What’s a volunteer again?

The sudden belated media interest in the setting up of the Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS) has been curious. Not least because it has demonstrated once again, the rather simplistic and sketchy outlining of good practice in safeguarding by the media. However, what’s been really interesting from a volunteer management perspective is how the current debate suddenly seems to hinge on the definition of volunteering. Many of the criticisms of the VBS have underlined the weakness in the legal definition of what exactly a volunteer is.

Volunteering as an issue seems to have arisen as a result of a press conference where Home Office officials presented the Vetting and Barring Scheme. One of them used the example of parents giving lifts to children to sports clubs, as a way of demonstrating what activity does and doesn’t fall within the remit of the scheme. Since then we haven’t heard the end of parent drivers.

The Times’ Rosemary Bennett reported after the press conference:

“Home Office officials said that informal arrangements between parents to offer lifts or host sleepovers would not be covered”.

Bennett’s piece continues:

“A Home Office spokesman said: “Anyone working or volunteering on behalf of a third-party organisation – for example, a sports club or a charity – who has frequent or intensive access to children or vulnerable adults will have to be registered with the scheme.””

This distinction between ‘informal arrangements’ and ‘volunteering on behalf of a third-party organisation’ holds, in as far as it goes. But it is limited, and the media picked up on it quick as a flash. The BBC’s Mark Easton said:

“The register will not apply to “family or personal” arrangements, we are told, but there is bound to be some debate as to when the informal kickabout in the park becomes a regulated voluntary activity.”

When does a committed parent offering lifts start to do so in a formal capacity? Is there a clear line in the sand or is it all just a little bit fuzzy?

Legally defining volunteering is problematic. It’s nothing new. Volunteering comes under many different pieces of legislation which not always very consistent and clear. Volunteer managers have intensively and frequently campaigned for a more consistent approach on the part of government.

In this latest case, failing to grasp the nettle on this has meant that critics of the Vetting and Barring Scheme can argue that there is a critical lack of clarity over who will and who won’t be liable to pay a fine of £5,000 for not complying with the VBS. In this case, the legal definition of volunteering that’s relevant is the one in the 1997 Police Act (Criminal Records) Regulations 2002. Let’s take a closer look for a moment:

“Volunteer means a person engaged in an activity which involves spending time, unpaid (except for travel and other approved out-of-pocket expenses), doing something which aims to benefit some third party other than or in addition to a close relative”

The rather vague “benefit some third party” could mean friends or neighbours. So often volunteering takes place in volunteer led groups that might not be formally constituted or legally registered as in the case of charities. Red Foundation’s recent report on Volunteer led activity cites research that of 865,000 civil society groups in England, the vast majority are small with very little income. This kind of volunteering activity and it’s impact on society remains poorly understood generally, but particularly by government and the media.

Volunteering is where our personal and public lives collide. It’s where informal and formal activities merge. The legal definition is broad in the Police Act 1997, because the concept of what volunteering is has to be flexible. Volunteering is where our personal freedom and desire to create social impact combine. Philosophically, it’s not actually clear that volunteering can ever be distilled into legal texts.

It’s seems intuitively reasonable to suppose that helping others happens inspite of the law, rather than because of it. Helping people usually boils down to simple, natural acts motivated by a very human desire to support and connect with those around you. It’s what makes volunteering difficult to express in legal terms, but it also what makes volunteering interesting and relevant to all our lives.

Somehow in this latest opportunity to disparage an unpopular government, the mainstream media in this country have focused on one of the most crucial questions to volunteer managers today: what is volunteering? In so doing, they have raised the profile of volunteer management issues.

It’s a shame then, that few in the media seem to have any idea that basic volunteer management has anything to say about the latest questions they’ve posed about the VBS.

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