Kate Youde looks at whether the new welfare rules will put a brake on volunteering by jobseekersThe issue of people volunteering while on state benefits has long been a thorny one, usually because claimants have been told erroneously by Jobcentre officials that they will lose benefits if they volunteer for more than 16 hours a week.
Another aspect came to light in the summer, when university graduate Cait Reilly was told to stop volunteering at the Pen Museum & Learning Centre in Birmingham and do unpaid work in the retail outlet Poundland if she was to keep her Jobseeker’s Allowance. She challenged the government unsuccessfully in the High Court, arguing that it was a breach of her human rights.
Now the issue is in the news again because of the introduction of the universal credit system of benefits, which Volunteering England says might have a negative effect on volunteering. It points out that the new single payment for jobseekers and low-income earners – coming into force next year – will restrict the amount of time claimants can volunteer.
The rules say they will be expected to spend up to 35 hours a week looking for or preparing for work. Volunteering by people receiving the payment will be restricted to "up to 50 per cent of their expected hours of work search". There are no specified restrictions at the moment.
David McCullough, chief executive of the older people’s charity WRVS, which uses a lot of volunteers, acknowledges that a balance needs to be met but says the government should be careful that the new arrangements do not have the unintended consequence of dampening down a renewed enthusiasm for volunteering brought about by the summer’s Olympics and Paralympics.
Kate Bowgett, director of the Association of Volunteer Managers, believes the restriction might have a positive effect on volunteering by raising awareness of it as an option for jobseekers. She says that the specification of a time limit is "unfortunate", but very few people volunteer for more than 17.5 hours a week, so the change will not make much difference.
"Theoretically, it would be great if there were no restriction, and that would be what we would back as the best possible option," she says. "But I don’t think there’s going to be a massive impact on people. It could actually have a positive impact because it is an opportunity for Jobcentre Plus staff on the ground to be educated about volunteering and what the rules are.
"They might then be a bit more proactive about suggesting it as an option and stop giving people misinformation."
Rob Jackson, director of Rob Jackson Consulting, which specialises in work on volunteering, says confusion about the existing system means people are sometimes wrongly told by Jobcentre Plus advisers they cannot volunteer, or must limit it to 16 hours a week.
He thinks much will depend on the consistency with which people on the front line apply the new rules.
He says it is encouraging that the government "is recognising volunteering as a valid activity that contributes to people’s search for paid work". But he does not think a change in welfare rules will get more people involved.
"If it simplifies things and stops people who are on benefits feeling worried that they can’t volunteer, or being picked on by benefits advisers who don’t understand volunteering, it’s a good thing," says Jackson. "But I guess we’re not going to know until it’s been in place for a while and we understand what those at the sharp end experience."