Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The Work Programme’s ‘big society’ logic: get charities to do it for free” was written by Patrick Butler, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 10th November 2011 17.46 Europe/London

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: patrick.butler@guardian.co.uk

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Comments
  • May Livingstone on Facebook November 11, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    they are being exploited… its not right

  • Michael Caits on Facebook November 12, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    To be honest, all this talk about ‘Work Programmes’ and all the forms of ‘forced education’ the Government seems to be willing to inflict upon the increasing mass of unemployed in the UK calls into question whether or not we are slowly becoming just another ‘Banana Republic.’ or a ‘Soviet Sattelite’ of a country like China? The kind of Country we, as a Western Democracy used to unmercifully criticize – particularly about “human rights” and “human dignity.” Suddenly, in this time of alleged ‘austerity, it seems that the idea of “forced labour” – one of the main flags that was historically used to identify Communist and Totalitarian States – and which became the subject of endless American and British Debates where outrage and indignation was poured on the very idea of, what amounted to “primitive slavery.” Alexander Solzenitsyn’s novel about the unbearable hardships of the Gulag Archipelago is a case which illuminates the mind about extreme forms of slavery – yet, the principle is the same. Workers were forced to work for food and shelter, having no entitlement to complain about their lot, and facing danger and further deprivation if they dared to do so!

    It troubles me deeply that – that is exactly what this Coalition Government is re-introducing to the UK in the 21st Century. Rather than attempting to raise the standard of living for those who are working, (especially those who are earning less than minimum wage) or even allowing the unemployed to make a token contribution to the Tax Burden of the Country, this Government, along with its predecessor, has taken to creating more and more ‘non-jobs.’ They tinker around with additional payments to existing Benefits, yet in the same breath they condemn those who claim them!? No one wants those ‘extras’ in the first place! A man or woman earning a decent enough wage/salary needs nothing more from the State than anyone else in employment. So why all the “extras?” Maybe because Government doesn’t actually want full-time employment for all, because that puts the balance of power back in the hands of Joe and Josephine Public? Between “Tax Credits” and “Universal Credit” one has to ask is the Government just a facile joke?

    The Prime Minister David Cameron’s commercial expertise is in Public Relations – something he has not wasted by instigating the most offensive and direct attack upon the Disabled, Mentally Disabled and Ill and the generally Unemployed! During the months the Coalition has been in power He, and His Party, have continually attacked, undermined and victimized them: created such hysteria about the Disabled and Unemployed in the media that there have been a number of sickening, physical attacks against people who have, effectively been, “criminalized” and “stigmatized.” On a wave of Public Opinion (largely, it seems, the “Opinions” of News International Publications)

    The Governemt have rushed through the ‘Work Programme’ – an American Ideology which has been ‘adopted’ whereby the Unemployed are compelled to work for their Benefits (if the ‘Minimum Wage’ was a legally actionable issue, the Government would never have been able to introduce this form of modern slavery!) So-called “Clients” are forced to do worthless, repetitive and largely unneccessarily strenuous labour – a re-enactment perhaps of the days of the “treadmill”, which, although once reserved only for Convicted Criminals, seems now to be the awaiting fate of those who are merely jobless.

    It speaks to the heart of the laughable “Christian” values in this Country when, those who are employed cheer at the prospect of those who are not being subjected to degrading and humiliating ‘non-work.’ However. The Orwellian “boot” stamping on the faces of those who are being compelled to work a 40 hour week for less than �70 – (something NONE of you who are already employed would ever do!) may well become the reason behind increased social unrest and direct and indirect confrontation with authority. In the sixties, during my childhood, I saw and witnessed deprivation and poverty that gnawed at the spirit and crushed the life and resistance out of those I lived alongside. In my opinion, men would probably rather kill than be consigned, or have their families suffer that kind of life again. I am convinced that some of our society are already radicalized enough!

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