Exploring and encouraging Volunteering is the main theme for my year as High Sheriff. Over the past few weeks I have seen at first hand how volunteers, of many different sorts, are essential not only to the effective operation of the criminal justice system, but also to helping in organisations that encourage young people and others lead fulfilling lives, and to enriching the life of our communities.
Just a couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of spending a day visiting the magistrates courts in Colchester and Chelmsford. Magistrates deal with over 95% of all criminal cases but it is easy to forget that they are all volunteers, giving typically a couple of days a month to their court duties. They are well supported by the professional staff of HM Courts and Tribunal Service, and this partnership between well trained volunteers and professionals within the statutory or community and voluntary sector is replicated in many parts of the criminal justice system and beyond. If you are interested in finding out about becoming a magistrate you can do so here.
Last week I was briefed by the team that draws together all those who volunteer with Essex Police to help make our communities safer. These volunteers total nearly 1500 and range from very experienced members of the Special Constabulary, to youngsters who have recently joined the Volunteer Police Cadets. All around the county, there are Active Citizens and Police Support Volunteers and others giving their time to help make their communities safer. You can read more about the work of volunteers within Essex Police here.
Without effective partnership and coordination, however, there is always a risk some of this effort would be wasted. I have been pleased to see those partnerships at work as I attended the meetings of community safety partnerships in a number of districts. I also joined a conference to share learning from the development of community safety hubs. In most districts across Essex, these now bring together many of the different agencies that need to work closely to deliver safer communities. Many of those hubs host regular meetings where local charitable and voluntary sector organisations can contribute both to identifying local problems and, working together, to finding and implementing solutions.
On a visit to Thurrock, I visited the Foodbank at Corringham, and KidEco and Baby Bank at Lakeside, each meeting essential needs of those facing financial hardship. I went on to The Hive, the HQ of Thurrock CVS (Community and Voluntary Services). It was heartening to learn how the CVS encourages both volunteering and partnership working across all the organisations it supports. I was reminded that within the charitable and community sectors there are not only volunteers, but also many highly skilled professionals delivering badly needed and expert services, often commissioned by, and working closely with statutory services.
I so enjoyed a visit to Abberton Rural Training at Wormingford, which offers a variety of learning opportunities, in a rural setting, to those struggling in many different ways with their mental health or having additional learning needs. This blending of expert professional and volunteering effort within a charity, to meet what would otherwise unmet needs, is deeply impressive.
So too – in a completely different context is the work of the Essex and Hertfordshire Air Ambulance Trust (EHAAT). I visited their North Weald base last week, appropriately with Sally Burton DL, the High Sheriff of Hertfordshire. EHAAT is a charity raising all the funds needed to keep the two helicopters and fleet of specialist road response vehicles operational with crews and doctors. The NHS fund the expert paramedics who work on the crews. Those paramedics also work shifts in the ambulance control room, providing essential coordination between EHAAT, the ambulance service and hospitals. This ensures that those critically injured in our counties get the best help as quickly as possible, and are then moved to where they can best be treated. The voluntary support needed to sustain this highly professional, hi-tec emergency service, working hand in glove with our NHS, is similarly remarkable.
It is a huge privilege as High Sheriff to be able to visit these many different organisations and to learn about, and witness, the remarkable work they do for those in need across our county and to enrich the lives of our communities. Partnership working between them is always important, but the more so when resources everywhere are being squeezed. And I haven’t yet met an organisation that doesn’t need more volunteers: to train as a magistrate or a police support volunteer; or to work in the many charities helping those in need; or in their governance as a Trustee; or as a fundraiser. If you can find a few hours a week – or a day or two a month, perhaps supported by your employer, why not explore the many options?