup. Sport is a tremendous power for good, not just in terms of the health of individuals but for many other reasons.
The hon. Gentleman may know of AFC Wimbledon, almost a voluntary organisation although it is now incorporated. It was established by fans of the former Wimbledon football club. It is tremendously active in promoting not just sport but community activities of all kinds, and we should support it.
We want to encourage sport. According to the House of Commons Library, sport engages more volunteers than any other part of the voluntary sector. The Bill seeks to deal with a problem that affects volunteers most acutely.
The voluntary sector is vast and diverse in terms of the activities it undertakes and the risks involved. The hon. Member for Canterbury, other hon. Members or the Minister might wish to explore the fact that it is not only volunteers who sometimes put those whom they are seeking to help at risk, but that in many parts of the voluntary sector it is the volunteers themselves who face risk. I have in mind volunteers in care homes or involved in the mental health sector. Risk must be seen from both viewpoints: it is not only a matter of the risk to which a 1177 volunteer might expose a person engaging in the activity, but the barriers arising from the risks to volunteers themselves. We must consider how to mitigate the risk and to lessen the impact on the voluntary sector of excessive insurance claims in the round, not in the narrow terms of the Bill.
Speakers in the debate so far have said that risk is the No. 1 problem that voluntary organisations face. It is true that there has been a decline in the number of volunteers—ironically, at the very time when we are attempting to upgrade the role of the voluntary sector. My constituency experience is that it is getting harder to recruit volunteers. When I first became an MP, in partnership with many individuals and organisations in my constituency, I set up the Wimbledon civic forum to promote civic engagement. That body appears to be flagging, even though people thought it was a good thing when they first became involved. The question is, how are we to sustain such projects and get new blood involved?
The Wimbledon Guild, which is one of the oldest social care charities in the country, is finding it difficult to recruit volunteers, especially among the over-60s, who traditionally form one of the largest groups of volunteers. Increasingly, when people reach the age of 60 or 65, they feel that the time has come to retire from volunteering, not to continue. How to promote volunteering and to recruit more volunteers is an issue, but the impression I have gained from speaking to constituency organisations, including the Wimbledon Guild and the Girl Guides, is that it is not the paramount issue.
§ Mr. Brazier
Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear that the Girl Guides are 200 per cent. behind the Bill? The organisation was represented at the very first press conference I held in relation to the Bill—as I recall, there were three representatives—and the national body has written many letters to me and to other supporters of the Bill.
§ Roger Casale
I am aware that the Girl Guides support the Bill. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to learn that, while not a Girl Guide myself, I am an ambassador for the organisation and I am in close contact with the group in my constituency.
My aim is not to contradict the hon. Gentleman, but to put the Bill in the context of the range of issues and problems affecting volunteering. The reaction of the Wimbledon Guild to the proposal was that, of course, nothing should detract from the safety of either the volunteers, or the people whom the volunteers are helping. Although it is right to be concerned about the growth of the compensation culture, risk and the difficulties of getting insurance in certain fields, we should not send the message to volunteers that they should have a go and not worry if someone gets hurt, because they will be protected from the type of compensation claims to which non- volunteers might be subjected. We must balance not deterring volunteers and voluntary activities with reinforcing the understandable and necessary priority that many voluntary organisations give to ensuring the safety of those whom they seek to help. In relation to data protection issues, it is less the need to comply with the legal provisions and to perform criminal records checks 1178 as it is length of time it often takes to get a response and complete the checks that concerns voluntary organisations in my constituency.
I mentioned drawing a distinction between qualified and unqualified volunteers. Russell Humphreys, director of the Wimbledon Guild, pointed out that someone who has not had a first aid course but who seeks to administer first aid none the less is acting recklessly, whereas someone who knows what he is doing because he has attended a course and attained the necessary qualifications and who administers first aid when something goes wrong is not. I am not sure to what extent the Bill recognises the distinction: it seems to suggest that all volunteers are unqualified amateurs. That is not the case. The best way to protect volunteers from excessive compensation claims is to minimise the risk of claims arising by minimising the risk of incidents occurring, and the way to do that is to emphasise skills and qualifications among volunteers, as many voluntary organisations, and all the better ones, do.
§ Mr. Ian Taylor
Let me make it clear that those who support the Bill are not suggesting that incompetent volunteers should be encouraged, and none of the organisations that back the Bill would approve of that either. Training and expertise are clearly required. The point is that even trained and expert volunteers can be vulnerable because of the increasingly litigious society in which we live.
§ Roger Casale
I am not suggesting that anyone has said that that should be a consequence of the Bill. I am trying to point out that it might be a consequence of the Bill and raising it as an issue for debate. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for responding to it and for recognising that volunteers are often very well qualified and take a great of pride in their professionalism and their standards of performance. Voluntary organisations are often leaders in their field.
Whatever the merits of the Bill, there are many other things that we might do to reduce the risks to volunteers and to break down barriers to volunteering—things that, in the view of some, would be more effective and protect us from the unwanted consequences that implementation of this well meaning, but perhaps misdirected, Bill might have.
I would like to make one further point about how we can promote volunteering and encourage better recruitment and use of volunteers. Again, I am indebted to Russell Humphreys, of the Wimbledon Guild, for having pointed out that the biggest pool of volunteers throughout the country consists of people connected to local churches. I am not a Catholic myself, but most of my family are, and our family parish church in Wimbledon—the Sacred Heart Catholic church—has up to 400 volunteers on its books. Most of those are engaged in voluntary activities closely linked to the activities of the church itself.
Mr. Humphreys pointed out that if there were a coordinator for all the different voluntary networks linked to churches, there would probably be a volunteer for almost every street in the country. He also talked about the possibility of introducing a national volunteer corps, like the one in America. Perhaps by giving assistance to students as they go through university, or by giving help with expenses or through the tax system, we could promote volunteering.
1179 One of the main drivers of the Bill is the desire to promote volunteering and recruit volunteers. We do not want to deter them, but let us not forget that there are many other measures that are not yet in place but which would also have a good effect. I am not sure what the answer is, ultimately, and I welcome the debate on the Bill, but we need to set it in context.
I am well aware that the national girl guides association is in favour of the Bill, and would be particularly affected by it, not because it exposes its volunteers to unnecessary risk, but because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said, what we seek to do, both with guiding and many other related activities, is to challenge people. We do not want to expose them to risk, but we want to challenge them and enable them to assess risks for themselves, so as to encourage confidence and self-esteem.
The Girl Guides—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. After 32 minutes, I am becoming aware of a tendency to repetition on the part of the hon. Gentleman, so I must caution him on those grounds.
§ Roger Casale
I shall seek to make my points more powerfully, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that I do not need to repeat myself.
The girl guides association has a wealth of experience to look back on—90 years, in my constituency. One of the issues troubling the guides is the fact that more and more people, especially women, are active in the work force and in their professional lives. People are working longer and longer hours, and the difficulties of balancing work and home life lead to problems with recruiting.
I spoke to Maia Rabagliati, of the Girl Guides, this morning, and she told me that they had had to close two branches in south Wimbledon and Colliers Wood. The reason for that is not the concern that the Bill is addressing, although the guides support the Bill, but is part of a much wider picture.
