Friday, 6 February 2015

Volunteer rights and the scope of the Charity Commission

For this posting we are really happy to welcome visiting blogger and our former colleague at Volunteering England, Mike Locke, who shares with us his views on the ongoing issue of volunteer rights following a recent report from the Charity Commission (England & Wales).

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The Charity Commission has recently made clear its position on allegations of unfair treatment of volunteers.  Its Operational Case Report regarding St John Ambulance saw the issue as a matter of the charity’s administration, such that the Charity Commission would only get involved if governance procedures had not been followed or if the case threatened to bring the charity into disrepute.

This may not grab the headlines, but it’s helpful because during the long-running attempts to resolve volunteer rights there has been a question why complaints made by volunteers to the Charity Commission have been regarded as outside its scope.

The actual case here concerning, in its full name, The Priory of England and The Islands of the Order of St John was that the charity adopted a regional structure on grounds of finance, quality and impact, and consistency. However, according to a “senior volunteer” in the Telegraph newspaper in 2011: “If the structure is changed … what incentive is there for local people to volunteer and raise money?” In resisting restructuring, a small number of volunteers were “disciplined”.  The case sounds like the classic dilemma which other national charities have faced of tensions between national and local control – and I’m in no position to comment, only sympathise.

The Charity Commission looked into the case given “ongoing complaints” and found: “It is regrettable when disciplinary proceedings have to be brought against volunteers and we recognise that the events brought considerable distress to those involved. We did not see anything to suggest that the charity acted in a way that would bring the charity into disrepute such that the commission should become involved in these matters.”

The point about disrepute echoes the concern of Lord Hodgson in his review of charity law where he warned that treatment of volunteers could reduce public trust in charities. He thought responsibility should lie with charities’ self-regulation but raised the question whether there should be an independent body for external referral.

Following the Volunteer Rights Inquiry, I chaired the Call to Action Progress Group (2011-2014) when I worked for Volunteering England and NCVO. Our final report reviewed, without finding a consensus, the question of whether there was a need for an external regulatory system or whether that would be disproportionate and the problem tackled through good management practice. We recommended organisations sign-up to the 3R Promise (get it Right, offer Reconciliation and take Responsibility) which had been formulated by the Inquiry.

My perception is that volunteering organisations are more conscious of the problem and widely have instituted good practice – including, to my knowledge, St John Ambulance.

But the issue of volunteer rights won’t go away. A small number of volunteers are unfairly treated, heart-breakingly so, and – at least prima facie – in ways that offend public policy, let alone charity governance.

So, I believe, the question remains whether there is a need for a procedure or institution independent of volunteering organisations? Is the Charity Commission’s position, as clarified, sufficient? And if not it, who might take the role, and how?

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