One of the companies being paid to deliver the government’s welfare-to-work programme tried to get volunteers to help to train its unemployed clients.
A4e, one of the prime providers of the Department for Work and Pensions’ Work Programme, asked Volunteer Centre Oxfordshire in an email if it could provide volunteers to help with CV workshops for unemployed people on the programme. A4e did not specify in the message how long the work would last but did require the volunteers to get Criminal Records Bureau checks.
The email, sent by Howard Goldby on behalf of Hannah Aubrey at A4e Oxford, said: "What we are hoping for is some volunteers to help the trainer on the workshops, as some of our customers need more one-to-one support to complete their CVs. The ideal volunteer would possess very good IT skills, a lot of patience, and be able to work alongside the trainer so that the customer will have a completed CV."
The centre did not refer any volunteers to A4e. Lindsay Watts, manager of the Volunteer Centre Oxfordshire, said Work Programme providers referring clients to volunteer centres without paying the centres "gives people the wrong impression of volunteering. It is taking advantage of people who do not know any different. They might not even know it is a profit-making company."
Nigel Lemmon, welfare director at A4e, said in a statement: "It is not A4e’s policy to expect volunteer agencies to work for free under the Work Programme and we take this accusation very seriously. It is not in our interest, or the interest of those we help, to do so. Working fairly with third sector partners is important to us and critical to the successful delivery of the Work Programme for us all.
"We are investigating these allegations thoroughly. We only work with volunteer agencies where they are happy to work with us to support our customers back into work – improving the lives of those individuals and benefiting their communities."
Dan Sumners, senior policy and information officer at the volunteering charity Volunteering England, said it was "concerning" that a "profit-making company being paid by the government out of the public funds to get people back into work" had attempted to use volunteers to deliver part of its service.
"It is potentially exploitation of people’s goodwill and affects the image of volunteering at a time when it is higher than ever on the government’s agenda," he said.
Sumners said the sector needed to guard against volunteering being seen as a substitute for paid work and against volunteers being exploited.
The news comes days after Volunteering England complained to the DWP about Work Programme providers referring clients to volunteering centres without payment.
Volunteering England said informal referrals without payment contravened the Merlin Standard – the code of conduct for organisations involved in the programme – which says funding and procurement arrangements must be fair.
In February 2008 A4e was alleged to have asked charities helping refugees and asylum seekers to work as its partners without payment. At the time it said it sought third sector subcontractors for work for a "mutually beneficial" partnership.