John Mohan: Tory plan won't produce volunteers where they are most needed

John Mohan
John Mohan

The Conservative Party has suggested that people who work in businesses with at least 250 employees should be entitled to three days of paid leave each year in order to volunteer. This includes public sector workplaces, prompting obvious questions about how this might be paid for. However, there hasn’t as yet been discussion of which communities might be best placed to benefit from these proposals.

According to data on UK businesses available from the NOMIS website, just over 9,000 enterprises in the UK have at least 250 employees. As you might expect, you don’t find too many of them in rural areas and you don’t find too many in disadvantaged areas. Twenty-two per cent of such businesses in England and Wales are in London, which has 17 per cent of registered charities in England and Wales and 15 per cent of the population. South-east England has 17 per cent of the large employers and just over 17 per cent of charities, while its share of population is 15 per cent. So you can argue that if there is to be an expansion of volunteering, taking advantage of the Conservative proposals, charities in these regions are going to be in a position to benefit from it. London’s share of large businesses is significantly bigger than you would expect from its share of population.

Conversely, consider Wales. It has fewer than 300 businesses with more than 250 employees – 3.5 per cent of the total for England and Wales – but 5.4 per cent of the population in England and Wales combined and 5 per cent of charities. There is a similar argument to be made about north-east England, which has 3.6 per cent of large businesses, but 4.6 per cent of the population and only 3.1 per cent of the registered charities.

About 500 large employers in the UK are local authorities. This poses the problem, as critics have already suggested, of how cash-strapped services would suffer were staff to take leave in this way. It looks as if the areas most heavily affected would be those where funding is being cut most severely.

The figures are harder to analyse for those local authorities that have very small numbers of large enterprises. For reasons of confidentiality the figures are rounded to the nearest five and you can’t break them down either by size or by sector. But there are something like 70 local authorities with 10 or fewer such large businesses, including many local authorities in rural Wales and Scotland. There are also several local authorities in the former industrial heartlands of Scotland, Wales and north-east England with very small numbers of such enterprises. In total, about 5.7 million people live in local authorities with such small numbers.

Paid leave might be a good idea for all sorts of reasons in terms of direct benefits to voluntary organisations, employee development and relationships between enterprises and communities. But on these figures it’s hard to argue that it’s a good mechanism for getting volunteers to where they are most needed. The concentration of headquarters functions in the UK economy in London and the south-east is a staple and stable feature of the country’s economic geography. This proposal will reproduce those inequalities within the voluntary sector.

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