What happens when charities and voluntary groups are asked by Government to punish unemployed people and take away legal entitlements? In April 2014, the “Help to Work” programme was launched by Government. It consists of no help and no work. Instead, it continued previous policies that withhold unemployment benefits, unless those entitled to such benefits agree to participate in forced and unpaid labour. As part of the new programme, long term unemployed people are expected to agree to a six months, 30 hours a week, “community placement” with voluntary agencies, and show that they have done 6 hours a week of job search on top of that – or have their benefits withdrawn. The scheme is being run by large private companies, including G4S which has been investigated for fraud. Charities agreeing to offer such placements to these firms are required to report claimants who do not comply, for example by not turning up.
In response to this, the Keep Volunteering Voluntary (KVV) campaign was born. The idea of KVV emerged at the Welfare Action Gathering, organised by the campaigning body Boycott Workfare and held in February 2014. The purpose is to end the use of workfare in the voluntary sector by encouraging as many organisations as possible to make a commitment not to participate in it, and to publicise that commitment. A small group of individual volunteers, with the involvement of Boycott Workfare and National Coalition for Independent Action, came together to provide an opportunity for voluntary groups to state their opposition to workfare programmes by signing the KVV agreement:
“As charities and voluntary organisations we know the value of volunteering. Volunteering means people independently choosing to give their time freely to help others and make the world a better place. Workfare schemes force unemployed people to carry out unpaid work or face benefit sanctions that can cause hardship and destitution. We believe in keeping volunteering voluntary and will not participate in government workfare schemes.”
The campaign was launched on the same day as the Help to Work scheme. Within a few weeks, with public and media interest stimulated by the campaign, more than 200 groups had stated their opposition to community placements and by November 2014, nearly 500 voluntary agencies had signed the Keep Volunteering Voluntary pledge. Together these groups represent a kaleidoscope of voluntary action: large national charities like Scope, Crisis and Action for Children; international aid groups like Oxfam, Christian Aid and War on Want; umbrella bodies like National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, Children England and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations; trades unions Unite and Unison; local volunteer and voluntary action centres; and hundreds of local voluntary groups helping the young and old, homeless people, refugees … tackling mental health, climate change, health issues, domestic violence … working with minority communities, unemployed people, disabled people and more.
KVV shows that, given the chance, many voluntary groups faced by policies that damage their beneficiaries as well as offend their own sense of outrage and reputation, will say “no! We will not do your bidding. We will stand with unemployed people.” It also shows the collective impact when mainstream “respectable” charities, combine their weight with campaign groups practiced at direct action and with individuals affected by oppressive practices. The government had planned for 125,000 of these placements. Even if every group taking part took 5 placements, this will demand 25,000 groups coming forward. At the end of May 2014 they had 70! KVV has prompted a similar initiative, through Unite, of a pledge by local authorities to boycott workfare and placements.
However, nearly 500 voices of dissent and protest – while good to hear – is a tiny speck of the estimated 160,000 registered charities in the UK, let alone hundreds of thousands of smaller informal groups. Some household charity names, approached to join the KVV campaign, refused to sign the agreement giving reasons such as: some individuals may benefit from community placements or other workfare schemes; that members of the agency might not agree for their representative body to sign, or might themselves be participating, and getting a mandate or debate was not worth doing. Many voluntary groups approached to sign up simply did not reply, despite several approaches. In one case, a large housing association, signed up by a member of staff, asked to be removed as a signatory.
The instigation and practical work of KVV is done by a handful of volunteers, whether by unaligned individuals or by those associated with NCIA and Boycott Workfare. The work of getting signatures, promoting the campaign, answering queries, running the website, tracking the progress of workfare and community placements (including through Freedom of Information requests and Parliamentary Questions) is unfunded and depends on the time and availability of KVV volunteers. It is true voluntary action carried out by activists, not by paid professionals. KVV has shown what can happen if charities and voluntary groups speak out. It is a real possibility that KVV can stop workfare in voluntary groups and beyond, if such groups with their resources and connections combine forces with the KVV volunteers in the practical work of running and extending this campaign.