Should jobseekers who volunteer for charities be told to work elsewhere for free? Kaye Wiggins reports
The university graduate Cait Reilly hit the headlines earlier this month when she spoke out against her job centre's decision that she should stop volunteering at a local museum and carry out unpaid work at the retailer Poundland instead.
Reilly, who is looking for a career in the museum sector, has since launched legal action against the Department for Work and Pensions.
However, it seems that Reilly's situation is not unique. Research by Third Sector shows several other charities say they have lost long-term, skilled volunteers at short notice because they have been placed on the Work Programme or other government-run work training programmes.
Bryn Tudor, managing director of Mobility Advice Line, a Birmingham-based charity that provides a telephone advice service for people with disabilities, says he has lost five volunteers in the past six months for this reason, and has only six left. "We invest a lot of money in training our volunteers, and I can't continue like this," he says.
"It's not that we don't want our volunteers to find paid work. But with the Work Programme and similar welfare-to-work schemes, our volunteers are being taken away from us to do completely unnecessary things."
Tudor says one of his charity's volunteers, a university graduate, was interested in working with disabled people and was good at IT. "She was developing a website for us, as well as working with disabled people," he says. "She was learning new skills and making a big difference. She is now on a 12-week course where she is being taught how to write a CV and to look in newspapers for jobs. She already knows how to do that."
Syed Ali, a social policy coordinator at Hastings Citizens Advice Bureau, says: "Over the past two or three months we've lost about four volunteers because they have been placed on government welfare-to-work schemes. Another, who has a law degree, is about to be placed on one soon. Other CAB branches are having the same problem.
"Volunteers can't combine these schemes with their work for us because we need them to be available on weekdays."
Bonny Malhotra, chief executive of Maidstone Citizens Advice Bureau, says two or three of its advisers had to go through the process. "We had a volunteer who was claiming disability benefit, who had to go to Tesco to stack shelves," he says.
It is unclear how some of these situations came about. Tudor, Ali and Malhotra say that in some of the cases they are not sure whether volunteers were placed on the Work Programme or on similar schemes, such as the "sector-based work academy", which Reilly joined. In many cases, they have lost touch with the former volunteers.
Dan Sumners, a senior policy officer at Volunteering England, says: "A couple of people have brought this up anecdotally, but I wouldn't be able to say whether it was happening on a bigger scale."
When asked about the situation, a Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said: "To play devil's advocate here, why should people get benefits for volunteering?"
The department issued a statement that said: "When you claim benefits you sign an agreement that you will do all you can to look for work. If you have been claiming Jobseeker's Allowance for some time, you may need extra help to secure employment through the Work Programme.
"People of course can continue to volunteer, as many others in full and part-time work already do."
- Read Stephen Cook's editorial on the Work Programme