One of the more surprising details to emerge from the story by Third Sector about Calder UK, the firm that has agreed to pay volunteer centres for using their services as part of its welfare-to-work programme, was its method of finding volunteer placements for jobseekers.
The Department for Work and Pensions had made it compulsory for jobseekers taking part in the programme to carry out four weeks of unpaid ‘voluntary’ work, which could be at a business or a charity.
In order to set up the voluntary work, staff at Calder UK had given jobseekers the address of the nearest volunteer centre, without first checking with the centres that they would be able to find placements for them and without agreeing to pay them for doing so. The staff had then told the jobseekers to go to the centre and find themselves a placement.
According to some volunteer centre staff, Calder UK staff had told the would-be volunteers that the firm would “stick them in a charity shop” for four weeks if they failed to find a placement.
If I were unemployed, I would be very confused about volunteering. First there’s the carrot: once people have been unemployed for six months, they are given the chance to improve their skills by doing a spot of volunteering. As far as I’m aware, there’s no coercion involved.
But then there’s the stick: once they’ve been unemployed for 18 months, many are placed on intensive welfare-to-work schemes under the Flexible New Deal. On these, voluntary work is compulsory and some have been told they will lose their entitlement to Jobseeker’s Allowance if they refuse to take part.
The coalition government’s Work Programme may replace both of these Labour schemes. With a bit of luck, any new system will encourage those out of work to volunteer, but will stress that, by its nature, the work is voluntary.