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‘Compulsory volunteering’ should be embraced by the voluntary sector

Many volunteering charities will, no doubt, recoil in horror at the prospect of compulsory community-based voluntary work for unemployed people.

The idea is part of the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s plan for welfare reform that will be announced in more detail this week. Under the plans, some jobseekers would be told to carry out four weeks of compulsory unpaid work, and could lose their benefits if they refused.

Charities and voluntary groups, as well as private firms, will be encouraged to bid to deliver the scheme.

The familiar (and quite reasonable) cry of, “if it’s compulsory, it’s not volunteering!” must be ringing out across their offices.

But charities need to move past this instinctive response. Helping people back into work is exactly the sort of area this government wants charities to play a bigger role in, and “compulsory volunteering” – call it community service or unpaid work if you’d rather – is how ministers are going about it.

Many in the voluntary sector believe passionately that they can do this work better than the private sector. Yes, there will be practical difficulties and yes, the principle might be awkward.

But if it turned its back on the policy, the voluntary sector would do a great disservice to those in need of its support.

  • Liam Barrington-Bush

    This sounds far too much like ‘It’s what’s on the menu, so eat it or starve’. This approach may encourage some young children to broaden their palette at the dinner table, but I can’t imagine it will help charities to make a difference in the real world with people who have been out of work for the long-term.

    If we are prepared to roll-over on our core beliefs because government tells us to, we are failing both our missions and our members, or those we support.

    This should not be about ‘moving past’ our values, but defending them when they are under attack.

    The government’s approach is about volunteering as punishment, not empowerment. Surely we see the issues this is likely to raise?

  • Georgina Hare

    When my husband was made redundant (a white collar engineer) he was told he couldnt volunteer for a charity as he wouldnt be available for job interviews or work. He didnt get any benefits as he wasnt entitled, other than his National Insurance, and they didnt have any jobs he could do (he was offered re-training as a fork-lift driver). In the end he spent the allowable amount of time sorting out my charity’s computers, for which we were very grateful! I guess many unemployed people will have a lot to offer charities, and will welcome keeping busy while they look for a job (looks good on the c.v. too).

  • Mary Ehrenfried

    I understood that Community Service was a direct alternative to a custodial sentence in the Criminal Justice System. I am concerned that unemployed people may be seen, and treated, as if they have broken the law.

  • Mark Atkinson

    Whilst I do fully endorse the sentiments and reasons behind such inquiries, research reports, round tables, think tanks etc, I think their gravitas has largely been lost for 2 reasons. Firstly, whilst they are relatively useful in identifying what to change they typically lack the ability or the insight to determine what to change to or indeed how to cause the change. Secondly, even if they come up with appropriate solutions and an associated action plan, they tend not to be given the means to execute them.

    So yes…take part but don’t hold your breath for any major changes. Charity begins at home….concentrate on sorting out the deficiencies in your own charity as no one else will.

    Mark Atkinson
    VCSchange