Paid leave to volunteer: a lesson in economic geography

The Conservative Party has suggested that people who work in businesses with at least 250 employees should be entitled to three days’ paid leave each year in order to volunteer. This includes public sector workplaces, prompting obvious questions about how this might be paid for. There’s a suggestion that this could generate as much as 360 million extra hours of volunteering a year. That surely has to be taken with a pinch of salt. The assumption being made there is that 15 million people – presumably, this is an estimate of total employment in enterprises of at least 250 employees – will all either begin to volunteer for at least three days, or will do so for an additional three days, as a result of the incentive. Those are pretty heroic assumptions. 

However, I want to focus on which communities might be best placed to benefit from these proposals. 

According to data on UK businesses available from the NOMIS website, there are just over 9,000 enterprises in the UK that 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% of registered charities in England and Wales and 15% of the population. The south-east of England has 17% of large employers and just over 17% of charities, while its share of population is 15%. So you can argue that if there is to be an expansion of volunteering, taking advantage of proposals to introduce paid leave, charities in these regions are going to be in a position to benefit from it. London’s share of large businesses is significantly larger than you would expect from its share of population. 

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

Employment size (number of employees) by region
Region 250-499 500-999 1000+        Total       
North East 155 65 75 295      
North West
210 230 880       
Yorkshire and The Humber 295 145  200 640       
East Midlands 315 140 155 610       
West Midlands 370 160 210 740       
East 410 205 250 865       
London 805 475 555 1,835       
South East 665 370 360 1,395      
South West 335 150 175 660       
Wales 125 70 95 290      
Scotland 330 155 180 665     
Northern Ireland 110 55 40 205       
Total 4,355 2,200 2,525 9,080       

Around 500 large employers in the UK are local authorities – and this poses the problem, as critics have suggested, of how cash-strapped services would pay for staff to take leave in this way. It looks like the areas most heavily affected would be those where funding is being cut most severely.

The figures are harder to analyse for individual local authorities that have very small numbers of such 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 the north-east of England with very small numbers of such enterprises. In total, around 5.7 million people live in local authorities with such numbers. 

Paid leave might be a good idea for various 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. 

Professor John Mohan, Professor of Social Policy and Director of the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham