Jobcentre Plus has recently agreed to a scheme encouraging volunteering among claimants. Gary Vaux assesses this stepping stone back to work
One of the by-products of the recession has been an upsurge in people looking for voluntary work – either to fill in time and remain usefully occupied or in order to gain new skills to make re-employment easier.
With more and more emphasis being placed on claimants of all the main benefits to be available for work or to undertake “work-related activity” it’s good news that an agreement was recently signed between Jobcentre Plus and Volunteering England.
The partners have committed to producing an action plan promoting volunteering among claimants. Staff at job centres will be asked to encourage unemployed people to volunteer. The agreement says that JCP staff will also make sure claimants are given the correct information about their entitlement to benefits when they are volunteering.
Volunteering England says that some job seekers face barriers that discourage them from volunteering and this includes poor information and advice on the rules around volunteering while receiving benefits.
People receiving jobseeker’s allowance can volunteer as many hours a week as they wish provided they are still available for work and still able to actively look for work. However, it is commonly believed that volunteering is subject to a “16-hour rule” like part-time study. This is untrue. There is no hourly restriction on time spent volunteering, providing the above conditions are met. If an individual is volunteering, then they are also entitled to 48 hours’ notice if they are asked to attend a job interview, and a week’s notice before starting work.
Another issue that causes confusion is the payment of volunteers’ expenses. If a volunteer is simply reimbursed (in advance or afterwards) for the costs they actually incur, then there isn’t a problem, as no “profit” is involved. But if a volunteer pays £6.60 for travel every day, and buys a sandwich and drink for lunch that comes to £2 to £3 every day, you might think it simply is easier if he or she is given £10 a day in expenses. But that £10 is not a reimbursement of an actual expense and so it would constitute a payment. That could mean any means-tested benefit they get could be reduced or stopped altogether because of these very small earnings.
For those claimants getting incapacity benefit, employment and support allowance or income support because of ill-health, it is important to note that the 16-hour rule that sets a maximum time limit on volunteering by anyone claiming these benefits no longer exists and hasn’t done for years.
Secondly, claimants often worry that starting to volunteer will trigger an investigation into their benefit claim, because it could indicate that someone is no longer unfit for work. So long as they continue to supply medical certificates and satisfy the work capability assessment, this shouldn’t be the case.
Volunteering will also not affect whether an individual receives disability living allowance or not. Occasionally a volunteer may have problems convincing Jobcentre Plus staff that they are volunteering and not working in a role that they should be paid for. That could trigger an allegation that the claimant has “notional earnings” that could be taken into account as a source of income. But of course, volunteering has been widely used for many years in employment programmes as something that helps bring unemployed people closer to work – in particular through forms of work rehearsal and work placements. Volunteering often represents a stepping stone to employment so let’s hope that the new agreement means that the stones aren’t removed by unhelpful advice or action by Jobcentre Plus.
Gary Vaux is head of money advice at Hertfordshire Council. Please send any questions for him to firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is published in the 10 June 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Doing Voluntary Work Just got a lot Simpler for Claimants