Involunteering – a step too far?

November 8, 2010 by
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

The panellists on Radio 4’s Moral Maze are asked to suggest possible debate topics for the next programme. I am trying to persuade the team that we should look at the idea of the long term unemployed being required to do voluntary work. I have a strong instinctive reaction to this proposal and I’m keen to explore whether it (the proposal and my reaction) is justified.

There is, in my view, no problem at all with conditionality in the welfare system. If people are getting out of work benefits paid for by the taxpayer then it is reasonable that they should be expected to look for employment or take a job that is on offer. This is what the public wants and it is important to maintaining public support for the welfare system. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that many unemployed people come retrospectively to value the structure placed in their lives by requirements to attend meetings with job advisors, compile CVs and attend interviews.    

But I feel much more uneasy about a compulsion to do voluntary work. If conditionality is already being applied to a claimant and they are continuing to receive benefits, then we have to accept that the person involved is not to blame for their unemployment. (It is important to recognise that conditionality rules can and are being strictly applied with new and some existing claimants with quite severe disabilities being required to search for and take jobs.)

By all means encourage and support such a person to use their free time in ways which are self-improving and useful (and I would and indeed have encouraged friends of mine out of work to volunteer) but to make the right to subsistence dependent on doing good works is, to me, a step too far. It means we are placing extra citizenship obligations on people simply because they are unfortunate.

The counter argument might say that if unemployed people have time on their hands why shouldn’t they be expected to use it for social benefit. One problem is that this means the state adjudicating on what social benefit means. A paid job is a paid job regardless of its content but if an unemployed person uses their days to tend their allotment or spend more time with their family is this more or less useful than cleaning the local canal? Also, if we are applying this principle to the unemployed, why not also to pensioners? If you are receiving a state pension (not to mention the winter fuel allowance, free bus pass etc) then why shouldn’t you be required to use your retirement for social purpose, perhaps, say, providing mandatory childcare for grand children?

There are other problems too. Unwilling, unskilled people require a lot of supervision and this is expensive. The very idea of compulsory good works is problematic. I suggest a new word for the dictionary ‘involunteer’- somebody who is compelled by the state to do unpaid work. Those of us promoting the idea of a Big Society may worry that it will be tarnished if it is associated with chain gangs. 

But the main objection is about rights and liberty. How odd that a Coalition which has commendably argued for the state to be less interfering and intrusive to demand that the right to a basic income should be conditional on poor people adhering to a governmental definition of good citizenship.



  • Chief Inspector Martin Wilson

    I’m supportive personally of the concept of engaging long term unemployed in work within local communities. I can see real merit in developing new patterns of behaviour for people, in developing new skills and enabling individuals to contribute and to go home with a sense that they have achieved something. This could be seen as earnt benefit or conditional reward. If you are required to do it then it is not volunteering and I’d avoid any reference to that so as not to confuse the issue with work that it entirely motivated by altruism.

  • H

    i totally agree. plays into the ‘people on benefits living the life of riley’ notion we wheel out every so often. the govt seems to be slowly reconstructing a deserving/undeserving poor narrative which feels more like boys from the blackstuff than a big society

  • Mike Chitty

    Volunteer means to do willingly, without compulsion. Volunteering can not be made mandatory. When it is compelled it becomes something else, masquerading as volunteering.

    Involunteering is about right!

  • Tessy Britton

    Creating imaginative and rewarding opportunities for everyone to contribute to their local communities has great potential to see an expansion for unemployed people in terms of confidence, skills, local networks and social capital and a sense of value… all of which can possibly also expand an individual’s potential to find work.

    What you describe above though feels much more like ‘community service’ – of the sort that continues to be given out as light punishment by the courts on a daily basis … and actually having seen youth offenders carrying out their community service… it certainly looks and feels like punishment when approached in that manner!

    As you and other commenters have said – it can’t really be called volunteering.

  • sarah g

    I’m not sure its a moral maize of a question whether forcing someone to work for free is volunteering. Its not, so the story ends there really.

    Perhaps the question of volunteering could be reframed to assess whether there is a moral issue in any of the following:

    Billions and trillions given to the banks and bankers worldwide and yet we are asking the poor to work for free on cuts we are making to the poorer communities so we can afford the bankers payouts – sorry bailouts.

