Stephen O'Brien, the Shadow Secretary of State for Employment, tabled a parliamentary question for the minister asking how many volunteers had taken charities to an employment tribunal with claims of unfair dismissal or for sex, race or disability discrimination in the past 12 months.
Sutcliffe replied: "Volunteers are not currently protected as employees and would only be able to bring a claim before the employment tribunal if they could show that they were in or applying for employment."
However, as Acevo chief executive Stephen Bubb pointed out in the letter: "Although you are right that tribunals are intended for employees, not volunteers, there is in fact no legal definition of the difference."
With the RNLI facing three claims of unfair dismissal from volunteers and another two threatened, Acevo is now urging the Government to introduce an amendment to employment legislation to resolve the anomaly.
An Acevo spokesman added: "Our members report a dramatic rise in employment tribunals brought by volunteers. This has caused uncertainty and discourages people from managing volunteers. We don't want the Year of the Volunteer to be undermined by the expense of spurious tribunals."
A volunteer's claim of unfair dismissal against the Scout Association (Third Sector, 9 February) has been dropped days before the scheduled hearing.