Half of the UK workforce would be given three days’ paid leave each year to volunteer, under Conservative plans unveiled on Friday. Every public sector worker and anyone working in a company with at least 250 employees – more than 15 million people in total – would be entitled to the volunteering leave, David Cameron announced. The Prime Minister said the pledge is “clearest demonstration of the Big Society in action”.
A series of high profile business figures welcomed the new plans for paid volunteering leave.
Mike Rake, chairman of BT, went one further than the Prime Minister, describing corporate volunteering as a “triple win”. He said it was “a win for the community, a win for individuals doing the volunteering, and a win for companies”.
“We welcome the Prime Minister reminding us of the importance of business to society,” he added.
Peter Cheese, chief executive at the CIPD, the professional body for the HR industry, said: “Our research shows that corporate volunteering benefits society, as well as businesses through building stronger roots with the communities they work in and serve, and engaging and developing new skills in their employees. It’s great to see this agenda being championed.”
John Cridland, Director General of the CBI: “Businesses encourage their employees to volunteer in the community and should do even more to increase this. It is a win win for everyone concerned”
Bear Grylls, the adventurer and TV presenter, also backed the plans, saying: “Firm Government support that enables millions to volunteer is a huge step forward towards building solid communities all around the UK.”
However, not everyone supported the idea. Lisa Nandy, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Civil Society, said: “Giving every public servant three extra days off could cost millions of pounds but there’s no sense of how it will be paid for. If just half of public sector workers took this up it would be the time equivalent of around 2,000 nurses, 800 police and almost 3,000 teachers.”
Some business groups are in little doubt that the policy will hit companies’ bottom lines. As Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, put it:
“Businesses should support their staff if they want to volunteer, but the architects of this idea cannot pretend that forcing firms to give an additional three days of paid leave will do anything other than add costs. This announcement not only undermines the Tory record on reducing business regulation, it also puts additional pressure on public sector employers, and ultimately the taxpayer. Frankly, the essence of volunteering is that it is voluntary. The IoD would welcome proposals to incentivise and make it easier for companies to facilitate volunteering, but it has to be a choice.”
Ryan Bourne, head of public policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs, was even more trenchant in his critique the Conservative’ latest plan to increase volunteering:
“This is another example of politicians imposing burdens on business and taxpayers for the sake of sounding caring. At a time when everyone is telling us that the NHS and other services are overstretched, the idea that it should be a priority to allow public sector employees to take three days off for volunteering elsewhere, funded by the taxpayer, is ludicrous.”
What does it mean for the voluntary sector? Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of NCVO, and Asheem Singh, director of public policy at Acevo, think this is a exciting proposal for the voluntary sector and businesses.
Etherington said: “Many charities urgently need more volunteers to support their work, while volunteering is an excellent way for employees to develop skills and confidence that will benefit their employers. Anything that helps encourage our culture of volunteering is very welcome. We look forward to seeing the detail of the proposal.”
Singh said: “It recognises the crucial role of charities in building a better society. The workplace is a new frontier for social action, and this new legal right will help support a new generation of socially responsible citizens.”
However, some people on Twitter question the Conservatives’ agenda with this policy, arguing that it is just another way to fill gaps in public services.
Oonagh Aitken, chief executive of CSV, said: “As an organisation with an established employee volunteering programme, we know the benefits to employees, the workplace and communities.”
She does, however, argue that: “If this policy is to be implemented, it highlights the need to invest in volunteering organisations so that the best use is made of employees’ skills and interests when they do volunteer.”
The key question is how to make all this work for the charities – traditional team building initiatives (such as fence painting) can be a drain rather than a boost so the challenge is to design something more meaningful that can be completed in three days. Most successful schemes take a lot of resource to set up well and often a broker is required to develop something that is mutually beneficial for both businesses and charities. Volunteering in a more collaborative and flexible way, for example allowing employees to choose causes they care most about, or being able to ‘pool’ their volunteering days. That way the volunteering has greater impact on the charity, is more engaging for the volunteer – and yields greater benefits for the business will be key to this policy leading to Volunteers rather than the Volun-told. It seems certain that the Big Society is still very much a controversial subject.