Perhaps it is time for me to bring my remarks to a close, because I know that many other hon. Members are keen to contribute to this important debate. In summary, there is a concern about the impact that the growth of the compensation culture has on certain sectors of the voluntary sector, in deterring volunteers.
I recognise that there is a problem and it is incumbent on us to try to deal with it. However, I am not convinced that the Bill is the right measure to do that, because I feel that it might have some unwelcome consequences—but I look forward to seeing how those will be dealt with if the Bill receives a Second Reading and progresses on into Committee.
Whatever our criticisms of the details of the Bill, we should never forget the value of the voluntary sector, or lose sight of the many measures that are still necessary, and which would help to recruit, train and enhance the important contribution of those volunteers whom we all need so much to enhance the quality of life in our communities, and retain their services.
§ Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West) (Lab)
As I understand it, the Bill is designed to overcome the problems faced by the voluntary and community sector in recruiting and managing volunteers. It reflects concerns that potential volunteers may have about their liability under several Acts, including the Financial Services Act 1986 and data protection legislation. Like all hon. Members, I have many voluntary organisations in my constituency, and I have often heard volunteers and people responsible for keeping those organisations on the road, often with few resources and a very limited pool of volunteers, complaining about the way in which the perception that we live in a more litigious culture than ever before makes their job harder.
I have been in the position—no doubt many other Members have too—of trying to encourage people to become involved in voluntary activities that I have been involved in, such as sport, which in my case includes judo, hill walking and climbing. I can attest to the fact that it seems to be harder each year to get people to take on responsibilities when they could be held legally liable. That applies even to activities that are modestly paid, let alone voluntary activities.
The difficulty with the Bill lies in the detail. We are naturally sympathetic to the plight of volunteers when an accident happens, but we need to strike a careful balance between the rights of the volunteer and the rights of those who participate in voluntary activities, especially children. The protection of children is at the forefront of my mind.
My instinct is to be sympathetic to the general thrust of the Bill, if not to every detail, and I shall make most of my comments about clause 5, which has become known as the good Samaritan clause, and for which I have a great deal of sympathy. It seeks to prevent people who assist someone whom they believe is suffering or injured from being held liable for any harm that they may inadvertently cause by their intervention.
A primary objection to the clause is based on the consideration of the interests of a potential claimant who may be injured in such circumstances. A ruling, or rather an opinion, by Winfield and Jolowicz on the subject of tort says:It goes without saying, of course, that if a person engaged in a rescue which he was not obliged to undertake negligently inflicts some positive harm upon the claimant he may be liable for that for he has then left the claimant worse off than he was before.I have concerns about the phrase "it goes without saying", because I do not think that it necessarily applies.
As I understand it, advice from another commentator said that it is surely better for someone who has no specialist knowledge of, let us say, first aid not to become involved in a situation in which someone is injured. There is unquestionable logic to that. If someone is injured in the street or in some fairly accessible place, it is probably better to leave them and to call for help than to get involved and perhaps cause greater damage. I see the logic of that opinion. However, when it comes to out door activities, I do not think that that necessarily follows.
I have in mind activities such as climbing that may involve a life-or-death situation in which someone has fallen and might have—we must always assume this—a 1181 spinal injury. However, if they are left in place, they may die of exposure if the weather is particularly inclement. If a climber or a walker—people climbing on a rock face are often in full view of casual walkers—were to chance upon a situation in which someone had fallen and, even if they were not absolutely certain as to what to do but thought that that person who had fallen might need to be moved because the weather was particularly bad, the legal advice represented by Winfield and Jolowicz would be that they might be legally liable if they became involved. I am not a lawyer, but, as far as I understand it, one would have no liability if one simply walked away.
One might not be legally liable if one walks away, but I understand that in some European countries, particularly France, it is unlawful to walk away from a situation when one could have assisted. That is not the position in this country, so there is no corollary legal liability to the moral obligation that someone would have to become involved.
I was fairly well trained in the past to deal, for example, with relatively difficult situations that arise in the hills. However, when one is dealing with a situation in which someone might be seriously injured, there is inherently an element of risk, particularly of spinal injury. One has to make a judgment. The idea that someone should take on a legal liability by making a judgment and taking on risk is a pity. That is the law as it stands, and that is why I am particularly sympathetic to clause 5.
Clause 5 is only one element in the Bill, but although I do not intend to go into the other clauses in detail, they have a distant effect on volunteering. Concern remains about increased liability in the increasingly litigious world in which we live, but the number of people involved in volunteering is unquestionably on the up. Since 2001, the number of volunteers in this country has increased by more than 1 million. That exceeds the challenge set by the Prime Minister in 2000. We are on course to exceed the Home Office target of a rise of 5 per cent. in volunteering and community participation by 2006. That is good news for society as a whole and for every individual who gets involved in volunteering. It does people good; it is a growth activity for the individual as well as helping wider society.
I have great sympathy for clause 5, and I recognise the need to protect participants in all voluntary activities, particularly outdoor activities. When children are involved, that is all the more important. I reiterate my support for clause 5, but I think that the Bill would fail because it fails to strike the right balance between protecting those who are good enough to volunteer and give their time and protecting children from issues such as those surrounding data protection. The Bill's provisions on data protection are particularly weak, because it would fail to give sufficient protection to the children involved in voluntary activities. On that basis, I am unable to support it. However, it is worth while to debate the Bill, because it raises a number of important issues, notably those that I have mentioned in clause 5.
§ 12.3 pm
§ Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab)
I am delighted to follow my good hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce). I echo many of his remarks.
1182 I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on introducing the Bill. Volunteering is vital to every constituency represented in the House. I am sure that all Members would wish to pay tribute to the work of the voluntary sector in their constituencies. Earlier this week, I met Miss Anju Bhatt, the director of Brent Association for Voluntary Action. We discussed some of the tremendous work that it is doing in my constituency. It is the central facilitator of the voluntary sector in Brent. It develops support for new and existing organisations, provides library and internet access for organisations, gives free training to voluntary organisations and helps with joint working and volunteering in general. I pay tribute to its work and to the work that Sally Kirkwood did when she set it up three years ago. I attended the event at which the whole voluntary sector in Brent came together for the first time to set up the central organisation, and its wonderful effect is a tribute to her work.
Many aspects of the Bill are to be sincerely and enormously welcomed. Clause 5 is entitled "Persons assisting those injured or suffering not to be liable at common law", and says:Any person who…without payment or the expectation of payment, assists any other person, and …has reasonable grounds for believing that the other person is suffering or injured or faces imminent serious injury, shall not as a consequence of any action performed by him in good faith be liable at common law for any harm caused to that person unless he intended to cause harm.We all recognise the absolute imperative addressed by the clause that the hon. Member for Canterbury has inserted in the Bill: the imperative that we do not put a barrier in the way of people aiding and assisting other people who are in danger or difficulty.
There is a real problem of people passing by and not wanting to get involved because they have read of cases in the newspapers in which people have become liable for their actions because despite going in to help for the best of motives, they have compounded matters and suffered legal repercussions. The House should address that important matter, so I am delighted that such a measure is in the Bill. However, can the hon. Gentleman envisage a way in which the clause could be amended? People sometimes go into situations for the best of motives, but then act recklessly. There is a need to examine reckless behaviour in our system of law and the law of tort.
