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Benefits of volunteering

Many people of all ages and circumstances find great satisfaction in doing voluntary work. For people with convictions, undertaking voluntary work can have particular benefits. Volunteering can:-

  • Bring you into contact with new people and potentially new friends, at a time when perhaps past social contacts have been disrupted.
  • Boost self-confidence and self-esteem, when perhaps these have taken a knock.
  • Help provide a stable pattern and routine in life.
  • Help develop new skills, knowledge and experience – both social and practical.
  • Provide the satisfaction of working as part of a team to make a difference to the lives of others or to the environment.
  • Be useful experience to include in a CV that might be attractive to a potential employer.
  • Provide a source for a reference that could be invaluable when looking for paid employment.
  • Provide an opportunity, with some voluntary organisations, of getting a qualification e.g. an NVQ.
  • In some circumstances directly open up paid employment possibilities. If the organisation you are volunteering with also employs paid staff in similar work, a volunteer may make a good applicant for a paid post.

Where to find volunteering opportunities

Opportunities for voluntary work, particularly where the work is of a one off ‘work party’ nature (for example, a weekend project to renovate a canal towpath), are often advertised locally e.g. on local council, library or supermarket notice boards.

If you are interested in longer term voluntary work, or would like to talk with someone who could advise you about the kind of volunteering work that is available locally, it could be useful to make contact with your local Volunteer Centre.  You may want to consider whether or not to disclose your convictions at this point – these considerations are similar to those that apply if you are looking for paid employment – see our guide ‘To disclose or not to disclose’.  You may find it encouraging that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) – an umbrella body for volunteer centres – gives very positive guidance on the use of people with criminal records as volunteers:-

“There are several reasons for recruiting people with criminal records as volunteers. Firstly, it enables you to recruit from a wider pool of potential volunteers, which should help increase your volunteer base. If organisations exclude people with criminal records they automatically lose access to a significant proportion of potential volunteers.  More importantly, by proactively targeting offenders and ex-offenders as part of your recruitment campaign you are demonstrating your organisation’s commitment to equal opportunities and diversity. Each individual should be looked at on their own merit.”

Of course, the response of individual voluntary organisations to people with convictions may be very varied. The details of your local volunteer centre can be found here.

But perhaps the most useful place to find voluntary work is on the Do-It website, a database of over 1,000,000 volunteering opportunities which you can search by area and type of work.

For more details about volunteering for Unlock, visit the vacancies section of our main site.

Applying for voluntary work and the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (ROA) generally applies in the same way to voluntary work as it does to paid employment. Organisations may only ask about spent convictions or request Standard or Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service checks if the voluntary work is of a nature that is exempt from the ROA.  If you are on a barred list you would be committing a criminal offence if you applied for voluntary work involving the relevant regulated activity with children or vulnerable adults.

If you are on licence or supervision

It is part of the standard licence conditions that you “Undertake only such work (including voluntary work) approved by your supervising officer and notify him or her in advance of any proposed change.”

This means that, if you have this as a condition, you will need to keep them up to date of what voluntary work you’re doing. In some situations, they may tell you to disclose your convictions, even if the organisation hasn’t asked. This might influence whether you choose to disclose or not.

Voluntary work that is not exempt from the ROA

One off ‘work-party’ type volunteering (e.g. a one-off ‘clearing of a site’ task) may not have any formal application procedure or form to complete – perhaps just a phone call to obtain details of where to turn up.

Many longer term volunteer opportunities may have a simple application form to obtain basic information for the organisation’s own record keeping and insurance purposes. There may not be any question about criminal convictions. There may be an informal interview, although if the work is of a skilled nature, perhaps involving training or a long term commitment, some organisations do have quite formal procedures for recruiting volunteers.

The considerations as to whether in these circumstances you would wish to tell someone in the organisation about your conviction are similar to those if you were seeking paid employment – see here. However, as less is at stake in disclosure of convictions as a volunteer (your source of income is not at risk) than if you are in paid employment, you might feel more positively about disclosing an unspent conviction at some stage to someone in the organisation.

For these types of voluntary opportunities (i.e. roles not eligible for a standard or enhanced check), if there is a conviction question on the application form only unspent convictions should be disclosed. Any organisation would be entitled to request a basic criminal record check from Disclosure Scotland which would only disclose unspent convictions.

An organisation should not refuse to take you on as a volunteer, or to subsequently dispense with your services, because they become aware of a conviction that is spent. However, if this happens as a volunteer you do not have the same statutory rights as a paid employee (see here). Your only redress would be to make a complaint using the organisation’s complaints procedure.  A paid employee might be able to claim unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal in those circumstances, and it is a strong argument to point out that the organisation should not treat a volunteer less favourably than it can get away with in respect to an employee.

