People sometimes ask me why I'm optimistic about Britain. You just need to look around this room to see the answer.
As a nation we're rich in many things. But perhaps our greatest wealth lies in the talent, the character and idealism of the millions of people who make their communities work.
You can see that idealism in the way people respond to a catastrophe like the floods in Mozambique. The British government is already giving more help than any other country in the world, and we will continue to do our bit. And I know too that the British people will respond in the way we always do to the official appeal launched today.
We're here today to celebrate that idealism, and the great British tradition of volunteering that is now being revitalised as more and more people look for ways of giving something back, of being part of something that's bigger than themselves.
This week we have seen some very practical examples of that.
Tuesday saw the launch of the Timebank - a bank into which people can pledge their time. It's a simple idea with huge potential that could become as much a part of the national scenery as the Lottery.
Yesterday a group of Millennium Volunteer ambassadors - including Heather Mills who you saw on inspirational form this morning - committed themselves to bringing a new generation of young people into volunteering.
And today we are gathered here in London, alongside similar gatherings in Edinburgh Cardiff and Belfast, with people from all walks of life and all political parties, and with General Colin Powell who has done so much through America's Promise to mobilise America to do more for the most disadvantaged children, to celebrate the best of what is happening in our communities and to commit to doing more.
Let me start by saying why today's convention is so important.
My vision of Britain is simple: it is one Britain, a nation brought together, bridging the divides of region, race, religion, class. A nation of fair play, where no-one is left out or left behind. A Britain where power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many.
Of course, there are things that need the full power and force of government. But governments don't create societies. A society is a community of people, who share common values and purpose, where everyone thinks of 'we' as well as 'me', about what they can put in as well as what they can take out.
In every community there are people doing extraordinary things. What they have in common is not just dedication or inspiration or creativity or sheer hard work. It is that they give to others the thing that is most precious to all of us…… time.
As we get older time seems to go faster and faster. It seemed to take a long time to reach 30. But the years between 30 and 40, I can tell you, went by in a flash.
More and more people feel short of time, not just money. Time to spend reading to the children. Time to have an evening meal without rushing. Time to collect the children and go shopping.
Most of us have given money to charity, or bought a copy of the Big Issue. But in one sense that is the easy part. Giving time is harder. Yet in many ways far more rewarding. And everyone - however rich or poor - has time to give.
Just look at how we spend a typical week. Yes we lead busy lives. But on average we are also watching around 20 hours a week of TV.
We have so much to offer our communities. Each of us has a passion. It might be for music. Or gardening. Or DIY. Or reading. Or walking in the hills. Think how fulfilling it would be for those talents and passions to be put to use in the community. Reading to a blind person. Teaching music skills in schools.
Sometimes we almost feel embarrassed about helping people. I always think how strange it is that the term 'do-gooder' became a term of abuse. What's wrong with doing good?
The people we honour here today have all given of their time. They are the doers, doing good.
Angela Harrison comes from Stratford. She lost her daughter to drugs and prostitution and is now helping prevent the same tragedy happening to others.
Maxie Hayles, comes from Birmingham and is a mentor to African Caribbean students, a housing advisor, and counsellor to those who have suffered racial attacks.
Mary Thomas is from Liverpool and has spent more than 30 years helping elderly people conquer loneliness and depression by developing the great talents within them.
Danny Thorpe is 17 and lives in Eltham. His sheer hard work and energy on the youth council has seen real benefits for young people in Greenwich.
Just some of the people who are inspiring the rest of us.
A year ago in a speech to the National Council of Voluntary Organisations I said that we should mark the Millennium with an explosion in giving, "acts of community", that touch people's lives.
I believe that we are laying the foundations for that to happen.
Last month Gordon Brown spelled out his plans to make it easier to give money: far-reaching, practical steps to make this a giving age.
We have been supporting better ways to link people to volunteering needs - like the Timebank and 'the Site' which is using the Internet to showcase tens of thousands of volunteering opportunities, and the demonstration projects being run across the country- from Brighton to north Tyneside.
We have been developing better opportunities to get involved. Like the Millennium Volunteers programme which I launched a year ago and which now has 4000 young people involved, protecting the environment, helping out in schools, and youth and sports clubs, and which aims to bring the number up to 100,000 and to reverse the fall in young people's volunteering that happened in the 1990s.
We have been working with business - - supporting the Cares Incorporated and City Cares project which is getting underway in 10 cities in all parts of the UK, and will bring another 100,000 people into volunteering.
We are preparing to introduce citizenship education in 2002, which will encourage much more volunteering in schools and many more projects led by young people.
We are developing new sources of funding - and I'm delighted that Ronnie Cohen of APAX, one of the world's leading venture capital companies, has agreed to share his time and skills by leading a social investment task force to develop new ways of raising money for voluntary organisations and social entrepreneurs.
And we are looking at how to remove the barriers in the benefits system which now discourage people from volunteering.