    With so many millionairres and billionaires why should vital community work be asked to be done for free. Divert some money and make this activity paid work, like the policeman said it helps sense of worth. We don’t have voluntary policemen do we.

    I guess it comes down to fairness and following the money. If the debate is always on the poor then the rich rarely have to account for the gross misjustices they currently oversee. Aren’t most of the cabinet millionairres? Notice its the wealthy and those in positions of paid power and influence who bang on the most about volunteering in any of its forms.

  • ESP

    I agree that this is another part of the narrative of deserving and undeserving poor – which is not to say that any one person has deliberately decided to create that narrative; it may just be a direct reflection of the construction of welfare claimants in the collective unconciousness of the coalition.
    The whole thing obviously rests on an implicit moral view of work. This is not necessarily wrong but I would like to see it explicitly discussed – not everyone agrees on what constitutes ‘work’ or on what forms of work are “morally superior” or have greater “value” than others.
    If we reframe the issue as one of “unearned income”, for example, then we need to challenge the government on why their moral disapproval does not extend to living off inherited wealth, undeserved bonuses or to subsidies to agro-industry (farmers) for set-aside. In other words, MANY people in society receive money for doing nothing and it was a particularly telling omission from the narrative that no mention was made of the £4bn or so of agricultural subsidies that the UK receives from the EU during the recent budget discussions.

  • Susmita

    Prepare yourself for a shock, Matthew…..I agree with you! It does seem exactly as you said “It means we are placing extra citizenship obligations on people simply because they are unfortunate.”

    Your extrapolation to pensioners is interesting, but in that case I feel the first difference is that we are assuming they have paid into the system for several years?

  • Steve Scrivens

    George Orwell would have been proud of our wonderful coalition Government (at the Department of Minitrue) adding a new definition to the Newspeak Dictionary! The ‘oldspeak’ term ‘Volunteering’ – meaning to give of one’s time freely has been ‘improved’ and now means ‘the enforced giving of time by the Prole’s to engage in socially beneficial activity in exchange for being sustained by Our Dear Leaders’. The Prole’s will now be able to become ‘InVolunteers’ at a local ‘Joycamp’ near to their home (assuming of course they have forcibly volunteered to give up their expensively sustained former home for one that costs Oceania less to pay for). What a Double Plus Ungood idea!!

  • Janet E Davis

    Yes. You’re right.

  • Michael

    “Unwilling, unskilled people require a lot of supervision and this is expensive.”

    Yes, and it is not the sort of challenge that other volunteers signed up to – many people have or had enough of that in their day job.

    Those arguing for “compulsory volunteering” don’t see that unwilling volunteers are not wanted. It would most likely involve a big input of effort for a small productive outcome.

    It is all very Theory X and Theory Y.

  • Adam Roake

    “Unwilling, unskilled people require a lot of supervision and this is expensive.”

    But, as I was telling my octogenarian parents just the other day, that’s where the pensioners come in. You are so right to point out that they have time on their hands and often significant skills and expertise. Let’s face it, it’s time they “gave something back to society”. So, in return for their pension, we can make the pensioners supervise the involunteers. I’m sure we could wheel out some research that proves as a fact that by keeping busy, pensioners live longer.

    Everyone’s happy, including Daily Mail readers!

  • paul harvey

    Who will run the Charles Dixons type of warehouse.
    Who pays for them, who says what job will be done and by whom.
    Will the people working be insured and screened.

  • ESP

    Having read all the comments above I am compelled to conclude that the only ethical response to the Involunteering suggestion is not Reasoned Debate but Complete Outrage. How long are intelligent people going to stand by and do nothing whilst listenintg to all this right-wing ideology clothed in village pump platitudes? Reasoned debate is no match for irrational nonsense.

