Volunteering and UK welfare benefits

On 24 August 2023, the Make Your Mark Volunteer Organisers Network heard from experts at Volunteer Glasgow about supporting volunteers who claim UK welfare benefits.
Our speaker gave the following tips for supporting volunteers who claim benefits:
Know the difference between volunteering and unpaid work

The Scottish Government’s Volunteering for All Framework defines volunteering as: “Volunteering is a choice. A choice to give time or energy, a choice undertaken of one’s own free will and a choice not motivated for financial gain or for a wage or salary.”

Generally, a definition of volunteering has three key components:

  1. The activity benefits people outside your immediate family.
  2. The activity is unpaid.
  3. A person actively and freely chooses to undertake the activity.

According to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), unpaid work is undertaking a role that would normally be paid within the private or profit-making sector. Choosing not to get paid for work is not volunteering, and the money that a person would normally have been paid for this work may be counted as a person’s earnings. This is called ‘notional earnings’ and may affect the amount of benefit a person receives.

Know the guidance around volunteering and benefits

Claimants must tell the office that pays their benefits about any volunteering they apply to.

Claimants can volunteer while receiving benefits as long as they continue to meet all the conditions of their benefit.

Claimants can volunteer for as many hours as they like, as long as they continue to meet all of the conditions of their benefit.

If a person gets Universal Credit, their volunteering can count toward up to half the time they agree to spend looking for and preparing for work, as outlined in their Claimant Commitment. A Claimant Commitment is an agreed action plan between a Jobcentre Plus work coach and a claimant that sets out actions that the claimant is going to take to actively seek work and/or get ready for work, depending on what is deemed necessary. For example, if a claimant is required to job search for 35 hours a week, 17.5 volunteering hours per week can be counted towards that commitment, so long as the work coach agrees the volunteering is useful in terms of their job search or development of employable skills.

If a person gets Employment Support Allowance (ESA), they can work more than 16 hours a week if the work is either voluntary or ‘supported permitted work’. This is a historic, ‘legacy’ benefit, with the number of people claiming it reducing over time as people claim the newer Universal Credit benefit instead.

Any reasonable expenses that a claimant is paid by the organisation they volunteer with will not usually affect the amount of benefit they get.

Claimants will not need to have a Work Capability Assessment (WCA) just because they start volunteering. A Work Capability Assessment is the tool that DWP use to determine both eligibility and the level of an award someone might receive if they’re claiming a benefit due to a long-term health condition or disability. 70% of people recently surveyed by Volunteer Glasgow indicated that they were fearful of what volunteering might mean for the outcome of a WCA, so it’s key to reassure them that the fact that a claimant performs some kind of paid or voluntary work does not automatically result in a particular WCA outcome.

Offer to provide work coaches with information about the role

Providing additional information to work coaches or others about the volunteering that the claimant wishes to undertake may help them get the volunteering approved by their work coach. It may also be beneficial to accompany potential or current volunteers to meetings with DWP staff.

Signpost volunteers to available guidance

The UK Government has extensive guidance on volunteering and claiming benefits.

Volunteer Wiki, which is administered by Volunteer Edinburgh, has helpful sections on volunteer expenses and volunteering and UK State benefits.

Be aware of the risks around incorrectly paying expenses

Whilst it’s important to try to enable everyone to volunteer and experience its associated benefits, it’s also important to be aware of the risks of incorrectly paying expenses to volunteers, especially those who claim benefits.

Risk for volunteers: If a volunteer claiming benefits receives money for volunteering that is other or greater than out-of-pocket expenses, the DWP may reduce or stop their benefit.

Risk for volunteer organisers: If a volunteer is being paid anything other than out-of-pocket expenses, they could claim that they are being paid for their work and are therefore essentially in an employment contract and entitled to minimum wage. This would violate employment law and could be raised with His Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

Escalate an issue if necessary

The Third Sector Interface (TSI) Scotland Network has a partnership with the DWP. If you think a work coach or a decision maker is doing something in violation of the DWP’s procedures, policies or ambitions, you can contact the network and they can escalate that to the DWP Head of Partnership and Employer Working.

Learn from other heritage volunteer organisers

We’re all in this together! If you liked this blog and watched the event recording and are keen for more information, you can sign up to Make Your Mark to access a Scotland-wide heritage volunteer organisers network. Joining Make Your Mark will also subscribe you to a monthly e-newsletter with top tips for heritage volunteer organisers. Signing up is free and easy – just fill out this short form.