But we're not here today just to celebrate what is already happening. We all know how much more needs to be done to mine the gold in people's heads and hearts.
That's why I want today to set out three challenges. In October 2001, in Liverpool, in the United Nations Year of the Volunteer - we can meet again to review progress.
First, I want to challenge employers. The best are doing great things. Thinking creatively about the links between profitability and community. Introducing schemes like BT' s volunteering scheme for retired employees which helps them to befriend older people - including many who are housebound - over the telephone. But others still do very little.
I want to challenge employers to give their employees paid time off - the equivalent of one day's paid time in the next 18 months - to work in the community. Today five trailblazer companies are announcing their commitment to this - GE Electrics, the Family Assurance Company, Dresdner Kleinwort Benson's, Hasbro and Sainsbury's.
Yesterday I announced that I'll be doing this too as an individual and I intend to spend a day helping out in a school. Cherie will also be giving her time and when the RNIB come to a reception at Downing St this evening she'll be telling them that during her time off with the baby she intends to record story tapes for the blind. And today I'm particularly pleased that the head of the Civil Service, Sir Richard Wilson, has told me that he will be encouraging all government departments to give their staff a day each year to volunteer.
The second challenge is to our public services. I know that our public services need funding and commitment from government. And they will get it. But I also know how much they can benefit from involving more volunteers. There are many shining examples. Like Ryburn Valley High School, Calderdale, where parents organise challenges and exhibitions, and where sixth form students have been trained by the Samaritans to do peer counselling. NHS trusts like Pinderfields and Pontefract Hospitals where 800 volunteers help out supporting patients, providing services ranging from hairdressing to creches.
Sometimes in the past public services have been lukewarm about volunteers. Some are defensive about outsiders. Perhaps this was understandable when governments tried to use them as an alternative to paid staff. But I'm convinced that public services work best when there is a mix of people helping out in them and that voluntary activity can help us to maximise the benefits of the money we are investing in education, health and crime reduction, not substitute for it.
That's why I can announce today that the spending review will be looking at how we can provide support for volunteer managers right across the public services to help recruit, prepare, and train volunteers - new help for teachers; new help to prepare prisoners for life outside; new help to support nurses; new help for older people living alone; new mentors for young people. Not as an alternative to professional, paid staff, but as an invaluable complement to the work they do.
Third, I want to challenge Britain's older citizens to become involved. Many are already the mainstay of thousands of voluntary organisations but many, for a variety of reasons including the false belief they will not be wanted, do not get involved.
Millions of people now have years more active life after leaving their jobs. Yet many don't make much use of their experience and their skills. There are now 2.8m people aged between 50 and pensionable age who are not in paid employment. For many of them community activity can be of great value - ensuring their skills and experience aren't wasted. Enhancing their self-esteem. Keeping them in touch with other people.
We have been talking to organisations like Age Concern, Reach, the Retired and Senior Volunteers Programme, Community Service Volunteers, and the National Centre for Volunteering - about how to take this forward, and I can announce today that we will support an 'Experience Corps' in communities across the country that will support and mobilise opportunities for people over-50 to get involved.
Those are our challenges. A challenge to us all: "To give back some time". To recognise that although our time is precious to us it can be even more precious to others.
And these challenges also imply a challenge for the voluntary sector and the media. Everyone in this country has something to contribute. But too many voluntary organisations have volunteers that all come from the same background, and their recruitment drives target the same group again. Today the Citizens Advice Bureaux network, the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, the Red Cross and the RNIB and the RNID - are all committing themselves to achieving a really diverse involvement of people with their organisations - a diversity that reflects the nation we live in. My challenge to other voluntary organisations is to join them.
The media also have a part to play. I know that the broadcasters are doing some amazing things; not just the BBC with the Timebank but also ITV with its 'year of promise', and Sky's 'Reach for the sky'. I also know about some of the newspapers that are acting as trail blazers - like the Newcastle Journal, Leicester Mercury, Nottingham Evening Post, Plymouth Evening Herald, and the Manchester Evening News. But too often we see the cynical side of the media, knocking things down rather than building them up. That's why I want every local newspaper, every radio station, every magazine to think what more it could do, whether that means providing a community page, listing opportunities, or using the airwaves to encourage people to get involved.
The potential prize for all of us is immense - an explosion of giving, perhaps tens of millions more hours going into our communities every week.
And if we do succeed in making a more active community, I'm convinced that there will also be other benefits - less anti-social behaviour; less crime; less of the corrosion of values that worries so many people - and a better understanding that every community rests on how much people give as well as what they take.
We should be aiming high.
Modesty is one of the strengths of the British character. But it means that although there is a great British tradition of giving, there are millions of people in Britain who simply don't know how much they have to contribute - how badly their talents and energies are needed.
That's why today I set the challenge.
Let us all give generously - in the two currencies of time and money.
Let us all share our talents.
And let's by doing so make our communities stronger, our nation healthier, our own lives more fulfilled.