  • Elizabeth

    The Moral Maze on involunteering was interesting and thought-provoking. I don’t think anyone mentioned that many welfare benefits are contributory – including JSA (though there is an income based one too for those who haven’t paid enough National Insurance) and the state old-age pension (mentioned above). We hear a lot about ‘hardworking taxpayers’ – but their taxes and NI contribute to their own entitlement to JSA, IS and a state pension, among many other benefits. And if people are not only enabled to get paid jobs, but jobs with sufficient or decent wages – such as the Living Wage as a minimum – people then contribute in terms of (perhaps) public good from work, but also in their taxes and NI. This is called society. ‘Taxpayers’ are not some separate group who need pacifying – they are all of us living in a society whose welfare system is based on contributions through NI.

  • Philip

    The Government’s plan to force unemployed people to do “voluntary work” in order to
    get a small portion of their annual tax allowance called Job Seekers Allowance or the doll will be just another scheme to hide the fact the education system is designed not to equip people for the changing economic market.
    With the Government & banks forcing up unemployment through creating a double dip recession through imposing more cuts the plan to replace paid workers with unmotivated people who are forced to do things they do not want to do if there is a lot of expensive supervision is shear madness.
    It does not work ( see the experiments with the prisoners doing community service).
    It will cause the economy to collapse even faster as the existing voluntary sector get pissed off.
    If the Government truly believed in a “Big Society” it would be encouraging the voluntary sector by paying people for their voluntary work at a rate of 1/2000*GDP/capita for each hour they do via the tax system. Any cost involved can be recovered from those responsible for the credit crunch and from the pay of those who do nothing for the nation (MP’s, Department of work & pensions, bureaucrats, Government contractors & Quangos etc).
    Once this was in place you could say benefits would only be for 6 months.
    Currently the DWP penalises those doing voluntary work or improving their skills as “being not available for work”

  • Livy

    Had my radio on in the background last night. I’m afraid it’s still in one piece.

    Back in the day I could do no better than express how bizarre it was that we never felt the need to change our own behaviour, which was possible, yet consistently sought to change others’, which wasn’t. I’ll never forget something an econometrician friend told me a couple of years ago when I made a similar argument to yours on Moral Maze, one that was verbally annihilated and began with: ‘Look, Livy, if you want to be nice to poor people…be nice to poor people.’

    One problem is that this means the state adjudicating on what social benefit means.

    But the main objection is about rights and liberty.

    Fair enough if you were an arch libertarian, but there seems a slightly slippery use of ‘freedom’ to oppose an idea you clearly find repellent for different reasons. Does anyone here really believe the state doesn’t already use forms of coercion or assert some property right in each of us?

    How voluntary is a professional (also known as a ‘volunteer’) army? It may pay in the form of salaries and education, but the real difference between conscription and the volunteer army is not that one is compulsory and the other is ‘free'; rather, each employs a different form of compulsion. Young people from low income backgrounds are disproportionately represented in the military, especially in countries with high levels of inequality such as the UK or the US; if some in society have no other good options then they may be conscripted, in effect, by economic necessity. (The working conditions are also rougher and the dangers slightly more acute than cleaning graffiti for a month.)

    Unless…there are other reasons for enlisting. Consider that we don’t use the labour market to create a purely voluntary or paid, professional jury system. We ‘draft’ jurors rather than hire them and as we view the process of deliberating justice as a social obligation we should all share, for its educational value as well as the link it preserves between courts and the people.

    The remark on pensioners is well taken, as is concern over skewing the responsibility of citizenship in one socio-economic direction. But righteousness, feigned or devout, is seldom seen without an insurmountable enemy standing before the possessed; some unholy trinity of socially detached ignorance, heartlessness and iniquity. It rankles in the mind until projected, rarely exorcised. That there is no blank canvass to strike, merely a fellow human being, makes for a watered down triple cocktail, bitter not on account of bad taste but for an aversion to caricature.

    The left must strike a balance between feeling compassion and feeling they have a monopoly on compassion.

    Once again, a Tessy-B comment nails it. The real weakness of this idea lies in the clumsy way it obscures the difference between a public service and a penance. A citizen serves; it is a prisoner who atones. Poverty is not a crime. Portillo, however, might say that when combined with unemployment it is a form of incarceration.

    The point my technocrat buddy was trying to make two years ago was that I had no business claiming to speak for people I didn’t represent. The only thing I’ve learned since is that it’s better to know why you’re right than to verbalise that you are.


  • Tina

    Where I work, we use the term “voluntold”. E.g., “My boss voluntold me for this task.” Meaning that I was told to volunteer and didn’t have a choice.

  • Paul

    Work cannot be “voluntary” if someone is compelled to do it. The value of voluntary work to an unemployed person is that it allows them the demonstrate a saleable attribute (attitude to working) to potential employers – this value is completely lost if all are coerced into “volunteering”.

    I have been unemployed for the past twelve months, so have first hand experience of the “help to find work” provided, such as Flexible New Deal. I am sorry to say that I cannot identify anything which improves either my ability to find work, or my ability to compete for it. This is because the system is entirely directed at some mythical scrounger who has never worked. Like the million or so who lost their jobs in the credit crunch, and the half million (or is it a million?) who will lose them in the spending cuts, I have already demonstrated a much higher level of employability than the system promotes. And I must also say that a recurring question in my mind is the dissonance between the help (financial and other) provided, and the National Insurance contributions demanded in advance which notionally provide it – £100 billion per year, or two pounds for every three collected in Income Tax.

  • Paul

    Me again, I’m afraid.

    I’m a little uncomfortable with this line that “the Coalition is constructing a narrative around the deserving and undeserving poor”. My experience reflects the status quo prior to the Coalition’s initiatives. The narrative, the policies and the regulations appear to be a matter of broad concensus across all three main political parties.

    It was, for example, interesting to hear government spokesmen defend, and opposition attack, the proposal to compel claimants onto unpaid work experience. Both sides apparently blissfully ignorant of the fact that this already forms part of the Flexible New Deal.

  • Josh W

    There is a serious problem with volunteering organisations getting sunk by unwilling participants. In other words, there are loads of little groups about clustered around social needs. These people have varying levels of enthusiasm and community, which allows them to surmount the inevitable frustrations of having the work you do connected to loads of other people.

    Put forced labour into that, and the resourcefulness and energy that keeps those groups stable can ebb.

    For example, all kinds of nice tasks can be turned into drudgery by adding the question of if you are doing “enough”: In a normal voluntary situation, you work until you’ve had enough, and for the most part the work that people do is unskilled but done to the peak of their current capability and in an emotionally invested way, in other words, with love. Everything you do is a bonus, (providing you’ve been able to pick up the skills to avoid causing damage) and that feeling of luxury, and the pure enjoyment of making things better, is a great strength of voluntary work.

    If people’s motivation is the unfinished task they see, then they can loose themselves in doing it, if you are evaluating how much _effort_ you’ve put in, then work becomes very different.

    In certain fields people may do more if they focus on the changes, rather than who much they are doing, even in physical tasks (where competition on the basis of working hard can be a motivator), because of the simple psychological effect of not noticing you’re tired if you don’t think about it! This is all rough personal experience mind, but I’m pretty confident

    And here’s the big thing, if you put someone in who is working to an externally validated measure of “enough work”, and you have to start shifting task assignments, and hours on task around that, then you get this sort of shear effect: The people who were before working in a casual but determined way can get drawn into the same kind of calculation, into the same ways of behaving. You can compare yourself to what they are doing, you can work longer hours with them not because you feel like it today, but because they have to, and you can pick up their mood.

    Not to end on too gloomy a note, groups can overcome this; keep the group on any one day dominantly voluntary (ie somewhere in the region of 14 out of 15), and let that group mood and external conditions determine when and how you work, ignoring the fact that these people are under stricter conditions! Then hopefully many of those in the group who are actually motivated will be able to communicate some of that motivation. But all of this means that you’ll need a lot of different charities to receive these people and less of a strict requirement of 9->5 hours.

    I’m referring implicitly to outdoors or office/administration type jobs here, because I cannot imagine the government forcing people to help with childline or other emotionally demanding jobs, whatever the social benefit!

  • Robert Burns

    The whole focus of this discussion is just plain wrong.

    I have actually been long term unemployed and can speak first hand on the system and what it does to people.

    Firstly, much of the problem lies with the recruitment behaviour of potential employers.

    There is a distinction made by recruiters that most people miss.

    That distinction is between qualification for the job to be done and qualification for membership of the payroll.

    Many employers place a higher priority on the issue of qualifcation for membership of the payroll.

