Universal Credit regulations: restricting volunteering?
Monday, 01 October 2012
Volunteering England and its sister organisations across the UK have recently begun discussing whether the proposed regulations for Universal Credit – the new single payment for people who are looking for work or on a low income that will be introduced in 2013 – would represent a change or be cause for concern with regard to volunteering whilst receiving state benefits.
The current rules are that, whatever the benefit you receive, you can volunteer as much as you like as long as
- the only money you receive is reimbursement for expenses; and
- you continue to meet the conditions of the benefit or tax credit you are receiving.
This doesn’t mean you can volunteer as much as you want and only look for work when you’re not. It is at the discretion of a Jobcentre Plus adviser to allow someone to volunteer full time or not, or require them to spend a certain amount of time looking for jobs, attending training etc.
What it does mean is that however much volunteering you do, the amount of your benefits payments will be unaffected - as long as the volunteering doesn’t interfere with you meeting the conditions of receiving that benefit. Volunteering England and Jobcentre Plus have worked together to reiterate this point because it became confused with the rule that you can only undertake up to 16 hours paid work per week before your payments are reduced.
Turning to the proposed Universal Credit regulations, Volunteering England is pleased to note that if a claimant was volunteering they would “be allowed up to 48 hours to attend an interview and one week to take up paid work” (Explanatory memorandum for the Social Security Advisory Committee, 13 June 2012, p44). This is in line with the current rules, so there would be no change there.
However, concerns have been raised that the regulations would restrict volunteering to “up to 50 per cent of their expected hours of work search” (p45). This seems to be much more restrictive than the current arrangement, but to judge how much more we need to look at the detail.
The proposed regulations state that, under Universal Credit, claimants would be placed in one of four groups:
- no work related requirements;
- work focused interviews only;
- work preparation; or
- all work related requirements.
As the name suggests, those in the ‘no work related requirements’ group would not be asked to do anything. Those in the ‘work focused interviews only’ group would only have to attend interviews with an adviser. And those in the ‘work preparation’ group would be expected to take steps to make themselves ready for work, but not to apply for or take it up.
The fourth group - the ‘all work related requirements group’ – would be those deemed ready to work. It would be the default group and the only one to which the apparent restriction on volunteering would apply.
Claimants in this group would be expected to spend the same amount of time looking or preparing for work as it had been assessed they could reasonably be expected to work. That amount of time could be up to 35 hours per week, but it could be considerably less.
This is a significant change; currently, there is no specified amount of time a claimant is expected to look or prepare for work, which also means there is no regulatory restriction on the amount of volunteering a claimant can do.
Therefore, whilst claimants in the first three groups would have no restrictions placed on their volunteering, those in the ‘all work related requirements group’ would have the amount of time available to them to volunteer restricted by up to 17.5 hours a week.
So, to return to our original question, the proposed regulations would clearly represent a change with regard to volunteering whilst receiving state benefits, because they would alter the conditions for receiving benefits as a whole. But would they also be cause for concern?
For some people, volunteering is an excellent way of (re)introducing them to the world of work, of developing new skills and experience, and improving mental and physical health. This is particularly true for people who are simply not ready to work, but volunteering can also help people who are actively seeking employment. It keeps them connected to other people and the community, enabling them to play an active role even when they’re not earning a wage.
Volunteering England therefore welcomes the recognition in the proposed regulations of the role of volunteering in ‘work search’. However, there is likely to be some concern amongst volunteers and the organisations that involve them that the introduction of a mandatory level of work search also introduces a regulatory restriction on volunteering.
A likely response is that a claimant who has been assessed as ready for work should be spending time looking for a paid job, which could be difficult to argue with, especially as they could fulfil the 17 hours of job seeking activity in three days, leaving them four days a week on which to volunteer.
In addition, under the proposed regulations, the people who will benefit most from volunteering – those assessed as not ready to work – will still be free to volunteer as much as they want. Of course, that doesn’t mean there would be no problem; it would still be a potential restriction on the amount of volunteering someone could do.
But, failing a seismic shift in opinion on what constitutes ‘economically active’, the real problem is not the rules – it would be seen as reasonable to expect people who are deemed ready to work to look for a job – but how people are assessed. And - as some believe is happening with Employment and Support Allowance - the process could deem some people fit to work when they aren’t, people who could benefit much more from volunteering than paid work.
Dan Sumners is Senior Policy & Communications Officer at Volunteering England.