§ Mr. Brazier
May I take that as an offer by the hon. Gentleman to serve on the Bill's Committee if it is fortunate enough to receive its Second Reading? The matter should of course be addressed.
§ Mr. Gardiner
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that I would be pleased to serve on the Committee because the Bill is important and addresses many of the voluntary sector's concerns. I am grateful for his indication that there might be a problem with the clause, despite the fact that we all appreciate that it addresses a real concern that should not stand in the way of people giving voluntary assistance to those in distress.
I focus the House's attention on clause 3, which would amend the Financial Services Act 1986. Although it is difficult to understand from reading the Bill what the provision would achieve, it would stop organisations such as the national governing bodies of sports—the 1183 Rugby Football Union, the Football Association or whatever—being held accountable for the implicit advice that they are deemed to give when making provision for any club associated with them to receive blanket comprehensive insurance cover. Such things must of course be done properly. There is a question not only of people acting in good faith, but of people perhaps making provision recklessly, although no one suggests that that would be true of the RFU or any of the major organisations that the Bill is intended to address.
It is possible, however, to conceive of a situation in which smaller associations that have satellite groups might do something for which they should be properly regulated. No doubt the House will be entirely sympathetic to the thrust of many of the things that the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve. The virtue of taking the Bill into Committee is that we can iron out the possible difficulties and achieve the overall objective while ensuring that proper regulation is in place.
Clause 4 is too widely drafted, especially in relation to the impunity that it gives for the release of information relating to criminal records. People would not be guilty of an offence if the disclosure wasin the opinion of the volunteer, voluntary organisation or voluntary body, necessary for, or desirable in, the public interest".On reflection, the hon. Gentleman may realise that it might not be good enough to say that the critical test as to whether an offence has been committed or whether someone is guilty of an offence is that it is, in the opinion of the volunteer or the public body, in the public interest to disclose. The public interest test has to be objective. That is ultimately for the courts to decide; it is not simply dependent on the intention of the organisation.
Let me adumbrate with an example. I am associated with the local scouts group. My son is a keen boy scout. As a parent who sometimes takes other children home from scouts, I quite properly had to submit to a criminal records test so that the scouts group knows that all the people who occasionally ferry other people's children to and from events are cleared of having committed an offence. If another parent of the group has a criminal record, however minor the offence may have been, it would be disclosed to the scouts group. The troop's leader could decide that, in his opinion, it was in the public interest to tell other parents or members of the community of that person's previous conviction. I hope the hon. Gentleman accepts that that disclosure should not be dependent on the whim of the troop leader.
§ Mr. Brazier
I accept the hon. Gentleman's contention that the clause needs tidying up for the sort of reason that he outlines.
§ Mr. Gardiner
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. As I said, such problems can and should be dealt with in Committee.
Clause 4 raises other problems. It refers to the use of thevolunteer, voluntary organisation or volunteering body1184 all within one sentence. There is a serious problem with terminology. The definitions used in the preamble are particularly confusing. It seeks to make clear that volunteers are unpaid, but confuses the issue by referring to employees who are engaged in volunteering.
§ Mr. Brazier
The hon. Gentleman is not the only person to pick up the point. The few objections that have been made have raised the issue. There is a reason for the proposed provision. Teaching unions are concerned—it is reflected by the Secretary of State—that we do not define teachers as volunteers. Teachers are employees who may undertake volunteering by working out of hours with the school. A similar point has been raised by those who work for the community arms of businesses. They are employees, but what they are doing at the time—for example, when members of the McDonald's health squad are out wearing their tee-shirts—is volunteering. However, they remain employees and not volunteers.
§ Mr. Gardiner
The hon. Gentleman has tried to reflect a real concern that exists in the community about fine descriptions.
The preamble later refers to a volunteer who provides "services, under an arrangement". That is a dangerous statement to make. Even where financial remuneration is excluded, it could be viewed as contributing to creating a contract of employment. I hope that by considering the compact and the associated codes that are espoused by the volunteer bureaux and other organisations, the Committee can arrive at a tighter use of terminology. I hope that that is something that the hon. Gentleman will see his way to accepting. Confusion over employment, and anything that could be construed as creating a contract of employment, would be against all that we are trying to achieve in attracting more volunteers. That can be ironed out in Committee, but it is one of the flaws in the Bill.
A couple of disappointments relate to matters that the Bill does not address and also concern the voluntary sector. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could have taken the opportunity to focus on them in the Bill. First, there is the issue of age discrimination in volunteering, with which the hon. Gentleman will be familiar. Secondly, the payment of out-of-pocket expenses is a live issue when it comes to encouraging volunteers. We should not have legislation that stops people from engaging in volunteering activity.
Despite the fact that the Bill deals with data protection, there is the issue of access to criminal record checks for volunteers and volunteer groups. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that the costs of that—
§ Mr. Brazier
That matter was included in our first draft, but, as it became clear that the issue is deeply contentious, I regrettably had to remove it. The hon. Gentleman knows that private Members' Bills can be got through only by consensus.
§ Mr. Gardiner
The hon. Gentleman is, in the biblical sense, preventing me, by which I mean that he anticipates me. He is obviously well aware of the issue, which is a real problem for the voluntary sector.
1185 Costs are a problem, particularly for large organisations—again, I think of the scouts. Organisations do not necessarily have to incur expenses—most parents would be happy to pay for their own criminal record check—but many organisations rely on volunteers and must bear that burden. If we want to promote volunteering in this country, we must address that issue. I understand the hon. Member's requirement not to be contentious and I hope that he has achieved that end and that the Bill will go into Committee, where it can be worked on and improved.
I have not yet dealt with clause 2, which is the main clause of the Bill, on statements of inherent risk. Clause 2(1) states:A volunteer, employee, volunteering body or voluntary organisation may present to any person of full age … or to the parent or guardian of any person not of full age … who is to undertake any activity or activities administered or managed by or under the control of the volunteer, voluntary organisation or volunteering body, a written statement setting out the principal risks which are inherent to the activity or activities undertaken, whether or not such risks shall involve risks of personal injury or harm or risks to property.That provides an opportunity for almighty bureaucracy, which the hon. Member for Canterbury would not support—he is well known in the House as someone who excoriates undue bureaucracy.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to address the question of how many risk assessments will be needed. I shall set out an example—again, I shall use scouting—which he can consider and respond to. Will the statement of inherent risk be drawn up when someone joins a scout troop? Will it say, "In the scouts, these ate the things that we do, these are the sorts of activities that we engage in and this is the statement of inherent risk associated with them"? If the parent or guardian signs on the dotted line and that is it, then it has little material worth and will not provide the comfort and protection that the hon. Gentleman desires.
On the other hand, if a statement of inherent risk were drawn up when a scout group visited a particular location in the Lake district to engage in hill walking at a wintry time of year or engaged in a water sport such as canoeing, it would be a risk assessment of a particular project. It would closely catalogue the inherent risks in the activities undertaken and would allow parents and guardians closely to assess what their children will or will not be doing. Parents and guardians could therefore give genuine and informed consent when they sign the statement of inherent risk, which would be a step towards achieving the protection that the hon. Gentleman seeks to put on to the statute book. He will, however, agree that it would be tremendously labour-intensive to do that done before every activity requiring a risk assessment. It would take considerable time to set out those risks, go to all the parents and guardians of the volunteers involved and secure their consent. I should therefore be grateful for guidance from the hon. Gentleman about what he is trying to do.
§ Mr. Brazier
The short answer, to borrow the words of the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), is that the certificate will be illustrative, not exhaustive. I would expect it to be produced for the annual camp if it involved such activities. I have just signed a certificate for my own children, who are going on annual camp 1186 with the Combined Cadet Force. That certificate, however, would have no legal value in a court, whereas the certificate in the Bill would.
§ Mr. Gardiner
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification of the attempt to give legal backing to the disclaimer notices that parents sign when their children go on camps or adventures. However, may I pose another question? Like him, I believe that children should be able to undertake healthy pursuits and volunteering, which have many benefits, but I do not want people who undertake activities for voluntary organisations, particularly those that work with children, to be encouraged to sign a waiver or disclaimer that could contribute to bad practice. The hon. Gentleman will know that organisations such as the CCF and the scouts double-check and even triple-check the adventure activities that they undertake with children. They ensure that safety precautions are in place, and that there is a belt-and-braces approach to them. Would he comment on the possibility that voluntary organisations that do not have such a strong health and safety record as those two groups might regard such a disclaimer or statement of inherent risk as a means of alleviating them of the burden and responsibility of operating stringent checks? I accept that that is not the intention of the Bill, nor something that any hon. Member would want to happen. But I should be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about how his proposal can be implemented without organisations whose health and safety management is not so tight being let off the hook by the statement of inherent risk. [Interruption.] I am delighted to hear him say from a sedentary position that we can return to the matter. Perhaps he will do so in his concluding remarks, or we can continue the discussion in Committee.
The wordsif the adult person concerned or the parent or guardian of the child concerned accepts and agrees to the Statement of Inherent Risk that the person or parent of guardian shares responsibility for the safe conduct of the activityappear in clause 2(2).
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. We are reminded in "Erskine May" that it is not customary on Second Reading to go into the details of clauses. That is for the Committee stage. I have been very tolerant with the hon. Gentleman so far, but he should bear in mind our conventions.
§ Mr. Gardiner
You are always tolerant with all hon. Members, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am grateful for your advice and wry counsel. I shall conclude my remarks.
There are problems with the Bill. It is not perfect, but few Bills are when they come before the House on Second Reading. That is why we have the Committee stage. Bills that have the broad support of the Chamber on the principles that they seek to establish can be refined in Committee. The hon. Member for Canterbury has done the House and the voluntary sector a service by introducing the Bill. I have reservations, particularly in relation to clause 2, and I hope that he will address those now or in our deliberations in Committee. I extend my heartiest congratulations to him. I shall be pleased to see the Bill proceed.
§ Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con)
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on promoting such an interesting and useful Bill, which addresses so many of the concerns that we as Members of Parliament are regularly faced with from volunteers and the voluntary sector. I thank hon. Members who sponsored the Bill and who are present today, and the organisations that helped my hon. Friend to draft the Bill. It is not an easy subject. People have been grappling with the issue of how to ensure that those who volunteer are not put at risk, and the Bill provides an ingenious solution to the problems that so many volunteers and volunteering organisations have to deal with.
I shall not take too long, as we are keen to hear the Minister's remarks. We have had a long and thorough debate. I agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that from time to time we were verging on a Committee stage debate, but it is extremely useful for my hon. Friend to know the tenor of the various amendments that are likely to be tabled. It was a useful exercise for those who indulged in it, and good luck to them for getting away with it for so long.
We have all supported the Bill. We are all well aware that there is a crisis in volunteering—I hope I do not exaggerate—and most of us cited examples from our constituencies. I am sure that we can all think of such examples. The cadet corps, the guides and even my local Alzheimer's society are having difficulty in recruiting volunteers. As I understand it, the Bill seeks to address one part of that crisis.
I welcome the support for the Bill expressed by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who is unfortunately no longer present in the Chamber; he may well have gone to a constituency function. It is very rare for me to support anything that he says. Although I welcome his comments, I am slightly worried about whether the inclusion of local authority play areas would go substantially beyond the terms of the Bill. I am sure that that was not his intention, but as we know, trying to secure the introduction of a private Member's Bill is difficult enough without widening its scope rather than focusing on the key areas.
It was encouraging to hear from the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) that, as a lawyer, he deplores the litigation culture. We must encourage more lawyers to think along those lines. His analysis of the certificate of inherent risk was very useful, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury is very grateful to him for it.
The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), who has already apologised for having to leave the debate—I hope that he enjoys his constituency function—took a precautionary approach, and started the analysis of the Bill that will be so useful to my hon. Friend. Without wishing to volunteer the hon. Gentleman for service on the Committee, I must say that I thought that some of his analysis would be very useful in that context.
My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) has long been a supporter of volunteers and volunteering. I commend his recent book about corporate social responsibility, which I have read, as it coincides with an interest of mine. Of course, the emphasis was on the idea that such responsibility should 1188 be furthered at the behest of the company and not put into a legislative framework. He made very interesting points about the need for changes in the insurance advice given to voluntary organisations.
The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale), who will probably return to the Chamber, lavished praise on volunteers, but then proceeded to question just about every single part of the Bill. He, too, may wish to serve on the Committee, but I hope that he was not trying to scupper the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury.
The hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce), who is clearly potentially open to legal challenge in respect of his own volunteering activities, made some useful points. It is my understanding—my hon. Friend will be able to correct me if I am wrong—that the good Samaritan clause comes into play only if the effect of the good Samaritan's work is beneficial. I think I am right in saying that such a person could be challenged for giving incorrect advice as part of a court case for negligence. Indeed, that is part of the distinction that needs to be drawn in the Bill as to whether people who have signed a certificate of inherent risk or are covered by one would be prosecutable for having committed criminal negligence, without being protected by that certificate.
Finally, we heard from the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner), who would be an admirable member of the Committee to which I hope the Minister will allow the Bill to proceed.
We have all agreed that there is a need for these activities. In the past week, we have seen the launch of various Government initiatives that attempt to deal with child obesity. I thought that there were some mixed messages when the Secretary of State for Health posed by a supermarket checkout near a basketful of fresh fruit while the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport decided that she did not approve of a ban on advertising fatty foods. Although I happen to agree with her, it was she who promoted a ban on tobacco advertising, so there is not much logic there.
It is important that children get as much opportunity as possible to exercise, to enjoy the many sports that are available, to get fit and, indeed, to learn something of the wider world. Many city children benefit from visits to farms in the countryside, but, because they have never been to a farm before, they are unable to assess the inherent risks involved as a child brought up in the country would. As the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras explained so clearly, the key is to ensure that children are capable of assessing risk; otherwise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton observed, the end result will be chaos in society.
