Don't fall foul of legislation for volunteers, rural firms told

Some rural organisations rely on volunteer staff to help them keep to budgets and reduce costs
Some rural organisations rely on volunteer staff to help them keep to budgets and reduce costs

Rural businesses have been advised not to fall foul of legislation for volunteers when the sector re-opens following the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions.

Adherence to volunteer regulations is essential when the government's restrictions ease, according to accountancy firm Saffery Champness.

Some retail, for example in the charity sector, and also rural visitor attractions, rely on volunteer staff to help them keep to budgets and reduce costs.

Looking forward, volunteering is only likely to grow due to Covid, with a probability this may occur in the rural sector where farm businesses will have been hit hard by restrictions and closures, the company explains.

While there is a general exemption from National Minimum Wage (NMW) legislation for volunteers, provided that they are engaged by a ‘charity, voluntary organisation, associated fund-raising body or statutory body’ this exemption only applies where the volunteer is not paid any monetary payments and only receives limited and specified expenses.

This can still cause practical difficulties, Saffery Champness warns, especially in respect of the second part of the exemption, that can result in the volunteer inadvertently being caught by the NMW legislation.

Sally Appleton, partner at Saffery Champness, has highlighted the main pitfalls, and written statements is one of them.

"Often organisations will have a volunteer written agreement in place, where volunteering is a regular occurrence, but care should be taken that this is not a legally binding contract," she said.

"Terms such as 'rights' and 'obligations' should be avoided, as should disciplinary processes or other policies more closely associated with that of a contract of employment.”

Volunteers can also be paid reasonable out-of-pocket expenses, but the organisation engaging them needs to ensure that they cover no more than the volunteer workers’ actual expenses for work done, Ms Appleton said.

"For example, if a standard payment is made to all volunteers as a convenience to cover the cost of travel or subsistence, but a volunteer doesn't incur such costs, then that payment will mean the volunteer exemption does not apply.

"Instead, they will be treated as a worker and the relevant NMW rate will apply. For this reason, standard day rates/scale rates for expenses should not be used for volunteers, however much this may simplify internal processes.”

It can also be common for those engaging volunteers to be provided with vouchers as a gesture of goodwill to them.

But Ms Appleton warned the provision of any benefit could mean that the volunteer exemption would not apply.

"The value of the benefit (ie voucher) will not count towards their pay for NMW purposes," she said, adding there may be an underpayment of NMW for all hours worked.

She concluded that there were important differences between volunteering and unpaid work in the eyes of HMRC.

"Those engaging one or the other need to be absolutely clear of the status of those who are being taken on.”