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Equality: Volunteers

Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to ensure that volunteers working for charities enjoy the same rights under equality legislation as those in paid employment.

My Lords, the Government recognise the contribution to our society of volunteering. We are working with volunteer organisations to ensure that every volunteer is properly treated and has a positive experience. However, the diverse nature of volunteering and the varied relationships between volunteers and the organisations that engage them mean that equality legislation does not apply to volunteers in the same way as it does to employees. However, volunteers are currently protected from discrimination in so far as the organisation is providing goods, facilities and services to the public. These provisions will be retained in the equality Bill and extended to cover age.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that very helpful Answer. However, sometimes the good name of volunteers is ruined by unfair dismissals or accusations. In the light of the very important contribution that they make, would it be possible to allow them access to an ombudsman so that they have a route to clear their name?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an interesting point. I know that this Question has been precipitated by the fact that the citizens advice bureau in York, where she is from, has experienced some serious issues concerning the way in which volunteers have been managed over the past year. I am happy to say that they have been resolved through an independent review by John Stoker. I can appreciate that those volunteers might wish to draw some broader lessons from their experiences about where volunteers should seek support and advice when they need it. We are not convinced that seeking employment rights under equality legislation is the solution, although exploring the possibility of an ombudsman may be one.

My Lords, in the light of the York CAB experience, what statutory rights might the Government think appropriate for such workers to be able to clear their name?

My Lords, I should declare an interest. I have huge affection and respect for the work undertaken by the CAB service. Indeed, I was a CAB manager 30 years ago and have been a member of two CAB management committees. The important point here is that the York CAB resolved the issue through an independent review by John Stoker. I do not wish to discuss the details of the case but it is important to learn the lessons from that review and ensure that those lessons are taken on board by other charities and organisations with volunteers. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government will examine the issues that the review raised and we will certainly take action where appropriate.

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the NCVO. If the Minister is inclined to consider further regulation of charities, will she bear in mind that they are currently under considerable stress, financial and otherwise, given the economic circumstances, and be careful about the additional burdens that she puts on a sector that carries out such valuable work for our society?

My Lords, this Government have done a great deal to support the third sector and charities. We have, through the Charities Act, for example, modernised the legislation as it applies to charities, and we have supported volunteering organisations to ensure that volunteers get a better deal. We know that in the economic downturn charities such as Crisis are seeing an increase in the number of people coming forward to volunteer, and we wish to support them in providing support. This Government have put an enormous amount of resource into supporting the third sector because we regard it as a very important part of our civil society.

My Lords, I recognise the great service done to the nation by volunteers and the useful route that volunteering presents to people who have been out of work or unable to work for some years and want to get back into the labour market. If I understood the Minister correctly, she seems not to welcome the idea of including protection for volunteers in the equality Bill. Does she have any other legislative route to improve the situation for volunteers?

My Lords, volunteers are already covered by the current prohibition of discrimination in the provision of facilities, in the same way as anyone else, in existing anti-discrimination legislation, which will be retained within the equality Bill. Indeed, it will be extended to cover age. The equality Bill will include powers to ban and justify discrimination, for example, against older people in the provision of goods, facilities and services. We are currently taking forward those developments but we are not considering legislation applying particularly to volunteers. The nature of volunteering is something that evolves through support and encouragement by the organisations that deal with volunteering.

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend would agree that the business of volunteering, although it may occasionally throw up difficulties, is on the whole good not only for the organisations that have volunteers but the volunteers themselves? What are the Government doing to encourage more young people into volunteering?

My Lords, we have been keen to promote volunteering across the population but particularly through the creation of V, which was launched in 2005 in the year of the volunteer. It is the new national youth volunteering programme; a charity that encourages 16 to 25 year-olds to volunteer. For example, the British Red Cross, through V, offers opportunities for volunteering. In April, it will be offering full-time placements for those who want to commit themselves to 30 hours a week over 13 weeks. V also points to its success in getting young people who are not in employment, education and training back into employment through their volunteering work.

My Lords, as a former president of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, I ask the Minister to answer the question posed by my noble friend Lord Hodgson. Will she explain the difference between being an employed person and a volunteer?

My Lords, that is a very good question. Noble Lords who are involved in the law will know that being a volunteer is quite different from being an employed person. We think that we have drawn the line of protection in the right place. There would be significant difficulties in extending to volunteers the protection from discrimination that currently applies in employment. That is because of the diverse nature of volunteering and the relationship between volunteers and the organisations that engage them. By its nature, there is not a contract that has the obligations that exist between employer and employee.