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Why it’s time to introduce statutory volunteering leave

By Andrew Weston 4 June 2024 5 minute read

Over the past few years, we’ve become used to unprecedented events. Between the pandemic’s long-term impacts, the cost-of-living crisis, and intergenerational conflict, it’s easy to see how any government could become overwhelmed. Both the Conservative and Labour parties are clear that the state cannot ride to the rescue, at least initially, as they just do not have the funds or capacity. 

So surely, a public policy which gives communities the resources they need to respond to the crises they most care aboutwith no direct cost to public funds and minimal administrative burden on the stateshould be considered. 

That’s why, on the National Volunteering Week in the lead up to a general election, I want to discuss statutory volunteering leave, an idea that can make a big impact for the next government. 

This is the idea that, alongside standard paid statutory holiday, there is a period of paid time that employees can take to volunteer. This gives people the opportunity to respond to the issues that matter to them, use their skills to have a positive impact, and develop themselves in a new environment.  

Statutory volunteering leave is not a new idea, it was part of the Conservative party’s manifesto in 2015. At the time, the Conservative party told Third Sector it would have ‘no direct cost to the public purse’, and the then Prime Minister David Cameron claimed: 

It’s good for our economy because it will help to create a better, more motivated workforce. And it’s good for our society, too, because it will strengthen communities and the bonds between us.

Due to the realities of the coalition and competing priorities, it fell by the wayside. However, looking at the challenges that the UK faces today, it’s an idea whose time has come again.  

At Marine Society and Sea Cadets (MSSC), we deliver in-depth youth work to more than 14,000 young people across nearly 400 sites across the UK. And we know we make a really big difference. Research we conducted in 2022 shows a clear positive impact on young people’s teamwork, life skills, and communication skills within six months of becoming a cadet. And it’s only possible for us to deliver this work at both scale and intensity because, like most of the uniformed youth sector, delivery is predominantly driven by volunteers. We estimate that in a year, our volunteers contribute over 532,898 hours of direct youth workthe equivalent of £6.1m of work at the national living wage. 

It also means that our units reflect the needs of the communities that they’re based in, as local volunteers understand local problems and opportunities. 

Like any impactful charity, we want to grow and make a difference to more young people. Hugo Dell, our Head of Growth Development and Outreach, notes that our biggest blocker to growth tends to be a lack of volunteers. 

When trying to grow locally, either within current premises or supporting new sections in new locations, a lack of volunteers is predominantly what holds growth back. The desire to grow is there! However, volunteers often feel that growth is unattainable as there are too few volunteers to drive it forward or ensure it is sustainable.

This is something we often find most challenging when trying to develop units in more economically disadvantaged parts of the country, where employers are less likely to offer time to volunteer and people are most likely to feel the bite of the cost-of-living crisis. 

Giving employees the breathing space to discover and engage with volunteering (there are arguments for different lengths, but we think five days would be a good baseline) could massively unlock our charity’s ability to make a difference, and this is something there has been increasing consensus around in the youth sector. For example, the Scout Association’s recent Building brighter tomorrows manifesto calls for granting employees 35 hours of statutory volunteering leave a year. 

Of course, this wouldn’t work for all employers. One potential way to supplement this policy could be the creation of a volunteering levy, modelled on the highly effective apprenticeship levy. Broadly speaking, large employers who don’t offer volunteering leave would instead need to pay into a common pot. Then, these resources could be distributed to support and enable volunteering across the country. 

It’s important to stress that this is not about leaving communities and volunteers to handle problems alone. To maximise the impact of charities, we need to be able to combine passions, talents, and ability to scale up the work that volunteers offer with the expertise and support provided by experienced and dedicated staff. In MSSC’s case, we see that with everything, from an accessible curriculum to a robust safeguarding team and an effective support structure.  

By creating more volunteers, other charity resourcessuch as specialist staffcan be targeted elsewhere. Allowing volunteers and staff to work together to enable the sector to better face the unprecedented crises that face the UK today. 

If you’d like to find out more about MSSC’s thoughts on how to better support non-formal education in youth work, including a volunteer levy, you can read our report that came out of the 2023 party conferences. We’re always really interested to hear from people who want to find opportunities to unlock volunteering together, so please feel free to get in touch. If you’re interested in the wider work of the children, young people, and baby sector in this area, check out National Children’s Bureaus cross sector working groups. 


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