Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to Women’s Royal Voluntary Service National Conference ("Facing the new Challenge")

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Bloomsbury Centre, London
Source: Thatcher Archive: transcript
Editorial comments: 1500.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 3915
Themes: Autobiography (childhood), Conservatism, Public spending & borrowing, Taxation, Family, Society, Social security & welfare, Voluntary sector & charity

Lady Pike, can I thank you very much for that warm introduction. Lady Pike and I were certainly Members of Parliament together. We're still both doing important work. We're still both leaders. I mean there is a slight difference between the sort of leadership which I show and the leadership which Lady Pike shows, but I reckon we're both equally important to this nation at large in the work we're doing now.

I came into the House in 1959, Lady Pike in 1955, and we worked together on many things. And we were very, very sad to lose her but very, very pleased that we lost her to be the leader of the Women's Royal Voluntary Services, and I would like to say what wonderful leadership she has displayed throughout that time. New ideas, always keeping abreast of the times, usually ahead of them, tremendous vitality, and above all love of the work. And I thought the applause when she got up to speak was the warmest possible tribute you could have paid to her, and I did so agree with what she said, that really voluntary work, voluntary giving, the voluntary principle is the thing which unites this nation which is so very characteristic of the way of life in Britain.

You referred, Madam Chairman, to the planting of the tree we did. I was there again the other day as we gave Fit for Work Awards to firms who are catering for the disabled. Indeed the tree does flourish, but I just thought the good Lord had been very thoughtful in providing just the right kind of weather for planting a tree. Because you really do need to see that it is watered in the early stages.

Now the title of this Conference as you well know is Facing the New Challenge, and if any organization in this country knows how to face and meet a new challenge it's the Women's Royal Voluntary Service. And I think that proof—if any is needed—is to be found in your fascinating 80th birthday present to the Queen Mother which is an account of some 80 new schemes of work started in 1980 and continuing into the future. I looked through them. Each one really deserves mention. But the one which caught my attention particularly, which is very appropriate as we have the Scottish Chairman with us, was a scented garden for the blind and the disabled. May I just quote the description. The Scottish Chairman gave a challenge to one of the [end p1] local branches in Scotland which had a derelict piece of land behind the office at Stranraer. What were they going to do with it? They met the challenge by designing a scented garden for the disabled. It wasn't just the idea: it's the way in which it's being carried out. They got some young people to help under the Youth Opportunities Scheme. They also got the Director of Parks to help in designing and perhaps in giving some plants. They also got another voluntary organization, the Round Table, to help in doing the heavy work and preparing the ground and starting to plant. It's interesting that rosemary for remembrance and ivy for steadfastness will be planted first. And once established this scented garden will be open in the afternoon with a WRVS member in attendance so that visitors can not only enjoy the scents but can meet each other there; a kind of outdoor club in fact. A wonderful idea, just one of 80, and I ought really to refer to the other 79 as well: they're all equally good. But that seemed to me unique, and the garden will be open, and may it flourish from May 1981.

I also looked through some of your other new activities, and one which interested me particularly was one called Operation Partnership, and it's a partnership within Endeavour Training to run weekends and holiday programmes in which you can bring a greater number of people into contact with what Endeavour Training are offering. Without you those courses would be limited as to where they can go. With you you can provide facilities, get premises, provide the administration, the food, the catering, so that many, many young people can take advantage of these Endeavour Training Schemes. And I thought the objective was perfectly described at the beginning of the pamphlet, and I quote.

“Personal achievement is attained through personal effort, and corporate goals by collective effort in all fields of human endeavour.”

I thought really that that said it almost all. But it's in that spirit and by reference to that sentiment that I would like to share some of my thoughts with you on what each and every one of us does as a volunteer by the way we live; by belonging to voluntary associations that is by publicly demonstrating the voluntary principle. And how I think that should fit in with what the Government or the statutory authorities or the professionals should do. Of course I started to look at what the survey showed. We each of us know what is done, and it's wonderful, and it's warm. But we none of us quite know how far it's done up and down the country except those right at the top of the [end p2] voluntary organizations. And there was a very interesting survey done which showed that every week some 1½ million people take part in voluntary work in the community. 1½ million every week. And if you also take into account the people who aren't systematically involved but who work from time to time during the year the figure becomes nearer 3 million people involved in voluntary service during the course of the year.

Now that really doesn't demonstrate the full story of caring within our daily lives because it is a heartening fact that there are now more older people being looked after in their own homes than ever before. You wouldn't always think that but it is true. Indeed I think it's remarkable that 95 out of every 100 retired people live at home, and only 5 in every 100 are in residential and hospital care. And ladies and gentlemen, that couldn't be achieved without some marvellous voluntary work on the part of organizations like the Women's Royal Voluntary Services. I go round one Saturday every year before Christmas to the housebound. I may say that is a day which I enjoy tremendously and learn a great deal from. I know just how much is done to help those people to stay living at home, and I know that the most important thing in their lives is to go on living at home with their own familiar things surrounding them. They're also so very cheerful. Sometimes they can keep you in absolute stitches with some of the things they tell you about their previous life. Sometimes they'll tell you, some of the older ones, this year only one person I saw was under the age of 90. And some of them told me about life in their young days. And as I came away from one or two of the houses or rooms where they were living I just had a feeling that the things they were telling me about belong to a very wholesome society in some ways, in the relationship between people and the generosity shown one to another. But that's just a little bit of what I do almost every year especially in my own constituency.

But it all really starts in the family, because not only is the family the most important means through which we show our care for others. It's the place where each generation learns its responsibilities towards the rest of society. You stressed the family, Madam Chairman, and I want to stress the importance of the family here at this Conference because I know that almost everyone here will recognize as I do the debt we owe to the example set within our own families. That certainly [end p3] is where I learnt it at home with my parents. And our own involvement in voluntary work is so often the outcome of the example and training of parents and relatives who expected us to want to do something for others. Not only to do it but to do it happily because that was the way we lived. And those who set us on our way certainly knew none of the jargon phrases and would never have spoken of “informal caring networks” when they meant family and friends, relatives and neighbours. Yet those who set us on our way they understood the fact which our society is only now rediscovering. That the only effective way to reach all those who need help is through the voluntary service of millions of individuals who do what they can because they want to. And however much money we have and however rich Britain becomes there's no way and no budget which could produce statutory services to meet the needs which as volunteers you now satisfy. And in the end real neighbourliness and understanding care comes most naturally from those who choose to give it and it comes most effectively from those who are neighbours and friends of those they help.

So this enthusiasm for voluntary help is therefore not the need to reduce Government spending. The fact is that it's as important in times of expansion and economic growth as it is during a recession. There are those who come and imply that the volunteer is just a cheap substitute for a salaried staff, but quite the contrary. I believe that the volunteer movement is at the heart of all our social welfare provision. That the statutory services are the supportive ones underpinning where necessary, filling the gaps and helping the helpers. Yes they are vital in sorting out the logistics, but the army in the field is overwhelmingly made up of volunteers like you. Of course to many of us this is to restate the home truths by upbringing and experience we've learned. But it makes it all the more exciting to see the way in which this view is increasingly widely accepted. Accepted even among those who once thought that voluntary action was only a stopgap, for the State found the resources and trained the experts to run the thing in what they would have called “their properly professional way” . But that view is particularly old fashioned and I'm very encouraged by the way in which local authorities, directors of social services, the social work profession and the specialist press are increasingly determined to shift the emphasis of statutory provision so that it becomes an enabling service, the statutory provision enabling [end p4] the volunteers to do their jobs more effectively.

And of course that also gives the statutory service a key role to play. And what I'm trying to show is that in the kind of society in which we are privileged to live it depends first on doing what we should do at home and looking after friends and families. It depends then on joining together to see that things are looked after in the community, and that too depends upon having good statutory services to see there aren't any gaps, upon getting everything well organized to see that we go where help is needed and to enable us to do our best.

It really all locks together. It isn't that any one group is in competition with another. It is that all are necessary to the way of life in which we live. And so therefore the statutory services do have a key role to play. The full time professional can ensure that voluntary groups are used to the best advantage, and they act as a catalyst where voluntary effort has faded or volunteers are few. And above all the statutory services can support the supporters. They can ease the pressure on the volunteers with professional help and advice. I've always thought that one of the very best examples of everyone helping and pulling together to give the very best possible service is the Meals on Wheels Service. It tends to be taken for granted: it shouldn't be. As I went round your exhibition one of your people told me that last year the WRVS provided 17 million meals, and what a welcome they must have been to the people to whom they were taken. A welcome not only because it was a hot meal, but the welcome shown on their faces as they welcomed the people into their homes, and welcomed tremendously the social contact which that gave them. Many many congratulations on the things which you do day in and day out for which perhaps too little thanks are given.

