Too much focus on full-time volunteering could perpetuate inequality and risk charities being seen as exploitative, according to Karl Wilding, director of public policy and volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.
Speaking at a Conservative Party conference fringe event hosted by the think tank the Centre for Social Justice in Manchester yesterday, Wilding said that although volunteering offered benefits to the volunteers, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds would be unable to afford to participate in full-time, long-term programmes.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport commissioned a review last year into the impact of full time volunteering and the possibility of setting up a government-backed scheme, which is due to report back later this month.
Wilding said the review needed to consider the impact of encouraging full-time volunteering on social mobility.
He said volunteering was "an incredibly powerful social intervention" in helping volunteers into employment, but questioned whether it needed to be full-time to be valuable.
"Might we be making social mobility problems in this country even worse, by giving some people who already able to give themselves a leg up, an even bigger leg up by creating opportunities that are going to strengthen their CV significantly?" he said.
He said that it might be easier and more cost effective to allow jobseekers to spend more of their time volunteering, rather than insisting they actively look for jobs.
Another concern, he said, was how a full-time volunteering programme would be perceived.
He said: "Are we opening ourselves up to the charge that full-time volunteering, which will require changes to minimum wage legislation to enable us to pay a stipend, is just us finding another way to exploit young people?"
Wilding also said that there were only about 1,000 people volunteering full time and warned that such volunteering could be going against the grain of current volunteering patterns.
"All the trends tell us that the way people are getting involved is actually shifting away from full-time volunteering to episodic, disjointed pieces of time," he said.
But James Probert, director of strategy and impact at City Year, a charity that supports young people to complete a year’s full-time volunteering, said many of Wilding’s concerns could be dealt with by a change in the legal status of full time volunteers.
Talking about the current legislative set up, he said: "If you do volunteering you are 'Neet' - not in employment, education or training - there is no other box for people who are not doing it alongside work or studying."
He said minimum wage rules, under which people could be paid subsistence expenses but not a stipend and could not receive benefits in kind such as recognised training, was making it very difficult for volunteers and organisations that wanted to provide opportunities.
He said he wanted to see a recognised system for taking a year out to volunteer, pointing to similar systems in America, France and Italy.
Lack of access, he said, was "a problem with the status quo" which could be improved by taking replicating the government’s the International Citizen Service, which offers 12-month volunteering opportunities overseas as a domestic gap year, which "doesn’t cost a lot of money and isn’t only for rich kids".
He said he hoped the government would allow volunteers on such a scheme to receive benefits at around the same rate as job seekers’ allowance to help support them.