In the current low growth-high-unemployment economic climate, it will not shock anyone that the mainly private Work Programme (WP) providers are seeking to drive down costs and transfer risk. What may come as a surprise, however, is the way some providers are going about this: by asking voluntary organisations to do their work for them, for free.
According to Volunteering England (VE) a number of volunteer centres across England report that long term unemployed people are being covertly referred to them by WP providers. The bulk of these referrals involve individuals being sent informally to centres to help them become “job ready”. The hope is that volunteering will give them confidence and “work experience” and make them more attractive to potential employers.
No-one is questioning the value of volunteering in this respect: the problems arise over why the clients are being referred, who pays, and who benefits.
It is hard not to see this as a kind of cost-shunting scam. The private provider makes its profits by being paid (under the term of its WP contract) for successfully getting a client into a job. But VE’s research suggests surreptiously referring clients in this way offloads onto charities some of the costs of preparing clients for work.
VE says a volunteer centre that invests sparse time and resources to help prepare a covertly referred WP client for work often won’t see a penny. The centres are understandably furious: not just at what they see as exploitation by commercial companies, but by the explicitly underhand way in which those companies appear to be trying to avoid paying for what the centres consider to be resource-intensive work. According to a VE spokesman:
“Some people are turning up [to volunteer centres] and say: ‘I have been referred by [provider] ‘x’ and I have been told not to tell you.”
Equally infuriating is that some centres approached WP providers to discuss the possibility of agreeing a formal contractual arrangement to provide volunteering opportunities but were rebuffed. Others say they were contacted by providers to see if they would provide this service for free: they refused, but it did not stop the providers from informally referring clients anyway.
One volunteer centre says it was approached by a representative of private WP provider Pinnacle People about finding volunteer placements for its clients. It reported:
“When asked about payment [he] said ‘he might make a donation to us’.”
The most extraordinary alleged abuse involves an unnamed WP provider approaching a volunteer centre to ask if it would provide an entire team of volunteers to help it run a CV writing course for its clients. The centre which – like all in the VE briefing has asked for anonymity – refused. While VE says this is, as far as it can tell, an isolated incident, it remains concerned:
“Volunteers should never be considered as ‘free labour’ or as a replacement for paid staff. The involvement of volunteers in this way has the potential to undermine the unique value of volunteering and damage the image of volunteering when it has a higher profile than ever.”
What frustrates volunteer centres is that the sudden spate of WP referrals comes at a time when they have seen their public funding cut and demand is increasing. While their reason for existence is to support voluntary work, many are reluctant to commit shrinking resources to “someone who does not have an interest in volunteering but believes they have been told they must volunteer.” Reluctant volunteers, they say, require intensive one-one support and training to make them “volunteer ready.”
Even so, the charitable imperative does sometimes override reason. One centre told VE it had a formal arrangement with Remploy, but had agreed not to be paid. Some may see this as naïvety on the part of the centre; others will see it as fulfilling its charitable mission (both may be true). The centre itself clearly does not feel entirely at ease about this arrangement, however:
“I did get the feeling that as a Volunteer Centre, we are providing a service to the clients of Remploy but not gaining anything from it financially.”
What is clear from the VE briefing is that not all WP providers are exploiting volunteer centres. The briefing quotes Ingeus Deloitte, and Just Education and Training as examples of companies which have formally subcontracted with volunteer centres. But others, including A4E, Maximus, Remploy, Avant, G4S and CDG group, which is a charity itself, have all allegedly made referrals to a volunteer centre without prior contact with the centre. This suggests there may be, at the very least, some confusion among providers about what is acceptable practice.
The Department for Work of Pensions (DWP), interestingly, appears to be absolutely clear on the issue. After VE wrote to the government to complain about the practice, the employment minister Chris Grayling replied:
“Whilst DWP encourages Work Programme providers to forge strategic relationships with local partners, providers and their subcontractors should not be approaching voluntary organisations if they have not entered into, or are intending to enter into, an agreement with them and they are outside the supply chain”.
So what will Grayling do to prevent these alleged abuses? VE believes covert referrals to volunteer centres breach the Merlin Standard, the agreement set up to prevent WP providers exploiting voluntary groups. Grayling has said he will come down hard on Merlin abuses. But as I’ve written before, Merlin can only be triggered by a complaint from a charity – and no-one seems to want to put their head above the parapet, at least for now.
Ministers were always irked by the criticism that the “Big society” was about public services being provided by volunteers for free. That was bad enough. But this looks dangerously like private companies protecting their profit margins by using volunteers to provide public services for free. And that looks even worse.
• Has your charity had a bad experience of the Work Programme? Have you been covertly referred to a volunteer centre? Email me in confidence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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