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Does my charity need employers’ liability insurance for volunteers?

20/01/2021

The Charity Commission recommends protecting your helpers with insurance for volunteers

It seems like there’s nothing like a pandemic to bring out the best in people. Stats suggest ten million adults in the UK have volunteered their services in some capacity during the coronavirus crisis.

Whether that's meant helping out at food banks, delivering prescriptions to the elderly or recycling old laptops to help kids access online learning, people have been only too willing to lend a hand. And more than three-quarters say they want to continue after the pandemic is over.

Encouragingly, figures show that even before the virus hit, we were already a nation of volunteers. According to the UK Civil Society Almanac 2020, 19.4 million people volunteered through a group, club or organisation during 2018/19 – nearly 12 million of them regularly.

That’s a lot of people up and down the country giving up their time for free. And it’s what keeps the majority of charities and not-for-profit groups ticking along. Because without them, many organisations simply couldn’t afford to operate in the same way.

That makes volunteers pretty much the lifeblood of the third sector. But what’s the situation when it comes to protecting them with insurance? Is it the same as for employees? And what’s the right thing to do?

Do you need insurance for volunteers?

Good question and one there’s not a definitive answer to. Because there are two sides to consider here: the legal side, which has slightly blurred edges, and the moral one, which doesn’t.

Legally speaking, the law says you need a minimum of £5 million employers’ liability (EL) cover if you have employees. That’s anyone (with a couple of exceptions) you count as a staff member and who's on the payroll, whether that be full or part-time.

The thing is, the Health & Safety Executive is responsible for enforcing fines for those who should have EL but don’t. And it has quite a loose definition of exactly what an ‘employee’ is. Plus, if you think about it, your volunteers are simply unpaid 'employees' - in the sense that they do work for your organisation but do it for free.

Your volunteers are also under your direction and carry out tasks under your instruction. They may even have received training in the process. And that’s another indication they can be classed as equivalent to an ‘employee’.

Meanwhile, the Charity Commission also recommends protecting your volunteers with employers' liability insurance. It states: ‘For insurance purposes, charities are advised to treat volunteers in the same way as they do their employees'. That translates as a clear expectation that charities should cover their volunteers with EL.

Why else do you need volunteer liability insurance?

As an employer, you have a duty of care to your employees. That means you’re obliged to provide a working environment for them that’s as safe and as risk-free as possible. So, no trailing wires for people to trip over, or badly lit stairwells to fall down – that sort of thing.

You have the same duty of care to your volunteers. And no matter that your helpers are unpaid, it still means sticking to the guidelines set out in the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Even at a basic level, you should carry out risk assessments and put measures in place to ensure accidents don’t happen.

But what happens if a volunteer has an accident and is badly hurt despite all your best efforts? Where does that leave them if you don’t have employers’ liability insurance to take care of everything?

For a start, there’s nothing to stop them suing you anyway, insurance or not.

And here comes the moral argument. Isn’t it your responsibility to protect those people who help out at your charity and give their time so generously? The prospect of leaving them high and dry seems to go against the very spirit of charity itself

How does employers' liability insurance for volunteers help?

Employers’ liability insurance covers your volunteers as well as your employees. And it protects both you and them if a volunteer is hurt or made ill in the course of what they do for you.

That could mean a helper who develops chronic back pain after repeatedly unloading supplies, having never been given training in the correct technique. Or a volunteer left injured by malfunctioning equipment, who’s then unable to work for several weeks.

If whatever’s happened is said to be your charity’s fault, it can mean a claim for compensation. That, in turn, means getting lawyers involved, plus potentially a day in court with a pay-out for the claimant at the end of it. Not cheap, then. Ruinous, even.

How EL helps is by providing a legal expert to represent you and by covering all your legal costs. It also picks up the tab for any compensation awarded, no matter how many £thousands that may run to (within your limit of cover).

That means you get all your costs covered and avoid having to find the cash to cover a hefty pay-out. So, your charity survives the day, while your volunteer is fairly compensated for an injury or illness that wasn’t their fault. It’s a win-win, really.

What to look out for in an EL for volunteers policy

The minimum legal level of employers’ liability insurance cover for organisations with staff is £5 million. However, you’ll probably find most insurers offer £10 million as standard.

When it comes to your volunteers, it’s essential to make sure your policy covers unpaid helpers as well as anyone on the payroll. So, check with your broker or insurer, and go through the policy wording carefully.

Other things to look out for include age limits, and whether your insurance excludes volunteers over or under a certain age. Also, make sure the policy has no exclusions for the particular types of activities your volunteers will be involved in.

At the end of the day, even if your charity relies solely on volunteers, you should think of yourself as an employer. Your helpers might not be earning a wage from what they do for you, but they’re no less deserving of the same rights and protection as employees. Perhaps even more so.

If you’d like to talk to the team about protecting your volunteers with employers’ liability insurance, ring 0345 222 5391. Otherwise click here for more information.

And if you'd like to read about what other insurance your charity might need, it's all explained in our simple guide.

Image used under license from Shutterstock.

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