Last year’s general election campaign saw a last minute addition to the Conservative party manifesto that took the volunteering sector by complete surprise. With its volunteering pledge, the Tories promised – if elected – to pass a new law that would entitle the staff of companies with more than 250 employees to three days of paid volunteering leave per year.
Speaking to the press in April 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron said the pledge was designed to “help people who want to do more to help their communities” and ultimately would help to “build a stronger society”. However more than a year on, the volunteering pledge is yet to become a volunteering reality.
Some have accused the government of “quietly shelving” the policy, which unsurprisingly drew sharp and immediate criticism from business leaders upon its publication. It is also reportedly unpopular with Tory back bench MPs, who have apparently never been big fans of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ concept – or the EU, or free school milk or (one would assume) the collapse of the British Empire.
Within the business community notable pushback has come from the Institute of Directors (IoD) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). The IoD warns that “forcing firms” to allow staff three days of paid leave for each member of staff will be “very costly and will create unnecessary bureaucracy”, while the CBI has voiced concerns over the implementation of the policy.
Originally, the Tories planned to amend the Working Time regulations to state that employees are entitled to 28 days’ paid holiday and three days’ paid volunteering a year, with the ability to take volunteering leave in a block or flexibly. However, the grumblings of business leaders and fellow ministers seems to have instead pushed the government toward (surprise, surprise) a non-legislative, business-led approach.
According to Justin Davis Smith, senior research fellow at the Cass Centre for Charity Effectiveness and former executive director of volunteering and development at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the government is now considering a range of options. These include incorporating volunteering leave with the right to request flexible working or to include it in existing laws that allow staff time to perform public duties like jury service.
Speaking to Third Sector, Davis Smith says that he believes the volunteering pledge will become a reality, not least as it is part of Cameron’s pet Big Society project; however, he admits that he detects no great urgency. Meanwhile the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills – which is developing the policy – paints an even less rosy picture, saying in a statement to Third Sector that it will publish its plans “in due course”.
Beware a missed opportunity
While it is no great surprise to see a Conservative government cowed by big business, that it seems unable to push through just three days of extra leave a year is particularly disappointing. It also underlines a typical wrong headedness when it comes to how government and business value volunteering. As Davis Smith tells Third Sector, if it is to be successful, the volunteering pledge should be viewed as a core part of staff development, rather than an exercise in corporate social responsibility tick boxing.
There is an ever-growing plethora of evidence out there that demonstrates that employees who volunteer are happier, more productive and tend to stay in their jobs longer. Indeed, Cabinet Office minister Rob Wilson said as much on the campaign trail last year, telling the BBC that the government saw the pledge as a potentially “cost neutral” policy, “because what you can get out of people volunteering is additional motivation and productivity.”
If the government backtracks on the volunteering pledge, or indeed if it remains “quietly shelved”, it could represent a serious missed opportunity. Not least as the never knowingly anti-free market Mayor of London Boris Johnson is already blazing a trail with his ‘Corporate Commitment’ to volunteering. It’s time for Conservative top brass to follow suit; Cameron needs to be braver and bolder and follow through on his party’s volunteering pledge.
Rebecca Jones is former deputy editor of Money Observer magazine and a regular commentator on issues surrounding sustainable, responsible investing. She has been writing about finance and investment since 2011 and is a big fan of cats. You can find her tweeting at @rebeccaejones.
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