The campaign Keep Volunteering Voluntary has attracted support from charities large and small. Launched in response to the government's new Help to Work programme, the campaign offers an appealing definition of volunteering: "People independently choosing to give their time freely to help others and make the world a better place." This is contrasted with schemes such as Help to Work, which, the campaign says, "force unemployed people to carry out unpaid work or face benefit sanctions that cause hardship and destitution".
Help to Work is a Department for Work and Pensions scheme that requires anyone who is still out of work after two years either to sign on daily at a Jobcentre, take part in further training or carry out a community work placement. The placement is for 30 hours each week for up to 26 weeks and is unpaid. Anyone who refuses to take part or who fails to turn up will lose their benefits. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently explained the thinking to Channel 4 News: "Doing compulsory community work will help people get into work."
But what is the evidence for this? In a pilot scheme last year, the DWP took 15,000 claimants and placed them in either community work placements or a control group. It found that by the end of the pilot 18 per cent of people in the control group had found employment - exactly the same result achieved by community work placements.
In other words, Help to Work made virtually no difference. No wonder the DWP avoided publicising these findings. Yet £300m is now being spent on a nationwide programme with six huge contracts awarded to G4S, a company discredited in some of its previous contracts.
So here we have an expensive programme that won't work. But what about its compulsory nature? For 30 hours' community work, someone on this programme will receive their Jobseeker's Allowance of £57.35. That's less than £2 per hour. The statutory minimum wage is £6.31 and the living wage, outside London, is £7.65. If people are forced to work, surely they should receive at least the legal minimum?
Another objectionable feature of the scheme is its impact on people from minority ethnic communities. Andy Gregg, chief executive of Race on the Agenda, made the point forcibly to me: "It will affect black and minority ethnic communities disproportionately, given that levels of unemployment in these communities are higher, because of racism in the labour market'."
It seems to me that Help to Work is not about undermining volunteering. It's about forcing people - and especially black people - to work for much less than the statutory minimum wage, with no evidence that the experience will move them any closer to getting a job. But let's get behind Keep Volunteering Voluntary and do what we can to persuade charities to boycott this odious scheme.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser