Volunteering England are one of the largest organisations in the UK established to promote and ‘celebrate’ volunteering. It was reported over the weekend that the organisation have already been contacted by several charities concerned about the new benefits system and how it will impact on their ability to recruit and employ volunteers.
Under the new rules, claimants will only be permitted to volunteer for 17.5 hours a week, or will face brutal benefit sanctions. Claimants are to be expected to spend 35 hours a week actively seeking work, of which only half of this time can be spent volunteering. This flies in the face of previous statements by this Government which have sung the praises of unpaid work. Only unpaid work which has been arranged for benefit claimants by the state or welfare to work parasites like A4e is now to be acceptable.
Mandatory Work Activity is at the heart of Universal Credit and means 30 hours a week unpaid work for charities or other organisations with a ‘community benefit’. As the name suggests, this workfare scheme cannot be volunteered for and is used as punishment should someone be deemed not trying hard enough to find a job by Jobcentre officials.
Astonishingly someone caught volunteering full time whilst claiming Universal Credit could be sent to go and volunteer full time somewhere else as punishment for volunteering full time. Not for the first time Iain Duncan Smith’s back of the envelope welfare reforms are as laughable as they are draconian.
In a somewhat garbled statement on their website, Volunteering England seem to misunderstand the nature of the benefits system by suggesting that only those in the “all work related requirements” group will be subject to the new rules. This is likely to be the largest group of claimants making up all those currently claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance along with those judged ‘fit for work’ by the callous and shambolic Atos disability denial system for sick and disabled claimants.
Whilst Volunteering England are correct about who the rules will apply to, they are wrong to say that those claimants paid the sickness or disability components of Universal Credit “will still be free to volunteer as much as they want.” The reality of the benefits system is that anyone who volunteers full time whilst claiming the sickness or disability component of Universal Credit will have it used against them to judge them ‘fit for work’. This has long been standard practice at the DWP, even under the old Incapacity Benefit regime. Bizarrely once judged fit for work, they will no longer be allowed to volunteer full time. Unless the Government orders them to.
The end of full time volunteers will prove catastrophic for the charitable sector. Even if charities exploit the never ending workfare schemes to source volunteers, they will find that genuine volunteers, who care about the aims and activities of the charity will disappear. Instead these most motivated of workers will be replaced by short term workfare staff only there under threat of benefit sanctions.
For charities working with ex-offenders, homeless people, substance misusers or other disadvantaged groups, volunteers are often a vital link between the university educated charity professionals, and those they aim to support. Simply having someone on the team who has ‘been there’ and understands the problems facing service users can make a huge difference.
Often these volunteers go on to establish careers in the voluntary sector themselves, a route into work which will now be denied for all but those who can afford to support themselves financially whilst they volunteer. If there’s one thing the Third Sector doesn’t need it’s more posh graduates, with their eye on a lucrative career in charity management, working with ex-offenders or homeless people .
Unfortunately charities must take their share of responsibility for the upcoming train wreck that is Universal Credit. Had the so called third sector organised together and rejected the brutal workfare and sanctions regime introduced by this toff government they could have stopped welfare reform in it’s tracks.
Instead they organised themselves to maximise income from welfare reforms by forming coalitions such as Disability Works in the hope of picking up fat Work Programme contracts. Not content with profiting from the most brutal welfare regime in Western Europe, charities like Scope and Barnardo’s have fallen over themselves to recruit unpaid staff on mandatory government schemes.
Scope even had the nerve to criticise the Boycott Workfare campaign for challenging them over their use of forced labour. A statement on Scope’s website claims they are ‘disappointed’ about the campaign highlighting their use of unpaid workers sentenced to Mandatory Work Activity. The charity attempted to slur Boycott Workfare by suggesting the campaign had been targeting the Scope’s use of volunteers as opposed to those working for them unpaid under threat of benefit sanctions. Boycott Workfare’s response to Scope has seemingly been ignored by the charity.
The truth is that no-one has undermined volunteering more than the charities who have been so happy to make use of forced unpaid labour. When Universal Credit begins next year thousands of genuine volunteers will be forced to give up their unpaid positions. The major UK charities who have toadied up to this government in pursuit of lucrative contracts and free labour will only have themselves to blame.