I heard a variety of tales while researching an article about charity volunteers being put on welfare-to-work schemes. Most were related in blunt terms by exasperated-sounding charity employees, and all had worrying implications.
It seems that in some cases, charity volunteers who are claiming benefits have been told to stop volunteering in order to complete full-time work training schemes, some of which involve unpaid work placements at private sector firms including the retail chain Poundland.
It would be difficult to object to this if the government-funded schemes were seen as more effective ways of helping people into sustainable jobs than volunteering would be.
However, this does not seem to be the case. I heard frustrated charity staff say their volunteers – some of whom were university graduates, and all of whom were volunteering in roles that required intensive training and were directly relevant to their chosen career paths – had been told to sit through CV-writing classes and to spend hours applying for jobs that were, in many cases, inappropriate.
I was told that a man with heart disease and arthritis, who had been volunteering at the disability advice charity Mobility Advice Line, was threatened with the loss of his benefits if he did not apply for one of two physical jobs – either on a building site, or at an abattoir.
Caution should, of course, be applied when listening to tales that are related second-hand in this way. It is also unclear why these situations have come to pass. They could well be cases of poor implementation at a grassroots level of well-meaning government policy.
But the Department for Work and Pensions’ approach to the issue is worrying nonetheless. There seems to be a lack of understanding about the important role that appropriate voluntary work can play in getting people back to work. “To play devil’s advocate here, why should people get benefits for volunteering?” one spokeswoman at the department said to me when I raised the issue with her.
Another had said, in response to the story on Cait Reilly speaking out against being asked to stop volunteering at a museum in order to do unpaid work at Poundland, “Working in retail is perfectly good experience for a career in a museum. There are very similar transferable skills involved.”
It is unclear whether the examples I have been given represent a handful of exceptional cases, or whether this is happening on a large scale. If it is, the sector should know about it – and it should fight its corner about the importance of good volunteering.