But I think the statutory services can only play their part successfully if we don't expect them to do for us things that we could be doing for ourselves. There is, as you know, a growing army of self-helpers, a kind of informal grassroot groups dedicated to meeting local need in individual ways. And here is where there is a very real new hope. These are not great national bodies, but they are groups of people getting together where they see a local need. I met several of them. You'll find sometimes in a village that someone who's had an idea that people living alone may not be able to demonstrate that they need help. [end p5]

So they've put bells in their homes. When that bell is pulled the bell rings outside and everyone in the village knows that that person needs help. You'll find the churches issuing cards, and the moment a card goes in the window everyone knows that someone needs help. I will have groups in some of my housing estates who are getting together and looking after mothers who need baby-sitting for children, who need help with children, getting together to help the old people. Another group is going around to try to ensure that there is access in the main shops for wheel chairs of people who are disabled.

These are the smaller self-help groups called forth when there is a local need by them spotting a local need and filling it themselves. And I know how very much those groups depend on the more formal structure of the WRVS and others to provide them with the advice which they need to carry on their job. And that really is one example of volunteers in the great national body helping other volunteers called forth in these local groups.

And I don't think any of us should feel put out because some other group is tackling problems in a different way from us. Because really variety is one of the glories of the voluntary movement. And very local and even spontaneous effort can be given continuity and material help by the national organizations. Volunteers who may not join a national body can often join a local group, and yet the bigger voluntary organizations can give substance to local initiative and help to foster and extend it. There need therefore be no conflict between those newer forms of voluntary effort and older established organizations like yours. They've all a place in meeting the needs of our varied society. And it's only by recognizing that there are many things that we can't do as effectively as others that we free ourselves to do the things that we can do best.

That really is a lesson that Governments have to relearn the whole time, because we politicians and administrators mustn't forget that the state has a limited role. Yet it is so easy for people to expect the state to do more than it ought to do. And there are always very real temptations for politicians to pretend that they're able to do more than is ever possible. And that's why I welcomed the way in which we in Britain recognize that it's right for Government to help independent voluntary bodies financially, because those bodies can do things which [end p6] the Government can't or they can do them a lot better. And last year the Government, which is merely the instrument of the taxpayer through the taxpayer, gave about £85 million in grants to voluntary organizations. Very well spent money indeed. Much of it called out matching contributions from industry and individuals.

And whilst it makes the partnership between Government and the voluntary organizations easier but the last budget included a £30 million package of tax concessions designed to increase income from charitable giving. Again that wasn't proposed as a means of saving taxpayers' money. Government help to voluntary bodies has not been reduced: indeed it's been increased. It was intended to increase the independence of charities and the variety of their response to the problems they face. If too much of the money were to come from Government then too much of the direction of activity would be dictated by priorities of Government and too little by the demands of the situation on the ground, which you know better than anyone else. The vitality of voluntary organizations would be sapped if they were to ever make themselves creatures of Government. So our role, with the voluntary organizations, is to help you to do the administration and work of mobilising this enormous army of volunteers which can do the work throughout the community in a better way than anyone else can.

You sometimes in your pamphlets but always in the demonstrations of the work you do, show that the voluntary principle is important for reasons which are far beyond economics. Yes please do clap; it is extremely important. The willingness of men and women to give service is one of freedom's greatest safeguards. It ensures that caring remains free from political control. It leaves men and women independent enough to meet needs as they see them, and not only as the State provides. And that's why voluntary organizations such as ours can only exist effectively in a free society.

Remember I started off by saying most of us tend to voluntary work by the inspiration we give in our families. I can well remember some of the things which Alfred Robertsmy father used to say and do. I can remember shortly after the War when going to a supper—it was given by Rotary for International Rotary, a different voluntary organization—and my father was called upon to give the vote of thanks. He often was, he really was [end p7] a marvellous speaker, you know where I just get a little of my capacity from. But you know, if no one else could give a vote of thanks Pa was always called on. And Pa could always rise to the occasion. And often I remember some of these things that came out. And I remember this one. You know some of your early memories are not just memories of what you're taught but you get a whole flash like a film in your memory. I always seem to remember in pictures, not in words, but in pictures. And I can remember that supper vividly. And my father always took me around because he thought that I should learn from life. And I remember what he said. He said this. We were just through the War. He said he thought that Hitler paid one of the greatest compliments to Rotary by proscribing it in Nazi Germany, by wholly extinguishing its activity. Because, he said, that meant that the dictator knew that he could not survive if organizations which exhibited a powerful independent human spirit and initiative were permitted to flourish. And he thought, that's why that kind of society has to stop things like Rotary. But there's no such thing like the Women's Royal Voluntary Service and the many, many other organizations which are a part of the way we live. They are not just a way of giving help and caring, vitally important though that is, and wonderful the work which you do: they are an example that we are a free people, and continue to be that and do things our own way. And that when we are free, and this is the important thing, we do rise to our responsibilities and carry them out far better than any government.

And so I would say that the great volunteer associations are really a vital part of the defence of our freedom of action. There must be a substantial element of private giving if independence of decision is to be maintained. But I think, Madam Chairman, and you're a wonderful example of this, it would be a mistake to consider the value of voluntary service only from the viewpoint of those who are helped. Just as important is the contribution that voluntary service makes to the volunteer. Because it enables the individual to express her personality, imagination and ingenuity. It's lively, it's creative, it's not dull, it's full of fun and humour. Full of it. Lady Holland Martin will just tell you of a little party we had at No. 10 when just at the rehearsal of the Trooping of the Colour when there was a big stand outside No. 10 Downing Street, and we thought it such a pity it should stay empty for the rehearsal, and we got in a lot of children which she found. Some [end p8] were children from deprived homes, and some were children who raised money for the NSPCC; and they watched the Trooping of the Colour and then they came in and we of course had all the usual things that children give; and they ran up and down the reception rooms of No. 10 Downing Street. They exhausted all my staff. But they had an absolutely wonderful time and gave us such immense pleasure. I was a little bit puzzled because I had taken the trouble to get in, and realizing they'd want entertainment as well as just looking at our reception rooms, some of the stars from Star Wars and some of the disc jockeys. Between you and me, I'm not really sure which was most popular: the Trooping of the Colour or Star Wars. All I know is that we at No. 10 had a tremendous time, an absolutely wonderful occasion as we did when we also had a whole school of disabled children, and the whole work of No. 10 came to a stop for two or three hours. And the interesting thing was, as they were carried up the stairs, I think the children knew how to give directions to the carriers because the children had been carried before and everyone felt so much better at the end of those days. And they gave us really far more than we gave them. So you know just exactly what I mean. And I remember you saying, Lady Pike, that [words missing] of concern and personal responsibility for other people. Really voluntary work is not fundamentally about generalised goodwill. It's about individual and continuing effort. It's about doing something oneself.

I stress continuing care because we all know how easy it is to begin, and how much more difficult it is to persevere. And voluntary work does demand a willingness to stick at it, and it demands a dependability without which there can be no success. And it's here that the record of your organization is particularly striking. It's the long record of continued service which sets us an example. We see it all in the wonderful exhibition that you've got outside. The many, many things which you started which continue and which have flourished. Things which we take wholly for granted. Things like the Home from Hospital Scheme, the Victim Support Scheme. I understand that following your excellent Holiday Scheme for children, you're now doing a holiday scheme for grannies and of course, you're the first to come forward with help for the earthquake, the terribly tragic earthquake in Italy. So you're always ready to respond, but many, many things go on continuously. [end p9]

And I asked if there'd been any letters of thanks, and of course, really, members who have been helped by the Women's Royal Voluntary Service do write some of the most charming letters. And I was interested to see in one of the local Basildon papers a letter from a person who wrote:

“I lost my husband after a long illness. How much gratitude I owe to organizations in Basildon. I'd like to thank WRVS who were on hand at the hand I needed them most.”

That really says it all. And there is the most charming letter from a mentally handicapped child, absolutely lovely.

“I thank you and the WRVS for their services and for a lovely holiday.”

I wonder how much effort went into pencilling that letter. But when you get it it means more really than anything else. And I just looked up a little quotation which I had remembered very much from earlier days. It is by Sir Humphrey Davy.

“Life is not made up of great sacrifices and duties, but of little things in which smiles and kindnesses given habitually are what win and preserve the heart and secure comfort.”

That really is what it is all about.

In the 1980s your organization, like so many others, will find new people anxious to help. There are going to be many more retired people, hale and hearty, wanting to do something to help others. Now is the time to do so. Indeed I'm always amazed when I go to old people's functions to find how many of those who are helping with the meals are older than those who are eating them.

Of course there are going to be social changes. Earlier retirement, shorter working hours, altered attitudes and aspirations. And that'll mean, those changes will mean that the range and number of volunteers is growing the whole time. But the character of true voluntary work will always be the will to serve. That is unchanging. And this must mean that the WRVS and other great national organizations have not only a fine past but a great future. Far from being out of date the growth of the voluntary principle is one of the keys to the future happiness of our society. [end p10]

If we want a nation distinguished by the quality and depth of its life then we're asking for a nation distinguished by the quantity and range of its voluntary service. And the true reward of voluntary service is that you really do gain more than you give.

And, finally, Madam Chairman, our challenge is to find acceptable ways of enabling a sometimes cynical and disillusioned society to have the opportunity of finding this out for themselves.