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Liverpool students, Big Society and volunteering

Facts - and thoughts - on volunteering in Liverpool from the University

Liverpool University's Charity Law and Policy Unit held a seminar on Big Society and volunteering on 8/12/2011:

  • VCF (Voluntary, Community and Faith) groups are using student volunteers to collect data to help their sustainability.
  • Their lecturers see many problems in the Big Society approach.


The Interchange programme at Liverpool University has provided students to volunteer at local VCF groups for a number of years. Last year the University’s Sociology Department did some research into the organisations that used the volunteers.

What was their reason for using volunteers? What was their perspective on volunteering?

In the smallest groups – the size of organisation that researchers sometime call “under the radar” – there was little practical distinction between temporary student volunteers and other people. Few of these organisations had any paid staff, and the student volunteers were working alongside the regular volunteers, helping to do the core work of the organisation.

These smaller groups were outside the reach of “volunteer policies” – they were unlikely to have a formal volunteer policy, or even to be aware of the advantages of having one. Because of this, the study felt that any volunteering issues or opportunities that they have are rarely noticed or understood by the government and other policy workers.

Small to medium VCFs had more organised volunteering arrangements, with a specific role or task identified for the student volunteers. There were some groups that just wanted to get a new perspective from an outside volunteer. However the principal use was in providing the sort of analysis to justify the VCFs operations. Students were collecting data on the need for the VCF, or on the effectiveness of the way it operated. They assembled the data needed to make applications for grants, to show awareness of need for their services, or to evaluate what the VCF was doing.

The need for this additional data can be mainly put down to the big changes – encouraged by both recent governments – that aim to make VCFs more businesslike. Getting this sort of data is the only way to get any remaining grants, or to bid for public contracts - which the smallest VCF groups are in no position to do.

The experience of the Interchange volunteers also confirmed – if confirmation was necessary – the grave problems of VCF groups in the area, with support services closing and less funding at a time of higher demand. A possible army of volunteers who are retired or who are drafted into volunteering as Jobseekers (with no resources to train them) would not always be helpful. Interchange students had seen many smaller groups or individual projects closing down.

Ability to survive depends on ability to bid for funds, and the university researchers saw the value of the student volunteers in helping to help get VCF groups ready for this.

B:Some policy comments from staff of the Unit

  • VCFs may run big risks if they use volunteers to replace skilled and professional people.
  • Suggestion that Jobseekers should do “forced volunteering” won’t work. DWP evidence collected in previous years was that “workfare” policies don’t get people into long-term employment
  • There are some legal barriers that might be improved to help the Big Society initiative – e.g. the recent suggestions for improvements in the "portability" of checks on volunteer suitability (though there has also been the suggestion that volunteers have to pay for the cost of any new “portable” vetting scheme.
  • There were indications that at JobCentres – in spite of government speeches about the value of volunteering, and posters prominently on the walls – advisers are actively discouraging people from volunteering
  • Currently there is a limit (of £8,500) below which volunteers expense repayments are not taxed. There is a policy proposal – from the government’s Tax Simplification Unit – to remove this limit. This might lead to great complexities if small amounts of repayment have to be declared and taxed.
  • "Employment status" of volunteers may become a critical issue. A recent Court of Appeal decision was that a disabled volunteer case worker had noprotection under the DDA amd its sucessors. The case is going to further appeal (and there are some individual factors which make it difficult to generalise). If it is reversed, and disabled volunteers get the additional legal protection, would it be welcome, or would it – in practice – mean less opportunity for disabled people to volunteer?
    (It may seem odd to consider extending  to volunteers the sort of rights that employed people have. But this may seem less and less unusual if more and more of what in the past have been seen as regular paid jobs are taken on by volunteers?
  • Government policy makes frequent use of the word "community", but this is less approachable (and less  “cuddly”) than it appears. The key phrase in the legislation is that services can be taken on by “any willing provider”. Business comments on the White Paper on public services have suggested that business would welcome the ability to take on functions like planning departments and running the court systems.
  • Volunteering has a strong “class dimension”.Where communities can "mobilise to take over services" it may work, but in “benefit-based communities” volunteering is a very different thing.


A: Student volunteers in Liverpool