Members of the House of Lords have written to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, calling for furloughed charity staff to be allowed to volunteer for their own organisations.
The letter, written by the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Tyler of Enfield and signed by another 13 peers, is seeking an urgent adjustment to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme that would enable furloughed employees to volunteer for their own charities, which is currently forbidden.
It warns that not making the change risked creating “an irreparable void” in charities’ services.
The Job Retention Scheme enables employers to claim for 80 per cent of the wages of those who would otherwise have to be made redundant, up to a maximum of £2,500 a month.
Many charities have chosen to furlough large parts of their workforce in an attempt to minimise costs as the coronavirus crisis cuts off fundraising streams but increases demand and costs.
At the end of April, the Minister for Civil Society, Baroness Barran, ruled out the idea that furloughed workers would be able to continue helping their own charities during the crisis.
She said the ban was to prevent fraudulent furlough claims and stop employers asking people to work full time for only 80 per cent of their wages.
The letter, sent today, acknowledges that the scheme needs to be protected from abuse, but the nature of charities means the chances of that happening are “inherently remote”.
It adds: “We strongly believe charities must not be discouraged from delivering critical front-line services at a time where demand has soared, income has disappeared and they face a very uncertain future.
“To do so risks not only temporary interruption to charitable activities when needed most, but also irreparable damage to the sector which will have profound and lasting impact for years to come.”
It offers suggestions for criteria for any furloughed staff to meet in order to volunteer, which it says it hopes would safeguard the scheme, including ensuring that employees were not compelled to volunteer, that the charity agreed to top the salary up from 80 per cent to 100 per cent and that only staff in roles “deemed critical to ongoing service delivery or maintenance of core provision” would be eligible to volunteer.
The letter warns that “in the absence of such an allowance, charity effectiveness, productivity and support for the public will continue to be severely eroded across all sectors” and some charities with limited reserves might cease operating entirely within a matter of weeks.
“Longer term, an irreparable void will be created, leaving unquantifiable financial and societal burden to be picked up by the taxpayer for many years to come,” the letter says.
The signatories of the letter include Lord Addington, Baroness Barker, Baroness Benjamin, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, Lord German, Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill, Baroness Massey of Darwen, Lord Mendelsohn, Baroness Pitkeathley, Lord Rennard, Baroness Sheehan and Baroness Watkins of Tavistock.
The letter is accompanied by a briefing paper produced by the tech education charity First UK.
Ed Cervantes-Watson, chief executive of First UK, said: “Making an exception to allow furloughed employees of registered charities to volunteer for their organisations is not ‘gaming the system’; it is protecting the very social fabric of our country.”
First UK began calling for the exemption in March in an open letter to the Chancellor, which has now been signed by more than 100 charity leaders.
Last week, the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport select committee also recommended that furloughed charity workers should be allowed to volunteer for their employees during the crisis.