    The outcome of this is that many people are profiled out of the opportunity to work – this is particularly the case where the recruiter will also be a work colleague of the person being assessed for employment – because the recruiter will be executing against their insecurities, not against an objective test of the candidates competence to work.

    Many employers also follow sub-standard practices that would not be tolerated by ‘old school’ organised or experienced native workers.

    There is a venal ‘affirmative action’ culture at work that foreign workers and the young are particulalry vulnerable to. The following is a widespread and typical practice.

    A classic practice is ‘losing’ the employee’s P45 and having ‘communication problems’ with the payroll department.

    The outcome of this is that the employee does not get the immediate benefit of their PAYE personal allowance and have higher rates of tax and NI deducted from their pay.

    BUT added to this the employer will not have contacted HMRC/Benefits Agency notifing them that the worker has started work and so will not have paid over the employee’s PAYE deductions OR employers NI contributions for the worker to HMRC/Benefits Agency.

    The bottom line here is that the low paid worker and HMRC effectively give an interst free loan of anything up to 35% of the combined pay and employers NI amount for anything up to 11 months.

    This isn’t something restricted to ‘back street’ employers.

    Another problem is the ‘two years experience’ requirement attached to many vacancies. This is to be found on all levels creates a situation of ‘to those that have shall be given’.

    Those who answered the call to qualify as midwives and gas installers are only the latest victims of this.

    Lastly, the one that no one talks about:

    There is a doctrine in Human Resource Management that says that anyone who has been out of work for 6 months or longer is ‘unemployable’.

    What I have written above accounts for the presence of the majority of those on unemployment benefit.

    Coercive schemes of the type being proposed in the government white paper will only spawn a mass of schemes that will have to be paid for from the public purse and (ironically) drive up the cost to the tax payer of keeping people unemployed – the whole thing is just an intellectually shallow publicity stunt.

    The real solution lies with changing the behaviour of employers.

    If the government can set down regulations requiring employers over a certain size to employ x number of disbaled people, demonstrate that they have working ‘equal opportunty’ programmes, then why not do the following.

    Require employers who bid for contracts with state bodies such as the Ministry of Defence, NHS, etc. to demonstrate that they are taking people off the unemployment register.

    The answer, of course, is that this would be political suicide.

    The political parties are funded by state dependent big business, not the voters and so won’t bite the hand that feeds them.

  • Paul

    Picking up Robert’s train of thought, it would be interesting to know:

    1/ How organisations which have required applicants to fill in Equal Opportunities Monitoring Forms for decades could end up with workforces which are 75% female.

    2/ What effect compelling HR departments to take up and assess references would have (my experience is that less than 2% of applications result in references being requested).

    3/ What effect “core competency frameworks” (and similar) have had on equal competition for public sector posts, and on the actual performance of appointed staff.

    4/ How “networking” (considered acceptable practice today) can be distinguished from “the old boy network” (considered discriminatory and potentially corrupt in the 1970’s).

  • Livy


    Love it.

    Can’t believe how often it’s possible to read such intelligent comments on this blog that are never made by the mainstream media.

  • Margot Jones

    Dear Matthew
    Clearly, if you’re made to do something it’s not voluntary. I’m a pensioner – what makes people think we don’t do unpaid child care? Meetings of my local clubs/groups are poorly attended during half term and the holidays for this reason! Some people travel miles to help their increasingly stressed and overworked children with the child care. Remember that no-one can do 2 things at once, even us experienced old folk. If we do more child care, we are less available for other charity work.
    However, I’m more concerned about the fact that numbers of people now on incapacity benefit are being moved to jobseeker’s allowance. Making them volunteer may make them incapable of doing anything else, and if they have children, the child care will suffer. More work for the pensioners, eh?
    My disabled relative has to spend a lot of time resting every day, and does some limited voluntary work of her own choosing, where they accept that she may have to go and lie down for a time. How many charities etc will be able to deal with this type of volunteer?
    In my limited experience, the changes from incapacity benefit are not being handled very successfully, and there would need to be absolute rules on a vague subject, which would be more sensibly handled case by case. How disabled should someone be before they need not voluntold or be an involunteer?
    Come to that, how old before we pensioners are excused child care?