In 2011, in a report by the Social Security Advisory Committee on Jobseeker’s Allowance (Mandatory Work Activity Scheme) Regulations 2011 (S.I.2011 No.688) – it was set out in black and white:
“Mandatory work activity will be a non-voluntary work placement for customers in receipt of Jobseeker’s Allowance.”
Right back in 2011, regs on JSA for the introduction on mandatory work activities for claimants were preparing the ground for the non-voluntary options for those on JSA that we see now.
In April 2014 with the continuing rollout of Help to Work, where JSA claimants who’ve been on the Work Programme for two years without finding a job are presented with more restrictive options, the government might then be confused by the voluntary label given by much of the media to mandatory elements of Help to Work such as the Mandatory Intervention Regime or the Community Work Placement.
- Guardian: “Help to Work scheme will require jobseekers to do voluntary work such as gardening projects or running community cafes”
- Mirror: “Anyone who refuses the “voluntary work” in the community – for up to six months for 30 hours a week – will face losing a month’s worth of benefits or three months if they refuse again.”
- Independent: “only receive their benefits if they either show up at a jobcentre every day or commit to six months of voluntary work“
- Evening Standard: “This month, Osborne is due to launch the “Help to Work” scheme. It is the latest update of the workfare programme that forces the unemployed to do “voluntary” work or lose their benefits.”
For example, Anna Coote – New Economics Foundation describes it as (involuntary) volunteering:
“There is no evidence that “involuntary volunteering” leads to paid jobs for more than a lucky few. Several studies have shown that just about the same number get jobs after volunteering as those who don’t.
What’s more, forcing people into unpaid labour contradicts the spirit of volunteering. People usually volunteer because they hope to find themselves in a congenial setting, doing work that is meaningful and personally fulfilling. Otherwise it is just thankless drudgery – no less demoralising and demotivating than long-term unemployment.”
Even those on the other side of argument call it volunteering. Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) have said in support of Help to Work (“Voluntary work will help the skills of the unemployed”), some people just need a “push” to volunteer according to Dr Stephen Davies, Education Director at the IEA.
What’s going on here?
Let’s back up a little. This has not come out of nowhere. The Government a few years ago was very reluctant to describe claimants involvement in DWP initiatives as mandatory. In fact, they were quite keen on describing participation in their work experience programme as voluntary.
Back in 2012, commenting on the DWP’s work experience scheme, Chris Grayling MP, then Employment Minister, said on Channel 4 News: “The scheme is voluntary …for those who have volunteered. Let’s be clear this is a voluntary scheme.”
On Today on Radio 4 (Feb 2012), Grayling said:
Evan Davies: So it is an entirely, entirely voluntary scheme, that one?
Chris Grayling: Entirely voluntary.
There is no circumstance in which we would mandate any individual to take part in work activity for a big company, that doesn’t happen.
Looking at the official documentation the government has avoided explicitly labelling Help to Work as volunteering – here, here or here.
But they clearly concede it is mandatory:
Help to Work will be mandatory and people who fail to participate could lose their Jobseeker’s Allowance for 4 weeks for a first failure and 13 weeks for a second failure.
However, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the coalition government is using the inference that this activity is volunteering-like.
In September 2013, the Chancellor, George Osborne in his speech to the Conservative party conference described the next phase of the DWP’s reforms:
“Today I can tell you about a new approach we’re calling Help to Work. For the first time, all long term unemployed people who are capable of work will be required to do something in return for their benefits, and to help them find work.
They will do useful work putting something back into their community. Making meals for the elderly, clearing up litter, working for a local charity.
Others will be made to attend the job centre every working day. And for those with underlying problems, like drug addiction and illiteracy, there will be an intensive regime of support.
No one will be ignored or left without help. But no one will get something for nothing. Help to work – and in return work for the dole.”
The similarities between Help to Work and a full-time government-run volunteering programme are striking. Osborne deliberately used the example of the local charity in his conference speech, of getting the unemployed to participate in activities for public benefit, all for a reasonable stipend (the dole).
It’s a neat, calculated conjuring trick that transforms Jobcentre Plus into the Peace Corps. But instead of giving to a humanitarian project, you may end up offering the fruits of your labour to Serco, A4E or Atos.
This is a policy initiative that looks like volunteering on the outside, but actually tastes of an old fashioned community service programme on the inside. Susan Ellis and Steve McCurley rightly (as it’s turned out) observed in 2002 that the oxymoron of the ‘mandated volunteer’ would steadily increase as governmental policy across different countries looked more to compulsory community service programmes. Goverment led community service have been characterised for many years by their mandatory nature.
Chris Grayling in front of the Work and Pensions Committee (House of Commons) in March 2012:
“They [Work Programme providers] have the power to mandate but they will only mandate to community benefit projects. All participation in Work Experience with commercial organisations will be done on a voluntary basis in the Work Programme as well as through Jobcentre Plus.”
It is an iron fist in a velvet glove. But there’s also a legal consideration that’s worth noting as it highlights the distinction that’s relevant to this discussion.
In Work Programme Provider Guidance (updated: 26/04/ 2013 1 V6.00 PDF) – Chapter 3c – “work experience on a voluntary basis and community benefit work placement” – it states:
“”Employment” has a wide meaning, and participants are likely to be regarded as employees if they agree voluntarily to take up the placement with a particular employer.”
“NMW is very unlikely to apply to participants mandated to participate in unpaid work experience or an unpaid community benefit work placement through the Work Programme, or to Participants who volunteer to take part in an unpaid placement of either type which is not a work trial exceeding 6 weeks.”
