Interview: Julia Dennis, appointed to deal with volunteer grievances at Citizens Advice

The former volunteer tells John Plummer how she is aiming for a 'firm, strong agreement' with local bureaux on unpaid staff

Julia Dennis
Julia Dennis

Citizens Advice seems to have had more than its fair share of difficulties with volunteers recently.

Last year, for example, the director and 10 trustees at York CAB resigned following a critical report into the circumstances of a walkout by 28 volunteers, and last month Lettie Fortune, a former volunteer at Lincoln and District CAB, won an 18-month battle for an apology after being dismissed.

The charity has now developed new policies and recruited Julia Dennis to the new post of volunteering development manager to deal with grievances and improve volunteer management.

Dennis, a former Citizens Advice volunteer who has been employed by the charity for 16 years, thinks the high-profile York dispute may have made it clear to unpaid staff that they could speak out. "When you have volunteers who have been mistreated, it's a real disappointment," she says. "But we have 21,000 volunteers and by far the majority are reasonably happy."

One of the main issues highlighted by David Chiddick, vice-chancellor of Lincoln University, in his report into Fortune's dismissal was the "tension" between legal and moral duties towards volunteers.

Unpaid workers have no legal rights, but Citizens Advice guidelines say local bureaux should follow the principles of "natural justice". Chiddick wrote: "I can appreciate that these two dictums are not easily reconcilable by CAB chairs or managers."

Natural justice is not defined, but Chiddick suggests it includes not prejudging someone before a meeting, taking statements and establishing appeals mechanisms.

Citizens Advice has asked its solicitors, Bates Wells & Braithwaite, on whose advice Fortune was dismissed, to advise bureaux not only on the legal position when volunteer disputes arise but also on the fact that bureaux are expected to follow the national body's advice on good practice.

Citizens Advice is publishing new mandatory policies on dealing with volunteer complaints and how to deal with issues of volunteer performance on its bureau management information system - a charity intranet available to bureaux.

According to Dennis, Citizens Advice is in the process of renegotiating the membership agreement with the 400-plus local bureaux. "We are making it firmer and stronger, with more responsibility on both sides of the agreements, she says." This will reinforce the need to follow policies on volunteers.

And if bureaux don't? "We will talk to them about why they aren't and work with them to put it right," says Dennis. If this doesn't work, the ultimate sanction is removing them from the federation.

For the benefit of disgruntled volunteers, policies on whistleblowing and complaints procedures are also being added to the intranet.

But isn't a sector-wide ombudsman the only way of guaranteeing grievances are dealt with fairly and independently? "I want to hear the arguments on both sides before deciding," says Dennis.


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