Call for gap-year voluntary scheme – The Herald

A think-tank has called for a scheme to help gap-year students and others carry out voluntary work at home rather than abroad

A special scheme should be set up to help gap-year students and others carry out voluntary work at home rather than abroad, a think-tank has said.

Reform Scotland called for a project similar to Voluntary Service Overseas to be established, allowing people to help good causes in their own country.

The independent think-tank made the recommendation in a new report looking at the voluntary sector in Scotland.

There are currently about 45,000 voluntary organisations, including around 20,000 registered charities, housing associations or credit unions. And the sector had an annual income of £4.1 billion in 2008, employing 130,000 paid staff – approximately 5% of the Scottish workforce.

In addition to this, Reform Scotland said some 1.3 million adults act as volunteers. But the think-tank said a Voluntary Service at Home scheme could help boost this number. And it suggested this type of initiative would allow gap-year students and others to become involved in charity work at home, rather than heading overseas to do it.

Reform Scotland undertook a four-month consultation exercise, examining the role of the voluntary sector. In a report published following that, the think-tank said the sector would be “enhanced through the encouragement of greater participation in voluntary activity”. And it added that to help achieve this it “would like to see a Voluntary Service at Home scheme set up”.

The report continued: “This would enable gap-year students, amongst others, to become involved in charity work at home, similar to work they often undertake abroad.”

The report revealed that during the consultation the policy unit the Social Justice Foundation had suggested building on the phrase “charity begins at home” by establishing a home version of the voluntary work often done abroad by gap-year students.

Reform Scotland added: “A Voluntary Service at Home scheme would need some sort of co-ordinating organisation, similar to the way in which Project Trust sends about 200 volunteers to 25 countries annually to undertake charity work. Carrying out the charity work at home could also enable students and/or volunteers to undertake part-time work at the same time which could broaden the potential intake.”

Reform Scotland has called for voluntary sector bodies to be able to set up new, publicly funded, independent schools, which would provide an “alternative to local authority provision”. It has also argued that hospitals and other community health providers should become independent, not-for-profit trusts – which would be part of the the voluntary sector. They would also be able to set up new bodies to provide healthcare.

We have proposed that the commissioning role of health boards should be given to 14 area-based mutual organisations or “health commissioning co-operatives”. These would be regulated by and receive their funding from government, but crucially would be owned by their members, people living in these areas, and have direct patient representation on their boards to ensure they are run in their interests. 

These organisations would be specifically charged with ensuring the provision of essential local services such as accident and emergency and primary care as well as ensuring that patients were given a choice about the care they received.

Their role would be as champions of patients, disseminating the relevant information on health outcomes and quality of care so that patients and their GPs can make an informed choice based on the performance of the different providers. The system would be funded by taxpayers’ money, as at present, but this money would flow through the system based on the choices of patients with the NHS tariff for each treatment following the patient to the provider of his or her choice.

Although we have advocated that existing NHS hospitals and providers of community healthcare should become independent, not-for-profit trusts, we acknowledge that this should happen only over time. 

Health boards would, therefore, still be providers of healthcare in their areas. However, separating the commissioning of healthcare from its provision would remove potential conflicts of interest and encourage a wider range of healthcare providers. 

Patients could continue to choose a public sector provider and no doubt many would do so. But the barriers to new providers from the public sector (such as local authorities), voluntary sector and private sector would be removed.

The voluntary sector is well placed to take advantage of this opportunity as it has a proven track record in aspects of health and social care.

This would be fair to all concerned and mean that the way our health service developed was in the hands of patients and not politicians. That is exactly how it should be because it would lead to a better health service for all of us living in Scotland.

• Geoff Mawdsley is director of Reform Scotland, an independent, non-party think-tank that aims to set out better ways of delivering more effective public services