In Chapter 3 it states:
“Where you are providing support for JSA participants, which is work experience you must mandate participants to this activity. This is to avoid the National Minimum Wage Regulations, which will apply if JSA participants are not mandated.”
In March 2014 new amendments of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 came into force which include exemptions from NMW for traineeships such as:
“work experience placement and work preparation training”
This is in addition to the amendment to the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 that the coalition government made in July 2010 (PDF) just months after coming into power. They added to the exemptions:
“A worker who is participating in a scheme designed to provide training, work experience or temporary work, or to assist in seeking or obtaining work”
Latest official advice is that those involved in government work experience programmes are exempt from NMW. In 2013, government put out guidance on “National minimum wage: work experience and internships” which emphasised that those who fit the definition of “volunteer” or “voluntary worker” don’t qualify for NMW.
There’s a legal imperative to ensure claimants’ participation in Help to Work fits more closely with volunteering, than it does to working. In Oct 2013, MPs were provided with the following information (PDF) that National Minimum Wage legislation not applicable in case of the Work Programme (or Help to Work) because: they “do not constitute a “contract” as such, but are simply a requirement linked to ongoing receipt of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)”. This hints at the complex line drawn between voluntary and mandatory in legal terms RE national minimum wage legislation.
As such the volunteering community in this country needs to be watching very carefully how Help to Work develops. We clearly need to stand together and reiterate that volunteering is voluntary.
Help to Work has potentially huge implications for volunteering in terms of changing public perceptions, diverting resources, restructuring the demand for volunteering opportunities and so on.
Yet the government appears less than alert to this possibility. It refuses to clearly explain how the increase in mandatory activity with Help to Work will affect volunteering more broadly.
In 2012 in Reilly & Anor, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions  EWHC 2292: The Judge concluded:
Miss Reilly had (and, one hopes, still has) a primary career ambition. Her original complaint arose from what she was wrongly told was a compulsory placement on a scheme that (a) impeded her voluntary efforts to maintain and advance her primary career ambition and (b) having embarked upon it, from her perspective, did not offer any worthwhile experience on an alternative career path. It is not difficult to sympathise with her position from that point of view.
This case was an early flag, that showed how mandatory activity has a detrimental effect on genuine voluntary activity with Caitlin Reilly having to give up her volunteering in favour of the mandated placement with Poundland.
With the new rules on Help to Work from April 2014 the potential for mandated work to trump genuine volunteering is increased and will continue to have significant repercussions for volunteering.
In this request submitted under the Freedom of Information Act by Beatrix Bene to the DWP in January 2014, Bene asked the following:
“7. I have seen it on the internet that from April 2014 there will be a new scheme called Help to Work Scheme under which long-term unemployed JSA claimants may be mandated to do unpaid work for up to 30 hours per week for 26 weeks (community work placements).
Can I be mandated to do the above unpaid community work if I do voluntary work of my own choice which the Jobcentre knows about and which I have started already when being assessed whether to be mandated to do the above unpaid community work?”
The DWP’s answer?
“The department holds information on Help to Work Scheme but this is exempt under section 35 of the Freedom Of Information Act. This exemption relates to the formulation of government policy. I consider that the exemption applies because it is intended to protect the space within which government can think and develop its policies without prejudice. I maintain that the information you seek falls into this category.”
Let’s hope government is indeed still thinking about properly valuing genuine volunteering.
If not, the result is dissonance between what the politicians are saying and what those JSP administrators are deciding on the ground.
It is leading to confusion in the way it is reported and in how it will be seen by the wider public.
It is causing disagreement, misunderstanding and secrecy across the volunteering sector that risks bleeding into its relationship with government.
This all feels like a far cry from the bold consensus behind volunteering promised by the Big Society in the early years of the coalition government.
In the words of David Cameron (Hugo Young Lecture in November 2009):
Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society – and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing…
Why? Because today the state is ever-present: either doing it for you, or telling you how to do it, or making sure you’re doing it their way.
If it doesn’t look like volunteering then it definitely isn’t… – Jamie Ward-Smith – (April 2014)
Thoughtful Thursday: Welfare reform and the impact on volunteering – Rachel Biggs – (April 2014)
Work. Fair. Volunteer. – Rebecca Tully (Nov 2013)
‘George Osborne needs to understand that volunteering isn’t free‘ – The voluntary sector is a key part of tackling unemployment but charities need support – Sir Stephen Bubb (Oct 2013)
Walking the talk on volunteering – Rob Jackson – (Nov 2013)
We need a clear distinction between volunteering and Help to Work scheme – Any kind of forced relationship that is labelled as volunteering undermines the very essence of what volunteering means – Sue Jones – (Oct 2013)
Giving activities: Part 3 – Civic engagement – Exploring Volunteering – Patrick Daniels – (Jan 2010)
Volunteering and Mandatory Community Service: Choice – Incentive – Coercion – Obligation – A Discussion Paper – Linda Graff (2006)
In information provided to MPs on work experience schemes (PDF), the issue of minimum wage legislation is flagged.
How to ensure that those working on Help to Work are not legally classified as workers under National Minimum Wage legislation? Answer: define them as ‘volunteers’ or ‘voluntary workers’.
The National Minimum Wage requires that “workers” and “employees”, as defined, receive a minimum rate of pay set under regulations. Those on work placement schemes designed to help those on benefits into work are neither “workers” nor “employees” and therefore the National Minimum Wage legislation does not apply. This is because these arrangements, including schemes such as the now discontinued Flexible New Deal or the existing Work Programme, do not constitute a “contract” as such, but are simply a requirement linked to ongoing receipt of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA).