The DOH and low income volunteers
The DOH has published, with Ministerial promotion, a 44 page booklet entitled Reward and Recognition. This is a guide to reimbursing expenses to volunteers and others for activities such as responding to a patient consultation exercise or being a patient representative on a committee or working group.
The DOH acknowledges that the people who usually have more to contribute to these exercises are those who use services the most. By definition these people are likely to be ill, have disabilities or be carers. It is also likely that a significant proportion will have low incomes.
The complexity of the rules for expenses for volunteers in the Health Service is such that a 44 page booklet is necessary to provide guidance to all the pitfalls. There is a certain irony in government bodies seeking low income volunteers to help them, only to then put in their way a mountain of paperwork and Byzantine complexity if they do. Would it not be better to try to tackle the complexities themselves than add to the mounds of paperwork that the rules generate?
The contents of the booklet
The booklet, which acknowledges co-operation between three government departments, purports to give up-to-date advice about the issues surrounding reimbursement of volunteers’ expenses or small payments for help. Instead it demonstrates:
- how unfortunate it is to have different definitions for similar things in welfare benefits, national insurance and tax law;
- how one government department (the DOH) has to advise service providers to use travel cards, tickets, or accounts with taxi firms or garages, rather than cash when reimbursing the expenses of volunteers, in order to get around rules set by other government departments (the DWP and HMRC). In some circles this is called tax avoidance;
- how on its date of publication it is already woefully out of date (tax rates for last year, out of date childcare voucher limits, references throughout to the Inland Revenue , cross-references to HMRC advice which has now been withdrawn);
- how areas of importance are ignored, probably because they were considered even more difficult to explain (no mention of tax credits or of HMRC concessions for those with disabilities);
- how a little explanation can be a dangerous thing (trying to explain how to be “self-employed” to avoid some of the worst consequences of being employed).
The need for simple rules
It really is time to stop putting sticking-plasters on the wounds and to sit down cross-government and stop the injuries in the first place.
What all volunteers need, but particularly those with lower levels of disposable income to spend on voluntary activities, is:
- simple sets of rules which apply across government departments;
- a single source of information which can give an overview of the consequences of straightforward day to day transactions;
- for HMRC and DWP to set up joint task forces with Treasury help to improve communications and to reform the complex rules.
Contact: John Andrews (Tel: 0844 579 6700 Fax 0844 579 6701)