Most people who wish to volunteer rightly do not put the fear of litigation and bureaucracy at the top of their list of concerns, but it is high on the list of those involved in activities with inherent risk. To give a constituency example, I am a social member of my local rugby club, where 250 youngsters learn to play rugby every Sunday. They start from an age at which, when I was younger, they would not even have held a rugby ball. We need to ensure that sufficient volunteers are willing to come forward to teach them to play rugby safely, but many parents cite the problem of possible litigation. The Bill is an imaginative and sensible attempt to reassure 1189 volunteers that they will be protected against potentially malicious challenges to the way in which they look after their charges.
Under the Bill, any volunteer who acted in a criminally negligent way would still be subject to court action. However, accidents happen. A great deal of the compensation culture derives from the feeling that somebody must be blamed for accidents that most commonsensical people would regard as being nobody's fault. Any proposal that would place a curb on that increasing litigation is sensible.
The Bill deals with insurance costs. Because of the compensation culture, many voluntary organisations and sports clubs with perfectly good records face enormous rises in their premiums for public liability. They tend to react uncomprehendingly. The Bill would reduce those insurance costs and, in turn, the financial burden placed on volunteers who pay subscriptions.
The Bill is imaginative in trying to amend the Financial Services Authority's approach to so much finance—creating an audit trail, which means an enormous amount of bureaucracy, box ticking and paper—through sports-covering insurance and removing from the definition of advice the sale of insurance and premiums to individual clubs. That is sensible. Sports governing bodies are sensible and can usually afford professional advice. There is no need for them to be obliged to go through the "advice" undergone by everyone who has ever had to buy a financial product. It appears fairly unnecessary to most of us most of the time.
I welcome the Bill's provision for training the judiciary about the terms of the measure. It is sensible to be told in an annual report how many members of the judiciary have received such training. People increasingly wish to know whether those who sit in judgment over them are sufficiently qualified. We all probably believe that that they are, but there are so many specialist areas.
I can envisage a lively debate in Committee on data protection. It is a complex subject and I can understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury was chary of taking up the issue of criminal records, but know from constituents about the number of complaints about box ticking and I hope that a sensible solution can be found in Committee.
Let us consider the good Samaritan clause. We have often heard tales of people who pass by on the other side out of fear. Anything that encourages people to help and bring about a beneficial outcome should be supported. The Bill attempts to do that. Again, I am sure that there will be plenty of debate in Committee about the way in which to make it most effective. I hope that the principle of the good Samaritan clause will remain if the measure reaches Third Reading.
The official Opposition wish the Bill all the best. We want it to receive Third Reading, go to another place and become law so that voluntary organisations and volunteers get a bit more protection, which enables them to continue to do the welcome job that they have done for so many years. It saves us so much money and gives them a great deal of pleasure. It gives me great pleasure to support the Bill.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart)
I thank the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who has been a brick about the Bill. He knows that the Government have profound reservations about many clauses and that we are not confident that they can achieve the aims that he supports, but we recognise and share the laudable ambition to promote volunteering by reducing the perceived barriers and burdens that may affect people's involvement in their communities.
The hon. Gentleman has been a brick because he has made it clear in the Chamber and in meetings with me that he is prepared to give up little bits if they cannot be put right and amend aspects, if possible. I have to say to him in the Chamber, as I have outside it, that some of my advice is that it might not he possible to amend the Bill to achieve the aims that we both share. He has been very helpful, and I am grateful for the undertaking that he has given to work closely with the Government to see whether we can use the Bill as a vehicle to make progress on the aim of reducing the burdens and barriers that prevent people from volunteering.
I shall run through the reasons for my reservations. I do not intend to stand in the Bill's way, which is quite a high-risk position to take, and I have secured the agreement of other Departments to my taking that position. One reason why the matter to which the Bill relates is complicated is that it impacts on the areas of responsibility of at least four, and possibly more, Departments: getting our ducks in a row is therefore quite complex. Of course, the Government are united as one entity, but in practice when different Departments have different and particular interests, it can be quite difficult to drill through the detail of such matters. That is one problem.
Another problem is a real fear that the Bill might not have the positive impact that we want, but might have some opposite effects. We need to explore that problem in more detail, and I shall be happy to do so if the Bill reaches Committee. I do not want the Bill to achieve the opposite of its intention. I am certain that we all share the same ambition, and every speech that I have heard this morning confirms that. However, some Members have raised queries about whether the Bill will achieve that ambition. The proper way to proceed, although it will press quite a lot of work on some Members, including me, is to try in Committee to make the Bill make sense.
Let me make it clear that the Government are committed to increasing not only voluntary and community sector activity, but the number of people who actively participate in their communities. The Home Office active communities directorate was allocated £188 million for Government support to the voluntary and community sector between 2001 and 2003, of which a significant proportion was specifically to increase and support the level of volunteering.
That commitment to support the sector is not new. We have already implemented major initiatives that have benefited the sector, including the compact that we developed in 2000 and the associated codes of good practice. Those set the basis of a new relationship between the Government and the voluntary and 1191 community sector. That foundation is continuing to be developed and enhanced through the establishment of local compacts, which will apply to local authorities' relationships with the sector.
One reason why I want to focus on the compact is that an important concept is inherent in it, and it is partly because of that that the Bill gives me some unease. The compact contains the concept of professionalism—of being voluntary but professional. As a Minister, I commit to the need to recognise the cost of doing business, which is how we have put it in the compact pledge card—the short version that someone can keep in their pocket. We need to encourage voluntary organisations properly to assess the real cost of going about their business and to charge for that properly. We in Britain have a tradition of not doing that. Many voluntary organisations get into the habit of implying, and almost believing, that things are free, and that volunteers are free, when we all know that they are not. Volunteers' expenses, training and accommodation cost money, and we need to provide those properly, expertly and well. For example, we must ensure that someone who volunteers as a rugby referee has the same level of training as a professional referee, if that affects the safety of the people whom they are refereeing. We also need to ensure that there is no contradiction between being properly trained and being a volunteer, and that costs money.
As the Minister with responsibility for voluntary organisations, I have placed a lot of emphasis on ensuring that we get professionalism, excellence and recognition of full cost, as it is often described. It is also important, however, to examine ways of ensuring that people are not put off volunteering as a result of unfounded claims for negligence. People must accept the fact that some activities are inherently risky when they involve themselves or their children in them, but they should nevertheless have the right to expect high standards from volunteers. Similarly, volunteers have the right to expect high standards of training from the organisations for which they volunteer.
§ Mr. Brazier
The Minister is making a very helpful speech, and I shall underpin some of her remarks about working together in Committee if I get the chance to reply later. I would like to put this point to her now, however. While every single organisation supporting the Bill would agree with what she says about the importance of safety and proper standards, no form of negative recognition could be more damaging to volunteering than the second highest court in the country declaring a referee to have been negligent and to have caused an accident that most referees in this country believe came from a perfectly reasonable decision.
§ Fiona Mactaggart
It might be helpful if I deal with that case, which a number of hon. Members have mentioned. We are dealing here with urban myths. Urban myths have an effect on reality, but it is important that we should not allow an urban myth to grow about the nature of this court case. I have looked at the transcript of the decision of the Court of Appeal in the Vowles case, and it did not say that any risk was 1192 unacceptable, which I think was implied by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor). It referred to a very specific risk of injury, which a particular rule was intended to address. It is worth reading out a bit of the weekly law report in relation to that case.Mr. Leighton Williams suggested that if we upheld the judge's finding that an amateur referee owed a duty of care to the players under his charge, volunteers would no longer be prepared to serve as referees. We do not believe that this result will, or should, follow. Liability has been established in this case because the injury resulted from a failure to implement a law"—a complete and express law—designed to minimise the risk of just the kind of accident which subsequently occurred. We believe that such a failure is in itself likely to be very rare.So, we are talking about a case involving a specific rule in the rugby rule book that was not implemented. That was a choice made by the referee. The report states:Much rarer will be the case where there are grounds for alleging that it has caused serious injury. Serious injuries are happily rare, but they are an inherent risk of the game.That is part of the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. It also says:That risk is one that those who play rugby believe is worth taking, having regard to the satisfaction that they get from the game. We would not expect the much more remote risk of facing a claim in negligence to discourage those who take their pleasure in the game by acting as referees.It behoves us to promulgate the nature of this finding, which is not as wide in its impact as many people believe.
§ Mr. Burnett
During my speech I asked whether the Minister could find out whether the case was under appeal in the House of Lords. I have not read the transcript; I have only read a small précis. But, like other Members and like many members of the public, I want to know whether the referee's duty was discharged in relation to his discussions with the captain of the side, or whether he had to ask the individual player. Furthermore, is it not incumbent on individual players who decide to engage in a game of rugby football to be competent to know whether they are capable of doing so?
§ Fiona Mactaggart
I did ask whether the case was going to the House of Lords. I am afraid I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the answer at this stage, but I will find out and write to him.
The court said that the referee was aware of a risk that might be posed by the less experienced player. A series of problems was experienced with the set scrum after the inexperienced player had entered the game, confirming that it might have been right for the referee to operate the law as it stands. It was in the final scrum that the accident occurred. The Court of Appeal found that the judge had properly concluded that the referee had responsibility.
I agree with other Members that we should not encourage a litigious culture that might make our environment and activities "vanilla". I think that that summarises what was hinted at by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). We do not want it, because it limits children's opportunities. When I was a child, my favourite activity was tunnelling through the hay in a barn. We built caves 1193 in the hay and lit them with candles. When I think back to that, it terrifies me—but my brothers and sisters and I, who all did it, are still alive today.
What we were doing was profoundly dangerous. If a child of mine did it, I would stop it, brutally. Nevertheless, people do dangerous things, and most who do things even as dangerous as lighting candles when surrounded by hay survive. That should be our starting point. We, as community leaders and politicians, have a responsibility to say that activities are inherently risky, that we want them to be risky, and that even when your father has kidnapped every needle in the kingdom, you will still manage to prick your finger on the one that is left behind and fall asleep for a hundred years. We want the element of danger; it cannot be dispensed with. We must find a way of managing it carefully, through the use of volunteers whose standards are professional. That is why we have tried to build up the capacity of voluntary and community organisations. Some £80 million has been allocated to an infrastructure review to support voluntary organisations, and one of the issues to be considered is how they support volunteers and volunteering.
The law affecting charities in England and Wales is in the process of being reformed. One of the reasons why I feel as though I am being generous to the hon. Member for Canterbury in not standing in the way of his Bill is that I shall shortly lay before the House draft legislation on charity law reform, which will occupy a great deal of my time. Having volunteered myself for the challenge of responding to his Bill, making progress on my other important ministerial responsibilities, particularly race equality, will be challenging for me. However, I am prepared to put energy into this subject because it is one on which our track record is clear: we have invested substantially in voluntary organisations, especially those that have an overarching role in supporting the voluntary and community sector, Membership and umbrella bodies are better able to support their members in providing support and services to thousands of people. Every year, we put millions into funding new programmes to support more volunteers, to raise awareness of volunteering and to make it simpler for people to get involved.
I welcome the reforms that volunteering organisations have themselves introduced to strengthen volunteering, in particular the creation of Volunteering England, which has developed the infrastructure to support volunteers. I asked that body for its views on the Bill; I would not describe them as enthusiastic. It is important to recognise that there is no single view in the volunteering sector. Volunteering England's comments included:The issues raised, whilst relevant, are not specific to volunteering and perhaps reflect the 'blame culture' and the more litigious times we all live in.Although I have agreed to work with and help the hon. Gentleman, I do not want to end up sending the message that it is all right for volunteers to be negligent. Neither he nor I believes that that is all right. We expect high standards among volunteers and proper training for them, we expect them to perform their role responsibly and we expect volunteering organisations to provide them with the tools that enable them to do that. 1194 Volunteering England makes the point that the Bill deals with issues that affect everyone, not only volunteers. It points out:We have serious concerns that a Bill intended to support and encourage volunteering could have exactly the opposite effect. Although narrow in scope, it could in practice be applied to many other volunteering activities. In asking volunteers to accept liability for their activity we are likely to discourage people from becoming involved, thus creating a new barrier to volunteering.I hope that Volunteering England is wrong, and the hon. Gentleman does, too. My objective is to give him the space to see whether we can use the Bill to do something sensible, but I am not wholly confident that we can. I take seriously the anxieties voiced by the sector, so I want us to use the Committee stage properly to explore them and to see whether we can reach consensus across the sector, so that we can achieve a degree of comfort and happiness about what the Bill might achieve.
Having described the place that I am starting from, I should now try to answer the points that hon. Members have made about the Bill. The hon. Member for Canterbury raised early in the debate the issue of Government action on obesity, and the contribution that the Bill could make to that. I agree, and that is one of the reasons why we have put so many resources into encouraging volunteering in sport—one of our more substantial volunteering programmes, on which we are grateful for the work of the Department for Media, Culture and Sport.
Although volunteering makes a substantial contribution, we should also recognise that the Government are doing a lot. Sport and leisure are part of the solution, but sport accounts for only 8 percent. of all physical activity. For many of those who are most at risk of obesity because of their age, gardening is equally significant in maintaining physical activity and fitness.
The Government are developing a cross-departmental strategy on obesity, and the activity coordination team taking forward the game plan recommendations for a cross-departmental body to work towards a national physical activity strategy for England has brought together nine Departments. In the spring it will publish the first three-year phase of the 17-year national strategy, which will include measures to raise mass participation, especially in disadvantaged sports, and especially for school leavers, women and older people, who are among those most at risk because lifestyle factors and age combine to increase the risk of illness.
We need to tackle the couch potato culture among children, which some hon. Members have mentioned, and we shall do so as part of that exercise. It is a priority for the DCMS, which, with the Department for Education and Skills, has a joint target of increasing the percentage of school children who spend a minimum of two hours each week on high quality physical education and school sport within and beyond the curriculum to 75 per cent. by 2006. As one who would always have been in the other 25 per cent.—not until I was in my 30s did I find any physical activity that I enjoyed—I realise that that 75 per cent. target is ambitious.
The hon. Member for Esher and Walton and others suggested that the fear of litigation is having a substantial impact on the recruitment of volunteers. I think that that might be an urban myth, and it is 1195 important that we do not allow it to gain credence through this debate. The Home Office citizenship survey has demonstrated that there are several important reasons why people do not get involved in volunteering.
