Full-time social action review: NCVO response

Last month, NCVO responded to the DCMS independent review into full-time social action (pdf, 412KB). The review is considering how to grow opportunities for full-time volunteering for young people. It is expected to report back in December.

We are supportive of this review. Many charities already offer brilliant full-time volunteering opportunities and new evidence produced by Pro Bono Economics (pdf, 1.1MB) shows the potential economic benefits of growing full-time volunteering . We want more people to engage in all forms of volunteering- from flexible, short-term opportunities to high-quality full-time programmes.

The review is considering a whole range of approaches to grow full-time volunteering. However, debate outside the review has increasingly been dominated by those calling for a new legal status for full-time volunteers. Is a new legal status the best route to achieve our aims?

The case for a new legal status

Like many existing full-time and part-time volunteers, full-time volunteers are legally classed as ‘voluntary workers’, which is defined in section 44 of the National Minimum Wage Act.

As voluntary workers, full-time volunteers can receive certain payments in addition to out-of-pocket expenses. However, they are restricted from receiving forms of personal development training and subsistence payments when they are off sick.

Some charities think these restrictions are unfair on those volunteering full-time. They are calling for a new legal-status for young people on full-time social action programmes, which would loosen some of these restrictions and, they say, provide the impetus for growing full-time social action.

Legal limbo?

Central to their argument is that in absence of a distinct legal status, full-time volunteers are in ‘legal limbo’ with ‘no legal status other than NEET’ (pdf, 228KB).

NEET (not in employment, education or training) is a term used by bodies like the Office for National Statistics to categorise young people who are either looking for work or are economically inactive. While classifying full-time volunteers as ‘NEET’ is far from ideal, it is not a legal status and has no practical implications in and of itself for full-time volunteers.

It has also been claimed that it is unfair that full-time volunteers are not entitled to National Insurance Credits (NICs) and therefore don’t build up entitlement to the state pension, while those looking for work while on benefits, or caring for children or sick relatives do. Arguably, this comparison is misleading, given that NICs are typically awarded to those unable to work or looking for work. A fairer comparison would be to full-time students – and being a student doesn’t build up a pension entitlement either.

We do not think a convincing case has been made to demonstrate that NEET status and NICs ineligibility make full-time volunteers significantly worse off or act as a disincentive to participation. If independent evidence was to prove the contrary, we would be open to exploring these issues further.

Why are we so cautious?

Not only has there been a lack of evidence over the need for a new legal status, we see risks that could have unintended consequences for young people themselves, but also for the reputation of volunteering more broadly.

We are particularly concerned that a new legal status would blur the distinction between employment and volunteering. If ‘volunteers’ are working full-time under a contract and receive flat-payments of thousands of pounds annually, are they volunteers anymore? Would it become an avenue for unscrupulous organisations to avoid minimum wage laws?

Some have proposed that good regulation will prevent any such exploitation, but there has been little attempt to outline who would regulate, how they would regulate and how it would be paid for.

A new legal status also risks creating a hierarchy of volunteering between those that volunteer full time and those that volunteer for shorter periods, with one group getting more generous benefits than the other.

Creating a hierarchy is particularly problematic as full-time volunteering is inaccessible for so many – particularly for young people without a support network, accommodation or with other responsibilities such as caring. Data shows that disadvantaged young people are already underrepresented in social action figures (pdf, 236KB). A new status risks creating more opportunities with special perks that disadvantaged young people will be unable to benefit from.

What else can we do?

We want to see all forms of volunteering grow, but aren’t convinced that a new legal status is the right way to grow full-time volunteering.

Given the lack of legislative time, we also think it is unlikely that government will push through primary legislation on this in this parliament.

What other routes could we pursue to grow high-quality full-time social action?

1. Raise the profile of full-time volunteering

We can do more to ensure prospective employers and universities understand the impact of full-time volunteering, and that young people can communicate and demonstrate the skills and experience they have developed.

High-quality full-time social action opportunities that are recognised and respected as an alternative to higher-education or apprenticeships would carry benefits that more than compensate for the lack of NICS and the symbolic classification of NEET.

2. Time to re-think training restrictions

Presently, individuals are restricted to training that is deemed to be directly relevant to their role. Particularly in the context of full-time volunteering and internships, but also in many other volunteering settings, this feels unnecessarily restrictive.

We support loosening restrictions on training provision and this is something we can engage with government on, without necessarily the need for new legislation.

3. Ensure full-time volunteering is high-quality

Anecdotal evidence suggests the impact of volunteering is more fundamentally tied to the quality of the experience, rather than the frequency or intensity.

It is therefore imperative that full-time social action programmes are high-quality. To ensure this, any volunteering programme should meet the six principles of meaningful youth social action, as outlined in a 2013 report from the Cabinet Office, the Young Foundation and NCVO’s Institute for Volunteering Research (pdf, 373KB).

Greater recognition and investment in volunteer management, as suggested by the House of Lords Committee on Charities earlier this year, as well as collaboration with the wider sector, will also help attract more young people, improve the impact and make it more likely for participants to go on to further opportunities as part of a volunteering or social action journey.

4. Make full-time volunteering more accessible

Volunteering is a powerful intervention and can be an effective way of increasing social mobility. However, we know that too often, disadvantaged people miss out from benefits. In our submission, we called on the review to explore ways to ensure any expansion of full-time social action is accessible to all, such as allowing young people to participate in programmes flexibility around other responsibilities, such as paid employment, caring and studying.

What do you think?

These ideas are just a starting point. Regardless of views on a new legal status, we all have in common a desire to see a whole range of excellent volunteering opportunities open to all who want to participate, all the way from micro-volunteering to full-time.

Of the 14.2 million people volunteering every month, only an estimated 1,000 are doing so full-time. Given that the vast majority of people volunteer part-time, and that a lack of time is the most cited barrier to volunteering, we think the greatest impact can be achieved by making it easier and more rewarding for people to volunteer in ways that fit around their lifestyles.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue so please get in touch or comment below.

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Up until July 2018, Will supported NCVO’s policy work on volunteering development. His interests include the role of volunteering in public services and removing barriers to youth volunteering. He produced the monthly volunteering round-up blog and supported Volunteers’ Week.

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