4 July 2006
The DWP has put claimants benefits in jeopardy, as well as breaking a compact made between the government and the voluntary sector, by issuing new guidance which says that payments to volunteers for the cost of lunch will be counted as earnings, not expenses.
The guidance claims that basic benefits payments, such as income support, already cover the cost of claimants' lunches. The 49 page document chillingly warns claimants to "Remember, for benefit purposes, a person who is paid for their time isn't a volunteer. If you get anything more than your expenses, we will treat everything that you get paid as earnings . . .".
The guidance appears to run counter to the sentiments of a Social Security Commissioner, who pointed out that "Even a slave gets some food to keep him alive and a place to sleep, but that does not make it right to describe him as a person working in expectation of payment".
Bizarrely, the guidance is supposed to be an attempt by the DWP to encourage people on benefits to get involved with volunteering, leaving claimants and voluntary sector organisations angrily wondering what the DWP would do if it was trying to put people off.
Volunteering is often an important first step back to the world of work for people who are disabled or who have long-term health problems. For individuals who are unlikely to ever be able to take up paid work, volunteering can provide a vital connection with other people and an opportunity to serve their community.
For many years it has been accepted that the cost of lunch is a legitimate expense for volunteers, because it is clearly more expensive to eat out than it is to eat at home. Giving advice to voluntary organisations on good practice around paying volunteers expenses, The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) advises that:
"The safest course is to reimburse only actual expenses, preferably against receipts. Always offer to pay your volunteers' expenses. . . The following are examples of legitimate expenses . . .
Meals taken during the course of volunteering (usually a single meal up to a certain value per day)"
This advice fits in very precisely with the Compact, an agreement made between government and the voluntary sector under New Labour in 1998 and intended to improve the relationship between the two sectors. As part of the Compact, the Volunteering Code was published in 2001 by the Home Office and revised in 2004. It states that the government and the voluntary sector will:
"Adopt clear policies regarding the payment of volunteer expenses. Volunteers should not be out-of-pocket because of their voluntary activity. Volunteers are entitled to reimbursement of all reasonable expenses and volunteers should be encouraged to claim;"
The Code goes on to say that the government will:
"Take forward 'joined-up thinking' across Government departments and agencies;
Consult the sector so that proposed legislation or regulation, guidance and policies take account of the ways they may affect volunteers and volunteering activities;"
Now, however, the DWP appears to have torn the Compact into shreds and thrown it out of the window by issuing new guidance, without consultation, which will adversely affect volunteers. It will also set back the government's own aim, supposedly being spearheaded by the DWP in partnership with the voluntary sector, of getting one million incapacity benefits claimants back to work.
Everything to declare
The guidance document, entitled 'A guide to volunteering while on benefits' was published in May of this year. Bizarrely, the DWP seems to think that it will encourage claimants to get involved in volunteering. The booklet explains that:
"Nearly 28 million people in the UK have recently been involved in some sort of volunteering - and that number is growing all the time. In the past, some people have been put off volunteering because they've been worried that it might affect their benefit. The Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland have produced this booklet to help you understand how you can become a volunteer while on benefit."
In relation to expenses, the guidance says that volunteers can be given back expenses such as bus fares and accommodation costs if they need to be away from home overnight. But it goes on to add that lunch does not count as an expense:
"Because the amount of Income Support or Jobseeker's Allowance you get is already meant to cover the cost of your basic needs, including lunch".
It will come as a surprise to most claimants that their income support payments are considered lavish enough for them to be able to buy lunch out. It is, however, the accompanying warning that is likely to make many people think twice about whether it is worth taking a risk with their benefits by doing voluntary work:
Remember, for benefit purposes, a person who is paid for their time isn't a volunteer. If you get anything more than your expenses, we will treat everything that you get paid as 'earnings'. . .
In addition, to make life even harder for volunteers, the guidance states that:
"If your benefit is being paid by Jobcentre Plus, you must declare all of your expenses to Jobcentre Plus. Remember to keep all your receipts for expenses, to back up your claim."
So, not only must claimants give their bus tickets, receipts etc. to the voluntary organisation they are working for in order to be paid their expenses, but the DWP now expects claimants to somehow also keep hold of their tickets and receipts for when they declare any expense payments to Jobcentre Plus staff.
The DWP publication doesn't say whether actually being provided with lunch, rather than being given expenses, will also be frowned on by the Department and treated as payment in kind. Some guidance as to whether free meals should be regarded as payment in kind, however, can be found in a decision by Commissioner Howell relating to doing full-time voluntary work, in which he stated that:
"I do not think the kind of arrangement where a volunteer is provided with meals or sleeping accommodation falls within this. Even a slave gets some food to keep him alive and a place to sleep, but that does not make it right to describe him as a person working in expectation of payment".
Nonetheless, given the hard line currently being taken by the DWP, it would be a brave person who would state with absolute certainty that a DWP decision maker could never treat free lunches as payment in kind. So, for now, the prudent claimant who wishes to be a volunteer may simply have to consider themselves to be worse off than a slave and decline all offers of food.
Resources for members
For members, we have updated our guide Caution, it may not count as voluntary work to take account of current DWP policy