The first and most important reason is lack of time. That is one of the reasons why the Government are trying to deal with the long-hours culture in British employment. That culture means that people have less time to get involved in sport and volunteering, and they do less.
The second reason is lack of awareness and knowledge of what there is to do. People say, "I'd happily get involved if only I knew what to do." The Government take seriously the commitment to change that. I have spoken about the £80 million that we are investing in the infrastructure. Some of that will go to the volunteering infrastructure, and part of the role of that infrastructure is raising awareness of how people can become volunteers.
The third reason is lack of information—not knowing where to go, for example. There is also the inflexibility of options and opportunities. We are trying to address all those problems, because they are the most significant reasons that deter people from volunteering. The fear of litigation, although it is perceived to be an important issue, and in the debate hon. Members have assumed that it is, may be much less important in practice than people think.
For example, companies and others who have carried out research on the increase in insurance premiums suggest that litigation costs are certainly not the only, and not necessarily the main, reason for increases in premiums. That was found in the Government's review of employers liability compulsory insurance, which, in many ways, involves the same issues. Many factors contribute to the cost of insurance, and the Department is addressing the issue with energy. Our insurance cover working group is bringing together voluntary organisations and the insurance companies, because we recognise that the growth in premiums has been an issue for voluntary organisations.
§ Mr. Burnett
I am sure that the Minister will have heard the comments from both sides of the House that premiums are going up not just because of the incidence of litigation. One of the main reasons why they are going up is because insurance companies settle before action is taken. That is a real problem. I hope that she understands that—I am sure that she does—but will she also remember that the Government have initiated the Clementi review of legal services? The review is not limited solely to the legal profession; it also encompasses often unregulated personal injury claims companies. Will she therefore send a copy of the report of this debate and subsequent debates in Committee and on Third Reading to Sir David Clementi?
§ Fiona Mactaggart
I shall he perfectly happy to pass on a copy of the report to the Clementi review. It is important to get the fact rights. I hesitate to bandy words with a lawyer on some of these issues, as the hon. Gentleman will know more than I do that some of the reforms to the law have been designed to increase the 1196 likelihood of settlement rather than litigation. I understand what he is saying but, that is one of the reasons—not the only reason—why there have been more settlements.
I asked carefully about the issue, because I recognise how widespread the concern is. It is true that the number of claims issued in the courts has been reducing over the past few years so I asked, as the hon. Gentleman did, about the claims made to insurers. Although it is counter-intuitive, it is really interesting—I hope that we can discuss this in Committee, because the part of the Bill that deals with this issue is quite flawed—that the number of personal injury claims made to general insurers has remained static over all. The figure has not increased even though we have been given to believe that it has; it has stayed at about the same level.
§ Mr. Burnett
Did the Minister then ask the next logical question about the extent of the payouts on those claims and how they have increased? I think that she will find that they have increased significantly.
§ Fiona Mactaggart
The hon. Gentleman may well be right, and the issue might properly be addressed by the Clementi review. One problem is the issue of how much people receive. In fact, it is right that, if someone has been negligent, the victim of the negligence should be properly compensated. If, in today's world, the proper compensation is assumed to be higher than it used to be, that will impact on claims. However, I do not believe that a single Member of the House believes that the victim of negligence should not be compensated. I do not therefore think that the fact that the amount of compensation thought to be right might have increased should somehow lead to the possibility that someone might be able to get away with negligence.
§ Mr. Burnett
The Minister will presumably agree that if a certificate of inherent risk or a similar formula were arrived at, it would be likely to reduce premiums.
§ Fiona Mactaggart
That is what we need to find out. I am taking a risk by not doing what Ministers usually do at this point—let us be clear that it is what makes their lives easier—and saying, "Oh, it is a very good idea", and talking for so long that we do not have the opportunity to give the Bill its Second Reading and thus do not give it the chance to get into Committee. I am not taking the easy way out. I am saying that there might be value in the measure, but also that there might not.
If a certificate of inherent risk were to allow people to be a bit negligent, I would not want it. Volunteers should not have the right to be a bit negligent. However, if, as may be possible, a certificate of inherent risk would improve the quality of information provided to participants—changing the impact of the present law under valentine fit injuria with people being aware that an activity involves some risk—by helping people to be aware of and to understand the nature of a risk in an activity and thus making them feel more comfortable about participation, and if it would ensure that voluntary organisations would take their training more seriously, it might be a good idea. If it were thus to create confidence in the insurance industry that safety was properly managed and treated sensibly and that risk assessments were properly done—one would expect all 1197 those things to happen under good practice and they lie behind the concept that we are discussing—I would expect premiums to decline.
Let me give hon. Members some good news. We have tried to bring together the industry and voluntary organisations through the insurance cover working group. We have tried to get voluntary and community sector groups to band together and bulk-buy insurance cover through umbrella groups with agreed safety arrangements and protocols. That is starting to bear fruit, and I have received a message from an organisation that said that its insurance premium had stayed exactly the same from one year to the next for the first time in some years, which was different from the previous pattern. That was a result of the working group getting organisations to band together and of people ensuring that they had appropriate safety strategies. It is clear that it is possible to make a difference to insurance premiums by dealing with the situation intelligently, but I am not yet clear whether the certificate of inherent risk would be the way to do that. I know that the certificate is the core of the Bill.
The hon. Member for Canterbury has graciously accepted that parts of the Bill will require amendment. For example, he gave a commitment to amend the unhelpful provision on sharing risk. I would have had to stand in the way of the Bill reaching Committee if he had not have made that commitment, as I would have done if he had not said that he would co-operate. He has cooperated with the Government today in trying to determine whether we can make sense of things. I see the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) getting twitchy because his Bill is next, so I shall return to the points made.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras raised an important issue, although the Bill does not cover it, about the problem of drilling out the adventuressness of adventure in every setting. One reason why the Bill merits further debate is that the deadlines in the House will allow us to put salt on the tails of all those in the sector who are responsible for such issues to find solutions to the problems that he identified. I certainly want to do that.
§ Mr. Dobson
My hon. Friend talked about joint enterprises to reduce premiums. I suspect that most voluntary organisations, and certainly most of the voluntary groups that run the playgrounds with which I am familiar, have no idea that that arrangement exists and can be exploited. It would help if the addresses of useful organisations were contained somewhere—perhaps on a vast governmental internet site— with an explanation of how to get on such a scheme. That would go down very well.
§ Fiona Mactaggart
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comment. One reason why it is proper to allow the Bill to proceed is because we can use it as a vehicle to get a better awareness of what is happening and to test the quality of that. We do not have all the solutions. I am not certain that the Bill offers a solution; I have not had enough time to determine that. Of course promoting volunteering is a good thing. Every hon. Member agrees with that. However, the original version of the Bill contained some things that we could not have supported in any way. The hon. Member for Canterbury helpfully 1198 abandoned one of those measures en route, and I am grateful to him for that. There are other measures that the Government will not support in their current form, but if Parliament can come up with ideas or even promote information, schemes and strategies to deal with the anxieties and problems raised, that will be a worthwhile exercise even if our debate uses up the time of many hon. Members and civil servants. It is worth getting more volunteers, making activities safe and reducing the insurance premiums and other barriers to successful organisations.
