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Assessing the Conservative Volunteering Policy

David Cameron announced last week that if he remains in No 10 and wins a Commons majority, he would make it the law enabling all public sector workers, and anyone working in a company with more than 250 staff, to have three days’ paid leave each year leave to volunteer in the community. Many larger employers already allow employees time off to do voluntary work.

Research carried out by the CIPD shows strong support from employers around the benefits staff gain from working in their local communities.

Cameron is trying to revive the Big Society – an idea most of us thought had been swept under the carpet. The original plan was to fill in the cuts in local services and charity funding with volunteers; they would run the libraries at risk of closure, and charities wouldn’t need so much funding to employ people if locals who believed in the cause picked up the slack. The plan faltered due to two issues: Firstly many people were struggling to earn a decent living due to the 2008 economic crisis so didn’t have time to volunteer. Secondly the plan was sometimes applied in too broad a way across vast areas such as Manchester (which has diverse problems in different parts of the city requiring tailored solutions).

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations say that allowing staff time off to volunteer has substantial benefits for employers. They report that over the last few years there’s been almost double the number of employees taking up employer-organised volunteering schemes, as they are offered by an increasing number of businesses.

CCHQ is suggesting that, although the Big Society didn’t get off the ground then, now the economy is improving companies can afford to do their bit. So can this new law actually work?

It would be essential to allow employers to set a rule allowing only so many employees to take time off at once, just as many companies already do with annual leave. Eric Pickles also appeared on TV saying that there may be ways for firms that really can’t afford to pay employees to go off volunteering to get out of the obligation. How the rules would work if the Conservatives win, we have yet to see.

A number of business leaders do support the principle, saying that large companies which already allow paid volunteering may benefit from a more formalised structure (if it is not too intrusive). According to Peter Cheese, the CIPD’s CEO, “Corporate volunteering benefits businesses and their employees, as well as the communities in which they work…It help[s] businesses build stronger roots in their local communities…[and] gives employees an invaluable opportunity to develop new skills.”

Volunteering often improves interpersonal communication and emotional resilience, and may also increase local business prospects if a company enhances its reputation. It can also help employees to build management or project experience in a charity which then translates into better performance in the workplace.

Some concerns have been raised as to how organisations will handle the proposed new volunteering rights. Predictably Labour have said that it would harm public services and cost a great deal if lots of employees took time off at once – particularly in schools, hospitals and the Police where covering absence is usually vital.

The key areas to work on if this policy goes forward will be:

  • How much is it likely to cost employers?
  • How will large organisations with low profit margins cope? Will they be forced to allow the leave or will there be a get-out clause?
  • Will employers be able to dictate when employees can take this leave and in what blocks?
  • Will employers be able to require that employees use their three days for charities supported by the company?
  • How will employers be able to check that the paid leave is used for volunteering – particularly regarding small, local events without much formal organisation?
  • How will voluntary organisations be defined? Will helping a political party be allowed?

Like many new employment laws, it’s a nice idea that needs to be implemented sensibly.

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