Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Are legal rights the best way to improve the treatment of volunteers?

A month ago friend and colleague John Ramsey shared his thoughts on the pre-Christmas 2012 decision by the Supreme Court that volunteers were not entitled to the same legal rights under employment law as paid staff. You can read John’s excellent article on the IVO social network.

Volunteer rights is an emotive issue and one I last visited on this blog a year ago after writing a piece on the issue for Third Sector online in June 2011. Sadly it is an issue that won’t go away. I say sadly not because I wish this would all get brushed under the carpet but because clearly things are not getting better across the volunteering movement. 

Disappointingly the work around the 3R Promise that resulted from the hard work of the Volunteer Rights Inquiry seems to have been lost in the last couple of years. Sure plenty of organisations have signed up to the promise but the momentum of the Inquiry has been lost - not least because of the cuts at Volunteering England and their resulting merger with NCVO - and the issue seems to now be left to just a few vocal campaigners to keep on the sector’s radar.

The 3R Promise was an opportunity for volunteer involving organisations (VIOs) to get their houses in order. Note that I say VIOs not volunteer managers (VMs). The Inquiry was clear that it often was not VMs who were to blame for poor treatment of volunteers but paid staff (often in management positions) and sometimes trustees (volunteers themselves) who were at fault. This wasn’t an issue to simply be fixed by better volunteer management or increased take up of Investing In Volunteers (which at the end of the day just says an organisation has good processes, not that it treats volunteers well).

There were plenty of voices around the VRI table calling for an independent complaints body or ombudsman to take responsibility for the issue. That could have been a statutory body or a self-regulatory one like the FRSB in the fundraising world. In the end the Inquiry opted not to go down such a route, preferring an approach that gave VIOs (at least those whose practice wasn’t up to scratch) a chance to improve. Not only did this seem like the wise way to proceed but it was also clear that in an environment of voluntary and public sector belt tightening the Inquiry would have faced a high uphill struggle to secure the funding necessary to establish any new body for volunteer rights.

Perhaps the time to re-evaluate that decision is now upon us? But does that mean we go straight to legislation, establishing protection explicitly for volunteers within primary legislation? In John’s article he seems to suggest that this would be a sensible way forward. I’m not so sure.

First of all, legislation doesn't solve the problem. Legislation means that when problems occur there is a route to resolution that is available to volunteers. We’ve had anti-discrimination for employees in the UK for many years but that hasn’t stopped employers discriminating. Why then do we believe that legislation will solve this issue?

Second, legislation would require parliamentary time to introduce. There seems to be little interest within Westminster or any of the other UK parliaments to address this issue. In fact, the current direction is towards the Westminster government repealing aspects of employment legislation as it applies to paid staff and seeking to weaken the position of EU discrimination legislation (which often provides better protection for employees than UK law). Against such a prevailing wind, why would MPs decide to introduce changes to the law that would add protections to tens of millions of people?

Thirdly, I continue to maintain that legislation would be counter-productive. We’ve already seen many organisations cut resources for volunteer engagement as money has become more scare post global financial crisis. We also know that many organisations - at least in the middle to large organisation end of the sector - don’t see volunteers as a resource worth investing in, preferring instead to try and raise more and more money from an increasingly cash strapped and donor fatigued British public. If we suddenly make engaging volunteers much more bureaucratic than it is at the moment I fear we’ll see more organisations choosing not to engage volunteers at all as the costs and risks increase at a time of scare resources. And all that’s before I consider the impact on volunteer managers who would become even more process obsessed than they already are when what we need is for them to become for focused on individuals, on people, on volunteers.

So what then is the way forward?

Well there is no simple answer. The resource isn’t there for a new statutory body to stand up for volunteers when they are treated badly. The resource is also lacking for a self-regulatory body and considerable support would be needed from across the sector if this were to happen. Fundraising self-regulation only came about because statutory regulation was threatened and even now it is only those organisations that choose to submit to self-regulation that are subject to it.

The Charity Commission might seem a natural place to turn except they have seen considerable cuts to their budget in the last few years and anyway a significant number of volunteers don’t ‘work’ in organisations that come under the Commission’s regulatory remit.

How about Volunteering England? Now a part of NCVO there is an opportunity for the issue of volunteer rights to be brought to the table of a wider audience than just volunteer managers and volunteer centres. Yet NCVO stands up for bodies (again, only in the voluntary sector / civil society) so would it really have an appetite to side with volunteers, effectively ending up policing and potentially ‘punishing’ its own members for poor practice?

In reality the closest we have to any form of regulation explicitly around volunteering is the Institute of Fundraising who have a code of practice on  volunteer fundraising that is binding upon its individual and organisational members. Any complain against this code brings us back to the FRSB who would investigate any alleged breaches.

We also don’t need another Volunteer Rights Inquiry. The original Inquiry’s work still stands as valid, the issue is what we do about it given that the 3R Promise hasn’t worked. 

What we need is someone to step up and start a debate about how we can proceed. Someone who can ensure the discussions don’t become a talking shop but a forum for change and action, a platform from which we can try to eradicate poor treatment of volunteers rather than simply provide a legislative sticking plaster when things go wrong.

Ideally this ‘somebody’ would be a partnership between the key sector umbrella bodies. In England these seem to be more concerned with paid staff and fundraising than volunteers so perhaps we have to look elsewhere in the UK, to bodies like Volunteer Development Scotland or Volunteer Now (in Northern Ireland) or to organisations like The Association of Volunteer Managers (should they ever arise from what appears to be hibernation).

Whatever gets done and whoever does it something must happen. Allowing poor treatment of volunteers, however isolated, is something we must never be comfortable with. 

What do you think is the way forward?

Please share your thoughts on what should happen next and who should take the lead on this issue.

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