I hope to deal with all the points raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) said that the law on frivolous claims has not changed and that the courts can prevent such claims from being made. He mentioned shared responsibility. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Canterbury for accepting that there is a problem with the wording. We do not expect that to survive scrutiny in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) referred to BrAVA, an organisation in his constituency, which I hope to visit shortly. He explained that there are other barriers to volunteering than those that are dealt with in the Bill. For example, I have been doing a quick consultation. Usually we have a 12-week consultation period when preparing for a Bill, but that is not possible with private Members' legislation. That is one reason why the Government might like the idea of a private Member's Bill but not its detail. Such a Bill might be designed to solve a problem of which we are all aware but the Government are not sure that the proposed provisions will solve that problem. That is because we have not been able to consult widely enough.
I approached Dame Elisabeth Hoodless of Community Service Volunteers, an organisation with which we work closely. I know that all hon. Members have experience of "make a difference day". I have seen on the website of the hon. Member for Canterbury information about his involvement in a local vinery on "make a difference day". In a typical forthright response, Dame Elisabeth wrote:We understood that the law had just been tightened to address these issues and are not clear what this Bill aims to achieve. CSV feels it is important to stress that day to day living can be a dangerous activity. We feel that the Bill, in particular the statement of inherent risk, will lead to a highly bureaucratic process that would exclude many young people from the activities that they enjoy.I know that the hon. Gentleman is desperate not to have a "highly bureaucratic process". I know also that the CSV is not alone in fearing that the Bill will lead to a highly bureaucratic process.
The Pre-School Learning Alliance thinks that many provisions in the Bill are standard practice and that the measure might be bureaucratic and deter people. We need to ensure that that does not happen. In a way, I shall agree with part of what the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) said. She said that this is not an easy issue and that the hon. Member for Canterbury has come up with an ingenious solution. It is ingenious, but I am not certain it will work. However, it is worth testing. It is worth consulting voluntary organisations to ascertain whether parts of the Bill will help. We all share an aim. I disagree with the hon. Lady's points on food and tobacco. In all circumstances, tobacco is always dangerous to people's health. We should not eat the 1199 wrong sort of food in excess. However, as the hon. Member for Mars, or Masterfoods, I can be assured that a Mars a day, if that is part of a balanced diet, can genuinely help us work, rest and play.
I have outlined how the Government are committed to promoting volunteering. We need to take whatever steps are practical to remove barriers that prevent people from becoming involved in their communities. However, we need to guard against making provisions that create an imbalance of responsibility and duty between the voluntary sector and public and private sectors. There is a risk that that will create confusion and possible resentment, and undermine our belief that the voluntary and community sectors should be considered on the same footing as other sectors and can rival market and state because of their unique way of working.
I am promoting voluntary organisations in their capacity to provide public services, which is a fantastic capacity. When we use their imagination, talent and flexibility, we can do some exciting things.
We recognise that the concerns that the hon. Member for Canterbury seeks to address through the Bill are real. They are being faced by sections of the voluntary and community sectors. We have already been working on some of them through organisations such as the insurance cover working group. I have promised that we shall engage with voluntary organisations to focus on the subject raised by the Bill. I hope that we shall be able to feed that into consideration in Committee. We shall examine the identification and resolution of barriers that prevent some people from engaging in volunteer activity. That might result in the statement of inherent risk. However, I must advise the hon. Member for Canterbury that Ministers are not confident that the Bill can be amended not to give a free pass to the negligent. If it is not possible to amend it, or if it creates a barrier of the kind suggested by Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, I cannot support it, but the matter is worth further consideration.
Sport England's research, which has contributed to the thinking of the hon. Member for Canterbury, shows that volunteers must be better supported to enable them to contribute time and effort. We can achieve that by continuing to work on our volunteering strategies, but the Bill might have something to offer. I am not certain on that point, but it is worth further work.
In conclusion, we should not fall for a myth that has developed in this debate. The Home Office citizenship survey, to which I referred earlier, provides an evidence base to support our work. It helps to assess how we are doing on the target to increase volunteering. The emerging findings from the 2003 survey—as with all research, these things take time to analyse—show that volunteering did not, as we have heard today, decrease between 2001 and 2003; over that period, the number of people participating voluntarily in their community at least once a month increased by 3 per cent. That translates into an increase of more than 1 million in the number of volunteers, which exceeds the challenge set by the Prime Minister in 2000 to get 1 million more volunteers by 2006. We are making progress on the 1200 matters that the Bill seeks to address, so let us not say that things have been going backwards, because they have been going forwards.
If the provisions in the Bill enable us to make further progress, I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Canterbury. If, on close examination in Committee, it turns out that the fears expressed to me by ministerial colleagues from across the Government are insurmountable, we may lose the Bill. However, we will end up with a process that will increase volunteering and the safety of volunteers and those who engage in activities and that will promote the kind of active, engaged society to which the hon. Member for Canterbury, every hon. Member who spoke in this debate and I are committed.
§ Mr. Brazier
I shall be brief. I am grateful to all the hon. Members who have come along on a Friday morning to support the Bill. I failed to mention that the benefits my children obtained from scouting first started my thinking about the matter.
There has been a string of excellent speeches. The right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) brought terrific experience to the debate. He has done a lot of work with his working group, and some of its concerns could be addressed through the Bill.
The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) rightly focused on the Vowles case, which is at the heart of what has recently gone seriously wrong and is frightening the sector.
My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) combined a lifelong commitment to volunteering, on which he has written several pamphlets, with a string of interesting constituency cases.
I reassure the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) that it is envisaged that people will normally sign one form, but organisations such as the scouts or the CCF might get the form signed annually when children go to particular camps involving particular activities.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) for volunteering to serve in Committee. I am happy to repeat my reassurance on the Data Protection Act, and that provision could not go on to the statute book as drafted. I discussed that point until the last moment, and I accept that I have still not got it right. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) for the strong support that she promised as Opposition spokesperson and for her interest in the Bill.
The Minister was extremely gracious in her reply. She and I were both suffering with raging colds when we met two weeks ago and I am extremely sorry that while I have got over mine she, perhaps through overwork, has not yet got over hers, and she has been terribly brave. I look forward very much to working constructively with her in Committee. It may help the House and hon. Members who will serve on the Committee to know that, as I have made clear throughout—the Minister has echoed this—the latter parts of the Bill are negotiable. Clause 2, including subsection (2), needs to be tightened up and re-examined, but the underlying principle of the Bill, which the consortium of volunteer organisations 1201 supports, is that we need a solid mechanism for raising the barrier for negligence claims against volunteers. There is not a single organisation that wants a single act of negligence to be committed against a single child or adult, but volunteers are worried about the threat to adventure-training and sporting organisations posed by cases such as Vowles. It is not acceptable that because there was a serious accident as a result of what most volunteers providing sport and, adventure training would regard as an acceptable bending of a rule—the Minister was right: although it was called a law, it is in fact a rule—a referee should be declared negligent. His decision was based on the individual player's wishes and the game would otherwise have had to be abandoned.
I shall end where I began. I thank all members of the consortium and colleagues on both sides of the House who have assisted with the Bill and made Second Reading possible. I look forward to working with the Minister and colleagues who agree to serve on the Committee, including my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).