No free lunches

Following a concerted campaign by charities and volunteers, the Department of Work and Pensions have backed down on an attempt to remove the right of volunteers to be paid for their lunchtime meals.

Submitted by Freedom on September 2, 2006

Voluntary organisations up and down the country were livid at the attempt to make life harder for unemployed volunteers.
The Department for Work and Pensions issued a leaflet last month for claimants wishing to volunteer to do charity work, stating that they can´t have their food expenses reimbursed, as their benefit money already covers their food costs.

It´s generally accepted good practice for organisations to reimburse volunteer expenses, to ensure that those on a low income aren´t excluded. For years food expenses have been seen as a legitimate expense, referred to in government publications.

A common reaction seems to have been, in effect, civil disobedience – many organisations simply continued to pay lunch expenses in collusion with their volunteers.

¨I have a choice between giving up volunteering and risking my benefits,¨ said one volunteer, ¨I want to carry on, so I´m just not telling the jobcentre that I´m getting lunch expenses¨
In their retraction of the move, the DWP attempted to paint it as a proactive improvement for the volunteer workforce.

DWP minister John Hutton even pretended that free meals was a new government initiative, saying: “This simplification of the rules is to ensure that volunteers are not penalised for doing the right thing. We do not want a situation where individuals are put off from volunteering because they can not afford to buy something to eat.”

More battles look likely to come, as the mutual aid roots of voluntarism are under threat from a government looking to deliver public services on the cheap – such contracts with local government being one of the few sources of funding for cash strapped groups.