All quiet on the volunteering pledge

The Yorkshire Building Society allows staff up to 31 hours a year to give to good causes
The Yorkshire Building Society allows staff up to 31 hours a year to give to good causes

It was a general election pledge that took the sector by complete surprise. Just weeks before the nation went to the polls last year, the Conservatives promised to allow staff who work for companies with more than 250 employees and all staff working for public bodies to take three days of paid volunteering leave a year.

The move could create an estimated 360 million extra volunteering hours a year, the government said.

The announcement was greeted warmly by the sector, but it quickly drew criticism from business leaders over fears about its costs. Within weeks, the Financial Times speculated that the plans were being "quietly shelved, to the relief of some business leaders".

A year later and the government is yet to publish any more details about its proposals.

The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, which is developing the policy, declines to be interviewed but says in a statement that it still intends to publish its plans "in due course", adding that it is "unable to offer an update at this time".

Justin Davis Smith, senior research fellow at the Cass Centre for Charity Effectiveness, says that progress is being made on delivering the pledge despite the government's silence. Until the end of March, Davis Smith was executive director of volunteering and development at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and led the sector's discussions with government on the proposal. He says it is highly likely the plan will go ahead, "not least because it's one of the Prime Minister's personal commitments in the manifesto". But he admits that there appears to be no great urgency.

One reason for this might be the need to win over businesses, says Davis Smith. The Institute of Directors and the Confederation of British Industry remain concerned about the policy. The IoD says in a statement that half of its members already give staff time off to volunteer and "forcing firms" to give three days of leave for each member of staff will be "very costly and will create unnecessary bureaucracy".

The most obvious way to introduce the pledge would be new legislation, but this approach continues to worry the CBI. It says in a statement that "a one-size-fits-all legislative approach could be counterproductive".

Davis Smith believes the option to use primary legislation remains on the table, but says that other alternatives are also being explored. He says: "A second route would be to make it more akin to the right to request flexible working. Under the rules, employers have to offer a conversation to staff about flexible working, but it requires the arrangement to work for both the individual and the business."

A third option would be to include volunteering in existing laws that permit staff to take time off to perform certain public duties, such as jury service. Davis Smith says: "This option has the advantage that there's already something in place."

But Davis Smith says that if the volunteering policy is to be successful it needs to be viewed less as a form of corporate social responsibility and more as part of staff development. "That's the only way we'll get the funding unlocked to make this work, because there's a significant cost involved in providing meaningful opportunities," he says.

The government needs to start talking less about volunteering days and more about volunteering hours, he says: "If you can 'chunk' it up into hours, it becomes a bit more palatable to businesses."

Rob Jackson, a volunteering consultant, believes the government is starting to listen. Jackson attended a volunteering event in January at which David Knott, head of social action and deputy director at the Cabinet Office, spoke. Jackson says that Knott talked about the need to offer "splices" rather than blocks of time. Knott also acknowledged the need to provide more support for volunteering brokerage services that bring charities and businesses together. The Cabinet Office was unable to confirm what was said at the event.

Kristen Stephenson, volunteering development manager at the NCVO, which continues to lead the sector's volunteering discussions with government, says that at the moment the focus remains on growing support and "warming people up" to the concept. She says it has been working with government and a skills exchange group that includes representatives from big businesses to share case studies and good practice ideas.

Regional workshops have also started to be held for businesses and volunteering organisations to work through the challenges and solutions.

Stephenson says that the sector should not be unduly concerned about the lack of policy detail so far. "The policy has been slower than expected, but we have been reassured that it will be happening," she says.

"If we're going to make the most of the potential here, we need to think through the implementation. It's better to think through things than to rush something through that does not meet the needs of the sector or of the business community."

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