Voluntary work that is exempt from the ROA

If the voluntary work is covered by an exceptions order to the ROA – most likely a regulated activity involving children or vulnerable adults as defined in the legislation (see here) – the organisation should make it clear on their application form that they will be requesting a DBS check. There is likely to be a criminal conviction question on the application form with a statement that the role is exempt from the ROA.  See our guide as to how to respond to this question. There is also likely to be a more formal recruitment and interview procedure, with references being taken up.

The organisation should not have a policy that automatically rules out taking on any volunteer with a criminal conviction. The DBS Code of Practice requires organisations seeking disclosures to have a written policy on the suitability of ex-offenders that is available on request to potential applicants. The sample policy provided by the DBS contains the statement;

[Organisation Name] undertakes not to discriminate unfairly against any subject of a criminal record check on the basis of a conviction or other information revealed

Ineligible checks by voluntary organisations

As is clear elsewhere on this site, there is a problem with ineligible checks – standard or enhanced checks being undertaken for roles which are not exempt from the ROA. Unlawful checks may be a particularly common issue in voluntary work and there are several reasons for this –

  • Voluntary organisations may not have the management resources to keep fully informed about the law
  • There is no charge to an organisation seeking a Standard or Enhanced DBS checks for volunteers, so there is no financial restraint on seeking checks
  • The organisation might properly wish to obtain a basic check, but would have to pay £18 – so instead obtains a free standard or enhanced check
  • There is a widespread misunderstanding of the legal definition of “work with vulnerable adults”, which changed completely in 2012. Organisations may not understand how limited is the scope of this exception to the ROA. The DBS explanation of regulated work with Vulnerable Adults is here.

A ten minute search on the Do-it website found that these volunteer jobs all appeared to be the subject of illegal DBS checks:

  • Helpers at Food banks run by a leading national charity
  • A volunteer walk leader working for a council
  • A female allotment volunteer (“You will be planting seeds, keeping beds tidy and ready for the summer”!)

If you believe that the organisation you would like to volunteer with is seeking an ineligible DBS check you should read our guide to ineligible checks. Guidance from the NCVO makes it clear to voluntary organisations that “It is illegal to apply for a check unless the role is eligible for one. You must also tell the volunteer why they are being checked”.

Volunteering and claiming benefits

Job Seekers Allowance and Employment Support Allowance

The good news is that generally you can undertake voluntary work without it affecting any state benefit. This is provided that the only money you receive is for reimbursement of any expenses you have actually incurred. There is no restriction now on the number of hours that you do, but if you receive Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) or Employment Support Allowance (ESA) you should inform the Job Centre if you are doing voluntary work. If you are on JSA you should be able to keep to the terms of your Job Seekers Agreement, be actively seeking work, available to attend an interview for a job at 48 hours notice, and be able to start paid employment within a week’s notice.

Volunteering England have an excellent guide to the rules, about claiming benefits and voluntary work. It is a good idea to read this before committing yourself to volunteer.

Disability Benefits

You can volunteer whilst claiming a disability benefit (Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payments), or Carer’s Allowance.  If you are receiving a disability benefit or ESA you should remember that the Benefit Agency is entitled to take into account any abilities apparently shown by your voluntary work when it assesses your eligibility for the benefit.  Of course the fact that you are able to do some voluntary work does not mean that you are disqualified from the benefit, but you would need to take care if, for example, your voluntary work apparently involved physical activity, and you were claiming benefit on the basis of having a physical disability.

If you receive or are making a new claim for either ESA or PIP it is useful, if you have not already done so, to get familiar with the points scoring systems that are the bases for the award of these benefits.

Useful contacts/websites

NCVO works to support and increase the quality, quantity, impact and accessibility of volunteering throughout England.

Step Together provides tailored one-to-one support to help individuals into volunteering placements that match their needs and interests and helps them develop new personal and practical skills.

Time Bank is a national charity inspiring and connecting a new generation of people to volunteer in their communities, and enabling charitable organisations and businesses to develop innovative and effective volunteer recruitment programmes.

Do-it was launched in 2001 with the first national database of volunteering opportunities in the UK.

The Just People website is a resource from Pact, which provides volunteers wishing to take up roles in the criminal justice system with training, vetting, volunteer placements and ongoing support and development. They work in partnership with a wide range of statutory, voluntary and community-based organisations.

Useful resources

Back on Track detail a number of examples that show the benefits that ex-offenders found in undertaking voluntary work in the Greater Manchester area, and give good advice about volunteering.

A study by The Griffins Society into Women ex-offenders’ experiences of volunteering found that for some of the women involved in the research “volunteering really was a life changing experience which has included making a successful career for themselves. However, in order to do this, women do have to put in hard work, show commitment and treat volunteering as if it were paid work”.

What can I do? – Your guide to volunteering opportunities in the criminal justice system (PRT/Pact)

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Debbie Sadler
Head of Advice

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