The employment cost of The Big Society

Those with long memories will remember that in the run up to the 2010 general election there was much talk from the Conservative Party around a rather nebulous beast – The Big Society.

The idea was never well articulated, and frankly most were mystified at exactly what the Tories were trying to achieve with this policy idea. So before proceeding further – and to refresh all our memories – we have looked up the definition of The Big Society on the internet. 

According to Wikipedia it is: “a political ideology developed in the early 21st century. The idea proposes “integrating the free market with a theory of social solidarity based on hierarchy and voluntarism”. Conceptually it “draws on a mix of conservative communitarianism and libertarian paternalism”.

Which as a concise statement of intent only serves to confuse rather than enlighten.

The bottom line appears to be that the Big Society is about encouraging more volunteering and exchanging of skills in the UK. As far as we can tell the last five years has seen little genuine progress in this space, yet despite this the 2015 Conservative Manifesto still included a section given over to the topic. And this is where we come to a rather unexpected cross-over with the world of employee benefits; Employer sponsored volunteering.

The Conservative Manifesto promised to: “Give those employed by a big company and the public sector a new workplace entitlement to volunteering leave for three days a year on full pay”

Now as a policy commitment goes, this is one that does seem to lack some serious thought. For instance, it is difficult to see how the cash-constrained employers in the public sector can easily deliver on such a promise.

Let’s take the National Health Service as an example. The NHS is one of the largest employers in the world, and facing an ongoing funding crisis for the foreseeable future. With limited funds available, is it really acceptable to ask the organisation to find extra money to support three days additional paid absence for every employee, every year?

Yet this is not only a public sector problem. It is generally accepted that absence is one of the largest costs of employment in the UK. Employers work hard at managing absence – and reducing the level of such absence by an average of a day a year is seen as both a major success and significant cost saving. Yet at a stroke this promise threatens to push the cost of absence up by three days across the entire workforce for all large employers.

And the costs would probably not stop there. Employers would have to communicate this change and entitlement, update handbooks and intranet, record the absence, police the intended leave to ensure that it qualified for full pay, and of course ensure adequate cover for the absent employee. These additional costs could also soon add up to a tidy sum for most employers.

But are we being unduly negative regarding a well-intentioned idea? Do employers perhaps welcome this move?

Our findings suggest not.  As you can see from our recent coverage, the majority of employers (more than 60 per cent of the 226 employers we questioned) are opposed to this proposed new employment right. Conversely, those that support this option may well be those that already offer paid volunteering leave for some or all staff (the correlation between the two figures is remarkably close).

Yet this could all be academic – will the idea perhaps be kicked into the long grass and allowed to gently fade from our collective memories? The lack of a mention in the Queen’s speech suggested that it might, but as can be seen from on the civil society website, the minister for civil society has apparently confirmed that the government intend to continue with this proposal. So this could yet be another unwelcome and expensive intervention from the legislators into the world of employee benefits.

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Despite the above comments, we do in fact support the idea of employer sponsored volunteering. When done well this can be beneficial to both parties, and such a policy is often a very well received employee benefit. Yet supporting volunteering should perhaps remain just that – a voluntary act by both employers and employees to improve UK society, and not an expensive government dictate which employers may struggle to deliver.

We shall watch this one with interest.